The Space Within: Ruth Davidson Hahn

The Space Within: Ruth Davidson Hahn
Medium Magazine (October 2003)
By Wendy Townley

Energetically, with passion and purpose, Ruth Davidson Hahn speaks. The words fight to exit her mouth at staccato speeds, each one more precise than the previous. Arms moving, legs adjusting, fingers pointing, Ruth works her way through her thoughts, changing topics with little pause.

Until she slows down. Until she bypasses her head and communicates from her heart, her inner being, her gut.

Then, Ruth grows quiet, solemn, almost reverent, now speaking at a pace akin to prayer.

This woman of 47 years has spent a lifetime adjusting to her surroundings, embracing her shortfalls and celebrating her successes. In doing so, Ruth developed an appreciation for open space. Respect of that space didn’t come easy at first. Wanting to follow the footsteps of her older sisters, Ruth just wanted to dance.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Ruth and her two sisters were ushered to ballet classes in the late 1960s. Music and fitness were the central themes of her childhood; her mother was an opera singer in Germany, her father a physical education teacher.

The languid, fluid, graceful moves of ballet only made sense, as little Ruth tagged along each week. By age 10, Ruth remained in ballet classes, but something wasn’t right. Didn’t feel right.

“I didn’t know anything,” Ruth says, perched on the edge of the marshmallow-like sofa in her Lincoln home, sipping iced tea. “I can remember holding on to the bar, watching the teacher in her chiffon skirt and pink tights and hitting the wall with my leg. I was kind of a klutz.”

Try as she might, Ruth’s body wasn’t created for the specificity and exactness of ballet. She had trouble moving her spine in the necessary movements, turning her body with the hopes of attaining that indistinguishable grace ballet dancers possess.

Two years later, teachers at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York realized the internal struggles Ruth’s body faced, what the classes demanded and what her body delivered. She was placed in a group of less experienced students, hoping the training would help.

It did, for a little while.

But the energy inside Ruth was screaming to get out, pushing its way out. During her first years at New York’s High School of Performing Arts, Ruth discovered modern dance. She had small parts in major modern dance productions, each rehearsal, each performance inching toward her calling, her passion.

“I remember watching the stars and being in the wings, and my mouth dropped open every night,” Ruth says. “I was going to be a modern dancer.”

At age 16, Ruth’s dance teachers confirmed with the willowy teen knew from the early days: modern dance would embrace Ruth. “I just knew it. I felt better. It was right. I liked being able to move my spine. I could see my body and energy getting more turned-on with modern dance.”

The fluidness of this performance art offered Ruth with a continual release of energy, right down to her feet.

“Bare foot was the way for me. It did feel more natural. It felt more organic to me.”

She wasn’t planning on college at first, but the newly opened SUNY College at Purchase, New York was too appealing to pass up in 1974. Ruth spent the next four years fine-tuning her modern dance craft, moving with her body, learning its strengths and respecting its weaknesses at the same time.

“And I got it,” Ruth says on this steamy Saturday afternoon in early August. “I got exactly what I wanted. You learned how to work with someone choreographing, and you learned how to choreograph. You’re not just training you body and how to be a professional and learning the anatomy.”

Modern dance allowed Ruth to take in her surroundings and send them out in open, fluid movements. Each minute, each hour, each day she practiced, Ruth became ever more aware of the dancer she would become.

“I just always was very formed as a dancer,” Ruth says. “Ballet is amazing and a beautiful technique and does something to the viewer watching it. They defined gravity and space. But I want gravity and I want to not be graceful sometimes.”

After earning her bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1978, Ruth knew the hour of transforming her predictions into possibility arrived.

“That was it. I went out and said, ‘Now I’m ready. I’m ready to go do it.’ And I started doing it.”

That following year, Ruth danced with the Hannah Kahn Dance Company, discovering her style as a modern dancer in productions and performances. In 1981, Ruth joined the Don Redlich Dance Company.

A year earlier, Ruth helped begin the Mark Morris Dance Group, a company she stayed with for the next 21 years. Ruth claimed 32 different dance roles created exclusively for her on performances around the globe. Her time with Mark Morris also included performances at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and the Edinburgh International Festival, along with television programs with cellist Yo Yo Ma.

It was those 21 years of dancing and moving to music of cultures worldwide that gave Ruth the inspiration to leave Mark Morris and begin her own dance company.

During her last years with Mark Morris, Ruth met and married David Hahn, a Nebraska native who lived in Lincoln. This city girl who had truly seen all parts of the world would soon call Nebraska’s open prairies and monotone accents home. The geographical change lead Ruth in a new direction.

In May of 2002, Ruth, with the help of various dancers, debuted Ruth Davidson Hahn and Company at the Minden Opera House in Minden, Neb. Her first official performance, Ruth says, was made official on a smile and handshake.

“That is so Nebraskan,” Ruth says in her New York accent, “to cut through the bureaucratic New York stuff.”

The sprawling Lincoln home Ruth and David purchased in 2000 sits on a small lake and is surrounded by 400 acres of prairie grasses. This transition from urban living to “country” sitting has been a powerful force in Ruth’s life these past three years, changing the books she reads and the dances she creates and performs. Without the confines of hi-rise buildings and crowded city streets, Ruth says she’s able to spread her arms and fully exhale, absorbing the peacefulness that has enveloped her life, body, mind and spirit.

It’s here where Ruth slows down in the conversation, becoming less animated and more solemn.

“Some how, more space has helped me find more space within me, more stillness within that space within me.” She pauses. “It happens with everybody, from scientists to writers, anyone doing anything creative.”

The works Ruth reads includes books by nature-based novelists such as Ted Kooser and Loren Eiseley. She connects with films by Omaha native Alexander Payne. She senses a calm in this part of the country, a cultural expanse so different from her New York home she has trouble imagining life without it.

“There’s some kind of renaissance energy here,” Ruth says. “I feel a lot of creativity. I feel myself just flowing with things. I don’t even think they’re coming from me.”

Regardless of Mother Nature’s mood, Ruth spends hours walking the prairies, reflecting on the earth and looking at the space around her. It’s the stillness that keeps her conscious clear and ideas coming.

“The ability to achieve more stillness here is not as accessible in New York. You can get a lot done with lots of chaos around you, yes. That was not nurturing my creative sense.”

As she settled in her Nebraska home, Ruth felt an internal nagging to create a performance piece honoring the state and its rich history. Her connection with nature was immediate and something that helped spark “Remembering Archie-Extinction is Forever.”

The idea for the program came to Ruth in a dream one night, something about a wooly mammoth walking through the bottom of a lake. The next morning, to Ruth’s surprise, the Lincoln Journal-Star’s front page feature reported on the largest mammoth tusks ever found.

She went to Morrill Hall, the natural history museum on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

It took some time, but Ruth perfected her tribute to the mammoth, Nebraska’s state fossil. Using a “haunting score” of tuba, piano and electronic music, “Remembering Archie-Extinction is Forever” brings to life the lost animal Nebraska honors so much.

“I call it my environmental piece,” Ruth explains. “Awareness is a big part of (my work), and I feel a big responsibility of bringing awareness to my audiences, too.”

Despite her local ties to the Midwest, Ruth’s passion for modern dance continues to permeate the country’s borders. Last winter, Ruth choreographed a piece for world-renown dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. “Upon a Whim” toured nationally. Of the six choreographers who created performances for Baryshnikov’s show, Ruth’s dance is featured first. “It’s such an honor,” she says.

Today, as Ruth’s career moves into yet another chapter, she remains convinced that her passion picked her, as if modern dance uses Ruth as a vessel of celebration.

In that gift, Ruth believes her mission these days is to spread the word of modern dance and the arts to audiences everywhere. She hopes her audiences gain what she digests from performances.

“When I go to the theater, I want to be moved in some way. I want to be brought inside myself and be able to feel and to be almost elated and be brought in touch with the essence of humanity that we all share, sitting in this dark place.”

It’s the humanity that has become so near to Ruth’s heart these days. She finds herself, more than ever, wanting to connect with the audience, connect with other dancers, connect with the world. In doing so, Ruth believes her motivations reside, unchanging, at her core.

“The ability to express with your body is innate in the human being. It just is. We are the most developed species, and dance has been a primal thing since the first recorded histories.”

Again, Ruth grows quiet when the dancer inside is revealed through the woman outside and the artist both bodies share. The story of this modern dancer still being told.

“You have to be in the moment and in touch with your body. It’s not about achieving, but processing. How you use your body, how you discipline the body. That’s the path to the dancer becoming the artist.”

A path, Ruth proudly admits, that continues to wind and bend, twist and turn, just like the dancer she has become.