Written By: Bill Syken
If there’s one takeaway from Nina Leen’s photographs of dancer and choreorgrapher Margaret Severn, it is that a mask is the beginning of a costume, but not the end.
Severn was a master of the mask. She made her reputation performing masked dances at the Greenwich Village Follies, a downtown variation of the Ziegield Follies that ran from 1919 to 1927. Severn explained in the 1982 documentary Dance Masks: The World of Margaret Severn that those performances revived an ancient tradition that spanned centuries and cultures, but had fallen out of favor starting around the 18th century. “When I put them on they hadn’t been used for years in the theater, so this was called a complete novelty by some, those who didn’t know anything about the history of masks, and by others it was a renaissance of the art of the mask.”
In her performances, she said, she viewed the mask as a portal to a new identity. “The mask has this peculiar quality, as if it were inhabited by a disincarnated spirit of some sort, and when the dancer puts the mask on, he is possessed by this spirit and ceases to be himself, and so I just allowed that to happen with these masks that I wore,” she said.
She added that, “Each mask, in its particular feeling, usually finds some person, and perhaps many people, in the audience who respond to that particular emotion, who see themselves in that particular guise. I think that’s one reason they have such universal appeal.”
Severn and Leen met in 1940 to create this photoset, which focuses on Severn but also includes images of a group performance (it’s hard to identify Severn in those pictures because, well, everyone is masked). These pictures never ran in LIFE, and without any accompanying story or surviving photographer’s notes, it is hard to say precisely what inspired this collaboration at that particular moment. Regardless, the photos capture a master of a particular, and peculiar art.