Presenting a hyperbolization of categories of otherness through mapping markers of race, Orientalism, and sexuality onto the white middle-class female body, Ruth St. Denis’s Radha functions as a site of the condensation and displacement of desire.
In this work, St. Denis achieved a combination of Delsartism’s transcendent spirituality with the Oriental orgasmic in the spectacle of a goddess delirious with her own sexuality who chooses to renounce the powerful pleasure of her body for a chaste union with the transcendent.
This according to “Dancing out the difference: Cultural imperialism and Ruth St. Denis’s Radha of 1906” by Jane C. Desmond (Signs: Journal of women in culture and society XVII/1 [fall-winter 1991] pp. 28–49; reprinted in Moving history/dancing cultures: A dance history reader [Middletown: Wesleyan University press, 2001] pp. 256–270.
Above, St. Denis performing Radha in 1908; below, a documentary contextualizes the work in her career and influences.
Dark elegies marked the culmination of Antony Tudor’s exploration into an approach to ballet choreography in which the psychology of the characters is more important than external circumstances and events.
Although the classic idiom was the basis for his experimentation, his quest for new movement—often based on one-on-one work that illuminated the propensities of specific dancers—resulted in virtually no use of classical vocabulary. Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder functions as a partner to the choreography, not as a guide.
This according to “Dark elegies (1938): Antony Tudor” by Rachel S. Richardson, an essay included in Choreography: Principles and practice (Guildford: National Resource Centre for Dance, 1987, pp. 206–217).
An excerpt from the work is below; other excerpts are here. We would be grateful if anyone can share a link to a complete version!
When Fanny Elssler (1810–84) left the Paris Opéra to tour the U.S. between 1840 and 1842, adoring critics there were faced—apparently for the first time—with the dilemma of writing approvingly about a woman making herself an object of desire.
Recurring descriptions of her being a divinity or an enchantress evince the process of assuaging guilt over this desire, and assumptions that male dancers were homosexuals enabled the suspension of jealousy over her dancing partners.
This according to “The personification of desire: Fanny Elssler and American audiences” by Maureen Needham Costonis (Dance chronicle XII/1  pp. 47–67).
Above, an image used for her U.S. tour of Elssler performing her signature La cachucha; below, a recreation performed by Carla Fracci.
Ted Shawn was the first choreographer to introduce carefully researched interpretations of Native American dance to audiences in North America, Europe, and Asia.
Beginning in the 1910s, when prominent dance critics were utterly dismissive of Native American dance, Shawn formed a high opinion of it—a view that was confirmed when he witnessed a complete Hopi ceremony in 1924.
This according to “The American Indian imagery of Ted Shawn” by Jane Sherman (Dance chronicle XII/3  pp. 366–382). Below, archival footage of some of Shawn’s work.
Martha Graham found Freud’s psychoanalytic ideas useful for making sense of both her personal life and the material to which she was drawn as a choreographer; they were particularly central to the creative process for her works based on Greek myths.
In Night journey (above), in which Oedipus’s mother and wife is forced by the blind seer Tiresias to relive the most painful moments of her life, Graham turns Jocasta into a powerful female protagonist by turning a straightforward linear narrative into a complex and difficult one, evoking the physically charged and taboo themes of eroticism, the maternal body, and death.
This according to “Dance, gender and psychoanalysis: Martha Graham’s Night journey” by Ramsay Burt (Dance research journal XXX/1 [spring 1998] pp. 34–53). Below, Graham herself dances in the opening of Alexander Hammid’s 1960 film of the work.
Skirt dancing, involving the dancer’s graceful manipulation of a full skirt, was a widely popular genre in the U.S. when Loïe Fuller premiered her Serpentine dance in 1892.
Fuller’s costume for this dance involved so much fabric that—combined with atmospheric lighting—it almost completely obscured her human form. By shifting the focus from the dancer to the costume, she added a new level of abstraction to the skirt dance genre, prefiguring many of the innovations of modern dance.
The dance was a huge success and was much imitated, prompting Fuller to sue for copyright infringement; but the judge ruled against her, stating that a dance depicting no story, character, or emotion could not be considered a “dramatic composition” protected by the copyright act.
This according to “Loïe Fuller’s Serpentine dance: A discussion of its origins in skirt dancing and creative reconstruction” by Jody Sperling (Proceedings of the Society for Dance History Scholars XXII  pp. 53–56). Below, a hand-colored 1895 film of an unnamed dancer by the Lumière brothers suggests what Fuller’s performance was like.
Carmen Tórtola Valencia (1882–1955), who may have reinvented herself as Spanish, made a flamboyant contribution to early modern dance in Spain, Western Europe, and Latin America between 1908 and 1930.
Her rapport with Spanish modernismo enabled her elevation from a music hall and musical theater performer to a solo concert dance artist with a large repertoire of classic, Oriental, and Spanish numbers. Tórtola Valencia’s career particularly flourished in the Hispanic world, while elsewhere she cultivated the figure of the exotic Other.
This according to “Early modern dance in Spain: Tórtola Valencia, dancer of the historical intuition” by Iris Garland (Dance research journal XXIX/2 [fall–winter 1997] pp. 1–22). Below, photographs of Tórtola Valencia and her exotic costumes.
In his comic depictions of drunk dancing, Astaire used choreography to project social views and feelings about drunkenness, and to set up tensions between those qualities of inebriation and the precision and agility that his dancing embodied.
Memorable examples include the solo number “One for my baby (and one more for the road)” in The sky’s the limit (1943, above and below).
This according to “Stepping high: Fred Astaire’s drunk dances” by Sally Banes, an essay included in Writing dancing in the age of postmodernism (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1994, pp. 171–183).
BONUS: The astonishing New Year’s Eve dance from Holiday Inn.
The peoples of the Caribbean welcomed Katharine Dunham and shared their dance cultures with her; her obligations toward them figure in her danced testimonies to their hospitality.
Her solo in L’ag’ya (1938) was not a collusion with colonial ideologies of appropriation—it was a testament to the immediacy of performance and the importance of maintaining a welcoming openness in the face of the overwhelming idea of infinity.
This according to “Hospitality and translation in Katherine Dunham’s L’ag’ya” by Ramsay Burt, an essay included in Proceedings: Society of Dance History Scholars (Stoughton: Society of Dance History Scholars, 2003) pp. 8–11. Above, Dunham with Vanoye Aikens in L’ag’ya in 1938; below, excerpts from Dunham’s solo from a silent 1947 film.
The celebrated late–17th- and early–18th-century English dancing master known in historical sources only as Mr. Isaac may have been Edward Isaac, who was baptized in 1643 and whose particulars fit in circumstantial ways with what little is known about the choreographer.
By the mid-1670s Mr. Isaac was well-connected in the court and theaters, and recognition of his work continually grew, lasting into the reign of George I. His extant dances, notated by John Weaver and others in the Beauchamp–Feuillet system, show a typically English love of formal complexity and occasional departures from fashionable French models, yet they share qualities that mark them as definitively his own.
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