Book Review: Dance, Modernism, and Modernity

Róisín O’Brien 

1 June 2020

Ramsay Burt and Michael Huxley, Dance, Modernism and Modernity, (London: Routledge, 2019)

Ask someone what comes to mind when they hear the term ‘modern dance’, and you may get a vague answer relating to jazz, or that it’s ‘not ballet’. Ramsay Burt (De Montfort University) and Michael Huxley’s (De Montfort University) book Dance, Modernism and Modernity (2019) explores, amongst other things, how choreographies of ‘authenticity’, or the popular appeal of some productions, might not sit within but instead expand notions of modernism(s), alongside investigating how dance intersects with modernity. The authors aim to look at how ‘dancing developed and responded to, or came out of an ambivalence about, or a reaction against, the experience of living in modern times’ (p. 1).

This is an insightful book that not only provides an overview of the historiography of dance and modernism (chapter 2), but also studies different artistic responses to modernity through chapters examining specific dancers and choreographers, including Margaret Morris, Kurt Jooss, and Katherine Dunham. Burt and Huxley place their analyses within the wider and more inclusive umbrella of New Modernist Studies: their selection aims not to write the artists in question into the canon, but rather to question their omission in the first place. As such, readers will not find chapters on the already-canonical Martha Graham or the Ballets Russes. Burt and Huxley’s study would thus primarily benefit those versed in dance history as an expansive companion piece. Dance artists, on the other hand, may benefit from the close readings of works, but may find it hard to follow the introductory chapters’ (necessary) scanning of debates within modernist and dance studies. 

In Part 1, Burt and Huxley look to the phenomenon of natural dancing (chapter 3) and ‘transnational currents’ (chapter 4). The debates around natural dancing movements that they uncover are fascinating: they note that ‘there is a suggestion that the relationship between natural dancing and dance modernism and modernity receives less comment because it is not a direct and easy one’ (p. 37). Burt and Huxley focus on the first half of the 20th century when investigating natural dancing. They look to artists and thinkers who felt ambivalent about the effects of modernity and how these concerns manifested in, for example: (counteractive) physical culture; calls for a return to antiquity; and the birth of the ‘new woman’, the latter both as a reaction to and beneficiary of modern consumer culture. The chapter on transnational currents, while admirable in intent, feels slightly limited in its examples of networks connecting modernisms across the world (though they do acknowledge this brevity). 

Part 2 moves to specific case studies: some are very thorough in their in-depth analysis of both artistic intent and the works themselves, while others lean slightly on conjecture. Huxley’s chapter on ‘Wassily Kandinsky, Dance, and Interdisciplinary Modernism 1908-1914’ is a fascinating insight into Kandinsky’s Munich period. Kandinsky’s writings evidence a collaborative and interdisciplinary practice with a spiritual intent; in theorising the dance of the future, Huxley argues, ‘he wrote before anyone else about dance that could be abstract’ (p.89) and that his ideas resonated with contemporaries such as the Belgian dancer Akarova (Marguerite Acarin, 1904 –1999).

Burt tracks how the works and thematic concerns of Akarova and British dancer Margaret Morris (1891-1980) were made possible by the conditions of modernity in his chapter ‘Breaking into the Modernist World’. Both were influenced by Raymond Duncan (brother of dancer Isadora Duncan) in looking to antiquity but rejected ‘his anti-modern beliefs to embrace the modernist world’ (p.116). While Akarova gained recognition within avant-garde circles in Belgium, Morris encountered relative conservatism in Britain. Burt astutely points to the cultural dominance of the modernism produced by the upper and upper-middle class members of the Bloomsbury Group. The group’s support of the Ballets Russes ‘goes some way towards explaining the dominance of ballet and the marginalisation of modern dance in Britain in the years between the First and Second World Wars’ (p.107). 

The following chapter ‘Modernist Dance, War, and Modernity’ focuses on Isadora Duncan’s La Marseillaise, which was performed in both France and the US during the First World War. Duncan herself, and receptions to her work, occupy contradictory positions between emancipatory (gender) politics and patriotic nationalistic sentiments that are not easily reconciled.

Two chapters on ‘the new ballet’ provide the most satisfying interweaving of artistic intent, social context, and formal analysis. Huxley’s rigorous chapter on German choreographer Kurt Jooss’ output between 1927 and 1947 investigates another attempt at a ‘dance of the future’. ‘By bringing together the modern and the classical, [Jooss] hoped to pioneer a new form, Tanztheater (dance theatre) that could deal with significant social and political issues through dance’ (p. 134). There is a wealth of contemporaneous material for Huxley to work with as critics engage with the modernity of the works (including Jooss’ most well-known choreography The Green Table [1932]). While Huxley tends to slightly admonish critics for not seeing Jooss’ intent – which can be argued to be more the result of the artwork’s failure to manifest an idea – he nonetheless presents illuminating tensions between artistic ingenuity and an unreceptive audience working from older parameters. In the second chapter, Burt persuasively argues that Antony Tudor’s 1936 ballet Jardin aux Lilas ‘uses interruption of gesture, in the modern way that Agamben and Benjamin theorise, to unlock a negative potential. It is a ballet of modernity in crisis that holds out the possibility of a more progressive society to come’ (p. 180). 

Chapter 10 looks to Hanya Holm’s fascinating career and often separate categorisations as modern dance ‘pioneer’, teacher, and musical theatre choreographer. Huxley argues that these separations dissolve when seen through the lens of modernism, ‘considered broadly as a theme in Holms’ work’ (p.196). Huxley continues that ‘Holm seems to be unique in the way she played with the invisible boundaries that were being erected by others at this time. She transgressed formal and theatrical boundaries.’ (p.196).  The chapter provides a satisfying, cohesive analysis of Holm’s oeuvre, particularly for readers who might be less familiar with her work on Broadway. 

In the final chapter, ‘Modernity, ritual and diasporic culture: Katherine Dunham and Berto Pasuka’, Burt considers these artists’ presentation of Afro-Caribbean rituals to Western audiences. While Dunham, Burt argues, used such restagings to educate audiences, Pasuka used ritual ‘as a dramatic element in his narratives about the consequences of colonialism’ (p. 212). Burt does indeed describe this analysis as a ‘suggestion’ and more in-depth analysis of further works might have bolstered his argument. With regard to artists interrogating or mining a culture for inspiration that is either spatially or temporally different to the culture the work is performed in (or that the artist is from), a call back to earlier chapters on Morris or Duncan could have proved interesting. That is, perhaps, a whole other book entirely. 

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