The Modernist Review #20: Moving Bodies

1st June 2020

Is the stay-at-home order making you notice your body more? Maybe it’s the niggling aches and pains that are making you miss the ergonomic desk chair in your office, or are making you wish you had one in the first place. Perhaps you’re a FitBit wielding, 10,000 steps per day kind of lockdown warrior – or, like us, you’re feeling victimised by your iPhone tracker telling you, ‘on average, you’re moving less this year compared to last year’. 

We never thought a socially-distanced supply run to Sainbury’s would be a conscious experience of joyful movement but, honestly, months of sitting still at home has changed the way so many of us think about our moving bodies. Our 20th issue of the Modernist Review invites you to reflect on motion through the bodies of modernism: through dancing and performance, and through disability and aestheticism. Here at BAMS, we’ve been embracing the stillness and moving things online in the worldwide bid to stay at home: the bi-annual committee meeting took place on (the now ubiquitous) Zoom, and it was great to see the faces of committee members old and new. And, in that vein, at the beginning of May not one but two winners of our annual BAMS Essay Prize were announced. Congratulations again to Megan Girdwood for her (very fitting!) essay on ‘Dance Dialogues in Mina Loy and Carl Van Vechten’, and to Harriet Walters for ‘Rural Ritual, Gardening Faith: Ford Madox Ford’s Memorial Plots’. No doubt many of us feel fresh envy for Ford’s access to a garden of one’s own. Girdwood and Walters’ essays will be published in Modernist Cultures, and we can’t wait to read them! 

We also hosted our very first #ModMovie night, and loved the voters’ pick of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’. If you still want to watch it, you can find the video link on our Twitter page. Of course, one of the standout moments is Chaplin’s dance to his ‘Nonsense Song’, proving himself to be the ultimate modernist hipster icon – he did the moonwalk before Michael Jackson made it cool. Dancing, as it turns out, has become one of those positive gems that have been emerging out of this global health crisis. Several leading dance companies have been streaming their performances online, sometimes with a pay-what-you-can goodwill donation system, and we’ve been grateful to enjoy performances that might not have been accessible to us before, whether because of price, time or location. 

For Róisín O’Brien, reviewing Ramsay Burt and Michael Huxley’s Dance, Modernism, and Modernity, dance is more than just a form of vicarious escapism, but something that ‘expand[s] notions of modernism(s)’ and ‘intersects with modernity’. Her review provides an insight into a new ‘historiography of dance and modernism’, though not, perhaps, at the artists that we might expect to hear about when we think of dance and the modernist canon. Burt and Huxley’s ‘selection aims not to write the artists in question into the canon, but rather to question their omission in the first place’. O’Brien highlights the impact of surveys of modernist dance outside of the academy, pointing out that ‘dance artists […] may benefit from the close readings of works’. Do you fall into this category? Have you been taking any online dance classes, streamed on YouTube or live on Zoom or Instagram? We’d love to hear about modernist dancing happening in our respective homes!

Francesca Dytor takes a rather more specific look at another figure of modernist dance who might never have crossed your horizon, whether you have two left feet or not. Her article explores ‘the case of the now little-known dancer Alexander Sacharoff’, who moved through a series of poses in a way that might not seem typical of dance to the untrained eye. ‘This stony beauty left many critics cold’, while others felt ‘awed at the potency invested in the simple positioning of a fingertip, or the turn of the thigh.’ Maybe this is an awe we’ll try to feel as we look down at our typing fingers in our 982nd hour at our computers. (Not, that is, that we’re writing anything past ramblings at the moment.) 

Taking a step back from her vivid analysis of Sacharoff, Dytor calls us to think more about how the dancing body takes ‘centre stage, invites criticism, demands praise, and at certain moments has been a crucible for debate over the proper nature of the body.’ The usually too-rigid idea of ‘the proper nature of the body’ brings us to Michael Davidson’s Invalid Modernism: Disability and the Missing Body of the Aesthetic, reviewed for us by Aaron Pugh. He highlights how ‘Davidson wisely cautions us to remember how an understanding of “the aesthetic” can represent “not merely a branch of philosophy but a series of acts and practices that makes sensible what society would prefer not to see”.’ This book ‘reveals a litany of bodies and minds which […] could not be contained, reduced or marginalised within “normative versions of national, gendered, or racialised identity”.’ Pugh’s review comes at a time when, amid the reams of Covid-related discourse, the voices of disability campaigners in universities have been, and should continue to be, highlighted and even vindicated just a little. Classes have been moved online and, in particular, lectures are being recorded after years of our disabled students and colleagues being told that this was not possible. As we eagerly await the day that university buildings reopen and we can joyously reunite with the books we had to leave behind, let’s take the time to consider what our institutions could do to create spaces that accommodate the movements of everybody and not just able bodies.

We might not be able to move much, or very far, but we hope that this month’s dive into modernist movement brings you some joy, and maybe even puts a spring in your step as you embark on an essential voyage out to the supermarket or some government-mandated exercise. And if you live in England, maybe you and five friends can channel the six narrators of The Waves as you gather in the sunshine for some socially-distanced socialising. And, as ever, we encourage you to get in touch with us if you’ve any ideas or pitches for TMR! Our shiny new email address is, and we’re on Twitter at @Modernistudies

With all best wishes, and we hope you are managing to stay safe,

Cécile, Polly, Bryony and Josh

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