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Book Review: Modernism and the Choreographic Imagination: Salome’s Dance After 1890

31 January 2022

Frankie Dytor, University of Cambridge

Megan Girdwood, Modernism and the Choreographic Imagination: Salome’s Dance After 1890 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021).

In a series of fictitious letters written in Florence around 1900, two friends pondered the existence of a nymph-like young woman they had spotted running through the frame of a fifteenth-century fresco. Enamoured, as if in love, they marvel that they have found her everywhere in art, from antiquity to the renaissance and beyond. She is, they describe,

A fantastic figure – should I call her a servant girl, or rather a classical nymph? [. . .] Sometimes she was Salome dancing with her death-dealing charm in front of the licentious Tetrarch; sometimes she was Judith carrying proudly and triumphantly with a gay step the head of the murdered commander (Gombrich, 2017, 107) 

The correspondence, written by Aby Warburg and André Jolles, has become a well-known example of Warburg’s burgeoning theory of the afterlife of forms. This theory, which the art historian would continue to develop and refine throughout his life, argues that certain emotively charged gestures (which he termed ‘Pathosformeln’) recur throughout the art of the Western world. These gestures could be mapped, providing ‘a genealogy of resemblances’ linking an antique image of a nymph to a photograph of a modern-day woman. 

Modernism and the Choreographic Imagination takes up this notion of iconographic wanderings by focussing on the reinvention of the Salome myth at the turn of the twentieth century. The infamous myth, based on a clutch of (contradictory) sources including the New Testament, tells of the daughter of Herodias (named Salome in Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews) dancing the dance of the seven veils for King Herod, asking for the head of John the Baptist on a plate as her reward. Once seen as the archetypal femme fatale, a product of a decadently disturbed fin de siècle imagination, Girdwood traces her importance for modernism, revealing how the figure became a ‘site of female authorship’ for a range of actors across a number of disciplines (2). The book argues that the myth of Salome’s dance was reinvigorated for the modern age, feeding into and producing the ‘choreographic imagination’ of modernism (7). A neat turn of phrase, it shows how the book is not a history of the dancing Salome, it is a history about the idea of Salome dancing.

Dance has long been neglected in modernist studies. The revival of interest in Warburg’s work in the 1990s offered an interpretative framework that has seen dance come to the fore of the some of the most exciting work on modernism, from Gabriele Brandstetter’s seminal Poetics of Dance (2015 [1995]) to more recent work such as Lucia Ruprecht’s Gestural Imaginaries (2019). Girdwood offers a new contribution by decentring dance and performance, showing instead the afterlife of Salome’s dance in the many medias of modernism, guided by Warburg’s theory of gestural recurrence. Exciting the attention of figures from W. B. Yeats to Samuel Beckett, modernist giants engaged with old and recent figurations of Salome, paving new conversations through the figure of the dancer that encroached on topical issues of female emancipation, reform dress and political autonomy. 

Yet, as Girdwood shows, these shadows – or Warburgian phantoms – of Salome are difficult to pin down. It is in treating the Salome myth that her different creators are ‘at their most mercurial and unsettled’ (2). The myth invited incoherence as Salome, and her dancers, were imagined as both a ‘source of dangerous excess’ and a ‘site of aesthetic possibility and transformation’ (4). While most interpretations of the Salome phenomenon at the end of the nineteenth century have relied on a two-sided interpretative coin of male horror and deviant body, Girdwood complicates this received myth by showing the feminist potentialities of the dance, from the veiled dances of Loïe Fuller to the short stories of Djuna Barnes.

Revisiting familiar arguments such as Wilde’s supposed horror at the ‘New Woman’, Girdwood instead turns to revisionist scholarship by critics such as Sos Eltis to show Wilde’s investment in early feminism as an important context for his Salome. Chapter three, ‘Ciné-dances and women’s silent film’, likewise traces the feminist lineages of early cinema, showing how pioneers of film turned to dance and performance to foreground and explain their own medium. The discussion of Germaine Dulac, a pioneer of French Avant-Garde cinema in the 1920s, is particularly fascinating. Enthralled as a child by Fuller’s serpentine dance, Dulac paid homage to the dancer in an essay, ‘Three Encounters with Loïe Fuller’ (1928), identifying an important interconnection between dance and film: ‘the work of Loïe Fuller aligns with our own, and that is why cinéastes here owe her a profound and ultimate homage’. Dulac’s Thémes et Variations (1928) literalizes this connection, juxtaposing images of a dancer first with shots of moving machinery and then with time-lapses of a budding shoot. Technologies of the body are intertwined with the technologies of natural history and modernity through film.

This third chapter fully shows the weaving logic of the book, as it skilfully pulls together a mass of disparate material and shows their interconnections. The book’s structure, in this way, echoes its own intention to show the ‘spiral’ of the myth in the modern age, a movement that Girdwood argues is fraught with queer possibilities. One of the book’s key premises is that the dancing ‘body’ of Salome can not only be retroactively read as destabilising patriarchal and heterosexual bodily regimes but was understood to do so at the time. This is encapsulated in a cryptic remark made by Fuller about her relationship with her partner Gabrielle Bloch: ‘I wonder if her friendship…is not intimately mingled with the love of form, of colour and of light, which I interpreted synthetically before her eyes when I appeared to her for the first time’.  Such acts of withholding the body behind literal or metaphorical veiling, on stage or in writing, unsettle single explanations, and instead ‘perform a continuous act of decentring’ that privileges the dancing body as a new site of creative power (49). 

Considering these feminist and queer reverberations of the Salome myth, why then the focus on Nietzsche, Warburg, Bergson, Wilde, Beckett and Yeats? Pervasively familiar figures, they are the other phantoms of modernism that the book, in many ways, seeks to disrupt. Since the book is making a claim about the ‘choreographic imagination’ of modernism wholesale, it is perhaps understandable that they appear. Yet the brilliance of sections such as the chapter on cinema is that it side-lines such figures, forging new forms of camp and ephemeral modernisms outside of the fractious page of the male author. Modernism and Choreographic Imaginations ultimately begins an exciting new conversation that encompasses histories of dress, technology and the visual arts, at the same time as it opens the possibility of queer and feminist interpretations of an old tale.

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