An Evidence Based Dance & Ballet Blog: History, Culture & Anthropology.
Updated: Mar 11
This is a collection of essays about 18th thru 20th century Ballet and Dance History identifying, hereto minimized external, migratory and environmental contributions and changes to Ballet and Dance History, Culture and Anthropology.
WHAT WE WILL BE DISCUSSING
With the advent of literacy in after World War One in Europe and the free world, an interest in history about specific subjects arose. We began to see a plethora of books on the fine points of many subjects. This includes histories of classical dance in Europe and its expansion to the New World. Some of the authors of these books saw European dance as the pinnacle of aesthetics. Jack Anderson, NYCB executive Lincoln Kirsten, Ballroom dancers, Margaret and Troy Kinney. These authors, like many commentators of their time, we now know were a bit myopic in their cultural view, and this has lead to a microcosmic idealization and often a misunderstanding of ballet, what ballet was, and what it now is, from the earliest eras of Court dance to present.
As brilliant anthropologist Joanne Kealiinohomoku quoted a scholar friend of hers, in reference to many of the below dance historians, “…they were not interested in the whole world of dance, just their world of dance.” She was correct. The hegemonic Eurocentric attitude towards non-Eurocentric culture by most white aristocracies, was a preconceived semi-cognizant standard. Such virtual eugenic attitudes were a foundation for a belief in the hierarchical view of European culture as supreme. What she fails to notice is that these historians were apart of that history. Their point of view was Eurocentric, because that was the standard of the day. Now in retrospect, we can include these historians in the same socio-pathology of malfunctioning Eurocentrism that may be waning, but still pervades a now globalist society. No matter. Because of the neglect of these early writers inability to see the big picture of global dance, she is probably correct in her criticism of these commentators. Even the most recent “enlightened” ballet histories give little precedence of other ethnicities, the affect of indirect factors and environmental concerns regarding what into what has been a very “white” art form. And, it is a "white" art form because, as Kealiinohomoku noted: Ballet -is- an ethnic art form; and an ethnic art for of aristocratic Europe. But like many such art form in this now interconnected world, ballet belongs to everyone!
And, there have been other failings of most dance historians. In reviewing around 100 papers by writers and researchers of both the past and present in ballet, I found most were narrowly focused and concerned with only four topics: (1) important people, (2) important places, (3) important ballets (dances), (4) how these ballets and people grew and changed over time. Read any history of ballet, and these are the grand themes of all.
Constrast this with writers and researchers of both the past and present in non-Eurocentric dance, the concern is on four basic factors: (1) all of the people involved, (2) the culture that built it and ethnographies, (3) what the implications for their dances were and and effect upon and within their cultures, (4) how to preserve and advance the art forms, cultures and people. Now, these are general and not ubiquitous in either case; there are ballet historians concerned with culture and how it affected/effects ballet. But, ultimately they are interested in big names and dances and what that means for dance and arts history.
The failure of classical ballet historians to include anthropological and environmental truths, even when the evidence is right in our faces, has meant that we are relying only upon a “People Magazine” version of dance history. Sure. Its wonderful to know of the awful tragedy that befell Emma Livry onstage, or Didelot’s experimentation with flying Ballerinas before the invention of the pointe shoe. But, that kind of history can reduce into sensationalism, which ignores, for example, the paternalist implications of the Romantic era resulting in marginalizing women in ballet to an entirely sexist “Ethereal Woman,” defying the trend of Suffrage that was grew against such patronizing of women in the 19th century. But sometimes we find evidence of blow-back, as in this painting by Nicolaas Van Der Waay - "Strike of the Ballerinas," asserted to be in regards to a strike in a Central European Opera House by danseuses who'd had enough of the abusive sexist policies of their employer. (Incorrectly cited as 1936, the year of Van Der Way's death, this work was created in the 1890s.)
Of late? This has thankfully changed. At least now we dance theorists and historians are discussing this! Finally. Only recently have we begun to mine the data on the sexist and paternalist underpinnings of the art form, and the debt we owe to what was for centuries from the closeted LBGTQ population. And the unsung but long suppressed history of men in ballet, regardless of gender preference, is almost entirely unexplored, (only 2 books on the subject that I know of). And, this is, in part, because the history of dancers of either sex, in the ensembles and corps de ballet, have almost completely gone ignored. Ignored, because artist performers, have been relegated to the back alleys and under-class of history. The glorification of Hierarchism, utilizing Personality and Populism are the main subtexts to most histories of ballet. For example, some histories pay a brief tribute to the fact that Louis the XIV sought out the children of gardeners and cooks to learn to dance behind the nobles and aristocrats of whom names we know. Some of these imbedded as tribute in the names of the very steps they danced: Pas Sissonne, a jump from two feet landing on one, was named by Louis himself for le Marquis du Sissonne, who allegedly invented it. Of course, we will never know if it really was le Marquis or someone else, possibly one of the cooks’ children. Who knows? But, why is this important? We base most history upon what has been passed down to us. And in the passing, many finer points get lost. So, we have no proof, rather faith in much of the past. Ergo, much of our history is theoretical at best, yet, we believe it to be true. Indeed, in these essays and articles, this may be true as well. But, it is to pragmatism that such assertion will be deduced. Here is an example outside the history of ballet completely. I know that the road I live on in rural NW Virginia had a toll gate on it for almost 150 years through the end of the 19th century. I also know that some of the Confederate troupes returning from Gettysburg retreated on this road – we have documented evidence of this. I also know a story that the gate-keeper dropped the gate when they were to pass, and asked for a toll, to which the General in command ordered his troupes to aim their muskets at the gate-keeper and said, “Are you sure you wish to collect that fee sir?” In response, the gate keeper happily lifted the gates, as the exhausted men chuckled and went upon their way. This narrative has been passed down in our county through the generations since. Great story! But, likely, that’s all it is. When we embellish our histories with myth-stories, they usually become remembered as fact. So, we need to step back, be objective and pragmatic, look at the evidence available to vet its possibly reality or not. So, when it comes to classical ballet, most of our historical memory of people, places and ballets are well documented: the documentation that archivists, historians and academicians wished to preserve. So then let's list some areas in ballet and dance, 19th and early 20th century historians have little archived:
· Corps de Ballet and Ensemble men.
· Non-European stakeholders, and non-European influences on ballet.
· Most Choreography (this would require the use of written word plus one of the early notation systems. Ergo, this is not an area most historians would be involved with.)
· Non-balletic reasonings for pedagogies, origins of many steps.
· Migrations of dancers from one area to another. Methods of travel.
· Political causations affecting ballet, dancers and pedagogies.
· Lesser known pedagogues’ influence on balletics.
· Environmental influences: particularly stage and rehearsal room architecture, including materials, lighting, sound, and other theatrical art forms.
· Cultural and philosophical differences between the aesthetics and technical methods of training, performance and presentation. Non Historical commentary:
- Pedagogies and Pedagogical methods - Balletic Culture and Socio-political issues related to the Art Form.
- Ballet & Dance Theory, Performity and Philosophy - Kinesis, Movement analysis of both past and present Balletic Advances. - Commentary on current trends.
This blog will be covering some of these ignored or minimally addressed areas of ballet. My writing will not be in regards as much to the people in ballet, rather to reasons for circumstances in ballet; reasons that effect us today.
Some of the topics I will cover will be;
- Sexism and ballet’s paternalist foundations.
- What happened to the men of 19th and early 20th century ballet?
- The origins and implications of the raked stage on balletic aesthetics and technique.
- The rise and fall of Italian Ballet, and the misrepresentation of the actual Italian influence of ballet from the 18th through early 20th century.
- The Russo-French connection and the advent of the Chemin de Fer in Europe and its effect on late 19th century classicism.
And much more.
There will be moments of you will disagree with my assertions and even my proofs. But, please note, in many cases I will not be using traditional sources of data to present them. Many of the sources people have used to codify our art form’s history have been tapped and overused. And, though some of those sources provide truths about specifics, they cannot provide the whole truth nor and macrocosmic view of the art form. The "Big Picture" can’t be seen unless we step away from the screen. So, by deducing the effect of external data, often ignored by academicians, I will attempt to expand on what is already known in the art form. Even if you are skeptical of some of what I present, I pray that at least it will be food for thought, and inspire inquiry to see beyond just the ballerinas, famous choreographers, and mammoth egos that have been so common in our aristocratically founded art form. In this, no matter what…please enjoy!
Bibliography: Joanne Kealiinohomoku,”An Anthropologist looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance,” Moving History Moving Cultures 1980 pg 35)
Jack Anderson. Ballet and Modern Dance: A Concise History. Princeton Book Company; Third edition, 2018 Selma Jean Cohen. Dance as a Theatre Art. Readings in Dance History from 1581 to Present. Harper & Row, Publishers, 1974
Margaret and Troy Kinney. The Dance. Its Place in Art and Life (1936) Nabu Press 2012
Curt Saks. World History of Dance. W. W. Norton & Company; 1963
Jenifer Homans “Apollo’s Angels.” Random House, 2010.
Dance Research Journal, Congress of Research on Dance, Journals from 1979 to present.