“Dance in Soviet Russia was also a weapon of propaganda”

Historian of the “motion culture” Irina Sirotkina about modern democratic dance and the monarchical basis of ballet

Ballet originated in the era of absolute monarchies and was a reflection of the hierarchy of power — in contrast to the democratic modern dance, in which people of any build and weight can participate. Thanks to this, modern choreographers put experiments with the dancer's body on the verge of art and therapy. Irina Sirotkina, a psychologist and historian of dance and motor culture, told Realnoe Vremya about how the culture of dance has changed throughout human history.

“Russian dance was invented not in villages, but in palaces”

Ms Sirotkina, from what century do we have reliable evidence of the existence of dance?

“Dancing” figures are found in Neolithic rock paintings. Did they dance for joy when they caught a mammoth, or did they participate in some ritual? Alas, we will never know about it, since it is still a pre-written era. But the ancient Greeks left us with whole treatises about the dance — read, for example, On Dancing by Lucian of Samosata. The first records of dances date back to the beginning of court balls, it is the 15th century. As you know, kings and queens danced at balls, and therefore choreography became a serious commercial business. By the end of the 17th century, a whole system of dance notation was created — the first language for recording dance.

What about Russia?

On the territory of Russia, there live very different peoples, and dances of each people were different. Songs and dances differed in regions and even villages, and their names are different, sometimes toponymic: Perm Toptusha, Kursk Timonya and Chebotukha, Irkutsk Yelan, Kasimov dance... But the collective “Russian dance” is a late construction, invented not in villages but in palaces, when the aristocracy had a fashion for everything “Russian”.

In the distant past, the dance involved men and women, or then danced separately?

The ancient Greeks had war dances — Pyrrhike dance, for instance. Apparently, it was part of the boys' preparation for initiation, transition into the adult world. There is a hypothesis that the first ballet steps were created on the basis of movements of fencers — for example, some steps in Baroque dance remind a greeting of cavaliers before a duel. There were also purely maid dances, included in the rites — for example, wedding ones. But most traditional dances are collective. Moreover, ballroom dancing for a long time was danced with more than one partner and in a group. The waltz was the first ballroom dance where a male partner and a female partner remained together for the entire dance or several dances, and this at first caused a scandal.

Photo: feedback.guru
The waltz was the first ballroom dance where a male partner and a female partner remained together for the entire dance or several dances, and this at first caused a scandal

“In Soviet Russia, they tried to make dance a weapon of propaganda”

Nowadays, the direction such as free dance is popular all over the world. How does it differ from the classic one?

All these names are very conventional. Ballet was not always “classical”, even now we have “modern” ballet, in contrast to classical ballet. What is known as “free dance” appeared at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries as an alternative to ballet. Ballet had long been considered entertainment, ballet lovers were always men — they went to the theatre attracted including by the demonstration of pretty legs. In contrast, free dance positioned itself as a “serious” art — kind of like how modern intellectuals from choreography came up with “non-dance” and “post-dance” to distinguish themselves from show, commercial dance. Free dance then and now is a story of abandoning the mainstream in art, finding its own ways, its alternative to the establishment, including choreographic one.

In your works you say that classical dance ballet is a very important symbol of power. What do you mean? How can dance be, so to speak, a weapon of political propaganda?

Ballet originated in the era of absolute monarchies, and in the most famous of them — France of the 17th century — the king himself participated in ballets. The structure and composition of the ballet — the division between the soloist and the corps de ballet, a central point, front turn body of a dancer and frontal mise-en-scénes — worked because it was a court performance where it was important to respect the solemnity, grace and the hierarchy of ranks.

Modern dance broke this hierarchy. The choreographer such as Merce Cunningham said that there should be no central point on the stage, that all points of space are equally important, and built his compositions on this basis.

Soviet Russia also tried to do the dance a weapon of propaganda. In the first decades of the Soviet power, even textiles became agitational — fabrics were painted in colourful patterns of hammer and sickle, five-pointed stars or tractors. Ballets were also checked for political correctness, and there emerged the “agitation theatre” — theatre-newspaper, theatre-advertisement of the new order. But this could not last long, and by the mid-1930s, there was a return to academism in the arts, including dance. However, at this very time, we invented the amazing genre — folk stage dance. Ballet choreographers — Igor Moiseev, Nadezhda Nadezhdina — adapted individual movements of folk dances for the academic stage. Thus there appeared the world's first state ensemble of folk dance of Igor Moiseyev, then — the ensemble Berezka.

Photo: moiseyev.ru
We invented the amazing genre — folk stage dance. Ballet choreographers — Igor Moiseev, Nadezhda Nadezhdina — adapted individual movements of folk dances for the academic stage. Thus there appeared the world's first state ensemble of folk dance of Igor Moiseyev, then — the ensemble Berezka

What function does ballet serve today?

Ballet had long claimed (and I think in some countries still claims) to be the pinnacle of dance art. That is, virtuosity, pointe technique, splendor of productions, their display in luxurious theatres were considered the highest achievement... But free or modern dance has long rivalled ballet, including in the field of performing arts.

It turns out that free dance in a sense challenges the authoritarian state, suppressing improvisation and physicality?

Dance — the movements of your own body — very well makes you feel here and now, feel the presence at a certain point in time and space. It makes it possible to be and enjoy this being. The inner experience of the body, its kinesthetic existence (kinesthesia — the sense of movement) creates an intimate dimension, different from publicity.

In this sense, yes, body and dance can be considered a refuge from social norms that are often repressive. Therefore, many people say that dance is freedom: the freedom to feel, to be, to create.

“Duncan spent her days at the Louvre and the British Museum copying the movements of statues and figures from vase paintings”

You write that today physicality and sexuality are very important means of artistic expression. How could physicality and sexuality be confined in the framework of classical dance?

Classical ballet is as disciplined as possible, there are only a few positions of the legs and arms. It creates its expressiveness on the basis of these means, and, I must say, very successfully — almost everyone loves ballet. But sexuality is contraindicated in ballet — it is not its tools. In burlesque, on the contrary, erotica is a mandatory part of the artistic arsenal of the dancer and choreographer.

We live in society, and society is nothing but a set of rules of behaviour in public. Therefore, even twerk stays within certain rules — they hold competitions, determine the winners who follow these rules best.

Isadora Duncan was one of the dancers who changed the way we dance. Who else participated in this revolution?

Isadora Duncan was one of them. She was very successful in what is now called “brand”. This does not mean that she threw dust in the eyes — quite the contrary. She created her style and her technique, more like a graceful ballroom dance than a muscular ballet. Isadora positioned herself as the heir to the ancient dance, “a new Bacchante”, but she really learned a lot from the Greeks. She spent her days in the Louvre and the British Museum, examining and copying the movements of statues and figures from the vase painting, and thus restored the foundations of what is known as “plastic art”. She was compared to dancing sculpture, and the style was called “plastic”.

In addition to Duncan, there were many prominent characters in the twentieth century who were often not directly related to the choreographic establishment, considered to be marginalized. For example, Rudolf von Laban, who was not originally a dancer, initiated the movement for a new dance, and his followers Mary Wigman, Kurt Joss, Gret Palucca and many others created European modern dance. In America, modern is the style of Martha Graham, Ted Shawn, Doris Humphrey; there also arose postmodern dance of Merce Cunningham, contact improvisation of Steve Paxton and Nancy Smith. In Russia, modern dance was also successfully developing until the beginning of the infamous “cultural revolution”. In the United States and Europe, in the last decades of the twentieth century, there has developed the trend known as “non-dance”.

But ballet was also developing — we know choreographers-reformers, from Mikhail Fokin and Vaclav Nijinsky to William Forsythe and Mats Ek, and many, many others. More about the iconic choreographers and their productions can be found in my book Dance: Experience of Understanding, which is soon published in the Moscow publishing house Boslen. In the book you can not only read about the most famous productions and performances, but also immediately see them (how — yet a secret).

Isadora Duncan, 1904. Photo: Hof-Atelier Elvira (cameralabs.org)
Isadora positioned herself as the heir to the ancient dance, “a new Bacchante”, but she really learned a lot from the Greeks. She spent her days in the Louvre and the British Museum, examining and copying the movements of statues and figures from the vase painting, and thus restored the foundations of what is known as “plastic art”. She was compared to dancing sculpture, and the style was called “plastic”

“Modern dance often chooses partial or even full nudity”

You advise those who want to understand modern choreography “to stop clinging to the traditional ideas of what is beautiful and what is ugly”. How modern choreographers expand the boundaries of good/bad, beautiful/ugly?

Non-dance choreographers such as Xavier Leroy or Jerome Bel often bring to the stage ordinary people, and sometimes “special people” whose bodies do not fit into the canons of beauty. However, their performances are successful — is it not because it is easier for the viewer to identify him- or herself with the usual — the same as his or her body than with the virtuoso body of a ballerina doing a fouette? After all, watching the dance, we experience kinesthetic empathy — we feel the movements of the dancers on a purely physical, muscular level. So, looking at the jump, sometimes it seems to us that we are off the ground, and looking at the pirouettes and twisting, we can feel dizzy. Dance is perceived not only with the eyes but also with the whole body, and the closer the dancer's body is to us, the more empathy will arise. This is my hypothesis, but I am finding more and more evidence for it.

In this, it seems, the idea of modern dance echoes the idea of body positive?

Certainly. Modern dance is democratic, Duncan wrote about it: she wanted to see every woman dancing (men could also join). Dancers know the body very well and know how to work with it, they also know that this work can be useful to everyone. At the intersection of dance and therapy, many directions emerged: dance gymnastics of the early twentieth century, which in the 1970s gave rise to aerobics; around the same time, somatics appeared; now the Body-Mind Approach is developing, that is, the approach that combines the bodily with the mental, mental through certain movement techniques, dance-movement therapy and much more.

By Natalia Antropova