From the Print Journal

Poetics of Dance: Body, Image, and Space in the Historical Avant-Gardes by Gabriele Brandstetter

Poetics of Dance: Body, Image, and Space in the Historical Avant-Gardes. Gabriele Brandstetter. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. 456. $99.00 (cloth); $39.95 (paper).

Finally appearing in English translation twenty years after its first appearance in German, Gabriele Brandstetter’s Poetics of Dance: Body, Image, and Space in the Historical Avant-Gardes retains its groundbreaking force.[1] This partly has to do with the book’s extraordinary range: taking the English, French, German, and Italian-speaking territories of Western Europe from the 1890s through the 1930s as her terrain, spotlighting the presence and prominence of dancers not only on stage but in salons, museums, tourist sites, and textual spaces, Brandstetter walks us through the changes in both dance practice and in thinking about dance in the period of the historical avant-gardes. Insisting throughout on the enmeshment of dance with experiments in the literary, visual, and theatrical arts, she presents dance not only as a muse for other media—a potential pitfall for cross-disciplinary analysis—but as a vehicle and indeed forerunner for the most radical reconceptualizations of the relation between body and space, body and mind, body and language, and body and community at the beginning of the twentieth century. What results is a durable model of interdisciplinary inquiry: as Brandstetter structures her exploration of dance developments around a series of galvanizing encounters between dancers, writers, artists, and scenographers, her analyses invite reflection on the ongoing entanglements of the arts, on the ways in which experiment develops at their frictional junctures. This book is at once a praxis and a provocation: a revelation of the role of disciplinary dialogues in the generation of artistic innovations, and a reminder of the need for continuing cross-disciplinary ventures in criticism today.

Poetics of Dance springs into action through the interplay between literature, dance, and the visual arts. The book contains riveting readings of scenes of dance in prose and poetry from a host of different languages and locations: from the globe-trotting, history-spanning stories of Greek-Irish Japanophile Lafcadio Hearn, through spectacular scenes of seduction in a novel by the ardent Italian nationalist Gabriele d’Annunzio, to the French shawl-poems of the German-speaking Rainer Maria Rilke. Yet Brandstetter is not primarily concerned with representations of dance in literature—terrain recently mined expertly by Susan Jones—nor in the visual arts—currently being explored by Nell Andrew and Juliet Bellow.[2] Rather, she delves into interactions between the practitioners of these various arts, showing the ways in which they learned from one another’s disciplines through kinaesthetic encounters, and through practices of active, dialogical translation. What emerges is a pulsating panorama of the arts in conversation, redistributing their reach, their forms, and their matters.

What interests Brandstetter are the ways in which an international cast of characters, working in collaboration or in isolation, used a common repertoire of figures to negotiate an epistemological shift occasioned by a semiotic crisis at the turn of the century, and did so primarily through encounters with dancing bodies (oftentimes their own). The number of dancers who appear in the book’s pages is itself noteworthy: from the pioneering Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Vaslav Nijinsky, Mary Wigman, and Rudolf Laban, through a host of momentarily significant figures such as Maud Allan, Ida Rubinstein, Stasia Napierkowska, Mata Hari, and Ruby Ginner, to isolated performers still requiring full attention, such as Valentine de Saint Point, the single-named Akarova, Dore Hoyer, Alexander Sakharoff, Gret Palucca, and Valeska Gert. A second circle of characters consists of artists working at the intersection of two or more art forms and engaging with dance through their own practices: the visual artists Wassily Kandinsky, Sonia Delaunay, and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, or the theatrical reformers Edward Gordon Craig, Oskar Schlemmer, and Vsevolod Meyerhold, not to mention the ubiquitous Serge Diaghilev. Rounding out the scene are the writers and aesthetic theorists reflecting upon dance across the century’s divide, from Gustav Flaubert, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Valéry in France, through Alfred Symons, Oscar Wilde, and Hearn in the Anglophone context, to Friedrich Nietzsche, Rilke, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal in the German-speaking arena, looping repeatedly through d’Annunzio, Filippo Tommasso Marinetti, and the Bragaglia brothers in the Italian. As this (incomplete) roster suggests, when one begins to put dance into the modernist picture, it catalyzes an unsuspected number of connections across languages, across art forms, across spaces and times.

But what is it about dance that allows it to make these connections, and that earned it a central role in the reorganization of the arts in the first decades of the century? In Brandstetter’s lucid account, modern dance emerged at the juncture of a newly activist historicism and new projections of the contemporary, and it provided the images, not to mention the practices, that undergirded each one. In the book’s two sections, Brandstetter maps out dance’s critical elaboration of two distinct concepts: “pathos formulae” (derived from Aby Warburg’s exploration of gesture-repertoires across cultures and times), examples of ways of connecting via the body to a moment, to a past, or to a community; and “topos formulae,” examples of how to move through spaces while cutting a figure of one’s own. As Brandstetter demonstrates, the birthplace of modern dance was not so much the stage as the museum, where the pioneers of modern dance presented themselves as mediators between past, present, and a potential future, promising to animate and articulate the fragmented figures around them. Prime practitioners of this mediating function, modeling a relation to civilizations distant in time and space through gesture, were Duncan, in her performances and research practices in the British Museum and the Louvre; St. Denis, on her imagined tours of the far east; and Fuller, in the theater she designed for her performance at the 1900 World’s Fair, a space for archiving her own works as much as presenting them, making it a museum as much as a stage. And indeed this intertwining of function is crucial to the shift in dance’s place in modernity, as Brandstetter outlines. Installing dance in the museum was not simply a matter of finding new representational content for the art form; it was also a way of presenting dance as a new epistemology. Modern dancers quickly began to produce lectures and press materials to accompany their performances, which were soon moving fluidly between galleries, salons in private homes, cafés and theaters, and tourist locales of the east and west, reframing a journey to specific sites (e.g. Duncan in Greece) as a journey into the past, performed for a present-tense public. As Brandstetter lucidly demonstrates, the modern dancer was a prime agent of cultural and conceptual mobility, drawing upon the techniques of her moment to offer examples of how to move between constraint and chaos, order and ecstasy, the individual and the collective, private and public.

Not only agent, of course, but also image. Brandstetter carefully unspools the relation between subjecthood and objecthood, dancer and spectator, uninterrogated exoticism and self-aware eroticism, in her reading of dancers reading and being read. She pays particular attention to specific dances shared across repertoires of “ethnic” dancers in the early decades of the century, leading to a tangent on the use of costume that turns into a large-scale meditation on fabric: the clothes that drape the moving body, that connect it to transhistorical “pathos formulae,” that serve as malleable material for the performer while also holding the attention of the spectator—all the while serving as potential inscriptive surface, as in the Fortuny shawls with their Knossos motif that braided images of the past into the fashion of modernity. Indeed there are moments when fabric becomes the unifying thread of the book or of the period, the tissue binding together the arts, or permitting connections to be drawn between them; as visual artists begin to play with moving fabric, and theatrical designers experiment with ways of framing, concealing, and revealing the body, writers take fabric as the very stuff of metamorphosis, as a material analog to dance. (Sonia Delaunay’s “robe-poems” epitomize this syncretic impulse channeled into costume.)

The focus on fabric is only one example of the kind of comparative work that Poetics of Dance performs around figures shared across the arts. As the book maps responses to common sources across a range of media and national horizons—such as the contemporaneous, contradictory uses of the Nike of Samothrace in Italian Futurism, Russian Cubo-Futurism, or Duncan’s Marseillaise dance—it forges paths to be followed by scholars interested in either cross-cultural or cross-disciplinary comparison. And as it helps us to see a cultural horizon anew, it also alerts us to figures that have fallen out of view. The figure that looms largest for this particular reader is the Austrian Hugo von Hofmannsthal, prescient and eloquent witness to his epoch, whose unpublished draft for an article on dancers declares, “we will no longer tolerate a message that is less complicated than a whole being.” In Hofmannsthal’s words, “[w]e want to read all the hieroglyphs” (82). For the interested reader, this book abounds in them.


[1] Originally published as Tanz-Lektüren: Körperbilder und Raumfiguren der Avantgarde (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1995).

[2] Susan Jones, Literature, Modernism, and Dance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Juliet Bellow and Nell Andrew, “Inventing Abstraction? Modernist Dance in Europe,” in The Modernist World, Stephen Ross and Allana C. Lindgren, eds. (Oxford: Routledge, 2015), 329–38.