In his latest work, contemporary choreographer William Forsythe tries to create, in his own words, a “short-term literacy” in his audience. The piece begins without music in order to isolate the individual phrases of movement: “it might be perceived that there has been a subtraction, which would be music. But in fact, dancers being the musical engines behind any dance, their breathing alone causes you to understand the phrase.” The intention is to create a more skilled viewer who is focused on the movements that make up the dance without the distraction of the music. When music and movement come together in a more traditional way in the second act, the audience is, or so is the idea, more literate in what is presented to them: “suddenly, you are able to read.”
For years I have been staring at Edward Gordon Craig’s designs for the famous (or infamous) Craig/Stanislavski Moscow Hamlet (1909–11) alongside Edmund Dulac’s designs for W. B. Yeats’s equally celebrated production of At the Hawk’s Well (1916), trying to find some connection between them. Which came first? What acted as inspiration for both designers, and were they aware of each other’s work? What is the constitutive role of Noh, and the specific contribution of the dancer Itō Michio, in the development of the aesthetic of these theatre makers? Of course, there are answers to some of these questions. Craig’s models of the Moscow Hamlet were exhibited in London’s Leicester Galleries in September 1912, probably bearing little resemblance to the actual production. These hawk-like cut-outs for the actors appeared in print later in the 1930s in the equally celebrated “book-beautiful,” funded by the notorious “red” Count Harry Kessler, The Cranach Hamlet. It is fascinating the way these designs mirror each other, and equally fascinating that Craig chose the bird-like figures for the meta-theatrical aspects of Hamlet, most vividly portrayed in the two-tone pages of the Cranach Hamlet. And this theatricality of the stage (and page) clearly has a Noh inflection. Beyond the obvious questions of influence and/or appropriation, perhaps these encounters/events between modernist theatre makers, almost always manifested or conceptualized through the performing body, could be read as a constellation of concepts and practices extending beyond the received binaries of understanding modernism (source/influence, authenticity/appropriation, understanding/mis-understanding, tradition/innovation, radical/reactionary, center/periphery—to name a few) to pose a more “eventful” but unfinished and ephemeral perspective/lens that may be less clearly defined but possibly more dynamic and speculative.
For roughly a century, Sarah Bernhardt’s centrality to modernism has been largely ignored. Her inspiration and patronage of the twirling, tendrilic forms of Art Nouveau is often discussed in relation to her capacity for self-promotion and commercialization rather than as evidence of a pioneering performance style that subsequently helped drive the theatre’s burgeoning intermediality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If we consider, in particular, Bernhardt’s early and active involvement in silent film (from1900 until the year of her death in 1923), then we can begin to appreciate the efforts she made to ensure that her theatre developed into a mass medium that could (and would) reach new international audiences at the opening of the twentieth century. In my view, this synergy between Bernhardt as a celebrity actress-manager on the stage and Bernhardt as a champion of nascent screen culture illustrates the productive and even surprising intermingling of the theatre and the visual arts in theatrical modernism. Although an established celebrity, Bernhardt, therefore, newly contributes to how and what we study in modernism. She is capable of enriching not only the materials we associate with the theatre, but the very modernism that her “brand” of fin-de-siècle theatre represents.
During the final days of 1919, an exquisite animal unfurled its wings on the stage of the Théâtre Fémina in Paris. Composed of Russian émigré artists, the company known as the Chauve-Souris was directed by a voluble and rotund Armenian named Nikita Baliev, who doubled as the master of ceremonies and regaled the audience in his comically poor French during the intervals between the brief scenes. Among the Chauve-Souris’s colorful depictions of pre-revolutionary Russia was “La Nuit chez les Tsiganes,” in which an ensemble of gypsy women sang for the patrons of one of Moscow’s oldest and most legendary restaurants. “Katinka” featured a buxom young woman wearing a stylized version of a Russian peasant’s garb who performed a stilted polka, her body moving with the jerky motions of a mechanical doll to the cues of a peasant man and woman at her sides. The revue also offered a nod to local traditions with its dramatization of the French folk song “La Clair de la Lune,” and the exoticism of the Orient added to the allure of “La Fontaine de Bakhchisarai,” a two-part tableau inspired by a Pushkin poem about lust and violence in the harem of a Crimean khan. “It is not dramatic theater,” mused an enraptured reviewer who found his skills of classification befuddled, “nor is it lyric theater, or music hall, or cabaret, but all of them at once, with singular power and taste.” Other critics compared the Chauve-Souris’s synthesis of song, dance, dialogue, lighting design, painting, and pantomime to the cinema. Wrote one: “before the eyes of the spectators pass, as in a film, subtle and stylized tableaux of characteristic images that are shaded with barely perceptible but lively touches, intonations, and gestures.”
While the attention of modernist scholarship to literary cultural circulation has begun to include late-Qing China, there remains something extraordinary if not surreal about the notion of a Manchu princess performing Duncanesque “Greek” dance before an admiring Empress Cixi and the assembled ladies and eunuchs of her court. Derided in the Western press at the time as a passing “impulse” of the “fickle” Dowager, even now the story of Yu Rongling’s performance challenges inherited perceptions of a rigidly archaic Qing court, inviolate from the assaults of modernity.[3
In 1954, Maya Angelou performed in a production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess that toured through Italy. This United States-sponsored initiative brought African American performance to European stages in an effort to combat Soviet propaganda about American racism. As Melanie Masterton Sherazi shows in her contribution to this cluster, Angelou’s own memoirs of the trip recall not only the staged productions on the tour, but also the everyday performances outside of opera houses and concert halls. When the cast of Porgy and Bess arrived in Venice, for example, they stepped out into a public square where they were confronted by what seemed a menacing Italian crowd. As Sherazi describes this scene, these African American performers recalled and rehearsed a familiar Jim Crow–era “script” in the piazza. As it turned out, the crowd was there to welcome them and an impromptu scene of opera singing ensued. This spontaneous Venetian performance reveals how changing contexts can prompt performers and audiences to invent something new. In modernist performances on the world stage, roles spontaneously shift and everyday performances are spliced with more conventional theatrical productions. This cluster follows the peregrinations of both well-known and forgotten performers, tracking the chance encounters and improvised performances of a modernist theater always on the move.
In her autobiography Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976), Maya Angelou writes that when she was offered the role of Ruby in a 1954 tour of Porgy and Bess that was leaving for Italy in four days’ time, she replied, “I don’t have a passport.” She was assured that this would not pose a problem, since the tour, an Everyman Opera Production directed by Robert Breen, “[was] being sponsored by the State Department.” Angelou thought immediately of “the school [she] had attended which was on the House Un-American Committee list” (Singin’, 128).
My son sits at the desk, knee propped on its edge, keyboard in lap. Nearby, a television bolted to the wall displays a high-definition humanoid, clad in luminous armor inscribed with obscure heraldry, dancing with ecstatic abandon. Were it not odd enough that they are dancing in the lugubrious depths of a biomorphic dreadnaught inhabited by a terrible and hostile alien race intent on destroying the earth and everything upon it, the dance they dance is the “Carlton,” made famous by actor Alfonso Ribeiro on the 1990s sit-com The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Vegard Vinge and Ida Müller’s performance series, the Ibsen-Saga (2006–), is an extraordinary limit case for staging Henrik Ibsen’s expansive internal temporalities. The Saga uses Ibsen’s works, in the words of Heiner Müller, as “an instrument of deceleration against the general acceleration of life” (Barnett, “Müller’s Hamlet/Machine,” 197). The Saga slows the sense of the present through a dramaturgy of open-ended performances in which the content and length are rarely predetermined, with works lasting upwards of two weeks without intermission or ending after forty-five minutes. The unpredictability of the Saga’s performances—inspired by the latent Romantic idealism of Ibsen’s plays—challenges the ability of institutions to regulate time in relation to labor and the larger economy. The Saga declares art’s autonomy from institutional oversight by confronting the temporal limits of theatre production in the twenty-first century. Like its antecedent in the historical avant-gardes, the Saga employs time as a tool to differentiate itself—and art—from the realities of the world. Attending to the idealism of Ibsen’s plays, the Saga conjures the avant-garde inside Ibsen to challenge the institutional regulation of time, illuminating the limits of contemporary theatre.
There is a striking moment about two-thirds of the way through Jordan Peele’s satirical horror film Get Out (2016). While visiting his white girlfriend’s family estate for the weekend, the film’s black protagonist Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is approached by one of the family’s African-American servants, Georgina (Betty Gabriel). At this point in the film, the audience is aware that Washington has been uneasy about the visit since before the couple arrived, in large part because his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) had not disclosed his race to her family before their visit. As a black man surrounded by the white family and their mostly white friends, Washington’s discomfort increases despite the reassurances of his girlfriend. In this brief exchange with Georgina, he attempts to find some commonality in his discomfort. Structured as a series of slowly tightening counter-shots between the two characters, the sequence depicts Georgina approaching Chris to explain why she has unplugged his cell phone (repeatedly). When he confesses to her that “When there are too many white people, I get nervous,” Georgina responds with a repeated, “No. No. No.” It’s a phrase intended as comfort, but the moment instead conveys a sense of the uncanny that is, indeed, the key to understanding the film as a whole. It is also a moment deeply indebted to the interwoven histories of acting and media in modernism.