1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/Dancing

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DANCING (see 7.794). The years 1910-20 saw a remarkable revival of the love of all kinds of dancing in England and America. On the one hand the organization popularly known as the Russian Ballet has put new life into stage dancing, while on the other the Americans are responsible for a reawakening of the love of dancing in the ballroom. At the end of the 19th century the ballet in England had become a spectacular show of very little artistic significance; the standard of dancing technique was of the lowest and, except in the case of one or two dancers such as Adeline Genee, it is doubtful whether stage dancing could be called an art at all. In the ballroom, dancing had become a rather perfunctory social function, practised without any particular skill or regard for steps.

Classical Dancing. — The revolution in stage dancing was started in England by Serge Diaghilieff's company of Russian dancers, but no account of modern stage dancing would be complete without some reference to the so-called “Classical Dancing” which came into vogue at the beginning of the 20th century and had such an influence on all the stage dancing of a later date. Classical dancing was a revolt against the form and style of the stage ballet as it then existed. It was an attempt to rescue the art from the artificiality of the older ballet, and bring beauty of line and movement into prominence, instead of the technical skill of the steps alone. In addition to this, classical dancers laid stress upon the musical side; they sought to interpret the great composers in dancing; valses of Chopin, Mendelssohn's “Spring Song,” some of the smaller works of Schubert — all these were “interpreted” in different ways. The dancers sought to catch the mood of each piece of music by an appropriate series of poses and movements, which were intended to be not only expressive of the music but beautiful in themselves. The costume worn was a simple dress in the Greek style, with the feet bare; the strangeness of this costume at the time and the similarity of many of the poses to Greek paintings and friezes led to the use of the word “classical” for this dancing.

The first and greatest exponent of this particular school was Isadora Duncan. Her own point of view with regard to stage dancing is worthy of mention: —

“In my art I have by no means copied, as has been supposed, the figures of Greek vases, friezes, and paintings. From them I have learned to regard nature, and when certain of my movements recall gestures that are seen in works of art it is only because, like them, they are drawn from the grand natural source.”

This description epitomizes the whole of the theory of classical dancing, and Isadora Duncan's numerous successors improved very little either on her own theory or practice. Her technique was of her own invention and, although the result looked simple and easy enough, the training to which she subjected herself was severe. Perfect balance, perfect transition from one pose to another however slowly, perfect control of breathing and movement, all these, she found, required as much practice and study as the older style of ballet dancing. There was nothing impromptu, nothing amateurish in her work. The result was entirely novel and at first was received with ridicule both in Europe and America; it was only much later that she achieved the success and received the praise which were her due. She danced on the stage by herself without scenery and with only a simple background of curtains which showed off the movements to their best advantage and kept the concentration of the audience on the dancer only.

It was left to one of Isadora Duncan's successors, Maud Allan (b. 1879), to popularize classical dancing in England. Her strongest quality was the very interesting way in which she interpreted musical phrases and moods. The early musical training she had in Berlin accounted no doubt for this fascinating quality.

The influence of classical dancing on the stage dancing of a later date is very considerable. The ballet which was designed by Nijinsky to the music of “L'Après-midi d'un Faune” of Debussy, and which was danced by him with picked members of Diaghilieff's corps de ballet, would never have been possible without Isadora Duncan, and her dancing undoubtedly had a great influence in bringing stage dancing back into relation with real life and away from the absurd artificiality of the 19th century stage ballet.

The “Russian Ballet.” — England hardly had time to recover from the revolutionary methods of Isadora Duncan and Maud Allan when there appeared a new organization which was acclaimed with rapturous applause and enthusiasm, first of all by the artistic world of London and very shortly afterwards, at their bidding, by the general public. Serge Diaghilieff was responsible for the introduction of this company and was the moving spirit in collecting together the various people who contributed to this highly artistic and successful enterprise. He it was who enlisted the services of Léon Bakst and Alexandre Benois, the designers of the scenery and costumes; Michel Fokine, the producer and arranger of the dances; Nicholas Tcherepnin, the musical director; and the leading dancers, Karsavina, Anna Pavlova, Lydia Lopokowa, Vaslav Nijinsky, Adolph Bolm, Léon Massine and Enrico Cecchetti.

The success of this company not only in London but all over the world — they visited all the principal towns of Europe and America — was all the more unexpected because very few people in England were aware that anything so perfect could come out of Russia. The existence of the Imperial Court ballet at St. Petersburg was dimly known, and it was thought at first, quite wrongly, that Diaghilieff's company had some connexion with it. So far from this being the case it can truthfully be said that the connoisseurs of dancing in St. Petersburg had no great opinion of Diaghilieff's productions and achievements. The Imperial Russian Ballet was instituted in 1735 and continued up to the revolution and the Tsar's deposition in 1917. The high standard of technique of the Imperial Ballet was very largely due to Didelot, a ballet master of the early 19th century at St. Petersburg, but Diaghilieff's troupe was a very revolutionary body, and had very little in common in idea with the Imperial Ballet. True, the corps de ballet and dancers of the “Russian Ballet” were trained in the Imperial schools, and Fokine was the assistant ballet master at the St. Petersburg opera, but Bakst and Tcherepnin had no connexion whatever with the Imperial Ballet. The classical ballets performed by the Imperial Ballet at St. Petersburg year after year did not as a rule form part of Diaghilieff's repertoire. His outlook on stage dancing differed as much from the official ideas in Russia as those of Isadora Duncan from John Tiller. His aim, like Miss Duncan's, was to bring the ballet into relation with real life and the contemporary arts which go to make up the “production.”

The ballets themselves can be divided broadly into two classes: those which are the lineal descendants of earlier ballets, and those which are essentially experiments in new directions. Into the first category fall such ballets as “Lac des Cygnes,” “Pavilion d'Armide,” “Cléopatre,” “Thamar,” “Oiseau de Feu,” “Petrouchka,” the dances from “Prince Igor” and “Sylphides.” With regard to the last-named an interesting point was the the use of Chopin's music, orchestrated by well-known Russian composers. This orchestration of what was hitherto considered as essentially piano-music created quite a sensation, and was one of the most successful efforts of the Diaghilieff company. The vivid colour schemes of the scenery and dresses, and the modernity of some of the music (as in “Petrouchka ”), were as much responsible for the effect of vitality and realness as the standard of the choreography and dancing, which were in themselves higher than any hitherto seen in England. Apart from the setting however, the characterization of the various personages in these ballets was presented in such a way as to make the stage people seem alive and convincing to the audience, every device of stage-craft and orchestration being used to this end.

With regard to the second category of ballets, “L'Après-midi d'un Faune” was an attempt that was only partially successful to bring the plastic arts of Greece on to the stage. “Le Sacre du Printemps” was a return to the “primitive,” in the artistic sense. For both these, Nijinsky was mainly responsible as producer, and Stravinsky's music to the latter ballet was furiously “modern” into the bargain. It is doubtful whether these last-mentioned productions or any of the still later ballets, however interesting as experiments, were as satisfying artistically or theatrically perfect as the early ones of Fokine and Bakst. “The Good-Humoured Ladies” and other clever little scenes, charming in themselves, have not gone much further aesthetically, and in 1920 the standard of the dancing and the performance of the music were not on quite so high a level as in the first years of production.

Ballroom Dancing. — In the ballroom a different kind of revolution has been effected by the introduction of new dances and music from America. The only dance that has survived this invasion is the valse, but even this dance has altered so much in style that it now bears very little resemblance to the dance immortalized by Edward and Johann Strauss. The dances in common use (1921) are the fox-trot, one-step and the valse; the one-step is the most energetic of all the modern dances, owing to the clearly defined beats of the music, which is in quick march-time; the fox-trot is the lineal descendant of the polka, although the steps are not the same, and it is danced more smoothly, without the jerkiness of its ancestor. The steps are legion and ever changing with the style of the dancers. There are only three or four steps which are used by all couples and consequently make it possible for a man to dance with a new partner for the first time. The woman's part in these dances is absolute passivity; she has to follow the man's lead and be responsive to his lightest touch. Every good dancer is now an adept at this, and the variety of steps in common use is surprising.

The evolution of the valse from mid-Victorian days is worthy of note. At the beginning of the 20th century, for some reason which is quite obscure, the tendency of dance bands was to play the valse faster every year than the last. The result of this was that the valse, which was then by far the most popular dance, instead of being slow in time, became a series of fast revolutions. Dancers refused, in consequence, to continue to perform what one may call the one-two-three circular rhythm of the valse at the accelerated pace; they found the solution of the problem was to dance the same steps at a slower rate in cross rhythm against the music. Various other steps were added to enable these couples to manoeuvre successfully among the old-fashioned dancers. These new steps became crystallized, others were added, and the result was finally taught as the “Boston.”

The popularity of the “Boston” was short-lived owing to the difficulty of the performance in cross rhythm, and the congestion of traffic in the ballroom on account of the different speeds of the revolving couples. As soon as the new American dances obtained a hold in England the latitude in steps so essential to the new dances was extended to the old valse. The tempo of the music slowed down to its original speed and the “Boston” disappeared. Valses were played more slowly and the latitude of steps was the same as in the other dances. The old one-two-three step has very largely gone, and the difference between a valse and a fox-trot is mostly one of rhythm. The modern valse was called the “Hesitation” as opposed to the earlier “Boston.”

The “Tango” was the result of an attempt on the part of dancing teachers to introduce a new dance into the ballroom about the year 1913. It came originally from America and is said to be founded on a dance used in the cafés of South America, which would account for its somewhat “Spanish” style; the rhythm of the music is akin to that of the “Habañera.” The most remarkable feature of all the dances described above as opposed to the dances of earlier generations is that the personality of the dancers is clearly reflected by the steps they use.

The music of the modern ballroom is almost entirely supplied by the United States. The music used in the American dances is no longer a string band and piano, but consists of various combinations, the most common of which perhaps is: — piano, violin, alto or tenor saxophone, banjo and jazz-drum. This last-named needs some explanation. The word “jazz” signifies noise in America and is in no way a dance. The drummer uses a side drum, a big drum and cymbals played with the feet, and various other instruments on which he beats a tattoo with his drum-sticks in alternation with the side drum. He is in fact a sort of one-man band in himself and adds considerably to the rhythm of the ensemble. There is as much variety in the method of playing dance music to-day as in the dances themselves. Dance bands therefore vary considerably in skill, as might be expected, and the best known command very high salaries. The skill of a modern dance band lies in two essentials: first, good rhythm; and secondly, cleverness in extemporising variations on the tune by the different executors.

The effect of the American dances has not yet permeated the social scale, and the masses among whom dancing has always been a popular pastime, and they continue to prefer the dances of the 19th century. (G. T.*)