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Sunday, 3 October 2010

Dance to the Music of Time

Dance photographs

“The dancer's body is simply the luminous manifestation of the soul.”
Isadora Duncan

When Edgar Degas wanted to paint dancers he found that taking photographs of them first saved time but also captured details he could study and work on in the studio. The idea wasn’t revolutionary; John Ruskin, who insisted photography could never be art, still thought the camera had a role in recording scenes for future uses but Degas discovered something else. The way the camera framed scenes, sometimes with objects or people intruding at the edges, could be transferred to the canvas. Other painters might hold to the notion that the painting should be a self enclosed world, Degas however was thinking like a photographer but more than that, like a twentieth century photographer, especially in the idea that the edge of the frame should intimate that a wider world existed beyond it. 

Degas died in 1917, time enough to be aware that Isadora Duncan had reinterpreted the art of dance in a way that acknowledged what was incredibly obvious yet resolutely ignored by many patrons of the ballet; dance was a sensual art. The body was erotic. Whatever she thought of photography, if she even thought about it at all, contemporary photographers understood what she was on about. Her professional career more or less coincided with the high point of Pictorialism, when photographers were using soft focus and painterly effect and, just like Duncan, looking to classical paganism and art to evoke eroticism.

The Modernists rejected the trappings of Pictorialism and went back to sharp focus and clear lines. They also dismissed classical allusions but they kept one idea from their forbears alive; the body was a thing to be celebrated, mutated sometimes or cruelly distorted but a temple nevertheless. Contemporary choreographers like Martha Graham were in agreement. Whatever debt she owed to Duncan, she asked her dancers to follow specific directions rather than their own feelings, and she preferred them clothed. Lighting and stage direction could suggest the life force of the body every bit as explicitly as liberated movement. Duncan and the other free dancers were becoming objects of satire. The notion of the students at an exclusive college for ladies receiving instruction in free dance could always raise a knowing laugh.

Some people would have been perplexed by so much theory about the body and movement. For them dance had always been about the pleasure of young women’s bodies, but then the burlesque and cabarets were worlds away from ballet. If high art in dance demanded its equal in photography then down below, in the nightclubs photographers were expected to show skill though not necessarily ingenuity. Brassai skulked between artists and artistes and Lisette Model and Weegee took their cameras into low dives but they were essentially tourists. Most of the photographers working the scene were otherwise unknown professionals; a lot like the girls. We have no idea who photographed the “Couty girls” (‘Cutie’? Country?’) when they performed in Istanbul in 1956 but he or she understood exactly what was required to give a revue the necessary tarnished glamour.


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