Now through January 16, 2017, Crystal Bridges is hosting the Art of American Dance, a traveling exhibition that explores the interaction between dance and visual art. In today’s post, Jon Sexton, Reference Assistant for the Crystal Bridges Library and Archives, introduces us to some works in the Museum’s rare book collection that offer different takes on dance in American culture through the years. These books are currently on display in the Crystal Bridges Library. –LD
Throughout history dance has been an important part of human culture. Dance, by its very nature, reflects a particular ethnic background, gender roles, and class. It is easy to see why the art of human movement would attract the attention of visual artists.
A Clash of Cultures: European Interpretation of Native American Dance
For many Indigenous peoples, dance is a sacred act, infused with powers that can affect the world. In Native American societies, dance has been used to honor ancestors, affect the weather, and recount mythical tales. European-Americans saw dance in a different way, highly influenced by their Christian beliefs. By people from this cultural background, the dances were believed to be powerful symbolically, but to come from evil spirits, “magic,” or demons.
From The Moquis of Arizona by John G. Bourke in 1884,
“The Cochino Dance never was openly revived so long as the Spaniards could prevent it; yet it is possible that the Dance of the Tablet may have afforded a satisfactory substitute. And, further, may not these exercises have been a compromise between the prejudices of those who tenaciously clung to the old heathen rites and the inclinations of others whom fear, venality, superior intelligence, or hidden sympathy attracted to the doctrines of the conquerers?”
Dance, Nature, and Romance in the Nineteenth Century
Dance is also imbued with emotional charge. During the early to mid-nineteenth century, Romanticism took America by storm. Artists increasingly wanted to represent nature in personified form, which was often conveyed in dance. Moreover, dance expressed natural desire, the idea that dance and art were pleasurable experiences. We can see both of these themes expressed in a poem from Union’s Magazine 1849 – 1850, “The Dancing Lesson,”
A nod and a smile, and away she flew
To the woods she loved and the waters blue;
But the mother sighed, with a thought between
A hope and a fear, for that cheek’s soft sheen
Told her heart that too soon the world would
The joy, now her sweetest of joys to name.
Expressions of the Self: Dance and Art in the Twentieth Century
Modernism challenged class and cultural attitudes toward dance in the early twentieth century. Modern art sought to portray dance as an art form of endless possibilities. Rather than represent a dominating culture, it represented what the artist as an individual brought to it. Troy Kinney was a prominent etcher from the 1920s. He knew and worked with famous dancers of his time such as Ruth St. Denis and Anna Pavlova. Besides being a prolific etcher, he was also an author who wrote classics in the field such as Social Dancing of Today, and The Dance: Its Place in Art and Life. The copy of his book The Etchings of Troy Kinney, held in the Crystal Bridges Library collection, was signed by the author. In this book, Kinney discusses why he considers dance on the same aesthetic level as visual art and how etching captures the essential movement of the dancer. Following his introduction are 25 etchings and dry-points by Kinney. A quote from the book:
“Self-evidently, organized movement cannot be suggested by depiction merely out of the posture of the moment; without a sense of continued movement, there is no feeling of dance. What then? Why, the artist must introduce into his unchanging image the element of time. As time’s equivalent he has in memory the appropriate movement-patterns. From them he must select a thematic form suited to his purpose, and weave it into his representation in such a manner that it tells the direction and form of movement preceding. Precisely in that problem, the fascination of this subject reaches its climax. It suggests endless possibilities.”
Burlesque and the American Joi de Vivre
It was also during this time that gender roles changed as theater, literary themes, art, and dance coalesced in various professional performances in the early to mid-twentieth century, with burlesque being a prime example. The women who engaged in these dances were praised by artists for their natural form and counter-cultural ideas of gender norms. In these performances, women could not only show their dancing skills, but also display their artistic talents by acting in comedy sketches and drama. Bernard Sobel explains the importance of burlesque dance in his piece, “Burlesque in Pigments,” in The Theatre in Art:
“Where is the canvass and the etching that embodies this nefarious search for the joy of living—this passage to paradise by way of the runway? All these matters are assuredly authentic Americana, to be snatched up eagerly before it is too late.”
Make sure to come see the books mentioned in this blog post, on display in the Crystal Bridges Library!
If you wish to know more about dance and its relation to visual art, there is a book in the Crystal Bridges Library that offers a comprehensive overview of the topic: Dance and American Art: A Long Embrace. Other good books in the Museum Library about dance and art include Dance Rehearsal: Karen Kilimnik’s World of Ballet and Theatre, Trisha Brown—Dance and Art in Dialogue, 1961 – 2001, and Art in Motion: Native American Explorations of Time, Place, and Thought.
You can also buy the beautiful full-color catalog for the exhibition, titled Dance and American Art: 1830 – 1960, in the Museum Store.