A new experimental form of dance emerged in the 1920s. The exhibition Space Embodied. The Russian Art of Movement 1920-1930, based on extensive research by the Italian art historian Nicoletta Misler, explores how this so-called ‘free dance’ developed in revolutionary Russia. Photographer Johannes Schwartz and the designers of Experimental Jetset have translated Misler’s research into a unique exhibition. An interview on how the exhibition came about.
The practitioners of this free dance or danse plastique strove for pure, natural movements. They sought to allow the body to speak for itself, freed from social and sexual conventions. The dancers abandoned the strict rules of classical Russian ballet and staged radical performances with ecstatic elements. An important source of inspiration for this Russian dance form was the American dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927). Attracted by the wave of artistic experimentation in the wake of the Russian Revolution, in 1921 she established a dance school in Moscow. Duncan was inspired by the ancient Greeks and viewed her dance as a rediscovery of the classical principles of beauty, movement and form. The Russian dancers also took inspiration from Oriental dance and the circus as well as interaction with other artistic disciplines such as photography, film and architecture. The entire Russian avant-garde was focussed on the creation of a ‘new man’ to reflect the new social order. Artists from different disciplines such as music, the visual arts, photography, film and architecture collaborated with each other to further this goal.
In her book Vnachale bylo telo (In the Beginning was the Body) about the development of free dance, Misler discusses in depth the Choreological Laboratory, founded in Moscow in 1923 by the artist Oton Engels and the art historians and critics Aleksandr Larionov and Aleksei Sidorov. This interdisciplinary research centre was part of the Russian Academy for Artistic Sciences, founded in 1921 by Wassily Kandinsky, which focussed on the relationship between dance, the visual arts, theatre, music, philosophy and other disciplines. As Misler explains, ‘Dance was important for Kandinsky’s concept of “synthetic art” because it combined space, music and movement.’ In the Choreological Laboratory, the artists, art historians and critics enlisted several photographers to document the kinetic experiments. ‘One of the important subjects within the laboratory was how movement could be captured and which medium was best suited to this purpose. They experimented with notation systems, photography and film.’ As a result, the Laboratory ensured that much information about these ephemeral experiments has survived.
‘The fascinating thing about the Choreological Laboratory is that the phenomenon of dance was explored from different perspectives: philosophy, photography and the visual arts’, says Johannes Schwartz.‘That makes it so infectious and irresistible; the new developments had real momentum. It was an amazing time for photography. The medium liberated itself from the dominance of painting and discovered its own pictorial qualities. It was spectacular, for example, that you could freeze the movement through photography. New notation systems were also developed to record the fleeting forms of the dance. The old systems were no longer suitable for the new movements and without notation they would soon be forgotten.'
The fascinating thing about the Choreological Laboratory is that the phenomenon of dance was explored from different perspectives: philosophy, photography and the visual arts’ (Schwartz).
During her research, Misler uncovered numerous photographs, drawings, prints and documents and several film clips. Because much of the material is fragile and many of the photographs are small in format, Experimental Jetset and Johannes Schwartz chose to exhibit reproductions of the original material.
‘For me, this choice raised questions about the relationship between originals and reproductions’, says Schwartz. ‘I wondered how it would look if we asked dancers to perform these historical dance poses.’ The result is a film in which a group of contemporary dancers respond to the historical images. ‘In the first part, the dancers mimic the poses. In the second part, they take the poses as the starting point for an improvisation that makes visible the passage of time and the unity of movements that is dance. I’m very pleased with the film. It makes it possible to experience something of the impact that the dance must originally have had. That was an important consideration in the development of the exhibition: how can we make the complete freedom of that radical moment tangible again?'
That was an important consideration in the development of the exhibition: how can we make the complete freedom of that radical moment tangible again?' (Schwartz).
The film is screened in the central part of the exhibition Space Embodied alongside original photos and film clips, projected as enlargements on three-dimensional objects. These objects are inspired by the geometric forms that were used by the practitioners of free dance. ‘Dance is about space and direction’, Misler explains. ‘In classical ballet, the way the dancer moves through space is fixed. In free dance, there was room for improvisation. The dancers experimented with three-dimensional objects, some of them from the circus. These forms were functional. They were intended for doing exercises and to enable specific movements and poses in space. The dancers all had a classical training and were therefore extremely skilled,’ she emphasises. ‘The liberation of the body had another connotation to the one we might ascribe to it. It was about mystical, Dionysian liberation.’
In the rest of the exhibition, the story of the development of free dance is told through archival materials. Free dance enjoyed a brief heyday in Russia during which it went through several rapid phases of development before it was banned and forced underground. Despite the ban, elements of free dance are clearly recognisable in the mass parades of the Stalinist period. The healthy, natural body fitted perfectly with the idea of the new man propagated by Stalinism, which celebrated the disciplining rather than the liberation of the body.
Interview by Lotte Haagsma