The temple dancers of Greece wave graceful arms as they step lightly round the altar. In Scandinavia warriors dance together, working themselves into a frenzy, to become unstoppable in battle. In large parts of Europe, spring is met with a maypole. People bedecked in greenery dance around it to welcome spring and new life.

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Two thousand years ago dance was a part of life in Europe, particularly in the pagan religions, where dance accompanied religious ceremony, fertility rites, battle preparations and more. Dance was less central to the Romans, but they nonetheless danced in procession at agricultural festivals, performed weapon dances for the god Mars, and danced with abandon at big festivals like Saturnalia. Pantomime performances of stories were also a popular pastime for Romans.

 Judaism valued dance, but according to strict rules. Dancing was a requirement at weddings, for example, but men and women were separated to discourage lustful thoughts. There were dances for festivals and for harvest, among others. These were to be observed as part of the Covenant with God and those who did not dance would be breaking the Covenant.

Christianity was something new. It would have to find its own rules for dancing.

Early Christians believed the second coming of Christ would be soon. Their main concern was to live a pure life, to make themselves worthy of God. As such there was a lot of debate on what behaviours were appropriate for Christians. Debates which have reverberated throughout the centuries. They denied themselves bodily pleasures. The moral deprivations they saw in Roman society would soon be cleansed by God.

Jesus’ opinion of dance is not recorded so church leaders were left to decide what was and was not appropriate. Early Christians found it hard to accommodate dance in their worship as it seemed at odds with the message of cleansing and purity. In dance the human body jumps, moves, and writhes. They felt the body was not to be glorified in itself; rather, it was a vessel for the soul and should therefore be kept pure. A corrupted body taints the soul and leaves it undeserving of God. Dance was one such way the soul could be tainted.

Whatever early Christian leaders may have wished, converts often came from pagan religions where dance was central to worship. In other ways pagan converts were accommodated, such as rebranding festivals as Christian ones. And in dance too they had to be accommodated. So slow processional dances, often in circles, appropriate for the ‘pure’ Christians, developed. For example, bishop Basileos the Great (344-407) referred to a circle dance when he wrote “Could there be anything more blessed than to imitate on earth the ring dance of the angels?”. Labyrinth patterns were laid out on many church floors, on which the processional dances were performed. Women dancing, however, were seen to pose a temptation to men, and were encouraged not to dance. The same bishop told women “you should more properly bend the knees in prayer.”

Solemn in intent these dances may have been, they had a tendency of getting out of control. St Augustine disapproved of dance for this reason, seeing dancers forget they were on consecrated ground, and dance inappropriately. Leaders could control what art and music were allowed into the church, but the dancing body was unpredictable. The church councils wanted to ensure that nothing could distract the congregation from worship. Wild dancing, they considered, could tempt and corrupt others, and soon dancing became associated with the devil instead of the aforementioned angels. Bans on dancing were issued again and again over the centuries, and again and again, were ignored.

 Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor in the early 9th Century, banned all forms of dance. But his people were too used to dancing. Their use of dance in religious rites on feast days were versions of the former pagan rites. The dancing continued but it became less and less associated with religious purposes. So dance became secularised.

 All Hallows Eve is famously a pagan festival appropriated by Christianity. The dressing up and partying with abandon involved continues to this day. Carnival is one festival largely forgotten now, that was huge in the Middle Ages. A great many carnival street events still exist in Europe, mostly in Catholic areas, but the religious connection and wild abandon involved have been largely lost. Carnival was a last chance to eat and drink what you liked, party and make merry before the long austere period of Lent. There were many regional variations, as pre-existing folk and pagan festivals were assimilated, but most generally involved a parade, street party, masquerade and street events such as throwing oranges (Irea, Italy) or horse racing (Rome, Italy). Carnival was banned repeatedly over the years, but to no avail.

Ecstatic mass dances called danse macabre (dance of death) and St Vitus’ Dance emerged in the 11th century and spread throughout Europe. People danced together in churchyards, despite the practice being forbidden. People danced wildly with frantic, jerky movements, foamed at the mouth and appeared to be possessed. It is thought these days that the dances developed to express the epileptic-like seizures of the Black Death and to “sweat out” the infection of of spider-borne tarantism. The Black Death ravaged Europe, killing millions of people. Groups of flagellants appeared, men and women who whipped themselves while walking in processions and circle dances. They did this as an appeal to God to end the plague.

Christianity developed so that one only worshiped in a church and only directed by a priest. This led the way to the separation of the secular and the spiritual, which meant that what was forbidden in church was not necessarily forbidden in daily life. People danced at gatherings and festivals, even if the church councils would rather they didn’t. Over the centuries the separation of secular and spiritual led to the development of secular dance tradition in Europe such as performance dance, folk and social dancing, which would itself lead to the development of ballroom dance. Dancing nevertheless went on in church, despite the many and repeated bans, up until the Reformation.

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Born in 1906 to an impoverished family in St Louis, and dropping out of school at 12 to dance on street corners for money, when Josephine Baker died in 1975 she received full military honours at her funeral in Paris. Her journey was eventful, filled with scandals and successes.

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From dancing on street corners she worked her way into vaudeville, via the clothing department, and performed as the “last girl” in the chorus line, a comedy role which involved dancing poorly until the encore when she outshone the other chorus dancers. She caught the eye of New York socialite Nancy Cunard, who invited her to Paris. To capitalise on France’s current rage for ‘negrophilie’ Cunard was putting together  a show of ‘real’ negro music and dance. Baker accepted. She arrived in Paris in 1925 and premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (a theatre which in 1913 has seen the scandalous debut of the Ballets Russes) later that year as the star of the show.

Although chorus girls of the era were often scantily clad, stars never were, so Baker’s semi-nude appearance unsettled the Paris audiences at first. Amongst other acts she danced a pas de deux “Danse Sauvage”, wearing nothing but a flamingo feather. Her unique dancing and her vibrant personality soon won audiences over and she became a success. Her choreography was different from the European tradition. Baker’s improvised style was grounded where European dance reached upwards. Body parts moved independently where European dance sought a unified line. Baker sought to express the rhythm of the music rather than harmony of movement. Critics didn’t know what to make of her. One admiringly called her “the exact opposite of the Ballets Russes”, which says as much about the vagaries of fashion as about Baker. Some compared her freedom of movement to Isadora Duncan, who was horrified at the comparison. Duncan, whose dancing emphasised the solar plexus rather than the hips, as Baker did, insisted that any dance representative of America could not contain the “sensual convulsion of the South African negro”.  Many critics wrote of the dancing in terms of its exoticness. Andre Levinson wrote “the undeniable rhythmic superiority of these negro dancers is nothing less than an adjunct of their irrepressible animality.”

Racist though these views were, Josephine Baker knew to play up to the stereotypes in order to find acceptance and success. From her near-naked stage appearances, clad in a feather or string of bananas, to her pet leopard, she fed the public’s appetite for the exotic, the ‘savage’. Arnold Haskell, dance critic, noted that she ‘always seemed to be playing up to what the public wants the negro to be’. Playing up to those assumptions made her one of the best paid performers in Europe. Over the years her dance style progressed from leaps and stunts to more sophisticated works, as well as singing on stage. This was interpreted by some as “an example of the perfecting of the black race by its intellectual contact with European civilisation.” Cunard, for her part, lamented the loss of the “authentic Baker”.

Baker had leapt at the chance to move to France, away from the USA and its oppressive Jim Crow laws. Despite stereotypes and prejudices she was at least in France an equal citizen, free to sit, eat and socialise with anyone. But while she found fame and acceptance in France, her adoptive country from 1937, the USA was more reluctant. In 1936 she returned to America to star in the famous Ziegfield Follies, but despite being one of the most successful stars in Europe, US audiences refused to accept a strong black female star. Critics were vicious in their disdain for her. Baker returned to France.

Paris society also loved to see their “little savage” off stage, at fashionable cafes and parties. During World War 2 she was banned from performing publicly, but she remained a fixture of Paris high society. She also worked for the Red Cross, the French resistance, performed for troops abroad, performed in other countries, and volunteered as a spy. Her position enabled her to overhear information at parties and other events and pass it on to the Resistance or other European countries. She would write messages in invisible ink on her sheet music. Her efforts earned her the Medal of the Resistance with Rosette, and she was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.

Baker did not return to the USA until the 1950’s, by which time she found things had not changed much. Theatre audiences, for one, were still segregated. The Stork Club, the most fashionable spot in New York City, reluctantly admitted her in 1951 but once inside she was refused service. Walter Winchell, the gossip commentator, was apparently also in the room at the time but refused to help Baker. Winchell denied this and the argument escalated into a media battle, in which Baker spoke against segregation and Winchell accused Baker of being a communist, “an enemy of her own race and a fraud”. This escalated into a libel against Winchell, and the communist accusation resulted in the FBI keeping a file on Baker for 17 years.

From then on Baker refused to perform anywhere whites and blacks were not permitted to sit together. She spoke publicly and regularly against injustice in the USA. She spoke in the 1963 March on Washington, in which more than 200,000 people demonstrated for civil and economic rights. She was the only female speaker that day. There were few successful black women in that era so she was, she hoped, an inspiring figure. She wanted to pass on to the younger generation spread out before her, the “fire burning within me”. She said of the assembled crowd “you look like salt and pepper. As you should be.” When in 1973 she performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall, it was to an integrated audience. They gave her a standing ovation before the performance had even begun. Seeing before her at last a “salt and pepper” audience, she cried on stage.

Dance was Josephine Baker’s route out of poverty, her body her instrument. Though poorly educated she was smart. Combined with her talents, the image she cultivated brought her success and wealth. She did more than merely escape poverty and racism; she became the toast of Paris, an international superstar, a mother to 12 adopted children, a civil rights advocate, and, eventually, returned to the USA as an equal.

His audiences were not there to watch a story, or to see forms and ideas taken from life. That was anathema to a man who created over 400 largely plotless ballets, many now lost. Instead they were expected to “see the music, hear the dance”. He did not translate words into dances; for him ballet was its own language – seen, heard and felt on its own terms.

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Balanchine was an innovator, a revolutionary. He respected the laws and traditions of ballet even while he broke them. He took Imperial Russia with him when he left for the West; from the rituals of his religion the Russian Orthodox Church, to the Russian writers he read and re-read, his background informed the formal elegance he brought into his ballets. Only he could have created a style of dance that was recognisably classical while thoroughly modern.

Balanchine was born in Imperial Russia, ensconced in all its grand traditions, majesty and aristocratic elegance. At 13 this seemingly eternal world collapsed, replaced by a Soviet one he grew to despise. He trained at the Maryinsky, and was part of a group of dancers permitted to perform abroad with the Ballets Russes. He defected and made a name for himself as a choreographer of the Ballets Russes. The American arts patron Lincoln Kirstein, impressed with his choreographic style, asked Balanchine to help him found an American ballet company. When cajoled into returning to the USSR for a tour in the 60’s he became so ill he had to leave. The reality of the USSR did not live up to the Russia that lived in his imagination. The Imperial world of his youth, that so closely informed his choreography, was gone. His religion, his family, and the culture he valued, destroyed. The Soviets, for their part, were more interested in confirming the superiority of Russian-style training than in his innovations.

When the American School of Ballet opened in 1934 the only way for Balanchine to go was, of course, the Russian way. His co-workers were Russian, the language was Russian and the school, later the company also, was run like a miniature Imperial court –  Balanchine, as Tzar, had absolute authority. Devotion and an almost military like discipline was expected of his dancers, all of whom were trained to respect ballet as a set of ethical principles: hard work, precision, humility. He created his own breed of dancers, moulded according to his own ideals and trained in the technique he envisioned, something he could never have done had he stayed in Russia. For example, a pre-Balanchine arabesque had the hips squarely in front with the leg raised behind. Balanchine opened the hips and extended the line, so that it looked not only more beautiful but also dynamic, more a movement than a pose. He demanded precision and clarity; a pointed foot could not be a centimetre out, and endless hours could be spent repeating tondus until every one was precise, all unnecessary movement cut.

Ballet, he said, was tied to fashion, the look of an age, and as such he did not like to revive or remake old ballets. He would always reference the past where necessary, evoke old styles – such as the French in Symphony in C – and he would use old music, from Bach to Tschaikovsky, but he would never dwell on the past.

He equally rejected narrative ballet. “Must everything be defined by words?” He once complained. So while some dances had a plot, none had a story. Symphony in C captured the essence of the French style without relying on sets or costumes to spell it out. Dancers could hide behind a story, and particularly behind sets and costumes, he felt. His dancers were expected to be fully present and thinking, never acting, therefore such things were part of the superfluous, and cut.

Agon (1957) was perhaps his most completely abstract ballet. He called it his “ballet machine”. The stage setting was simply a blue backdrop, the costumes (in what is now considered quintessential Balanchine style) just practice clothes. The movement is at times unlyrical, the dancers catching then departing from the beat. There is constant movement onstage, the choreography is unusual, rhythms shift abruptly, 4 male dancers start and end the ballet – as opposed to the traditional female corps – and the dancers themselves are utterly exposed. There is not even the slightest shred of story or meaning for the dancers or indeed the audience to hide behind. There is only the here-and-now immediacy of the dance.

Nevertheless, Balanchine did not unleash his vision all at once on the USA. Serenade (1935), his earliest work in the USA, is a lush romantic ballet. He also made sure to produce American ballets, such as Western Symphony (1954) which both celebrated and poked fun at the Old West.

The Russian who never lost an ounce of his Russian-ness seems on the surface an unlikely fit for the task of creating a new American ballet tradition. But in Balanchine they found someone who understood ballet inside out, and so knew where to bend and break the rules and where to reinforce them. He had seen others, such as Lopukhov,  try and fail to reinvent ballet. He had witnessed the emergence of modern dance in the West. His strict disciplined technique rooted the new American ballet unquestionably in the traditions of ballet, and his modern style, given free rein in the more liberal USA, combined to found something entirely new: modern ballet. To critics looking for message or meaning in his work Balanchine said “to make the beautiful more beautiful.”  He was unequivocal in this. He firmly but gently detached ballet from story and shifted appreciation from subjective to objective. He remade ballet, gave it its own language, detached from narrative – something to be understood on its own terms.

His New York City Ballet continues to grow from the strong foundations he set, and is rated one of the top in the world. His style, spread by former pupils, has influenced companies across America. His legacy outlives him – his ballets are performed by companies all over the world, including the Maryinsky, where in a sense he has returned home at last.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2013/apr/19/women-choreographers-experiment-laban-dance

The Guardian discusses the gap that has emerged between women and men choreographers.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2013/apr/03/rite-of-spring-sadlers-wells

An interesting look at the pull Stravinsky’s work has on so many choreographers.