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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.

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.

Ballet should not by rights have survived revolution and Communism. It was a foreign-import court entertainment, patronised by Czars and attended by the wealthy elite. But art had a valid place in the soviet version of Communism after the revolution of 1917 – so long as it was a classless one that sought to sing the praises of Communism. Lenin – and his successor Stalin – understood the necessity of the theatre as entertainment after a hard days work, but also appreciated its propaganda capabilities. The early days of Soviet Russia were marked by exuberance and enthusiasm; free from the class restrictions of the past, artists wanted to create a new modern brand of art. The era was one of experimentation in art all over the Western world . One pioneer Russian ballet had was Fyodor Lopukhov.

His 1935 ballet The Bright Stream has recently been revived, after remaining unperformed and forgotten since 1936. I watched it last year as part of the Bolshoi’s international satellite broadcasts. The original choreography was never notated but I think choreographer Alexei Ratmansky did a great job in reimagining it. Ratmansky first discovered Shostakovich’s score, then dug deeper to learn about the choreographer. He realised that it was a remarkable ballet, striking the balance between easy to understand and high quality, with choreography encompassing a range of styles. He saw a true soviet ballet, something unique in the world. He felt it was worthy of revival and, on becoming director of the Bolshoi, made it happen. I grew curious, however, on reading the programme notes – why revive a ballet no-one has heard of and that on the surface it seems no-one liked in the first place? To understand why you need to look at the whole picture of Russia in the time.  

After being appointed Artistic director of  the Kirov ballet in 1922, Lopukhov progressed quickly from updating Petipa ballets to creating his own. he had big ideas. Dance Symphony: The Majesty of the Universe (1923) was to display his pioneering vision for the future of ballet. It had no plot, no corps de ballet, no ballerinas. It was abstract. Musically driven movement attempted to harness cosmic forces, as if dance could express or reveal truths about human experience. It was a bold experiment that failed. It was not well received and he did not attempt something so grandiose again. Though he still aimed to bring out the internal meaning of movements in his future work, he stuck to more traditional ballet formats. (However, Balanchine, a dancer in the plotless work, took careful note of these new ideas and used them in his later career in the USA.)

The enthusiasm and artistic experimentation that accompanied the early days of Communism gradually gave way to crushing repression. The Communist regime required total control for success, and it sought to control art as it did every other aspect of life. Socialist realism – that it reflect Marxist theory – was now demanded of art. Anyone who offended the regime, however inadvertently, could be severely punished.

Lopukhov created much more conventional ballets after his failed experiment, such as The Ice Maiden (1927), a successful reworking of the fairy tale, and The Bolt (1931), set in a factory with a pro-Communist plot, but so reviled it lasted only one performance. However, he still used new elements in his choreography. Consistently drawn to the new, he widened the scope of ballet choreography by experimenting with and including jazz movement, acrobatics, and folk dance. By using these he wanted to make classical dance more dynamic and relevant.

By 1935, his vision for The Bright Stream is a restrained one. It follows a traditional 3-act plot structure, and has ballerinas, soloists and a corps. Though it invokes his love of folk dance and acrobatics too. And, looking at it as a modern observer, it seems perfectly acceptable Communist fare. The simple, comic plot revolves around friends on a collective farm dancing together and playing light-hearted tricks on each other. Everything is very jolly and all have a happy ending. So far, so Communist utopia. It was in fact a hit among the masses. But it was greatly condemned when it was seen in Moscow by those in the Kremlin. One of its problems was that Socialist Realism, while a requirement, had not yet been formalised. There were no guidelines for artists to follow so no way of knowing until performance if a work was suitable or not. The Bright Stream was criticised for not being realistic, for glossing over the realities of farm life and thus insulting farmers, portraying them as “sugary paysans from a pre-revolutionary chocolate box” (Pravda). The reality of collective farming of the time would quite frankly have made for depressing story, which I can’t help feeling would not have been approved of either. The choreography ranges from classical variations, to silly vaudevillle style comedy. It certainly no longer resembled the old Imperial style. Neither did it please the new regime. The composer, Shostakovich, never composed for ballet again, and most of his music was banned. The librettist was sent to a gulag. Lopukhov was effectively fired. He taught at the ballet school for the remainder of his career.

That dance could be capable of expressing eternal themes, of working independently of other art forms – for example, without relying on music for cues of meaning or plot – was revolutionary. That one could create ballet that could truly affect the viewer beyond merely telling a story or looking pretty, was ground-breaking. Lopukhov raised dance to the level of the other arts, free from subjective interpretation. Doing so destroyed his career. But Balanchine, when he moved to the less restricted West would take these ideas and bring them to a more receptive audience. And with Ratmansky’s new staging of The Bright Stream Lopukhov’s legacy has come full circle, and returned to the stage it was once banished from.