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TDR: The Drama Review 44.3 (2000) 171-179

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Book Review

In principio era il corpo:
l'Arte del Movimento a Mosca negli anni 20.


In principio era il corpo: l'Arte del Movimento a Mosca negli anni 20. Edited by Nicoletta Misler. Milan: Electa, 1999; 198 pp.; illustrations. L. 70,000.


Since the 1980s, the early history of modern dance has undergone a slow but extensive revision. Through the influence of feminism, gender studies, and cultural theory, the American contribution to this history seems much more complex, ambitious, and yet troubled than was acknowledged by the heroic models and veiled boosterism suffusing historical accounts of earlier decades. At the same time, however, the American contribution appears less and less dominant as more and more evidence surfaces to clarify the European contribution to early modern dance culture. The sheer complexity and diversity of European artistic activity in the years before World War II has made it difficult for any scholar to construct a large-scale view of the European dance culture; to achieve this objective, it is necessary to sift through a vast number of documents in many languages, retrieve innumerable images from different cultural contexts, and excavate these documents and artifacts from an exasperating range of archives, private collections, and libraries. Indeed, the scale of early modern dance culture in Europe now appears so huge that it will still be awhile before anything resembling a comprehensive view appears.

In the meantime, much of the view supplied by historians comes from monographs and biographies of dance personalities, and from articles assembled in anthologies that tend to lack an ambitious theoretical architecture. But this approach has worked, unwittingly, in the United States as in Europe, to describe the value of early modern dance in relation to its power to define or redefine nationalist feeling, so that a book about Martha Graham becomes a statement about how dance is an adventure in discovering an "American" identity, and a book about early modern dancers in Poland becomes a statement about "Polish modern dance." Modernism, however, was only occasionally and mostly incidentally concerned with problems of national identity; its great appeal to millions throughout Europe lay in its potential as an aesthetic which transcended national boundaries derived from histories and folk traditions created by premodern sensibilities. In the realm of dance and physical culture, modernism became aligned with the idea that a body itself could become modern by the way it looked and moved. Of course, to see now the body then as a sign of transnational modernity requires evidence from numerous localities, and this work is far from complete. Only recently has the Italian contribution to modern dance received any serious attention (Carandini and Vaccarino 1997), and the lively and sometimes heroic achievements of modern dancers in Finland, Estonia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia, and Belgium deserve long overdue excavation. Even France appears to have experimented with modern dance to a far greater and more vigorous extent than has been assumed (see Robinson 1990). In the meantime, however, Germany still looms as the mighty vortex of European modern dance culture up to 1940 [End Page 171] (see Toepfer 1997), and the recovery of dance cultures from other national contexts so far has done little to diminish the authority of German dance ideas during this period; if anything, the new localized histories reveal the enormous continental spread of German body culture as a transnational or transcendent configuration of modernity.

The Russian contribution to early modern dance has been perhaps the least appreciated of any national endeavor considering the scale of modern dance activity in that country. Knowledge of Russian modernist art, theatre, film, and literature has proliferated immensely since the 1970s, but knowledge of Russian modern dance has remained severely eclipsed by the dazzling radiance attributed to the ballet culture. Even Elizabeth Souritz (aka Surits and Suric elsewhere), in her excellent Soviet Choreographers of the 1920s ([1979] 1990), concentrated entirely on efforts to suffuse ballet culture with modernist ideas, a process that often meant finding new...


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