- Embodied Texts: Symbolist Playwright–Dancer Collaborations
Where is the power of theatre located? Is it in the text? In the artful transference of ideas from the mind of the playwright, conveyed through the performer, into the mind of the audience? Is the power of performance located in the ritual act of performance itself? In the ephemeral connection between an audience and a performance? In the act of observing? Diverse theatre artists at the turn of the twentieth century grappled with these questions. Mary Fleischer’s Embodied Texts presents five detailed case studies that examine collaborations between writers and dancers who sought to harness the power of nonverbal communication to locate the power of the theatre outside of the spoken word.
The case studies center around five relationships: Gabrielle D’Annunzio and Ida Rubenstein; Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Grete Wiesenthal; W. B. Yeats and Michio Ito; Yeats and Ninette de Valois; and Paul Claudel and Jean Börlin. Each study is structured similarly: Fleischer begins with an introduction to the writer, situating him in the context of the arts during the fin-de-siècle, then she meticulously traces connections between the writer and other artists of the day, building toward the writer–dancer collaboration. This is followed by a similar treatment of the dancer, after which the products of the collaborative labor are considered. Fleischer asserts [End Page 502] that the “complex and unique nature of these pieces . . . can be appreciated only through an exploration of their initial rehearsal and production periods, set within the context of their collaborators’ artistic goals” (xvii).
This strategy generally serves Fleischer well as she draws the reader forward through the myriad connections between Symbolist artists in Europe after the turn of the twentieth century. Symbolism, a movement concerned with breaking down realist conventions through explorations of myth, dreams, and emotions, was a common ground for both writers and dancers seeking to expand the boundaries of their fields. The Symbolist fascination with the dancing body was perhaps best expressed by Wiesenthal: “[t]he last secret [of the dance] perhaps is that the human body, this poor, profane body, which is subject to all the phases of decrepitude in the course of a human life, . . . allows us to sense the coming of a brilliant transformation beyond the earthly” (133).
This perception of a transcendent quality that could best be expressed in dance drove many of these collaborations. In 1910–11, Hofmannsthal and Wiesenthal worked in a form they called “new pantomime,” in which Hofmannsthal sought to “bridge subjective feeling and external form,” while Wiesenthal used dance as “the means to artistically express the interlocking of reality and play, of this side and beyond” (126). Similar sentiments can be found in the work of D’Annunzio and Rubenstein on Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien, Yeats and Ito’s At the Hawk’s Well, and Claudel and Börlin’s The Ballets Suedois.
In her conclusion, Fleischer suggests that “these works disrupt realistic conventions governing the coordination of language and movement, and they often suspend linear time though combining dance and theatrical elements in modern, abstract ways” (306). Unfortunately, Fleischer’s introduction and conclusion comprise a mere twenty-three pages of the text, and the body occasionally reads as a redaction of previous scholarship or a mere chronicle of the activities of the artists. These case studies seem to cry out for further analysis or a theoretical frame. I found myself wondering, for example, how the interaction of the male writers, choreographers, composers, and designers with the female dancers worked within or subverted gender dynamics of the time; other issues similarly go unaddressed.
Salted throughout Embodied Texts are anecdotal insights into the difficulties of the collaborative process. Such difficulties were perhaps an inevitable result of bringing together artists who understood expression so differently, and charting where the productions succeeded and (more often) failed is naturally a major consideration of the work. Fleischer provides numerous instances in which talented artists cannot quite get on the same page. Often, the...