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Elaborations of the Machine:
The Automata Ballets

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a number of ballets entered the classical repertory that featured marionettes and activated dolls. Arlequinada (1900), Die Puppenfee (1903), Petrouchka (1911), and the immediate parent of these productions, Coppélia (1870), all focus on the imitation of living people through the movements of automatized figures. Coppélia, the first of these pieces, opened during a prolonged period of malaise—stretching back to the 1850s—in European ballet, in which dancing veered more toward repetitive athletic feats than expressive movement.1 Four decades later, Petrouchka continued the satirical work of Coppélia. Impressed by the unfettered movements of Isadora Duncan, whom he had seen perform several years before, Michel Fokine, Petrouchka’s choreographer, used marionettes and automata to mock the mechanical virtuosity at the heart of ballet’s aesthetic and to display the oppressive control and regimentation of individual bodies by the maîtres de ballet en chef.

Yet the full explanation of why suddenly there were performances featuring automata remains untold and extends well beyond the world of dance into late nineteenth-century automata manufacture and physiological studies of human automatism. Although the automata used in the ballets recalled older exhibition figures like Wolfgang von Kempelen’s automaton chess player (“the Turk”), they more immediately resembled the small and affordable toys manufactured for individual purchase by Parisian toymakers.2 These objects showcased the ever-expanding capabilities of moving machines, just as a branch of contemporary science was questioning the physiological distinctions between [End Page 65] human and nonhuman neuromotor movements. Technological advances in automata that made them more and more lifelike (or so their manufacturers claimed) dovetailed with experimental researches that effectively lowered the threshold of life to repetitive, habitual, and autonomic motion. Amid a convergence of economic, technological, and scientific developments, then, the automata ballets entered the ongoing debate over human automatism—whether life, specifically human life, was based on neuromotor activity or hinged on conscious cerebral involvement. In showcasing androids, which since the eighteenth century had destabilized boundaries between humans and machines, these ballets defied the polarities of the mechanical and the organic on which they ostensibly relied.3

On this issue, the written records surrounding the first performances of Coppélia and Petrouchka are clear: the libretto of the former and the correspondence among conceivers of the latter presume a fixed and clear distinction between objects and living beings. This distinction does not rest on movement; it rests, instead, on the mechanistic conception of a split between mind and matter that goes back to Descartes and suggests that living things move in a different way from nonliving things. This divide is central to the developing discourse of ballet in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and persists through the twentieth. In the pages ahead, I show how hard it is, nonetheless, to distinguish biological motion (the motion of people and animals) from nonbiological motion. Indeed, the movements of these ballets in performance capture the paradox of the automaton—which is both a “mechanism … that … appears to move spontaneously” and a “living being whose actions are purely involuntary or mechanical.”4 For this reason, we should approach the ballets with “methodological fetishism,” Arjun Appadurai’s phrase for following things as they move in a transforming material world.5 Viewed in this way, both ballets suggest the existence of active forces in seemingly inert matter.

The ballets do more than override the seemingly obvious distinctions between moving objects and subjects; they extend a view of the human body as a “field of forces, energies, and labor power,” in Anson Rabinbach’s words. This view, derived from Enlightenment vitalism, extends to nineteenth-century physiological studies and, in turn, to the construction of machines—machines with the power of epigenesis, the power to change with the repetition of motion.6 Tracking objects in motion that through motion become human, Coppélia and Petrouchka reveal that the body can be an open system: a mechanical assemblage in the Deleuzian sense, with “preindividual bodily capacities or affectivity.”7 In doing so, they challenge the old dichotomy between mechanism and organicism (and the vitalist ideas with which the latter is often conflated), and they confirm that the “real difference” between mechanism and organicism “is not between the living and the machine … but between two states of the machine that are two states of the living as well.”8 Performances of Coppélia and Petrouchka continue to show in particular that the mechanical movements of dolls and the disjointed motion of marionettes admit degrees of affective and physiological elasticity into the biotechnical category of the automatic. They stage becoming human as an elaboration [End Page 66] of automatic movement, emphasizing continuities between the operating machine and the living being in motion.

By the time Coppélia premiered in 1870, these continuities had long been evident in the manufacturing sector. The flute player first exhibited in Paris’s Hôtel de Longueville in 1738 and the defecating duck of 1739, two famous automata designed by Jacques de Vaucanson, had already incorporated physiological motion into their repertoires of movement.9 While Vaucanson’s pipe and drum player of 1739 demonstrated sheer mechanical speed and efficiency—in this case the ability to play faster than any real musician could—the flautist, who breathed while playing his instrument, and the duck, which contained an operating digestive system (a mechanism that expelled pellets that the contraption was fed), simulated human organisms in their physical and physiological movement.10 The technique of classical ballet established during the same era as that of these exhibition objects rested on a converse notion: that through technique the human body could simulate the speed and exactness of a machine and simultaneously convey the spontaneity of a living organism. Both Jean-Georges Noverre and Carlo Blasis, the influential maîtres of the art centered in eighteenth-century Paris and early nineteenth-century Milan, respectively, described the dancer in motion as a complicated piece of machinery with component parts functioning independently of any central control. Training emphasized, according to Noverre, “speed, lightness, precision, the opposition of arms and legs.”11 Movement was contrapuntal: the hips must be turned out; the upper body must be firm and motionless while the legs were moving. The common metonymic reference to ballerinas as “legs” captured this view of dance as the operation of localized functions.12 The dancer was both moving object and living subject.

This paradox no doubt explains why the ideal ballet dancer was compared to a sculpture when at rest and to a machine when in motion and why one of the most frequently staged eighteenth-century ballets was Pygmalion, based on the ancient tale of a sculptor’s creation coming to life.13 The representation in ballet literature of the body as a sculptural object with separately moving parts conjures the statue that Étienne Bonnot de Condillac endowed gradually with the five senses to show that each was a form of consciousness.14 And the treatment of the dancer in motion as an operating mechanism evokes Julien Offray de La Mettrie’s description of the human body as a “self-winding machine,” an organization of pieces each moving according to its own principles.15 In truth, their ideas were somewhat different: Condillac based his model of the statue on the principle of sensibilité, an atomistic theory of life emphasizing the automatic activity of the nerves (recently recaptured in Merleau-Ponty’s idea of a body “sensible for itself”), while La Mettrie based his description on irritabilité, a reactive muscular energy.16 The two ideas gradually became conflated, particularly after Pierre-Jean-Georges Cabanis subsumed the irritable process under his concept of sensibility. Then, as Cabanis himself remarked, the difference between the two principles was largely “une question de mots.”17

Blasis and Noverre were immersed in mechanistic philosophy, then, but they were also concerned with a dancer’s grace and expressiveness, two qualities that required, [End Page 67] in their view, the movement of the body-machine to be centrally controlled. Their privileged words for the element that impelled motion were “mind” and “soul,” terms that could signify intellectual powers, the principle of life, the emotions, or—most significantly—the will. In his The Code of Terpsichore (1828), Blasis explicitly states that the “outward motions of the body are effected by the influence of the inward operations of the mind.”18 Noverre insists in his Letters on Dancing and Ballet (1803) that all physical movement must “correspond to the actions and movements of the dancer’s soul” (104). La Mettrie similarly refers to the soul as a “principle of movement” in the “contraption of springs,” perhaps the “machine’s principal spring” (Man a Machine, 65; Vartanian, La Mettrie, 18). But whereas he suggests that the machine is capable of purposive motion, the maîtres—Noverre in particular—often imply that the soul is an immaterial force existing prior to and apart from the body and its movement. In Noverre’s view, movement is consciously willed. The nature and role of intention in movement emerge in his discussion of the entrechat. From “intrecciare,” meaning “to beat or intertwine,” the word denotes the crossing and recrossing of the feet at the calf or from the calf downward, closing in the fifth position. In executing this temps (a movement made with no change of weight), dancers predetermine the number of steps; so if they jump in order to do four entrechats, they cannot decide to do six or even two after having commenced the jump. If dancers do not have a conscious determination of their bodies in space when the body is in repose and when limbs are extended, he warns in his Letters, their movements will be dislocated. Noverre’s figure for the dancer whose temps were not in the mind’s control was the marionette. (“Let us cease to resemble marionettes, the movements of which are directed by clumsy strings which only amuse and deceive the common herd” [106, 108].)

The marionette remained one of the stock images of derogatory criticism through the era of the romantic ballet. Decades after the premiere of Coppélia, it embodied the ungainly movement of Petrouchka, so it is worth noting Heinrich von Kleist’s decidedly contrarian idea of the figure in his famous essay “On the Marionette Theater,” written in 1810. In it von Kleist rejects the gracefulness of premeditative movement: “C,” a dancer, tells the narrator that each movement has “its center of gravity. … [T]he limbs, which are only pendulums, follow mechanically of their own accord.” Von Kleist’s seemingly perverse idea of atomistic grace is indebted to the principles of sensibility and irritability, from which, in La Mettrie’s theory, “all the vital and conscious operations of the organism are held to be derivable” (Vartanian, La Mettrie, 125).19 Consciousness, in fact, can “disturb the natural grace of man,” according to “C” (von Kleist, “Marionette Theatre,” 242). The bear is a nimble fencer because he lacks consciousness. (Here von Kleist follows the Cartesian view of animals as automata.) Similarly, Noverre’s instructions on executing the entrechat specify that the dancer’s movement should be effortless; it should appear to lack, in other words, the very volition that Noverre thought indispensable to a dancer’s grace. The apparent contradiction is easily resolved: Noverre’s dancer and von Kleist’s marionette epitomize La Mettrie’s man-machine; they possess “organic automaticity.” This is the “ability to move … immediately and autonomously from within” with no beginning or end of the operation. A body that can move in such a [End Page 68] way, Aram Vartanian emphasizes, is “not only a machine, but a genuinely self-sustaining system” (La Mettrie, 19). The principle undergirds Blasis’s analysis of movement in An Elementary Treatise upon the Theory and Practice of the Art of Dancing (1820). Discussing the pirouette, which is basically a tour (turn of the body) on one leg from any position, Blasis states, “The body must be firm upon the legs in preparation for a pirouette and the arms ready to give it the momentum required in turning and to act as a pendulum that keeps the whole body balanced as it revolves upon the toes of one foot.”20 Here the locus of preparation is the torso, which supplies the effort required to pirouette. Achieving momentum occupied both maîtres, then, but while Noverre traced its origin to mental preparation, Blasis—more the machine theorist—located perpetual motion in the body’s coordinated muscular mechanisms. More often than not, consciousness is missing from his descriptions of movement, whereas Noverre’s frequent recourses to the will or soul evoke a Christian brand of vitalism associated with the followers of Georg Ernst Stahl (1659–1734).21

By 1870, recent experiments on reflex action had prompted debates over the origin of consciousness and the level at which life could be defined. Summarizing current thought in the field up to 1868, experimental physiologists and commentators like Gilbert Child and William Benjamin Carpenter identified sensory ganglia as the “seat of consciousness” and reflex action as the “cardinal principle” of the new psychology.22 In this scientific climate, La Mettrie was rediscovered: Jules Assézat issued an edition of L’homme machine in 1868. One year later, Arthur Saint-Léon and Charles Nuitter (bibliothécaire of the Paris Opera) published their libretto for Coppélia, a ballet immersed in the mechanistic and vitalistic complexities of ballet discourse. Based on E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Sand-Man” (1818), Coppélia centers on a young man’s fascination with a beautiful but mute young woman (Coppélia) who turns out to be one of the automata guarded by the village inventor, Dr. Coppelius. Swanhilda, the saucy girlfriend of the enthralled Frantz, eventually divines the mechanical nature of Coppélia and saves him from losing his life force (usually represented as an invisible substance held in the palms of her hands) to the automaton. She does this by disguising herself as Coppélia and distracting Coppelius from his diabolical alchemy through a series of movements that first mimic those of his beloved automaton and then gradually enact her coming to life. Distancing itself from the romantic era, the libretto obscures all the uncanny effects of the original story. Rather than a sinister lawyer and mechanician, Coppelius is a lovable crank. The besotted lover, Frantz, rather than losing his mind like Hoffmann’s Nathanael, eventually becomes a docile husband.

The departure of Coppélia from the mystifications of Hoffmann’s story can be explained by the ballet’s connection to contemporary automata making. Adelheid Voskuhl has argued that eighteenth-century automata were artisan products and luxury commodities rather than objects of mystery (Androids, 1–21). And by the time of the ballet’s premiere they represented an industry: they were made piecemeal, then assembled and finished by artisans in a principal manufactory. Less expensive and smaller (fourteen to twenty-four inches high) than the life-sized androids that had been used for exhibition early in the century, they were produced in large numbers for individual [End Page 69] ownership; many of those in the audience at the premiere of Coppélia may have owned one or two. The domestication of the automaton can be traced through the profiles of two of the main French businesses offering the machines. Théroude initially retailed toys imported from Germany and after declaring bankruptcy in the 1830s (during the slump in the market for Parisian luxury goods) reemerged in the 1840s as a maker of relatively large automata. (Its waltzing couples, first made in 1850, were 17 3/4 inches high.) Jean Roullet, founder of another manufactory, Roullet and Decamps, began business as a cutter for other firms, stamping out the gears for automata by machine. Eventually he specialized in moving bears and other animals that growled, bent over, and played drums.23 The growth of these small industries, many of them located in the Marais, forms the commercial backdrop for the automata in act 2 of Coppélia and explains the libretto’s comedic revisions of Hoffmann’s text.

There are, in fact, many ties between the ballet and the commercial sector, all of which should have reinforced the resemblance of the automata on stage to contemporary toys and thereby diminished any possibility of mistaking an operating machine for a living organism. The subtitle of Coppélia, “la fille aux yeux d’émail,” added in 1870, one year after the main title of the ballet was changed from La poupée de Nuremburg, echoes a feature of Théroude’s early line of “boites d’Allemagne,” as listed in the firm’s catalogue of 1842: the “yeux d’émail” of the variously sized jouets mécaniques—a dog, a cat, a sheep (Bailly, Automata, 40).24 Such figures were favorites before and after the premiere of the ballet. The scene in which Frantz stands before the balcony where Coppélia sits, seemingly reading, resembles a favorite subject of tableaux animés (popular from the 1840s through the 1870s) and of the pièces musiques (musical automata) also available through the manufacturers’ catalogues. One of the staples of Roullet and Decamps’s inventory was an elaborate pièce musique called “Sérénade.” It displayed a young woman in the turret of a tiny cottage saluting her lover below, who raises his head. (As an embellishment, it included a dog “sortant de la niche et aboyant” [300].) The 1889 catalogue of Léopold Lambert, Fabrique de jouets artistiques, offered the “liseuse merveilleuse” (“sujet assis, s’eventant et lisant, tournant la tête”) and one of its most popular, the “bébé liseur” (“tenant un éventail et un livre, tournant la tête et lisant” [346, 348]) (fig. 1). By this time, too, manufactured automata were no longer classified in the world of retail as merely children’s playthings (18–19). By 1864, the Almanach du Commerce listed bimbeloterie (fancy goods) or articles de Paris like musical boxes and tableaux mécaniques separately from toys. The distinction between toys in general and mechanical objects intended for adults is mirrored in the product lists of Vichy, a company founded in 1862 that made and sold timepieces, mechanical toys, and articles de Paris. When the business declared bankruptcy in 1865 after Vichy died, his son abandoned making toys and turned to specializing in automata. In the Universal Exhibition of 1867 in Paris, toys occupied a separate category, and artisan figures had their own classification (114).

The figure of Coppélia has counterparts, then, in the contemporary sector of bimbeloterie: the artisan figures produced in the Marais. The manufacturers’ lines tended to depict regional types, the petits métiers—poets, painters, dancers, writers, soldiers, [End Page 70] snake charmers, Spanish figures with fans, instrument players. Likewise, Dr. Coppelius’s studio contains an old man in a rich Persian costume, a Moorish cymbal player sitting on a cushion, and a “Chinaman” with a tympanum.25 The resemblance of the adult toys in the ballet to manufactured objects of the period enhanced their reputation as engineering conundrums and metaphysical enigmas (to readers of Hoffmann’s tale). As a result, the ballet contrasts two different kinds of relations, the erotic and mystified, on the one hand, and the ludic and possessive, on the other. When in act 2 Swanhilda enters the workshop and quickly determines that the “fascinating young lady is an automaton” that she can activate and when, after her friends press a spring located on the back of the little Moorish figure, the automaton plays the cymbals, the girls interpellate the contemporary consumer (Nuitter, Coppélia, 13). They contrast with and eventually supplant Frantz, who is a relic of Hoffmann’s Nathanael, a Pygmalionlike beholder of the exhibition object.

Fig 1. Roullet and Decamps, Catalogue illustré, ca. 1878.
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Fig 1.

Roullet and Decamps, Catalogue illustré, ca. 1878.

Craig Owens, in his astute reading of twentieth-century productions of the ballet, observes that the clear distinction between automata and human beings only heightens the foolishness of Frantz, who remains a bourgeois “in thrall” to a machine until late in the action.26 The popularity of automata at the time of Coppélia’s premiere would have encouraged this reading of his character. The new automaton was an “animated sculpture,” remarked Gaston Decamps, touting his goods for Roullet and Decamps and evoking the Pygmalion myth as well as the balletic ideal. Significantly, his products, [End Page 71] like those of the Marais, were hardly lifelike. They exhibited a very limited repertory of essential physical movements, which they repeated when activated: writing, jumping, turning the head, breathing, raising and lowering arms, drinking, smoking. Nuitter and Saint-Léon’s libretto similarly separates the movements of the automata into those of the head, legs, and right and left hands. There is pronounced articulation of the movements originating at the elbows and shoulders. Moving with exaggerated precision, the machines in the workshop in act 2 evoke the inventory of animated objects in the manufacturers’ catalogues. Whereas human beings can move autonomously and indefinitely, with variation and flexibility, machines activated by touch can function instantly for a brief period, emulating reflex action.

The distinction between mechanical and organic physical movement would have kept automata and human beings safely separate, then, if it had not been for the very association between the rudimentary motions of the articles de Paris—which makers like Decamps nonetheless touted as versatile and wondrously lifelike—and the reflex actions contemporary physiologists saw as prime indicators of life. The link between the two is theoretical on the page, but movement on stage would have revealed the disconcerting resemblance. Recent studies by Gunnar Johansson have used moving spots of light affixed to objects on the one hand, and human beings on the other, to confirm what Owens in his analysis of Frantz implies, namely, that the way something moves indicates whether or not it is human, a claim that Coppélia exploits.27 Yet all such experiments prove is that we recognize a degree of humanlike movement in a humanlike figure. But what if the lighted figure changes while in motion, which would suggest that it is neither an organism nor an object but a hybrid? Identifying the point at which the motion of an android turns from the mechanical to the organic would then become less easy. Swanhilda, for instance, must transform the machine into an expressive organism before the eyes of viewers onstage and in the audience. In fact, the transformation is even more complicated than this: she must simulate an object (Coppélia) that has (in act 1) simulated a subject and then simulate that object in the process of becoming a subject. So in late nineteenth-century performances the exaggerated articulation of the ballet’s automata on being touched or wound up would have suggested La Mettrie’s idea of irritability and the more recent understanding of reflex action as a fundamental sign of life; the transformation of Coppélia the automaton into Coppélia the living woman would have raised the troubling question of kinetic boundaries between moving thing and moving being, a question foregrounded in Petrouchka.

The task of the dancer playing Swanhilda (the sixteen-year-old Milanese ballerina, Guiseppina Bozzachi, in the first performance) was to display the epigenesis of the machine into a human being and to convey the sense of an abiding connection between the two. The problem of how to capture that moment of transformation had already been explored in pioneering motion studies. Articles on human locomotion had begun to appear in the 1850s and 1860s when Eadweard Muybridge had captured, through a series of cameras, a horse galloping. E. J. Marey, who later designed a single camera for the same operation, argued that in freezing hitherto undetectable motions, chronophotography (a series of photographs of a moving object) could highlight “positions of [End Page 72] visibility” in movement that in turn would become new models of artistic representation. Such positions resembled mechanical movement at “dead points,” the moments when motion switches direction, he explained.28 If we were to watch the automata of Coppélia with this idea in mind, their movements might appear to us as they do when they are captured through devices like the zoetrope or wheel of life. Turning the sculptural standard on its head, Coppélia parses human movement so as to highlight these “positions of visibility.” When Swanhilda and Coppelius dance the “Valse of the Automaton,” they simulate the wheel of life that halts, then accelerates, and then connects individual movements; together they imitate the technology of capturing motion. In baring the constitutive steps of movement, Swanhilda resituates the automated object not as the antithesis of the living, moving body but as an aspect of it.

To be sure, the librettists took great care to chart the transformation of Swanhilda from false automaton into living human being. They indicated that changes in status be registered broadly in behavior and simultaneously in facial expression, these together resembling the “sentimental body techniques” that, as Voskuhl has shown, eighteenth-century automata displayed to replicate signs of life based in emotion (Androids, 9). “At each step her movements become more perfect and she steps lightly forward,” they write of Swanhilda’s performance as Coppélia gradually comes to life. “She soon begins to dance slowly, and thaen [sic] all at once darts off. All at once, her fixed look becomes full of animated expression. She smiles; a color comes to her cheeks and she is full of life! She becomes a living woman!!” (Nuitter, Coppélia, 14). To convey this coming to life, Saint-Léon and Nuitter rely on the face: as the eyes, the portals to the soul, register consciousness, the smiling mouth indicates pleasure. Emotion is spontaneous, but here it is also volitional. Coppélia/Swanhilda tries to drink from the vial that has made Frantz drunk; she reexamines the automata in the workshop; she even seizes a dagger and thrusts it at the mechanical Moor. “She is full of caprices,” Saint-Léon and Nuitter comment of the newly human Coppélia, explaining that “with life is born curiosity” (21). Caprice is a physical demonstration of curiosity, they imply, which in turn is a state both prior and necessary to capricious behavior. However spontaneous her conduct, it results, they believe, from intention, not from a stimulus.

Nuitter and Saint-Léon thus suggest that the machine transforms itself by acquiring the inner faculty of will, an idea on which Noverre had relied as well in explaining the genesis of the entrechat. Because performance of such a transformation had to be broadly and visibly physical on stage, the librettists also emphasize that the automaton’s progressively human animation is coordinated with “each step.” It is the connection between these steps that signals life on stage. First imitating a machine that simulates articulated human movements, then vivifying that machine by developing and connecting gestures, pas (a movement involving a transfer of weight) and temps—the whole classical grammar—Swanhilda offers a clinic on enchaînement, the linking of steps that form the syntax of the dancer’s movement. The contrast between the dancer’s elasticity and the repetitive articulations of the automata—those engineered in the Marais and in Coppelius’s workshop—should create a discernible distance between living being and machine. Yet Swanhilda, executing mechanical and living movements, forges a [End Page 73] connection between the two that motion studies and physiology had already revealed. Beginning with fundamental, disjointed movements and progressing to fluid combinations that dissolve their separate grotesqueness, Swanhilda’s performance reveals the neuromotor homologies of living woman and machine.29

Yet because ballet is an art of movement, the precise point at which matter changes during the long animation scene in act 2—at which the reflexive actions of a machine become autonomous and in turn pass into the regulated motions of a living figure—never emerges, never even comes to be. Passing from nonbiological to biological motion, Swanhilda renders the boundary between life and objecthood, moving objecthood, permeable. Through her performance, the automaton comes to occupy a categorical position along a continuum of movement between the inanimate object capable of reflexive motion (when activated by touch) and the living subject characterized by spontaneous and unpredictable behavior. No wonder that in some performances of the ballet’s final act, a celebration of “the organic or vitalist worldview,” according to Owens, a doll is dragged onto the stage (“Politics,” 240). These productions, like the libretto, which indicates that all of Coppelius’s automata are “broken,” give the popular version of the Pygmalion narrative a turn of the screw and capture the whole of the myth, which in Ovid’s telling begins with Venus turning the Propoetides first into prostitutes and then gradually into flint (Nuitter, Coppélia, 25).30 This final appearance of Coppélia as an abject object, deprived of all motion, reassures the entire community of her lifelessness. As Bill Brown has observed, things really become things when they stop working. The limp doll gainsays any sign of movement, any suspicion that “somewhere beyond or beneath the phenomena we see and touch there lurks some other life and law of things, the swarm of electrons.”31 And yet the course of the ballet has shown the automata to be as unstable as the figures in Ovid’s tales, animating and deanimating with disconcerting fluidity. So after the movements of the automata within the ballet have teased the mechanical rudiments of human motion out of their fluid contexts, the spectacle of a broken android obscures the instability of forces in matter.

In eliciting the undecidable nature of the automaton, Coppélia anticipated the debate over human automatism that would flare up shortly after its premiere. And in the years between its debut and that of Petrouchka (1870–1911) a new generation of thinkers pressed the physiological case for a definition of life. Midcentury experiments on decapitated frogs reported by George Henry Lewes, among others, had shown the existence of autonomic nervous functions like contractibility and “unperceived sensations” in the absence of consciousness.32 These functions were now explicitly extended to higher life by those in and outside the scientific community. Man, declared John Davidson in the prolegomena to his sensational play, The Theatocrat (1905), originates in the same matter—specifically in combinations of chemical elements—that constitutes nonhuman, unconscious forms of life.33 In a move of particular relevance to this discussion, Thomas Henry Huxley addressed the question of human automatism in the Fortnightly Review by returning to Descartes, who had considered animals automata because they lacked conscious reason.34 Nonetheless, Huxley designated Descartes a “physiologist of the first rank” for unseating the mind as the central control of the body.35 Following [End Page 74] his own contemporaries, such as Lewes and Henry Maudsley, Huxley declared that “speech, gesture, and every other form of human action are, in the long run, resolvable into muscular contraction.”36 This version of the theory of irritability reversed the sequence of consciousness and physiological action in the genesis of emotion. William James agreed that consciousness of muscular exertion is impossible without movement. The feeling of muscular sensation is an afferent sensation, originating in the muscles, ligaments joints, chest, and glottis. Hence, “if we fancy some strong emotion, and then try to abstract from our consciousness of it all the feelings of its bodily symptoms, we find we have nothing left behind, no ‘mind-stuff’ out of which the emotion can be constituted.”37 In such thinking, the basis of the difference between human beings and lower forms of life began further to erode. The concept of the automatic still conjured the repetitive and stiff action of the automaton, particularly to those outside scientific circles, but increasingly it also suggested subtler physical and physiological movements that occurred in various states of absentmindedness.

The encroachment of the automatic on the human was anticipated in the economic sector. As Jessica Riskin has shown, this occurred in the first phase of the Industrial Revolution, with weaving. Once camshafts could produce patterns, artisanal design became “unintelligent work.” Some “human occupations came to seem less human and others more human, according to what machines could and could not do” (“Defecating Duck,” 629). Such insidious trespass continued through the turn of the nineteenth century in the seemingly innocuous world of toy manufacturing, which produced machines that functioned beyond the capabilities of earlier devices. Petrouchka captures these realignments. When its choreographer, Michel Fokine, advanced a set of demotic fundamentals closely patterned after the movements of marionettes and androids, he extended the conception of the automatic in the machine itself. The ballet offers a techno-kinesthetic reading of the puppet’s transformation, one suited to developments not only in physiology but in the design of automata, for it reformulates machines as motors in which movement becomes the culmination of La Mettrie’s “organic automaticity”—the operational principle of life and a self-feeding system.

The germ of Petrouchka lies in Igor Stravinsky’s set of piano pieces conjuring the distinct movements of different dolls, “a toy Dancer [who becomes Ballerina], a Moor, and a [sic] Petrouchka.”38 The ballet premiered on June 13, 1911 at the Théâtre de Châtelet in Paris. Its libretto—pieced together from the score by Stravinsky, the letters of Fokine, and the memoirs and staging directions of Alexandre Benois, along with various autobiographies and eyewitness accounts of the first performance—comprises “burlesque scenes in four tableaux.”39 The action occurs during Maslenitsa and is set in Admiralty Square in St. Petersburg in 1830. It begins with the activation of the three marionettes before Shrovetide fairgoers. The second and third tableaux take place backstage, where Petrouchka and the Moor vie for the attention of Ballerina, who enters each of their separate rooms. She favors the Moor, and in the final tableau he runs out of the little theater, followed by Ballerina, chasing Petrouchka with a saber and, in full view of the horrified fairgoers, splitting his skull. As Petrouchka dies, the magician who controlled the marionettes’ performances arrives and shows the crowd [End Page 75] that he is made of sawdust, calling to mind the eviscerated doll sometimes dragged onstage in the finale of Coppélia. But in the last chilling moment of the piece, Petrouchka reappears over the wall separating the public area of the fairgrounds from the private backstage rooms of the automata.

Petrouchka ransacks Coppelius’s workshop for its automata, making the machines, by extension, versions of the articles de Paris. Allusions to Coppélia abound. The Moor was one of the original mechanical toys in the older ballet, and a saber like the one with which he stabs Petrouchka was wielded against him by a joking Swanhilda. With her “dainty, pizzicato steps,” Ballerina remains closest to the mechanical toys of Saint-Léon’s choreography; she even walks blowing a trumpet, as does one of Coppelius’s automata (Beaumont, Michel Fokine, 80; Wachtel, “Libretto,” 121). The magician, like his predecessor, Coppelius, is a “choreographer of mannequins” and “archetype of ballet masters” (Kirstein, Movement, 170). The movements Fokine assigns the puppet thus hint at the magician’s reduction of persons to objects. Like the medieval sorcerers, writes Jane Goodall, the magician turns people into creatures “whose loss of selfhood manifests as a loss of the capacity for voluntary movement.”40 Both Goodall and Lincoln Kirstein note the reverse transformation of the Pygmalion myth, touching on the themes of slavery and revolt perennially associated with puppets and, in the modern era, with automata (Kang, Sublime Dreams, 20–22).

In the course of the piece, however, all three of the marionettes begin to act in varying degrees like human beings. Initially, they resemble the figures invented by the Dutch mechanician Opré that Robert Houdin had recently repaired and used in his own conjuring acts. These puppets were operated by concealed pedals: they came out of trunks and performed various acrobatic tricks before returning to their boxes.41 The marionettes in Petrouchka as described by Cyril Beaumont likewise appeared to be supported from their shoulders by iron stands or armrests (Wachtel, “Libretto,” 119).42 They were then stimulated into motion by a touch from the magician’s flute, moving from the waist down as “legs,” much like Noverre’s dancer who is not in control of his or her movements or, more grotesquely, like the frogs used in physiological experiments in the nineteenth century to test reflex action and bolster the theory of noncerebral life.

When, in the second and third tableaux, the puppets retreat into their separate enclosures, they become auto-activated figures that move less convulsively and—this is significant—outside the control of the magician. Puppets have become automata. Having gained some autonomy of movement, Petrouchka now shows an emotional dimension, like the false automaton Swanhilda: he fingers his clothes, shakes his fist at a portrait of the magician, moves his neck from side to side, greets Ballerina as she enters, then tears a hole in the wall when she leaves. The Moor (who has only a mime role in the libretto) tries to open a coconut with his scimitar and then, having been unsuccessful, prays to it and pulls Ballerina onto his lap when she enters. Ballerina too changes, at least in the first production. As Tamara Karsavina danced the role, Ballerina executed doll-like movements in the first tableau but became a human being backstage. The way in which Karsavina performed this, apart from emphasizing the figure’s preference for the Moor, has been lost to us, but we do know that while Bronislava [End Page 76] Nijinska, who later danced the role, thought that Ballerina should always be a doll, Fokine wanted her to evolve.43 In a 1910 letter to Stravinsky, Benois agreed: he wrote that the mechanical nature of the movement in the first tableau should be emphasized by repetition in the second (for example, Ballerina going into one door, then another) but that the puppets in the middle tableaux should be given enough “time to let [them] ‘live through’ their dream, to let them for a moment really become living people.”44 The human moment passes, though: after the Moor splits his skull, Petrouchka seems to regress to a broken doll, as Beaumont’s synopsis indicates: “His head lolls to and fro as if attached to body [sic] by a string, and his arms jerk feebly” (Wachtel, “Libretto,” 122). The final disposition of Petrouchka, as we will see, is ambiguous.

As I have shown, the libretto of Coppélia offers an ostensible contrast between the automaton and the living human being, one that performances of the ballet obscure. While its librettists aligned facial mimicry with distinctively human expressiveness, onstage signs of life develop in opposition to regularity of motion; they approach an ideal of movement recognized as human and biological because they are based on enchaînement. Unlike the librettists of Coppélia, Fokine in Petrouchka disregarded physiognomic indicators. The faces of the marionettes remain expressionless even as they transform into human beings. Neither does Fokine employ enchaînement. He wanted Petrouchka always to move spasmodically, to have “puppetlike, unnatural gestures.” Accordingly, the puppet/automaton is meant to remain unbalanced, hands flinging about and head thrown back.45 Always falling or about to do so, he dances, the libretto specifies, “as if his leg and thigh are threaded on a string attached to the hip” (Wachtel, “Libretto,” 120). Moving—flailing, rather—a beat behind Ballerina’s mincing steps, he most resembles the harlequins of commedia dell’arte. Eschewing both physiognomic and balletic indicators of human life and defying von Kleist’s vision of the graceful marionette (graceful because its moves are unconscious), Fokine and his collaborators did, however, rely on behavior. Petrouchka’s actions imply that human life is ultimately defined by the will, the same interior quality that supported the trajectory of the automaton toward life in Coppélia. Petrouchka’s crush on Ballerina, the Moor’s worship of the impervious coconut, even the preference of Ballerina for the Moor, all staged within the private rooms of the automata, fulfill Benois’s charming notion that objects want to be human beings and enlist, in Alexander Bain’s words, a “volitional constitution … identical with a copious central emanation of active power.”46 Benois’s conception of the ballet’s action suggests, in short, an underlying agreement with the librettists of Coppélia on the definition of human life, despite the ballets’ very different dance idioms.

The collaborators who first staged Petrouchka brought an old-fashioned but hardly archaic understanding of physiology to the action of the ballet. The will, in fact, was the “final barrier against [human] automatism,” observes M. Norton Wise.47 For Stahl and likeminded eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century philosophers, it had been a conscious moral regulator synonymous with the soul. Bain, whose work was in many aspects protobehaviorist, represented the trend in thinking about the will: according to him, while it operated through involuntary and varying degrees of voluntary actions [End Page 77] up to its most conscious form, volition, it retained a mental component in less attentive states.48 In the 1870s, Carpenter, who considered himself an experimental physiologist, nonetheless averred that in human beings, secondary automatisms are “put into action by a conscious intention,” not by a stimulus (“On the Doctrine,” 412). During the years separating the premieres of Coppélia and Petrouchka, this idea was challenged by many of the new psychologists such as Maudsley and Herbert Spencer, to whom the will was nothing more than a developed reflex.49 In his review of Descartes’s hypothesis of animal automation, Huxley had withdrawn volition from the chain of causation of action and treated it as a mere causa cognoscendi of neuromotor movement. If the frog has an approximation of the most conscious form of will, he states, it cannot be anything more than a “concomitant of the molecular changes in the brain which form part of the series involved in the production of motion” (“On the Hypothesis,” 236). Occupying a middle position, James rejected Huxley’s description of human beings as “conscious automata” on the basis of their ability (James claimed) to choose activities that run counter to automatic tendencies.50 These decisions require attention, which originates in the “ideational nerve tracts.” He called the propositional equivalent of the voluntary act the “fiat.”51 But he allowed degrees of voluntarism regulated by the will; in other words, the fiat could represent a voluntary if not completely volitional action, one not requiring full mental or neuromotor attention.

Regarding this debate, Petrouchka transmits very mixed signals. As in Coppélia, movement supports a definition of life that the conceivers of the ballet may not share. The first intimation of will in the action marks a much more fundamental stage of voluntarism and technical capacity than Benois’s concept of conscious desire admits: it occurs with the auto-activation of the marionettes, when all their limbs jerk spasmodically—jolted into life, so it seems, by the magician, their faces inexpressive, as if demonstrating the reflexes that, Huxley showed, existed without consciousness. By the second tableau, the agency of the fiat (to use James’s concept) has passed from the magician to the automata themselves, who now show signs of possessing ideational nerve tracts, not just automatic tendencies. Just as the moving automata in Coppelius’s workshop represent a technological animation of the sculptural figure, the autonomous behavior of the figures in the second tableau indicates an advance beyond the insentient and passive condition of the marionette. So if the backstage travails of Fokine’s marionettes signal the existence of volition and desire, as Benois believed, the sequence of the tableaux illustrates a physiological certainty, one that even the ambivalent James accepted: muscular movement comes before consciousness.

By enlisting a physiological idea of will, auto-activation displayed, furthermore, the increasingly complex capabilities of the machine—its autonomous operation, in particular. This was enabled by the concurrent development of electricity from a mysterious “science of showmanship” into a measurable and useful technology.52 Consider, in this context, that Romola Nijinsky described the initial movements of Petrouchka (first danced by her husband, Vaslav Nijinsky) as “convulsive, … charged with electricity” (Wachtel, “Libretto,” 119). They have “a fitful quality,” remarks Beaumont in his description of these first stirrings, “like the reflex actions of limbs whose muscles have [End Page 78] been subjected to an electric current” (120). Electricity could have revived the specter of the false automaton, for unlike the clockworks that drove the mechanical figures of previous generations, electricity is invisible. To early nineteenth-century thinkers such as John Abernethy and Thomas Rennell, it effectively occupied the territory of the soul, the abstraction that the maîtres had added to their human balletic machines. But electricity could just as easily be considered a technology of irritability—an “intrinsic property of matter,” as Abernethy’s opponent, William Lawrence, argued (Morus, Shocking Bodies, 43). His beleaguered position in the rabid pamphlet wars with Abernethy and Rennell was vindicated much later in the century by the radical wing of physiology and by the first law of thermodynamics (39–48). In this light, the jolt with which all three of the puppets first move at the start of Petrouchka demonstrates the irritability hypothesis as the basis of life. And when such convulsive reactions become, in the second tableau, independent and voluntary actions, and the marionettes function like electric motors, they enable a conception of movement beyond the simple reflex, movement activated in the senses and muscles and wholly autonomous. The transformation of Petrouchka’s chief figures from machines into motors has a retroactive thermodynamic and physiological significance, then: following Tim Armstrong’s description of the modern body, the marionettes can now be reconceived as forces that have undergone an energy conversion.53 In these energy machines, Huxley’s theory too has been vindicated: the structure of sensory nerves is the same as that of motor nerves (“On the Hypothesis,” 208). Feeling is movement, whether or not it is visible.

The mechanical figures of Petrouchka perform, therefore, under the aegis of energy, the “transcendental principle” of physics advocated by late nineteenth-century thinkers like Herman von Helmholtz (Rabinbach, Human Motor, 55). Supporting the idea that energy can convert itself into other forms, the automata typify the electrochemical and thermodynamic body, a body in which muscles change through motion. The figures begin at a much more primitive stage than those of Coppélia—appearing first as marionettes and only later, in the second tableau, as automata; the mechanical stages are elaborated. In this way, Fokine’s piece perpetuates the close relationship between the so-called reductionist physiologists (who sought the elimination of the divide between the organic and the mechanistic) and the automata industry, which itself had changed since the premiere of Coppélia.54 Beginning in the 1890s, all the Marais houses except Lambert’s began replacing clockwork and the sinusoidal slide, in its day the mechanism producing the most natural movements, with electric motors (Bailly, Automata, 188). The Marais manufacturers were also displaying a wider range of motional possibilities in their automata. Advertised automata were now capable of more flexible movements. In 1893, for example, Roullet and Decamps issued a Loïe Fuller pièce musique (“trés mouvementée”) in honor of the sensational dancer. In 1875, Vichy made an acrobat oscillating with one hand upside-down on a ladder (309).55 As if to emphasize such improvements, many manufacturers created figures holding puppets or dolls. Mid-nineteenth-century toymakers had always included a number of poupées among their automata. Théroude’s 1842 catalogue of “boites d’Allemagne” lists various musical or acrobatic Pierrot figures; similarly, “poupées-polkas” were among [End Page 79] the first featured items produced by Dehais and LaForest. The firm added Pierrots to its list in 1851 (Bailly, Automata, 193). Further on in the century, the automaton’s advance over the puppet was iconically represented. In 1890, Gustave Vichy offered a Pierrot figure that was an automaton, and Lambert mass-produced what it called an “animated doll” crying over a broken Punchinello puppet (86–87; Soriano, Mechanical Dolls, 39) (fig. 2). The juxtaposition of the two figures—one small and amorphous, lying with strings protruding from its contorted arms and back, the other, larger girl, alternately examining the tangled strings and wiping her tears with an embroidered handkerchief—exhibits the automaton’s technological superiority over the marionette she holds. Whereas the marionette was controlled by strings, pulleys, or pedals, the automaton was self-initiating and seemingly spontaneous.

Fig 2. Léopold Lambert, little girl with broken Polichinelle, 1890. Collection Nouveau Musée National de Monaco, no. 1967.1.31. Previous collection of Madeleine Galea.<br/><br/>Courtesy Nouveau Musée National de Monaco.
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Fig 2.

Léopold Lambert, little girl with broken Polichinelle, 1890. Collection Nouveau Musée National de Monaco, no. 1967.1.31. Previous collection of Madeleine Galea.

Courtesy Nouveau Musée National de Monaco.

[End Page 80]

Such juxtapositions of marionettes and electrical automata suggest epigenesis through movement, in particular the idea that repeated manual action can become sustained and self-perpetuating. John Tyndall demonstrated this principle when in 1879 he used a Siemens armature to convert the body’s muscular effort after repeated circulation into the power to light an electric bulb.56 The Moor and Petrouchka, who exhibit both the regulated and the spontaneous actions linked to automata, are likewise technological hybrids: not just combinations of the rudimentary and segmented motions of marionettes assembled from parts but things capable of the independent locomotion generated by electrical motors. Like the advanced electrical automata of the Marais, they develop from machines activated by the human hand into auto-activated objects. And as the marionettes pass into automata, they demonstrate the technological and neurological processes by which their responses become less monotonously repetitive and more elaborated patterns of motional behavior.

Initially subject to reflexive movement and manual stimulation, the principals undergo no radical transformation; they carry their puppethood with them, just as the physiological body comprises its reflexes and the electric light embeds the force of repetitive action. Their transformation into human beings—to entertain Benois’s whim—is epigenetic. All movement bears a neuromotor past and potential; Erin Manning observes that “it always begins with a certain degree of open improvisation mixed with a certain degree of habit.”57 Improvisation, or spontaneity, preponderates in the Moor and Petrouchka, habit in Ballerina. Through these figures, Fokine’s ballet exhibits the paradox of the automaton: the self-initiating object and the unconsciously repetitive subject occupy the stage simultaneously, in the same figures. They are not so much opposites as variants of the machine and the organism.

In short, setting the initial scene of Petrouchka against a backdrop of nineteenth-century physiology contradicts the general idea of some of the ballet’s collaborators. Benois, Fokine, and Nijinska all indicated that the first signs of life should appear in the second tableau, and twentieth-century critics of Petrouchka have embraced that idea, adding a Freudian dimension to their reading of the central puppet. Petrouchka, it is usually held, approaches the human through his rage, an emotion that liberates the inherent thingness (das Es) of his emotional life. When he thumbs his nose at the “horrified” magician (as he does in some performances), Petrouchka enacts technology’s and art’s return to the condition of nature (Wachtel, “Libretto,” 122). It is an old romantic dream, writes Stanley Cavell.58 Or, in interpretations reflecting a vaguely religious vitalism going back to Stahl, Petrouchka evinces humanity through his suffering. Lynn Garafola has called the Petrouchka puppet an “existential hero,” and Andrew Wachtel observes that the ballet insists “on showing the presence of a human soul inside the puppet’s body.”59 Petrouchka, Kirstein declares, survives “his dolldom by the triumph of his essence” (Movement, 194). These readings make some sense; for as any eighteenth-century automaton maker knew, auto-activation did not necessarily signal becoming human. Yet in their utter reliance on a superadded mental dimension to define human life and in their granting, as a result, only the Petrouchka puppet human status, such readings neglect not just movement, the very idiom of the ballet, but [End Page 81] the heterogeneous characterization of the mechanical. They miss continuities between automata and human beings.

For notwithstanding the influence of depth psychology on studies of the piece, the action of Petrouchka orients us away from the human being toward the machine. It is within the domain of the mechanical that the marionettes show signs of life. This reorientation did not reflect contemporary scientific understanding, of course. Like the librettists of Coppélia, late nineteenth-century physiologists focused on the mechanical functions of what they understood to be organisms. Huxley maintained that animals and most likely human beings could be alive yet operate as “mere insensible machine[s],” that mental conditions are merely symbols of changes that occur automatically (“On the Hypothesis,” 220, 239). Neither entertained the idea of an organically functioning machine. Several decades after the debut of Petrouchka, however, Silvan Tomkins explored the possibility of just such a machine, and he did so from the perspective of the organism as a motor, now a “system.”60 To operate as a human being, Tomkins speculated, an automaton would have to function with less regularity than current technology allowed, and it would need an affect system beyond the drives, one in which basic emotions were not just reactions. Such emotions would be able to “come and go without recourse to or dependence on the feedback system,” in other words (Shame, 44). They would become, at a certain point, autonomous. Tomkins’s differentiation between affects, drives, and emotions expands the role of mechanical operation and behavior in living organisms. Unlike drives, which are tied to stimuli, affects can last longer because they are less contingent on their stimuli.

As an android, Petrouchka approaches Tomkins’s ideal. In his unrequited love for Ballerina, he exemplifies a freer and more developed concept of volition and emotion. His desire and love persist unsatisfied, whereas the Moor’s satisfied lust exemplifies only the efficiency of stimuli-feedback-stimuli. In loving Ballerina despite her indifference, Petrouchka frees himself from the drives and displays an even higher degree of autonomy. Likewise his animosity, first shown in the second tableau when he shakes his fist at a picture of the magician, stands the test of repetition. It intensifies, in fact. Initially a reaction to being kicked, it becomes a gesture of defiance or persistence in the ballet’s final moment. But although in the last seconds of the ballet, the anger of the automaton has an intentional object, the magician, and represents a cognitive act (which Tomkins dissociated from affects), Petrouchka has not necessarily acquired the faculty of intention. The will, that erstwhile “autonomous agency that is intention,” now belongs, remarks Brian Massumi, echoing Maudsley and Huxley, “to an overall dissipative system.”61 The puppet’s suffering and rebellion originate in repeated neuromotor movement rather than in will. Twentieth-century critics ignored the ways in which the ballet anticipated such a systemic physiology; but if the marionettes’ epigenesis into automata and toward humanness is regarded from the vantage point of movement—starting with their involuntary reflex actions in the first scene—the modernity of Petrouchka can then be seen to lie not in its association with depth psychology but in its exploration of the technological possibilities of motors. Rather than embracing a religiously inflected philosophy of the organism, the ballet moves toward a deconstruction [End Page 82] of the persistent binary between the machine and the living, human creature. Petrouchka and his cohorts become creatures of biophilosophy.

I have argued that Coppélia and Petrouchka participate in technological and physiological elaborations of the mechanical that have provoked debates over human automatism. A full discussion of their place in the modern history of dance lies beyond the scope of this article. I should say, however, that to see them as forerunners of the machine ballets produced in postrevolutionary Russia would be a mistake. Vsevolod Meyerhold’s biomechanics, Nikolai Foregger’s machine ballets, and Nijinksa’s pieces, the last of which demanded that dancers pound their toes “like jackhammers into the floor,” are constructivist treatments of technology, samples of European modernism that celebrated, as Armstrong writes, “the body attached to a machine” (Modernism, 86).62 To critics and historiographers of dance like André Levinson, whose aesthetic of the 1920s remained rooted in the romantic ballet, the machine ballets suggest a sacrifice of the individual to the state or the assembly line (Homans, Apollo’s Angels, 334). (In fact, Oleg Vinogradov’s choreography of 1990 interprets Petrouchka in this way.) Modernist Soviet ballet’s focus on the group as an industrial unit as opposed to the individual flanked by the corps does not explore the instability of the nineteenth-century dancer, who appeared as a statue, a machine, and a human being (without necessarily evolving into the next stage). As I have shown, it is this instability and the concept of life embodied in the Petrouchka puppet that warrant scrutiny. Although Daniel Albright is correct to call Petrouchka “posthuman, an artifact derived from human shape” that could culminate in the robot, Fokine’s ballet intimates neither the industrial state body celebrated by Foregger and Fedor Lopukhov nor the triumph of the machine over the human.63 Each of these trajectories, the first artistic and the second technological, presupposes an opposition, if not an antagonism, between human and machine, but Petrouchka does not. Whereas the action of Coppélia depends for its comedy on a conceptual separation of the animate and the inanimate, a separation that Swanhilda’s movements begin to undermine, Petrouchka elaborates on the processes by which regular and habitual movements evince a growing measure of spontaneity and variation. The artistic legacy of the automata ballets thus lies in the articulated, impersonal movement that George Balanchine drew on for his choreography of the gods in Apollon Musagête (1928). This style of movement revived the mechanical virtuosity of classical idiom and influenced the Montreal automatists of the 1940s in their explorations of the liberating effects of continuous motion. The outdoor dance experiments of automatist Francçoise Sullivan, for example, realized the freedom that her contemporary Tomkins envisioned within physiological feedback loops, which operate on a continuum between the point of “complete redundancy in which no change is possible and complete randomness in which any change is possible” (Shame, 35.)64

In light of this historical trajectory, Petrouchka’s splayed limbs and wild movements suggest a life unhinged from centralized consciousness. The automaton’s volition has no intentional core; rather, it is generated at various neuromuscular sites. Petrouchka, for this reason, approaches the condition of the human at the end of the ballet because he can continue to exhibit emotions without gratification. This is a physiological automatism, [End Page 83] as Huxley pointed out, and a technological possibility, as Tomkins argued, no longer a definitive feature of the human being alone. The disquieting spectacle of the now independently moving puppet with dangling legs and lolling head suggests the existence of a muscular memory that persists, as James acknowledges, in the absence of external stimuli (“The Emotions,” 2:1089). Petrouchka’s emotional life does not transcend his physical limitations, then; it persists in them. When the magician reassures the frightened spectators that the eviscerated Petrouchka puppet is just a thing, he counters the wish, articulated by Benois and others in the first performance, for the inanimate object to come to life. Nonetheless, if the hacked marionette confirms the unbridgeable gap between inanimate object and living matter, it also recalls Pygmalion and insinuates in turn that matter with the power of motion may be living after all. In coordinating dance with manufactured icons, Petrouchka restages automatic life in human beings and in machines as a kinesthetic and technological certainty. The last appearance of Petrouchka gesticulating in the same scene as (and sometimes next to) his sawdust double, which has traditionally conjured the idea of liberation of the spirit from body, recalls the coupling of doll and automaton in the catalogues of the Marais manufacturers and presents the two views as complements rather than substitutions. Instead of spirit arising from and replacing matter, a force of energy continues through Petrouchka’s last moments of habitual clumsiness and built-up feeling. In Petrouchka’s final exaltation it is not the soul but the physiological and technological foundations of human life that are affirmed.

Linda M. Austin

Linda M. Austin is Professor of English at Oklahoma State University and the author of Nostalgia in Transition (2007) and The Practical Ruskin (1991).


I thank the anonymous readers for Modernism/modernity for their astute comments on an earlier version of this article.

1. Die Puppenfee is a Viennese divertissment that was first performed at court in 1889; Les millions d’arlequin (Arlekinada) is a ballet in two acts that opened at the Hermitage Theater, St. Petersburg, in 1900. La poupée, another piece, is a comic opera that premiered at the Theâtre de la gaïté, Montparnasse, in 1896. For a characterization of the state of ballet in the second half of the nineteenth century, see Ivor Guest, The Ballet of the Second Empire (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1974), 1–5.

2. Kara Reilly, Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 124–25.

3. See Minsoo Kang, Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 52–53, and Adelheid Voskuhl, Androids in the Enlightenment: Mechanics, Artisans and Cultures of the Self (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 1.

4. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “automaton.”

5. See Eric R. Kandel, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna, 1900 to the Present (New York: Random House, 2012), 409–15, and Arjun Appadurai, introduction to The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 5.

6. Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 65. On epigenesis, see Peter Hanns Reill, Vitalizing Nature in the Enlightenment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 7–8.

7. Patricia Ticineto Clough, introduction to The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social, ed. Patricia Ticineto Clough and Jean Halley (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 18. [End Page 84]

8. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (New York: Penguin, 1977), 285–86. On possible interpretations of vitalism, see Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlison and Grant Burchill (London: Verso, 1994), 213. On the historical form of vitalism that evaded mechanistic or organic explanations, see Reill, Vitalizing Nature, 11–12.

9. Jacques de Vaucanson, An Account of the Mechanism of an Automaton, trans. John T. Desaguliers (1742; rpt., The Netherlands: Fritx Knuf-Buren, 1979).

10. Jessica Riskin, “The Defecating Duck; or, The Ambiguous Origins of Artificial Life,” Critical Inquiry 29, no. 4 (2003): 599–633; Gaby Wood, Living Dolls: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life (London: Faber and Faber, 2002), 19–27.

11. Jean-Georges Noverre, Letters on Dancing and Ballets, trans. Cyril W. Beaumont (New York: Dance Horizons, 1968), 19.

12. See Théophile Gautier, The Romantic Ballet, trans. Cyril W. Beaumont (Brooklyn, NY: Dance Horizons, 1947), 29.

13. See Lincoln Kirstein, Movement and Metaphor: Four Centuries of Ballet (New York: Praeger, 1970), 106–7.

14. Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, Treatise on the Sensations, trans. Geraldine Carr (Los Angeles: University of Southern California School of Philosophy, 1930).

15. Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Man a Machine, Man a Plant, trans. Richard A. Watson and Maya Rybalka (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1994), 32.

16. Maurice Merleau Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, ed. Claude Lefort, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), 135.

17. Quoted in Aram Vartanian, La Mettrie’s “L’homme machine”: A Study in the Origins of an Idea (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), 125.

18. Carlo Blasis, The Code of Terpsichore: A Practical and Historical Treatise on the Ballet, Dancing, and Pantomime, Etc., trans. R. Barton (London: James Bulcock, 1828), 117.

19. Heinrich von Kleist, “On the Marionette Theater,” in German Romantic Criticism, ed. A. Leslie Willson (New York: Continuum, 1982), 239. See also Victoria Nelson, The Secret Life of Puppets (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 61–64.

20. Carlo Blasis, An Elementary Treatise upon the Theory and Practice of the Art of Dancing, trans. Mary Stewart Evans (New York: Dover, 1968), 49.

21. On forms of vitalism, see Reill, Vitalizing Nature, 125–36.

22. [Gilbert W. Child], “Physiological Psychology,” Westminster Review, n.s. 33 (1868): 54; W. B. Carpenter, “On the Doctrine of Human Automatism,” Contemporary Review 25 (1875): 402.

23. Christian Bailly, Automata: The Golden Age, 1848–1914 (London: Sotheby’s Publications, 1987), 27–39, 113–53.

24. J. M. Gourreau, “Si Coppélia m’etait conte,” Pour la danse: Chansons et petits rats 47 (1978–79): 5.

25. Charles Nuitter and Arthur Saint-Léon, Coppélia: Grand Ballet in Three Acts (New York: Charles D. Koppel, [1886]), 12.

26. Craig Owens, “Politics of Coppélia,” in Beyond Recognition, ed. Scott Bryson, Barbara Kruger, Lynne Tillmann, and Jane Weinstock (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 241.

27. Although recent research indicates that the brain responds empathetically to bodily but not to mechanical motion, it does not consider cases of movement that fall somewhere in between because it occurs in an object of uncertain status. See Kandel, Age of Insight, 302.

28. E. J. Marey, Movement, trans. Eric Pritchard (New York: Appleton, 1895), 179, 177.

29. The first performance by Bozzachi as Swanhilda in the transformation scene thus anticipates Henri Bergson’s idea of comedy, disclosing the blatant mechanicalness of the automaton as a feature of the organism. See Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (New York: Macmillan, 1911), 29.

30. See the performance of the Royal Birmingham Ballet recorded by the BBC at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, October 24, 1995. [End Page 85]

31. Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” Critical Inquiry 28, no. 1 (2001): 4, 6.

32. George Henry Lewes, The Physiology of Common Life, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1860), 2:64.

33. John Davidson, The Theatocrat: A Tragic Play of Church and Stage (London: E. Grant Richards, 1905), 57–58.

34. In one popular but discredited legend, even Descartes had been enchanted by the automaton’s resemblance to the human being and had created a doll-like android out of metal and clockwork pieces that he attempted to pass off as his daughter “Francine” on a trip to Sweden. The captain feared the doll was the source of black magic and ordered the crew to throw her overboard (Kang, Sublime Dreams, 122–23; Wood, Living Dolls, 3–4).

35. Thomas Henry Huxley, “On the Hypothesis That Animals Are Automata, and Its History,” in Science and Culture and Other Essays (London: Elibron Classics, 2001), 201.

36. Thomas Henry Huxley, “On the Physical Basis of Life,” in Agnosticism and Christianity (New York: Prometheus Books, 1992), 69.

37. William James, “The Emotions,” in The Principles of Psychology, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1981), 2:1067; emphasis in original.

38. Cyril W. Beaumont, Michel Fokine and His Ballets (New York: Dance Horizons, 1981), 70.

39. Andrew Wachtel, “The Libretto of Petrushka,” in Petrushka: Sources and Contexts, ed. Andrew Wachtel (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998), 118–22.

40. Kirstein is referring to Coppélia; see Jane Goodall, “Transferred Agencies: Performance and the Fear of Automatism,” Theatre Journal 49, no. 4 (1997): 445.

41. See Alfred Chapuis and Edmond Droz, Automata: A Historical and Technological Study, trans. Alec Reid (Neuchatel: Griffon, 1958), 371; for information on Opré, see Harry Houdini, The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin (New York: Publishers Printing Company, 1908), 138.

42. See George Balanchine and Francis Mason, 101 Stories of the Great Ballets (New York: Random House, 1975), 307.

43. See Tim Scholl, “Fokine’s Petrushka,” in Petrushka, 46.

44. Quoted in “Correspondence of Igor Stravinsky and Alexandre Benois Regarding Petrushka,” in Petrushka, 127; emphasis in original.

45. Michel Fokine, Memoirs of a Ballet Master, trans. Vitalie Fokine, ed. Anatoly Chujoy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961), 191.

46. Alexander Bain, The Emotions and the Will, ed. Daniel N. Robinson (Washington, DC: University Publications of America, 1977), 339; emphasis added.

47. M. Norton Wise, “The Gender of Automata in Victorian Britain,” in Genesis Redux: Essays in the History and Philosophy of Artificial Life, ed. Jessica Riskin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 186.

48. Daniel N. Robinson, preface to Bain, Emotions, xxix, xxxvi.

49. Rick Rylance, Victorian Psychology and British Culture, 1850–1880 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 216.

50. Quoted in William James, “The Automaton-Theory,” in Principles, 1:135. See also “Are We Automata?,” in Essays in Psychology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 38–61.

51. William James, “The Feeling of Effort,” in Essays, 124, 87.

52. Iwan Rhys Morus, Shocking Bodies: Life, Death, and Electricity in Victorian England (Stroud, UK: History Press, 2011), 8, 122–23.

53. Tim Armstrong, Modernism, Technology, and the Body: A Cultural Study (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 78–79.

54. Roger Smith, “The Background of Physiological Psychology in Natural Philosophy,” History of Science 11, no. 2 (1973): 75–123.

55. André Soriano, The Mechanical Dolls of Monte Carlo (New York: Rizzoli, 1985), 67.

56. John Tyndall, Fragments of Science: A Series of Detached Essays, Addresses, and Reviews, 2 vols. (New York: Appleton, 1897), 2:429–33.

57. Erin Manning, Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 19. [End Page 86]

58. Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 113.

59. Lynn Garafola, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 29; Andrew Wachtel, “The Ballet’s Libretto,” in Petrushka, 40.

60. Silvan Tomkins, Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader, ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 34.

61. Brian Massumi, A User’s Guide to “Capitalism and Schizophrenia” (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 81.

62. Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels (New York: Random House, 2010), 334.

63. Daniel Albright, “Toy Nightingales and Dancing Dolls: The Origins of Stravinsky’s Drama,” Kenyon Review, n.s., 10, no. 1 (1988): 112.

64. On the automatists, see Ray Ellenwood, Egregore: A History of the Montréal Automatist Movement (Toronto: Exile Editions, 1992). [End Page 87]