- Poetics of Dance: Body, Image, and Space in the Historical Avant-Gardes by Gabriele Brandstetter
Gabriele Brandstetter’s Poetics of Dance has remained unavailable to English-language readers until now. Widely considered a landmark book of dance scholarship when it first appeared in Germany in 1995, this provocative analysis of the early twentieth-century avant-garde in Europe is sure to continue to influence a new audience. The book’s initial publication advanced the application of critical theory and interdisciplinary approaches to dance that now constitute the field of critical dance studies. Caringly translated by Elena Polzer with Oxford Studies in Dance Theory series editor Mark Franko, this work remains a unique analysis of modernity that illuminates dance as an “act of transmission,” a bridge through theatre, literature, and visual arts altering relationships to how movement is reproduced and how space is conceptualized. Brandstetter’s central premise expands through reading body imagery as a historically specific context from which the iconography of pictorial patterns open up perceptual concepts. The interdependency between new models and vocabularies of modern dance and literature appearing at the turn-of-the-twentieth century brace the argument that avant-garde aesthetic debates and concerns moved through body imagery and figurations in space. The poetics of free dance (and later forms of Expressionist dance appearing in Germany) as it took shape in Europe foregrounds the dancer’s movement as a transformative language and symbolic system of cultural deconstruction and renewal.
The first part of the book applies the influential, early twentieth-century German art historian Aby Warburg’s theory of the “pathos formula” to reading iconographic patterns and body image in early modern dance. The pathos or psychic expression of Warburg’s formula affixes the collective memory of primal trauma encountered between the individual and the world to visual symbols. Brandstetter transitions the visual coding of pathos formula to examine early [End Page 129] twentieth-century kinetic models of modern dance, interlacing representative patterns of body image and their appearance as sources of subjective inquiry, reflection, and self-commentary that become paradigmatic tropes of modernity’s liberation from cultural restraint. She distinguishes two active models: One discovers patterns of nature and naturalness in the reinterpretation of images of antiquity gleaned from the sculpture and artifacts in European museums and galleries; the other accesses the exotic and images of the (Other) body that evolved out of cross-cultural encounters. Extending the symbolism and aesthetic systems of trace memory seen in the fascination with antiquity and the exotic, the second half of the book investigates inflections of compositional space (actual and fictional) conceived in illusionary, abstract, and mediated structuring of sensate motion. The topographies of spatial movement or “topos formulas” serve as site to canvas divergent critical perspectives occurring in avant-garde practices. The in-depth examination of such spatial paths as the labyrinth and the spiral align corporeal inquiry with experimental techniques, technology, and new media.
Throughout, Brandstetter draws on an immense range of dancers and writers: from Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Paul Valéry to Isadora Duncan and the Futurists. Significantly, her approach to modernism expands the reconsideration of corporeal memory as an archive of cultural practices. Given the mobility of transformation and perceptional liberation, the dancer’s body as sign and as semantic system claims a dominant force in the constitution of modern experience, gender identity, and visual inscriptions connected to cultural production. The Poetics of Dance proves an enduring contribution not only to dance studies, but also to the critical study of modernity. [End Page 130]
SUSAN TENNERIELLO is associate professor of theatre in the department of fine and performing arts at Baruch College. She is the author of Spectacle Culture and American Identity: 1815–1940 and currently serves as Senior Editor of PSA, the Journal of the Pirandello Society of America.