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Reviewed by:
  • Poetics of Dance: Body, Image, and Space in the Historical Avant-Gardes by Gabriele Brandstetter
  • Michelle Clayton
Poetics of Dance: Body, Image, and Space in the Historical Avant-Gardes. Gabriele Brandstetter. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. 456. $99.00 (cloth); $39.95 (paper).

Finally appearing in English translation twenty years after its first appearance in German, Gabriele Brandstetter’s Poetics of Dance: Body, Image, and Space in the Historical Avant-Gardes retains its ground-breaking force.1 This partly has to do with the book’s extraordinary range: taking the English, French, German, and Italian-speaking territories of Western Europe from the 1890s through the 1930s as her terrain, spotlighting the presence and prominence of dancers not only on stage but in salons, museums, tourist sites, and textual spaces, Brandstetter walks us through the changes in both dance practice and in thinking about dance in the period of the historical avant-gardes. Insisting throughout on the enmeshment of dance with experiments in the literary, visual, and theatrical arts, she presents dance not only as a muse for other media—a potential pitfall for cross-disciplinary analysis—but as a vehicle and indeed forerunner for the most radical reconceptualizations of the relation between body and space, body and mind, body and language, and body and community at the beginning of the twentieth century. What results is a durable model of interdisciplinary inquiry: as Brandstetter structures her exploration of dance developments around a series of galvanizing encounters between dancers, writers, artists, and scenographers, her analyses invite reflection on the ongoing entanglements of the arts, on the ways in which experiment develops at their frictional junctures. This book is at once a praxis and a provocation: a revelation of the role of disciplinary dialogues in the generation of artistic innovations, and a reminder of the need for continuing cross-disciplinary ventures in criticism today.

Poetics of Dance springs into action through the interplay between literature, dance, and the visual arts. The book contains riveting readings of scenes of dance in prose and poetry from a host of different languages and locations: from the globe-trotting, history-spanning stories of Greek-Irish Japanophile Lafcadio Hearn, through spectacular scenes of seduction in a novel by the ardent Italian nationalist Gabriele d’Annunzio, [End Page 911] to the French shawl-poems of the German-speaking Rainer Maria Rilke. Yet Brandstetter is not primarily concerned with representations of dance in literature—terrain recently mined expertly by Susan Jones—nor in the visual arts—currently being explored by Nell Andrew and Juliet Bellow.2 Rather, she delves into interactions between the practitioners of these various arts, showing the ways in which they learned from one another’s disciplines through kinaesthetic encounters, and through practices of active, dialogical translation. What emerges is a pulsating panorama of the arts in conversation, redistributing their reach, their forms, and their matters.

What interests Brandstetter are the ways in which an international cast of characters, working in collaboration or in isolation, used a common repertoire of figures to negotiate an epistemological shift occasioned by a semiotic crisis at the turn of the century, and did so primarily through encounters with dancing bodies (oftentimes their own). The number of dancers who appear in the book’s pages is itself noteworthy: from the pioneering Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Vaslav Nijinsky, Mary Wigman, and Rudolf Laban, through a host of momentarily significant figures such as Maud Allan, Ida Rubinstein, Stasia Napierkowska, Mata Hari, and Ruby Ginner, to isolated performers still requiring full attention, such as Valentine de Saint Point, the single-named Akarova, Dore Hoyer, Alexander Sakharoff, Gret Palucca, and Valeska Gert. A second circle of characters consists of artists working at the intersection of two or more art forms and engaging with dance through their own practices: the visual artists Wassily Kandinsky, Sonia Delaunay, and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, or the theatrical reformers Edward Gordon Craig, Oskar Schlemmer, and Vsevolod Meyerhold, not to mention the ubiquitous Serge Diaghilev. Rounding out the scene are the writers and aesthetic theorists reflecting upon dance across the century’s divide, from Gustav Flaubert, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Valéry in France, through...


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