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  • When Ballet Became French: Modern Ballet and the Cultural Politics of France, 1909–1939 by Ilyana Karthas
  • Andrea Christmas
When Ballet Became French: Modern Ballet and the Cultural Politics of France, 1909–1939. By Ilyana Karthas (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2015. xiii plus 352 pp. $39.95).

When Ballet Became French uses dance to examine French nationalism, aesthetics, and gender in the first half of the twentieth century. Situating her work at the nexus of cultural history and dance history, Ilyana Karthas makes a compelling historiographic argument that in neglecting dance as a site of historical analysis, historians have missed a critical set of sources that are especially attentive to the body and gender. In this work, her first monograph, she seeks to repair this oversight for the interwar period in France.

This book is not, however, a straightforward or formalist dance history. While Karthas is attentive to formalist changes in ballet technique, her focus is on critical writings from arts critics of the period, rather than choreographic reconstructions of ballets. Karthas shows how ballet criticism discursively reflected many anxieties plaguing France during the interwar period, claiming that "critics used the medium of ballet to forge coherent ideas about national identity, modern aesthetics and gender norms" (6). She contends that ballet is [End Page 581] a particularly fruitful site to look at gender as well as France's relationship with Russia during this period, both of which are central themes in the historiography.

Karthas' analysis is both thematic and chronological, and her first chapter introduces and evaluates her most important sources, newspapers and their arts criticism. Here she introduces the major arts critics of the time, and she returns to them over and over again throughout the work. In this book, critics are the stars, oftentimes even more so than dancers and choreographers. One of Karthas' major claims regarding arts criticism and aesthetics during this period is that ballet criticism became an increasingly specialized field, with greater focus on technique and choreography in the 1920s and 1930s than other areas of production like music and design. In later chapters she ties this critical specialization to choreographic practice and modernist aesthetic theory. Karthas' second chapter focuses on the most important ballet company performing in Paris in the 1910s: the Ballets Russes. She argues that Diaghilev's company became a phenomenon because audiences enjoyed the combination of arts that it showcased, rather than because of the dance itself. Critics focused on the Ballets Russes' design, costumes, and especially their use of symphonic music. Furthermore, critics often emphasized the Russian, "primitive" nature of the new company, compared with the older "classical" French ballet of the nineteenth century. Karthas shows how the Ballets Russes capitalized on the Russophilia of the haute bourgeoisie to create a new audience for ballet in France.

After these introductory chapters, the third through seventh chapters employ a parallel structure to examine major historical themes of nationalism, modernism, and gender, and tie them to changes in ballet criticism. In each, Karthas begins by introducing the theme, providing a brief history of ballet as it pertains to that theme, and then turning to the specific context of ballet in the first half of the twentieth century. While this formula is occasionally repetitive, it serves an important function by reincorporating the history of ballet into French history, which is precisely the methodological intervention that Karthas makes in her introduction and conclusion.

In the third chapter, she looks at how the Ballets Russes helped to recuperate ballet as a high art in France, after it had fallen into degeneracy at the fin de siècle. She argues that the Ballets Russes helped to create a renewed taste for ballet in Paris among audiences. Chapter four looks at the modern aesthetics that the Ballets Russes incorporated into their works. Critics and audiences were attracted to the Ballets Russes not just for their choreographic innovation but also because they invited modern artists and musicians to collaborate on the ballets, thus embodying the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) aesthetic. In her fifth chapter, Karthas moves to the interwar period to show how new ballet specialists and Russian émigrés, André Levinson...


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