Ballerina Misty Copeland Recreates the Poses of Edgar Degas’ Ballet Dancers

“I am a man of motion,” tragic modernist ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky wrote in his famous Diary, “I am feeling through flesh…. I am God in a body.” Nijinsky suffered the unfortunate onset of schizophrenia after his career ended, but in his lucid moments, he writes of the greatest pain of his illness—to never dance again. A degree of his obsessive devotion seems intrinsic to ballet.

Misty Copeland, who titled her autobiography Life in Motion, thinks so. “All dancers are control freaks a bit,” she says. “We just want to be in control of ourselves and our bodies. That’s just what the ballet structure, I think, kind of puts inside of you. If I’m put in a situation where I am not really sure what’s going to happen, it can be overwhelming. I get a bit anxious.” As Nijinsky did, Copeland is also “forcing people to look at ballet through a more contemporary lens,” writes Stephen Mooallem in Harper’s Bazaar.

Copeland has been candid about her struggles on the way to becoming the first African American woman named a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, including coping with depression, a leg-injury, body-image issues, and childhood poverty. She is also “in the midst of the most illuminating pas de deux with pop culture for a classical dancer since Mikhail Baryshnikov went toe-to-toe with Gregory Hines in White Nights” (a reference that may be lost on younger readers, but trust me, this was huge).




Like another modernist artist, Edgar Degas, Copeland has revolutionized the image of the ballet dancer. Degas’ ballet paintings, “which the artist began creating in the late 1860s and continued making until the years before his death, in 1917, were infused with a very modern sensibility. Instead of idealized visions of delicate creatures pirouetting onstage, he offered images of young girls congregating, practicing, laboring, dancing, training….” He showed the unglamorous life and work behind the costumed pageantry, that is.

Photographers Ken Browar and Deborah Ory envisioned Copeland as several of Degas’ dancers, posing her in couture dresses in recreations of some of his famous paintings and sculptures. The photographs are part of their NYC Dance Project, in partnership with Harper’s Bazaar. As Kottke points out, conflating the histories of Copeland and Degas’ dancers raises some questions. Degas had contempt for women, especially his Parisian subjects, who danced in a sordid world in which “sex work" between teenage dancers and older men "was a part of a ballerina’s reality,” writes author Julia Fiore (as it was too in Nijinsky’s day).

This context may unsettle our viewing, but the images also show Copeland in full control of Degas’ scenes, though that's not the way it felt, she says. “It was interesting to be on shoot and to not have the freedom to just create like in normally do with my body. Trying to re-create what Degas did was really difficult.” Instead, she embodied his figures as herself. “I see a great affinity between Degas’s dancers and Misty,” says Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem. “She has knocked aside a long-standing music-box stereotype of the ballerina and replaced it with a thoroughly modern, multicultural image of presence and power.”

See more of Copeland’s Degas recreations at Harper’s Bazaar.

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When IBM Created a Typewriter to Record Dance Movements (1973)

Increasingly many of us in the 21st century have never used a typewriter — indeed, have never seen one in real life. But despite being deep into its obsolescence, the machine has a long cultural half-life. Seeing typewriters in classic and period films, for example, keeps an idea of their look and feel in our minds. Naturally it gets entangled with the romance of the writer, or rather the Writer, whom we imagine pounding away on a culturally iconic model: an Underwood, an Olvetti. "If Olivettis could talk, you'd get the novelist naked," writes Philip Roth in The Anatomy Lesson. From the then-new electric IBM typewriters, however, you'd hear "only the smug, puritanical workmanlike hum telling of itself and all its virtues: I am a Correcting Selectric II. I never do anything wrong."

Yet we underestimate the influence of the IBM Selectric, on not just writing but late-20th-century American life in general, at our peril. Introduced in 1961, this technologically revolutionary typewriter replaced the old "typebars" — those thin metal arms that whack a letter onto the page with each keystroke — with a "typeball," a "compact unit containing all the letters and symbols of a keyboard, rotated and pivoted to the correct position before striking."




So writes IBM's Justine Jablonska in an essay on the versatility of the typeball, which could be swapped out and modified according to the needs of the user. In 1973, IBM could say even to those users who needed to type out not words, sentences, and paragraphs but dances that, yes, there's a typeball for that.

Developed in collaboration with New York City’s Dance Notation Bureau, this unusual typeball "had special Labanotation symbols, developed in the 1920s by Hungarian dancer/choreographer Rudolf Laban to analyze and record movement and dance." Each symbol's location "showed which part of the body — arm, leg, torso — was to be used. The symbol’s shape indicated direction. The symbol’s shading showed the level of an arm or leg. And its length controlled the time value of a movement." In total, writes Karen Hill at Zippy Facts, Labanotation had "88 different symbols, which could be arranged to form a complete vocabulary for recording movement of any kind, from ballet and modern to ethnic, even folk." Beyond dance, the system could also record "movements in areas like sports, behavioral sciences, physical therapy, and even industrial operations."

This particular typeball showcased the Selectric's versatility, but some had higher hopes. In a 1975 paper, dance scholar Drid Williams compares its potential impact to that of "Gutenberg's invention several centuries ago," signaling that "the graphic linguistic sign can now be joined by its obvious counterpart, the printed human action sign." But she also expresses regret that "'the ball' is being looked on by many as a mere practical aid to recording human movement and it is being associated with specialist fields like dance. As usual, concern with the syntagmata obscures the real issues of the paradigms." Indeed. A more practical-minded assessment comes from Charles Ditchendorf, employed at the time at IBM’s Office Products Division. "To the best of my knowledge," Jablonska quotes him as saying, I didn’t sell one." But then, when has dance ever been enslaved to the market?

via Ted Gioia on Twitter

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

How Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring Incited a Riot? An Animated Introduction

There was a time when a ballet could start a riot — specifically, the night of May 29th, 1913. The place was Paris' Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and the ballet was The Rite of Spring, composed by Igor Stravinsky for the Ballets Ruses company. Popular history has remembered this debut performance as too bold, too daring, too avant-garde for its genteel audience to handle — and so, with the bourgeois duly épaté, we can freely appreciate Stravinsky's radical work from our position of 21st-century sophistication. But whether The Rite of Spring incited a riot, a "near-riot" (as some source describe it), or merely a wave of dissatisfaction, what aspects of its art were responsible?

May 29th, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées comes alive again in the animated TED-Ed lesson above, which examines all the ways The Rite of Spring broke violently with the ballet form as it had established itself in the 19th century. Lesson creator Iseult Gillespie (previously featured here on Open Culture for her explanatory work on everything from Shakespeare and Guernica to Frida Kahlo and Haruki Murakami) writes of its "harsh music, jerky dancing, and uncanny staging," all in service of a highly un-genteel Pagan premise that "set audiences on edge and shattered the conventions of classical music."




Among Stravinsky's musical provocations — or rather, "formal experiments," — Gillespie names "syncopation, or irregular rhythm," "atonality, or the lack of a single key," and "the presence of multiple time signatures," as well as the inclusion of aspects of the Russian folk music that was Stravinsky's cultural inheritance. Along with the music, already startling enough, came visual design by Nicholas Roerich, a painter-philosopher "obsessed with prehistoric times" and professionally concerned with human sacrifice and ancient tomb excavation.

Wearing Roerich's awkwardly-hanging peasant garments in front of his "vivid backdrops of primeval nature full of jagged rocks, looming trees, and nightmarish colors," the ballet's dancers performed steps by Vaslav Nijinsky, whose sense of rigor brought him to create dances "to rethink the roots of movement itself." His choreography "contorted traditional ballet, to both the awe and horror of his audience" — but then, that possibly overdetermined awe and horror could have arisen from several number of artistic sources at once. The Rite of Spring's tension and urgency still today reflects the historical moment of its composition, "the cusp of both the first world war and the Russian revolution," and we could also take the early reaction to its innovations as a reflection of its creators' genius — or perhaps those first viewers, as Stravinsky himself put it, were simply "naïve and stupid people."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch the Serpentine Dance, Created by the Pioneering Dancer Loie Fuller, Performed in an 1897 Film by the Lumière Brothers

Whatever their views on copyright, artists and inventors of all kinds can agree on one thing: all dread having their ideas stolen without so much as a footnote of credit. Such thefts have led to tanked careers, lifelong resentments, homicidal rivalries, and lawsuits to fill libraries. They have allowed many a thief to prosper and many an injured party to surrender.

But not legendary modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller.

“Short, plump, and thirty years old,” the dancer from Illinois arrived in Paris in 1892, fresh off the “mid-level vaudeville” circuit, writes Rhonda K. Garelick at Public Domain Review, and bent on proving herself to Édouard Marchand, director of the Folies-Bergère. She scored an interview within days of her arrival.

Alighting from her carriage in front of the theater, she stopped short at the sight of the large placard depicting the Folies’ current dance attraction: a young woman waving enormous veils over her head, billed as the “serpentine dancer.” “Here was the cataclysm, my utter annihilation,” Fuller would later write, for she had come to the Folies that day precisely to audition her own, new “serpentine dance,” an art form she had invented in the United States.

The imposter, an American named Maybelle Stewart, had seen Fuller perform in New York and had lifted her act and taken it to Paris. Rather than succumb to rage or despair, Fuller sat through the matinee performance and was moved from a cold sweat to renewed confidence. “The longer she danced,” she wrote, “the calmer I became.” After Stewart left the stage, Fuller ascended in her serpentine costume and auditioned for Marchand, who agreed to take her on and fire Stewart.

The story gets stranger. The show had been promoted with Stewart’s name, and so, to avoid bad publicity, Fuller agreed to perform the first two nights as Stewart, “dancing her own imitation of Stewart’s imitation of the serpentine dance,” a “triple-layer simulation,” Garelick writes, “worthy of an essay by Jean Baudrillard”—and emblematic of a career in dance marked by “self-replication, mirrored images, and identity play.”

Thus did the woman named Loie Fuller (born Mary-Louise Fuller), begin “what was to become an unbroken thirty-year reign as one of Europe’s most wildly celebrated dancers.” Fuller was “the only female entertainer to have her own pavilion” at the 1900 Exposition Universelle, writes Natalie Lemie at Artsy. “Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec featured her in a number of prints; Auguste Rodin commissioned a series of photographs of the dancer with plans to sculpt her; and the Lumière brothers released a film about her in 1897.”

Fuller’s dance personified Art Nouveau, expressing its elegant, flowing lines in her billowing silk gowns, which she moved by means of bamboo sewn into her sleeves. As she danced “colored lights were projected onto the flowing fabric, and as she twirled, she seemed to metamorphose into elements from the natural world: a flower, a butterfly, a tongue of flame.” Everyone came to see her. The Folies, which “typically attracted working class patrons," now had aristocratic newcomers lining up outside.

See the serpentine dance that launched her career at the top in the Lumière Brothers’ 1897 film and below it in a colorized excerpt, with the bewitching music of Sigur Ros added for effect. Other films and clips here from other early cinema pioneers show the medium's embrace of Fuller's choreography. Ironically, none of this footage, it seems, shows Fuller herself, but only her imitators. "Unfortunately none of the surviving films seem to contain a performance by the original dancer/choreographer," notes cinema history channel Magical Motion Museum, "despite some of them carrying her name in the title or otherwise crediting her as the dancer."

Her name carried a lot of weight. Fuller was not only a celebrated dancer, but also a manager, producer, and lighting designer with “over a dozen patents related to her costumes and innovations in stage lighting.” (She was so interested in the “luminous properties” of radium that she sought out and “befriended its discoverers, Pierre and Marie Curie.”) By 1908, however, she had left behind some of these elaborate stage effects to focus on “natural dancing’—dance inspired by nature, which was the forerunner of modern dance.”

And she had taken on a young dancer in her company named Isadora Duncan, often referred to as the “Mother of Modern Dance." Fuller deserves credit, too, but she didn’t seem to care about this overmuch. She was, notes Oberlin College dance professor Ann Cooper Albright, “way more interested in making things happen than creating a name for herself.” Fame came as a byproduct of her creativity rather than its sought-after reward. She was still renowned after she left the stage, and given a retrospective at The Louvre in 1924.

Fuller continued to work behind the scenes after the Art Nouveau movement gave way to new modernisms and supported and inspired younger artists until her death in 1928. Her work deserves a prominent place in the history of modern dance, but Fuller herself “was—and remains—elusive,” Lemie writes, “something of a phantom." Others might have stolen, borrowed, or imitated the serpentine dance, but Lois Fuller became it, going beyond competition and into a realm of magic.

via Public Domain Review

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Expressionist Dance Costumes from the 1920s, and the Tragic Story of Lavinia Schulz & Walter Holdt

The most fruitful creative partnerships, long or short, have often been tempestuous. On the shorter side, and among the stormiest, we have a husband-and-wife team who realized visions hitherto unseen onstage, and who very nearly fell into total obscurity after a murder-suicide brought their partnership to an end. But in the Hamburg of the late 1910s and early 1920s, writes Hyperallergic's Allison Meier, Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt "created wild, Expressionist costumes that looked like retro robots and Bauhaus knights," twenty of them, for performances accompanied by avant-garde music. After their death in 1924, Schulz and Holdt's work went into storage, never to be found again until the late 1980s.

The costumes had been gifted to the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, which in 1925 "staged an evening in memory of Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt," writes blogger Jan Reetze.




"After this, the masks, photos and drawings" — including dances diagrammed in a system of Schulz's own invention — "went into a couple of 'acrobat's baggage' boxes and fell into oblivion on the museum's attic. They were not even inventoried. Which turned out to be a stroke of luck because this way the objects didn't fall into the hands of the Nazis, who, without any doubt, would have seen these works as 'degenerate art' and in all probability would have destroyed them."

You can see the costumes in action in the video at the top of the post, and more of the photos taken by Minya Diez-Dührkoop in the last year of Schulz and Holdt's lives at Hyperallergic. Their performances began in the expressionism with which the Berlin-educated Schultz had been associated and moved toward "the supposed purity of pre-Judeo-Christian, Aryan-Nordic culture," as Dangerous Minds' Paul Gallagher writes.

"Between 1920-24, the couple performed their dance routines to the bewildered and often antagonistic audiences of Hamburg. Though some critics appreciated the pair’s talent and startling originality, this praise was never enough to pay the rent."

"According to contemporary critics, Lavinia seemed to be the more creative one," writes Reetze. "Walter, on the other hand, was the better and more disciplined dancer, he exactly knew his formal means and how to use them." The counterpart to Holdt's rigor was Schulz's more primal genius, a sensibility that manifested aesthetically — seen in her highly unconventional use of everyday materials like "wire, gypsum, papier mâché and industrial garbage" — and emotionally.

Reetze quotes from the autobiography of composer Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, who briefly lived with the couple: "Deprivation, hunger, coldness, nordic landscape with storm, ice, and catastrophes: That was her world, and she had found herself in it with Holdt."

Schulz and Holdt also refused to be paid for their performances. "You cannot sell spiritual ideas for money," Schulz wrote. "Spirit and money are two antagonistic poles, and if you sell spiritual ideas for money, you sold the spirit to the money and lost the spirit." Eventually their poverty — as well as the unusually volatile nature of their relationship, said to spark physical marital spats on stage — reached a breaking point. "Both were in their 20s, and had earned little money from their artistic work," writes Meier. "In financial ruin, on June 18, 1924, Schulz shot Holdt, and then turned the gun on herself." But against all odds, their still-startling creativity — the kind that can, perhaps, emerge only from the opposition of two incompatible forces — lives on.

via Dangerous Mind

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Science Shows That Snowball the Cockatoo Has 14 Different Dance Moves: The Vogue, Headbang & More

We humans think we invented everything.

The wheel…

The printing press…

Dancing…

Well, we’re right about the first two.

Turns out the impulse to shake a tail feather isn’t an arbitrary cultural construct of humanity but rather a hard-wired neurological impulse in beings classified as vocal learners—us, elephants, dolphins, songbirds, and parrots like the Internet-famous sulphur-crested cockatoo, Snowball, above.

Animals outside of this elite set can be trained to execute certain physical moves, or they may just look like they’re dancing when tracking the movements of their food bowl or shimmying with relief at being picked up from doggy daycare.




Snowball, however, is truly dancing, thanks to his species’ capacity for hearing, then imitating sounds. Like every great spontaneous dancer, he’s got the music in him.

Aniruddh Patel, a Professor of Psychology at Tufts who specializes in music cognition, was the first to consider that Snowball’s habit of rocking out to the Backstreet Boys CD he’d had in his possession when dropped off at a parrot rescue center in Dyer, Indiana, was something more than a party trick.

Dr. Patel notes that parrots have more in common with dinosaurs than human beings, and that our monkey cousins don’t dance (much to this writer’s disappointment).

(Also, for the record? That goat who sings like Usher? It may sound like Usher, but you'll find no scientific support for the notion that its vocalizations constitute singing.)

Snowball, on the other hand, has made a major impression upon the Academy.

In papers published in Current Biology and Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Patel and his co-authors John R. Iversen, Micah R. Bregman, and Irena Schulz delved into why Snowball can dance like … well, maybe not Fred Astaire, but certainly your average moshing human.

After extensive observation, they concluded that an individual must possess five specific mental skills and predilections in order to move impulsively to music:

  1. They must be complex vocal learners, with the accompanying ability to connect sound and movement.
  2. They must be able to imitate movements.
  3. They must be able to learn complex sequences of actions.
  4. They must be attentive to the movements of others.
  5. They must form long-term social bonds.

Cockatoos can do all of this. Humans, too.

Patel’s former student R. Joanne Jao Keehn recently reviewed footage she shot in 2009 of Snowball getting down to Queen’s "Another One Bites the Dust" and Cyndi Lauper’s "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," identifying 14 distinct moves.

According to her research, his favorites are Vogue, Head-Foot Sync, and Headbang with Lifted Foot.

If you’ve been hugging the wall since middle school, maybe it’s time to take a deep breath, followed by an avian dancing lesson.

How did Snowball come by his astonishing rug-cutting confidence? Certainly not by watching instructional videos on YouTube. His human companion Schulz dances with him occasionally, but doesn't attempt to teach him her moves, which she describes as "limited."

Much like two human partners, they’re not always doing the same thing at the same time.

And the choreography is purely Snowball’s.

As Patel told The Harvard Gazette:

It’s actually a complex cognitive act that involves choosing among different types of possible movement options. It’s exactly how we think of human dancing.

If he is actually coming up with some of this stuff by himself, it’s an incredible example of animal creativity because he’s not doing this to get food; he’s not doing this to get a mating opportunity, both of which are often motivations in examples of creative behavior in other species.

You can read more science-based articles inspired by Snowball and watch some of his many public appearances on the not-for-profit, donation-based sanctuary Bird Lovers Only’s website.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 9 for another season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Why We Dance: An Animated Video Explains the Science Behind Why We Bust a Move

Has any culture, apart from that of the tiny Utah town in Footloose, done entirely without dancing? It would at first seem that any human need the rhythmic shaking of one's limbs to organized sound fulfills must reside pretty low on the overall priority scale, but anthropology tells us that various human societies started dancing before they got into most every other activity that fills their time today. "Why is this ostensibly frivolous act so fundamental to being human?" asks the Aeon video above. "The answer, it seems, is in our need for social cohesion — that vital glue that keeps societies from breaking apart despite interpersonal differences."

Directed and animated by Rosanna Wan and Andrew Khosravani, the four-minute explainer frames our deep, culture-transcending need to "bust a move" in terms of the work of both 19th- and early 20th-century French sociologist Émile Durkheim and more recent research performed by Bronwyn Tarr, an Oxford evolutionary biologist who also happens to be a dancer herself.




Durkheim posited the phenomenon of "collective effervescence," or "a sort of electricity," or "that exhilaration, almost euphoria, that overtakes groups of people united by a common purpose, pursuing an intensely involving activity together." When you feel it, you feel "a flow, a sense that your self is melding with the group as a whole." And has any practice generated as much collective effervescence throughout human history as dance?

Modern science has shed a bit of light on why: Tarr has found that "we humans have a natural tendency to synchronize our movements with other humans," thanks to a region in the brain which helps us make the same movements we see others making. "When we mimic our partner's movements, and they're mimicking ours, similar neural networks in both networks open up a rush of neurohormones, all of which make us feel good." Listening to music "can create such a euphoric delight that it appears to activate opioid receptors in the brain," making it even harder to resist getting up and dancing. "They said he'd never win," Footloose's tagline said of the movie's big-city teen intent on getting the town dancing again, but "he knew he had to" — an assurance that turns out to have had a basis in neurology.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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