The Dance Theatre of Harlem Dances Through the Streets of NYC: A Sight to Behold

It’s nearly impossible to find an unblemished square of pavement in New York City.

Unless the concrete was poured within the last day or two, count on each square to boast at least one dark polka dot, an echo of casually discarded gum.

Confirm for yourself with a quick peek beneath the exuberant feet of the Dance Theatre of Harlem company members performing on the plaza of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building during the 46th annual Harlem Week festival.




For obvious reasons, this year’s festival took place entirely online, but the Dance Theatre’s offering is a far cry from the gloomy Zoom-y affair that’s become 2020’s sad norm.

Eight company members, including co-producers Derek Brockington and Alexandra Hutchinson, hit the streets, to be filmed dancing throughout Harlem.

Those who gripe about the discomfort of wearing a mask while exerting themselves should shut their traps until they’ve performed ballet on the platform of the 145th and St. Nicholas Subway Station, where the dancers’ pristine white shoes bring further buoyancy to the proceedings.

The City College of New York—in-state tuition $7,340—provides the Neo-Gothic stage for four ballerinas to perform en pointe.

The Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge serve as backdrop as four young men soar along the promenade in Denny Farrell Riverbank State Park. Their casual outfits are a reminder of how company founder Arthur Mitchell, the New York City Ballet’s first black principal dancer, deliberately relaxed the dress code to accommodate young men who would have resisted tights.

The piece is an excerpt of New Bach, part of the company’s repertoire by resident choreographer and former principal dancer, Robert Garland, described in an earlier New York Times review as “an authoritative and highly imaginative blend of classical vocabulary and funk, laid out in handsome formal patterns in a well-plotted ballet.”

The music is by J.S. Bach.

And in these fractious times, it’s worth noting that only one of the dancers is New York City born and bred. The others hail from Kansas, Texas, Chicago, Louisiana, Delaware, Orange County, and upstate.

The group seizes the opportunity to amplify a much needed public health message—wear a mask!—but it’s also a beautiful tribute to the power of the arts and the vibrant neighborhood where a world-class company was founded in a converted garage at the height of the civil rights movement.

Contribute to Dance Theater of Harlem’s COVID-19 Relief Fund here.

via @BalletArchive/@TedGioia

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.   Follow her @AyunHalliday.

When Shostakovich Adapted Gogol’s “The Nose” Into an Opera: Watch Giant Noses Tap Dancing on the Stage

The first-time reader of a story called “The Nose” may expect any number of things: a character with a keen sense of smell; a murder evidenced by the titular organ, disembodied; a broader ironic point about the things right in front of our faces that we somehow never see. But given its conception in the imagination of Nikolai Gogol, “The Nose” is about a nose — a nose that, on its own, lives, breathes, walks, and dresses in finery. The nose does this, it seems, in order to rise in rank past that of its former owner, the run-of-the-mill St. Petersburg civil servant Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov.

Written in 1835 and 1836, “The Nose” satirizes the long era in Imperial Russia after Peter the Great introduced the Table of Ranks. Meant to usher in a kind of proto-meritocracy, that system assigned rank to military and government officers according, at least in theory, to their ability and achievements. The fact that those who attained high enough ranks would rise the to the level of hereditary nobles created an all-out status war across many sections of society — a war, to the mind of Gogol the master observer of bureaucracy, that could pit a man not just against his colleagues and friends but against his own body parts.




Nearly a century after the story’s publication, a young Dmitri Shostakovich took it upon himself to adapt “The Nose” into his very first opera. In collaboration with Alexander Preis, Georgy Ionin, and Yevgeny Zamyatin (author of the enduring dystopian novel We), the composer rendered even more outrageously this tale of a nose gone rogue. Incorporating pieces of Gogol’s other stories like the “The Overcoat” and “Diary of a Madman” as well as the play Marriage and the diary Dead Souls — not to mention the writings of other Russian masters, including Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov — the 1928 opera combines a wide variety of musical styles both traditional and experimental, and among its set pieces includes a number performed by giant tap-dancing noses.

You can see that part performed in the video above. The venue is London’s Royal Opera House, the director is Barrie Kosky of Berlin’s Komische Oper, and the year is 2016, half a century after The Nose‘s revival. Though completed in the late 1920s, it didn’t premiere on stage in full until 1930, when Soviet censorship concentrated its energies on quashing such non-revolutionary spectacles. It wouldn’t be staged again in the Soviet Union until 1974, nearly a decade after its premiere in the United States. (Just a couple years before, Alexander Alexeieff and Claire Parker had adapted the story into the pinscreen animation previously featured here on Open Culture.) The sociopolitical concerns of Gogol’s early 19th century and Shostakovich’s early 20th may have passed, but the appeal of the former’s sharp satire — and the sheer Pythonesque weirdness of the latter’s operatic sensibility — certainly haven’t.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

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.

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