Constructing the natural: British theatre dance in the early 20th century.

Carter, Alexandra (2009) Constructing the natural: British theatre dance in the early 20th century. In: Moving naturally: rethinking dance 1900-1930, 31st October 2009, University of Surrey. . [Conference or Workshop Item]

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During the first quarter of the twentieth century there was a return, in the West, to notions of the ‘natural’ in diverse fields of cultural activity. For many, country pursuits; freer ways of learning; liberating costume; the authenticity of emotion and sexual desire, and the natural world itself were all privileged in action and belief. For some, the Hellenic Greek period (5thc.BCE) was viewed as the epitome of a natural harmony and balance between the State, the people and their gods. One of the central tenets of 20thc. beliefs, inspired by this Greek world, was a return to the re-presentation of the ‘natural’ body.

In social and theatre dance, the concern for natural ways of moving took the form of a backlash against the strictures of ballroom and ballet. Described by various terms such as ‘expressive’, ‘interpretative’ or ‘free’, theatrical forms sought alternatives to ballet and to the popular dances of music hall and vaudeville. In historiography, Isadora Duncan is presented as prime mover in this rebellion. Duncan was not alone, however, for there were others who did not simply imitate her but found their own ways of making and performing dance that embraced notions of the ‘natural’ as an underlying philosophy for their work.

The paper explores the work of two British protagonists in the field. Madge Atkinson (1885 - 1970) established Natural Movement and Ruby Ginner (1886 - 1978) devised what came to be known as Classical Greek Dance. Both were active primarily from the second decade of the twentieth century onwards. They produced work for the theatre and many other public places, and disseminated their ideas in lecture demonstrations, teaching and writing. Their principles of training evolved and found longevity in syllabi offered in the private dance education system.

Using written, visual and moving image sources from newly accessible collections held at the National Resource Centre for Dance, plus oral history recorded from the memories of participants in these forms, it is argued that the work of these two artists represents the concern with the ‘natural’ in British theatre dance. It does so by such strategies as performing in the open air, exploring nature as thematic material; basing vocabulary on the development of everyday gestures and travelling, and freeing the body from constricting costume. Furthermore, the belief in not only the lyrical expressiveness of dance but also in the dramatic potential of the narratives, chimed with the mood in Central Europe. With these commonalities, the work of Atkinson and Ginner not only has an important place in British dance history but also inscribes that history on the international dance scene.

However, it is also suggested that the nomenclature of the ‘natural’ is misleading for, as the sources reveal, their work was crafted, codified and deeply considered. With these two artists as central examples, the paper explores both what was arguably ‘natural’ about these forms of dance and also how the term disguises and undervalues its craft, skill and professional endeavour.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Research Areas: A. > School of Media and Performing Arts > Performing Arts
Item ID: 3127
Useful Links:
Depositing User: Prof Alexandra Carter
Date Deposited: 30 Mar 2010 13:32
Last Modified: 09 Jun 2021 16:04

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