Reviewed Elsewhere: Edward Ross Dickinson, Dancing in the Blood: Modern Dance and European Culture on the Eve of the First World War. 

Lars Fischer's picture

Edward Ross Dickinson. Dancing in the Blood: Modern Dance and European Culture on the Eve of the First World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xii+296 pp. £59.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-10719-622-3; £16.99 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-31664-721-9.

Edward Ross Dickinson’s Dancing in the Blood is a magisterial piece of historical scholarship. Based on extensive archival research in European and North American dance collections, it presents the reader with a synthetic view of modern dance at the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet it also ventures beyond the limits of its topic, setting it up as a crucible for larger cultural concerns. Modern dance, Dickinson argues, “played a central role in giving birth to the global twentieth century” (9), constituting a “point of convergence for a whole range of questions raised by social and cultural change” (7). He singles out five broad areas in which dance made a mark: as a marketing strategy, dance catered for the emerging mass culture market; as a form of artistic expression based on the artist’s body itself, it responded to the modernist desire for forms of authenticity. As many dancers raised their public appeal through exoticist self-fashioning, international modern dance was also a site of negotiation for ethnic, racial, national, and not least gendered identities; and dance’s allegiances with both archaism and progress were at the heart of the era’s dedication toward what Dickinson calls a “religion of evolution” (8). By way of opening up a historical perspective, he also addresses the fact of dance’s increasing politicization in the 1920s and 1930s, as an instrument for the staging of democratic culture but also, more problematically, as a form of mass spectacle for the totalitarian politics of Germanic nationalism. ...

... Not unlike Karl Toepfer’s Empire of Ecstasy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910–1935 (Berkeley, 1997), Dickinson’s study is thus immensely valuable for historians who wish to get a representative insight into the rich terrain of modernist dance culture, and it adds to the wealth of archival information on the period that dance scholars have unearthed for many years. Yet Dickinson’s claim that most of the existing dance scholarship on modernism was “highly biographical” (16) needs adjustment. To name but three of the classic (not even very recent) contributions to the field: Gabriele Brandstetter’s Poetics of Dance: Body, Image, and Space in the Historical Avant-gardes (New York, 2015; first German edition 1995) follows a highly conceptual approach that traces the affective and topographical bodily patterns (pathos formulae/topos formulae) of the modernist imagination, touching from the perspective of critical cultural analysis upon many of the themes that are also raised in Dickinson; Mark Franko’s Dancing Modernism/Performing Politics (Bloomington, IN, 1995) investigates the actual political agency—rather than the reflection of political discourses—of modern dance; Susan Manning’s Ecstasy and the Demon: The Dances of Mary Wigman (Minneapolis, 2006; 1st ed., 1993) focuses on a single performer’s trajectory, yet it does so under the lens of feminist theory and ideological critique. It is in its partial neglect of the theoretical state of the art of dance scholarship, but also of cultural analysis more generally, where Dickinson’s conversation between the disciplines sometimes falls short. ... I also would have wished to see a commitment to analyzing more closely this imaginary’s physical performances, the details of which are curiously absent from Dickinson’s discussion.

To be fair, Dickinson is upfront about not seeking to pursue this kind of close critical reading, stating clearly that his focus is “less on the art form than on its context” (16). And he certainly achieves for his readers a tour de force account of what he calls “a crowd scene, in which the diverse actions of individuals resolve into a broader direction and momentum in the scene as a whole” (15). His book is extremely readable and packed full of solid historical detail, offering a brilliant resource every scholar working in the field should turn to.

Lucia Ruprecht. Journal of Modern History 91, 1 (2019), 162–163.