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Kandinsky and the dance of the future

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

We are faced with the necessity of creating a new dance form,

the dance of the future.

Wassily Kandinsky


In the twenty years between 1908 and 1928, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), considered one of the pioneers and fathers of Abstractism, contributed more than any other contemporary painter did to a new idea of dance, making it an integral part of his vision for the future of art. His theoretical formulations on dance and movement are present in numerous of his writings, including the famous book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, written in 1910 and published a year later. Here the Russian painter criticizes the European ballet of the time, on the cusp of the changes wrought by the company Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev. For Kandinsky, ballet was incapable of both dealing with abstract ideas, and expressing a wide range of emotions; it was therefore necessary to create a new language able to arouse in the audience the most subtle feelings.

In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky refers to Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), dancer already well-known back then, that the painter had seen dancing, probably several times, in Munich, Germany. On the one hand, Duncan had identified a link between the Greek dance and that of the future, working in a way similar to many contemporary painters who looked to the forms of the past in order to renovate the present. But on the other hand, dance, as painting, was going through only a stage of transition. While Kandinsky acknowledged the dancer’s contribution, he felt the need for a new dance, the dance of the future that went beyond what Isadora Duncan was offering. One of Kandinsky’s central goals, in fact, was the research of an anti-narrative dance, no longer based on conventional beauty, but on Abstractism and the inner meaning of motion.


The very same law of implicit utilization of the inner sense of movement, as the main element of dancing, will be effective. Too, the conventional «beauty» of movement must be overthrown, and the natural process (narrative=literary element) must be abandoned as useless and ultimately disturbing. As no «dissonant notes» exist in music, nor in painting «in harmony», in these two art expressions every sound, whether harmony or discord, is beautiful (=appropriate), if it results from inner need. The inner value of each movement will soon be felt, as the inner beauty replaces the sensuous aspect. Thus, «ugly» movements suddenly appear beautiful, from which an undreamed power and vital force will burst forth instantly. This will start the dance of the future.

Wassily Kandinsky – Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911)


Beside his artistic activity, Kandinsky wrote prolifically throughout his life. In 1926, he published in the prestigious German art periodical Das Kunstblatt an essay entirely dedicated to dance, Dance Curves: On The Dances of Palucca, in which he did an extraordinary analysis of the movements of Gret Palucca, a dancer trained with Mary Wigman and one of the main exponents of German expressionist dance. The text is accompanied by four photographs of Palucca, taken by the prominent dance photographer Charlotte Rudolph, and by four corresponding analytical drawings, in which Kandinsky translates the dancer’s movements, light yet dynamic, into a geometric representation of straight and curved lines, to transpose the tension of bodily expression and the spatial effect on a two-dimensional medium.



When it was first published, Dance Curves was definitely sui generis: not only had no one ever worked with photographs of a dancer to create line drawings before, but Kandinsky was also doing it for the express purpose of using dance to articulate his own theories of composition and form. Rudolph’s photographs masterfully capture the moments in Palucca dances in which the motion (and emotion) has reached a high point and hence served Kandinsky well to illustrate his theories. On the other hand, Palucca increasingly aimed to present herself as a modern dancer and shared with the painter the abstract principles and the idea of ​​a geometric simplicity underlying her body movement. Regarding a Palucca photograph in particular, Kandinsky stated that, unlike academic dance, in modern dance the jumps could trace even not exclusively vertical trajectories and, if anything, outline the contours of a five-pointed spot. These elements highlight the nature and properties of shape, giving it the possibility of being a signifying manifestation of reality. By the association of lines with the poses of Palucca, Kandinsky captures what is to him the essence of dance, a distinct and separate art form.


It was Kandinsky’s tenure as a teacher at the Bauhaus institution that planted the seeds of his ideas expressed in Dance Curves and to provide him with a wide range of exploration possibilities. As an interdisciplinary school, the Bauhaus studied modern dancers and often collaborated with them, which Kandinsky naturally found attractive. In fact, he took his students to a dance studio, which was very close to the classroom, to make them draw the dancers in ten seconds, using only lines and points. Recovering the simplicity of form, Kandinsky's drawings synthesize movement to the point of bringing it to abstraction, thus taking up the minimization of the subject, a key component of the Bauhaus aesthetic.


Kandinsky profoundly influenced all the artists of his time, including Martha Graham (1894 – 1991). In her autobiography Blood Memory Graham tells of when, visiting the Art Institute of Chicago in 1922, she was greatly impressed by the first modern paintings she had ever seen, among which Chagall e Matisse, and in particular a Kandinsky’s painting:


I nearly fainted because at that moment I knew I was not mad, that others saw the world, saw art, the way I did. It was by Wassily Kandinsky, and had a strike of red going from one end to the other, I said, ‘I will do that someday, I will make a dance like that’.

Martha Graham – Blood Memory (1991)



From this painting – Untitled, of 1921 – ensued the dance Diversion of Angels (1948). Among the various correlations with the picture, there is one that deserves to be evaluated: a female dancer in red, dashing across a stage with a blue background, represents the streak of red paint bisecting a blue amorphous shape of Kandinsky’s painting. The correlations here rely on line, colour, and overall compositional energy. The red dancer stands on her left leg in a tilt, outstretched arms parallel to her right leg’s nearly 180-degree extension. In this repeated motif, her right leg has the same angulation of the red rod entering the painting’s blue shape. Interested in both the synthesis of the arts and the multisensory experience – synesthesia – Kandinsky equated his paintings with musical compositions. It is no surprise, then, that his painting literally moved Graham to dance.


Dance followed the path of modern painting and architecture,

rejecting pure decorativism.

Dance does not have to be «graceful», but true.

Martha Graham – Blood Memory (1991)


Below you can find an excerpt of Diversion of Angels by Martha Graham:



Written by Bianca Pasquinelli.


Translations: text translated in English by Bianca Pasquinelli and in Spanish by Matteo Mascolo.


References:


- Martha Graham, Memoria di sangue, translated by Anna Fedegari, Garzanti, Milano 1992 (I ed. Blood Memory, 1991).


- Wassily Kandinsky, Lo spirituale nell’arte, edited by Elena Pontiggia, Bompiani, Milano 1993 (I ed. Über das Geistige in der Kunst, Insbesondere in der Malerei, 1911).


- Zarina Zabrisky, Lissa Tyler Renaud, Kandinsky and the Totalitarian State. Dossiê Kandinsky. Kandinsky Beyond Painting: New Perspectives, in « Dramaturgias» (LADI), University of Brasilia, Vol. 9, 2011 online: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/335827951_Kandinsky_and_the_Totalitarian_State_Dossie_Kandinsky_Kandinsky_Beyond_Painting_New_Perspectives_Revista_do_Laboratorio_de_Dramaturgia_-_LADI_-_UnB_-_Vol_9_Ano_3.


Michael Huxley, The Dance of the Future: Wassily Kandinsky’s Vision, 1908–1928, in «Dance Chronicle», Vol. 40, Issue 3, 2017, pp. 259-286, online: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01472526.2017.1373243?needAccess=true.


- Martha Graham Dance Company, Diversion of Angels, online: https://marthagraham.org/portfolio-items/diversion-of-angels-1948/.


- Hannah Foster, Tales of Hopper: The Additive Adaptation from Painting to Dance, online:


- Selene Demaria, Palucca experiment. Studio visivo sull’arte di Kandinsky applicata alla danza contemporanea, online: https://selenedemaria.myportfolio.com/palucca-experiment.

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