Fanny Elssler was one of the most brilliant stars of the nineteenth century stage, but her significance lies not in her ephemeral fame, but in the mark that she left on the development of ballet as an art form that is not merely beautiful, but also has the capacity to convey the deepest dilemmas of the human condition. Théophile Gautier famously characterised Elssler as a ‘pagan’ dancer, in contrast to the ‘Christian’ Marie Taglioni, and Elssler’s style, which is beautifully evoked in the many descriptive passages quoted in Ivor Guest‘s biography, was rooted in human emotion and experience.

Elssler had great technical gifts: she was graceful, light and precise, gliding across the stage with fast footwork, attack and buoyancy, dancing on ‘steely points’ with ‘marvellous equilibrium’. However, it was her sense for dramatic coherence and her intelligent understanding of narrative that are her greatest legacy. (more…)

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Followers of Oxford Dance Writers who enjoyed Jane Connelly’s description of One Billion Rising  or Emily Coats’ account of her Swan Lake dance protest  will be fascinated by this book.

In Embodied politics: dance, protest and identities Stacey Prickett approaches her vast subject by means of four discrete but interlinked essays, in which she considers dance activism firstly in the US and then in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s, before turning to look at developments in the San Francisco Bay area around the turn of the 21st century and finally the South Asian dance movement in Britain. There is a logical chronological sequence to the work, but each of the four chapters has its own intrinsic structure and could be read independently.  Prickett uses the introduction and conclusion to draw together the threads that run through the work (more…)

If you love dance and love London, this book is for you!  Larraine Nicholas takes us on a series of imaginary walks, leading us through London’s remarkable dance landscape during three years at the start of the 1950s.  It was an exciting period that included the Festival of Britain and the Coronation, and dance was part of it;  not just  the big names, such as Sadler’s Wells Ballet and Ballet Rambert, but dozens of small companies, many now forgotten.  A single footnote lists eight of the “better documented” groups, and some, even of these, only lasted a season. (more…)

For those who still have Christmas shopping ahead of them and who are wondering what to give the dance enthusiasts in their lives, here is a round-up and reminder of some of the enjoyable and fascinating reads that have come our way this year and been reviewed on Oxford Dance Writers, primarily by our expert reviewer Maggie Watson. As well as biographies and works of dance scholarship, the list includes books for younger readers, and a DVD and CD for the Christmas stocking.  Several things here that will be going on my Christmas list… (more…)

This remarkable book recently published by Dance Books, and including commentary by Robert Cohan himself, is far more than a dance biography.  Such has been the cultural and artistic impact of Robert Cohan that the chronological narrative account of his life also charts the introduction, development and establishment of contemporary dance as an art form in England.  It makes fascinating reading as the story of an exceptional life, while on other fronts the book debates problems such as how to balance the desires and expectations of audiences, critics, sponsors, and the various creative artists who are involved in any production. (more…)

In 1956, people queued in Covent Garden for three days and nights to buy the 55,000 tickets for the Bolshoi Ballet’s first visit to the West.  Of the thousands that queued for tickets for a further three performances at the Davis Theatre Croydon (capacity 3,500), only about one in four was successful.  Ballet, which had been the elite entertainment of imperial Russia’s privileged classes, had suddenly become the Soviet Union’s most distinctive cultural export.

The survival of ballet in post revolutionary Russia is remarkable in itself.  Challenged by practical problems (lack of food or heat), new proletarian audiences, and intellectual disagreements about the rôle of ballet in the Soviet cultural project, its death seemed inevitable to some.  In spite of its title, this is not a book about the dancers;  it is a book about the environment in which they worked, and the ways in which neither the Kirov or the Bolshoi buckled under the drive for “socialist realism”, which, of course, had little to do with realism. (more…)

Frederick Ashton’s Ballets:  Style, Performance, Choreography, by Geraldine Morris, Dance Books, 2012

Original, informed and scholarly, this book could transform the way in which Ashton’s ballets are performed today.  On p.60, Morris quotes Nijinska’s complaint:  The dancers turn everything into what they can already do and consequently ‘falsely transmit the choreographic score …’.  Morris addresses this problem with regard to Ashton’s work, which, she argues, we are in danger of losing if we fail to recognise the individual style that is intrinsic to his choreographic output. (more…)