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Character Dance in our own Time
February 2004

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by Nadejda L. Loujine

Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, Nadejda Loujine teaches character dance and choreographs, and founded the troupe La Geste du Loup Gris. Most recently, she has choreographed the dances for L’Hiver sous la table by Roland Topor, directed by Zabou Breitmann and starring Isabelle Carré and Dominique Pignon (Winter 2004).

Rooted in tradition, character dance is inextricably entwined with one of the founding principles of dance: the sacred.

While leaving the creator his entire freedom, it takes the public into universes that lie in a more elevated plane.

Character dance finds itself in an odd position, as it stylises, and brings to the stage, personages and choreographies that are popular in origin. The term "character dance" is, moreover, rather hard to define, having been bandied about rather loosely to mean all or nothing … a muddle, a bric à brac of choreography fitted to no pigeonhole. Its position in the current world of choreography is neither widely acknowledged, nor does it enjoy real cultural status.

But a few short years ago, the appearance of Igor Moïsseiev or Antonio Gades unleashed enthusiasm, and today, many attend Indian dance recitals. But would they still call it character dance ?

"Folklore" in the Russian cabarets

Between the 1920s and 1960s, a kind of character dance was all the rage in France.

The problem actually arose between the two World Wars, when a certain type of "cabaret character dance" became a real craze. At Paris, the Novi, the Rose Noire, the Prince Igor, the Sheherezade, the Rasputin, the successful Russian cabarets, were fashionable watering-holes, where the smart set, out slumming, were fed with popularly-accented, but nevertheless distorted dances. The image that remains is "Day-Glo folklore", measured in acrobatics: fish-dives, parapluies, knife-throwing … To artists desperate to earn a living it was manna from heaven, and how many danced in these cabarets, contributing willy-nilly to a caricature of traditional dance ! Hardly surprising, then, that since those heydays, dancers have preferred to neglect this form !

Lack of interest has now reached the institutions: in the academies, character dance has been relegated to a minor "complementary" technique, and the image of the character dancer is that of a "second-rater". But alongside his work on classical and modern dance, a character dancer must learn not only the most varied techniques, but the reasons that lie behind them, the rituals they hearken back to, if he cares to understand and bring to life his personages. To go beyond the obvious, to go to the roots and the meaning that will bring the actor’s truth to an interpretation, a treasure-trove of folkloric, popular or popularised culture on which character dance relies.

Associated with folklore (1) in the noblest sense of that term - its source and, to a great extent, its inspiration - character dance flows from no one single stream, no one single tradition, whether Ukrainian, Hungarian or Gypsy. Being a theatrical art form, character dance refers to the existential principle of the individual, in an organic and symbolic relation to the group that allows the dancer to get back to the "fundamentals of dance", a term much favoured today. It is all too easily forgotten that not the least of the fundamentals, is the sacred element.

The sources of ritual

Dance is an ancestral form of human behaviour. Early man, primitive man, danced, hoping to attain that which had moved him, but which he could not reach. By lending his physical activity a spiritual character, sculpting space with his "forces", he would strive to commune with the energies of nature, reconcile their good graces, and clothe himself in their strength and harmony.

Originally, dance was a ritual. The weight of language bears upon each gesture, each movement is born from a gesture that has an emotional content. Thus a fertility dance does not merely portray a myth, but recalls a deep gesture that will bring on rain, just as a dancer must recall a deep gesture from which emotion will spring. The dance-area becomes a sort of altar, where the sacred appears (2). Character dance may lead us to question that aspect of the sacred that the dancer reveals. We have strayed far afield from the Rose Noire or the Sheherezade cabaret…

From the cosmos to society, a procession of belonging

Although in primitive dances, man declares that he belongs to the cosmos, as he first elaborates, and himself appears in a field tilled by tradition and custom, he thereafter puts on social traits that will identify him. Society takes over from the cosmos, as each social group has the will to stand out from the next. Like all popular art forms, dance affirms and strengthen one’s ties to others. It is not an expression of individual personality but of individuality within a group. In the course of history, moreover, and like other artistic areas, notably music, the dance forms reflect our forms of social behaviour and organisation.

As peculiarities and social structures bring forth ever-more groups, whether they be broader, as in the nation, or narrower, as in a craft or trade, dances stress socio-professional traits, and become ever more complex, technically, and more differentiated.

Two examples, from an approach to walking. In peasant dances, this simple movement will often mean burying the seeds; along with a firm movement of the foot, the jump takes on the meaning of the plant growing. The stronger the push-off, the deeper the roots and the higher the plant. The deeper the plié, the lighter the jump; the deeper one delves into the ground, the higher one soars. The plié quality appears here, as a technical quality that produces elevation. In Caucasian dances, the use of points reflects how hard it is to wind along the tortuous mountain paths. By mastering these "totemlike" positions, inventing new combinations and ornaments, the dancer can impress his comrades and of course, the womenfolk.

The three stages of dance

The three stages of evolution in dance, that we have briefly referred to above, reflect the functions and forms peculiar to the art: imitative in primitive dance, expressive for folk or popular dance, and finally, abstract, i.e. "scholarly" or danse savante.

In primitive dance, there is no awareness of "steps". What counts is the overall picture, in its magical-religious aspect. Primitive dance played an incantatory role. Jointly repeating and speeding up the pulsation, brought the group to a trance-like state, a sacred phenomenon.

Through the sacred, unity is achieved, the group becomes one, in a magical union with the object of the ritual - on which it confers a god-like quality, or even deifies.

In popular dance (3), lines and steps appear. (4) Each dancer declares his belonging to the group. Dance may reflect the image of social rank.

As the dance is broken down into steps, virtuosity, and a sense of aesthetics emerge. Folk dance is created by the people for the people. Performance, as we know it today, does not yet have a place. No clear distinction is drawn between dancers and spectators. Whoever does not dance, takes part in the social event by his encouraging presence, by shouting or clapping his hands.

From dance to performance

Character dance, in its evolved form, arises as one breaks down the steps and choreographic movements, into positions of the body and the parts of the body. This is a scholarly approach, as the dance moves towards performance, and one assumes that there will be spectators.

In his Dictionnaire de la dance(1787), Charles Compan presents the "characters of gesture".

This notion, that refers back to theatre, is essential, particularly in the light of the Eighteenth Century’s concern with spiritual transports, and how to portray them. At the time, painting the sentiments was a dramaturgical end in itself, the bodily attitudes were thought to reveal the "passions", "the movements of the soul". The breath of the individual is neglected, in favour of reflecting a trait of character. Dancers, musicians, painters, philosophers and scientists find inspiration in that persuasion, and produce several masterpieces: the Expressions des passions de l’âmeby Charles Lebrun, where each such manifestation is described in minutest detail and reproduced in a drawing, Les caractèresof Labruyère, L’enfantine, L’adolescentein the Second Book for Harpischord by François Couperin, and the Traité des passionsof Descartes, who provided his contemporary Racine with material, as we see in "Phèdre"…

"Je le vis, je rougis, je pâlis à sa vue; Un trouble s’éleva dans mon âme perdue; Mes yeux ne voyaient plus, je ne pouvais parler; Je sentis tout mon corps et transir et brûler…" (Act I Scene III).

The notion of the unconscious appeared on the horizon, although the age yet had no name for it. Personages are known by "the traits of their gestures".

Personages from popular tradition

Character dance is a form of scholarly dance that arises from the same sources as classical dance, and can be compared to the Augustebeside the Clown blanc, a foil to better set off the other.

Classical dance is the "the Sun King’s legitimate daughter" (5), a product of the "belle dance" that was a feature of the aristocrat’s upbringing. Like rhetoric, swordplay, the art of equitation, a knowledge of dancing was essential to the well-born, and might even open the door to royal favour. Whoever, whatever is not the King, is neither handsome, good nor legitimate. Through spectacle, dance helps to set the stage for royal power, and for the King himself.

Alongside those personages who stand for "proper society", there are typical personages, easy to pick out by their costume, and by their awkward, turned-in, stance (6).

Thus did roles appear, fashioned by character traits and temperament. They use an intelligent vocabulary, designed to touch the spectator and advance the argument. The personages are portraits, frozen within a psychological type, that reflect the ethology of the social individual, to whom one assigns a codified rhetoric of sentiments.

With the Romantics, from the mid-to-late Nineteenth Century, the Félibrige, the intellectual movement led by Frédéric Mistral, returns to the repertoire of Provençal folk dances, and calls them "character dances". The tradition was kept alive in dance and gymnastic societies. To a knowledgeable public, "character dance" came to mean "Provençal dance". (7)

In the Nineteenth Century, as interest in folk and national lore grew, so did the relations between France and Russia, at least insofar dance was concerned. Marius Petipa, born at Marseilles, created most of his work in Russia, studying ethnic dances that he would then "quote" in his ballets (8).

Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Russian culture took hold in France. Some of those émigrés were instrumental in launching the vogue for cabaret we have just referred to above. Pioneers of character dance movement were Irina Grjebina (1907-1994), who reached France in 1923, and Olga Stens (1918-1985).

Character dance appears in France

Irina Grjebina, a colourful figure if ever there was one, as tiny in size as she was volcanic in personality, taught this Russian character technique with strength and passion. Her energy, until a very advanced age, was unbelievable, and she most certainly could get across that vision of the cabarets and large Russian folk ensembles. She vigorously defended what she had once learnt, that she sincerely believed to be its roots and its truth.

As for Olga Stens, she was a product of the first generation of modern dancers. She studied with the Latvian Mila Cirul (1901-1977), then with Mary Wigman (1886-1973) and finally with Nicolas Zvereff (1888-19065), of Russian origin, who had been Nijinsky’s stand-in, and who taught her character dance. Quite a mixture, in a word, of the Russian ballet tradition, and German expressionnist thought.

Without much hullaballoo, Olga Stens taught at the Pleyel studios in Paris. There, she gave her lessons, orchestrated as though it were a ritual, to a loyal band intrigued by her culture, her charismatic personality and her great intelligence. She would whisper a few scant words of advice, or make a sotto vocecorrection, often leaving you with an odd sense of disappointment, withering under her rueful gaze.

Olga Stens was a visionary, who had foreseen the importance and wealth of modern dance, a technique as-yet unknown and that she accordingly could not teach. She rethought character dance in the light of those innovative ideas, and tried to convey her persuasion. At the time, so-called "modern" dance struggled to survive. The type of official support it now enjoys seemed, at the time, a pipe dream.

That woman’s original, refined and intelligent approach is still carefully guarded by some of her former students, religious in their loyalty. In awed silence, most of her epigones dared take what they had learnt no further.

There is a huge gap between a master, and a teacher: the latter teaches knowledge, the master helps the student reach a level of personal work and reflection. Olga Stens was a master, although never would she have said so much. Although Olga Stens and Irina Grjebina disagreed on much, what they had in common was an overbearing personality. They could not bear to see anyone flourish in their wake.

As the teaching of character dance today tends to agree with traditions, and a history, that no longer cohere with our view of dance (by that I mean, the dances of the former USSR), and as Olga Stens teachings tend to fade away, character dance finds itself rowing steadily against the stream.

Freedom to innovate

Some thinkers and theoreticians contend that character dance precludes a most basic freedom enjoyed by other techniques: the freedom to innovate, to evolve, to think. For those scholars, character dance must remain frozen, as we know it today, for all time. But there have been new developments in danses de style, even a new aesthetic. Character dance reflects the vision of a choreographer, a creator, it has always been an artist’s own original expression. Mulling over fresh ways to develop choreographic figures, character dance too, aspires to surprise and astonish. Where formerly, there had been ritual, today the dance provides an aesthetic delight. If we truly wish to safeguard the structures of those rituals, would not recreating be the best approach ?

Drawing on many different techniques, character dance demands a real freedom of gesture, and that is what ties it to contemporary dance. It can stray far afield, without departing the framework of its own intellectual and aesthetic choices.

All dance relies upon a scheme, as to how a group should function, as it weaves its web of references. The various dance styles are after all, highly social. A comparison between classical and contemporary dance, the former being an exaltation of social elitism, the other, an exaltation of intellectual elitism, may give us a better grasp of what is at stake with the character dance.

Classical dance is the most accomplished expression of the power of the ruling classes, and thus, the image of Power itself. It played the same role vis à vis the triumphant bourgeoisie in the Nineteenth Century, and thus took part in the growth of "official" art forms in the National Opera, that altar where song was to enthroned as a political instrument. It replays over and again, that arrangement whereby the corps de ballet (the courtiers) glorify and set off as a foil, the stars in the firmament (the King and Queen), in this, the most polished statement of elitism. How famous - or how unknown - one be to a given society, is an excellent clue as to how that society actually operates. As Mikaël Baryshnikov, Manuel Legris, Marie-Claude Pietragalla and Sylvie Guillem wing their way through the skies above, who, pray, can tell the name of a single character dancer in the Moïsseiev, Virsky or Gades troupes ? (9)

Unlike classical dance, contemporary dance intends to place its elitism on an intellectual plane. First and foremost, it put forward, as a legitimate and intelligent reaction, a line of research that cut it off from the technical corpus technique of classical dance. Now however, it has launched into the Never-before-seen, Never-before-done, and has gone quite over the edge into a new formalism, "Anything Goes" or perhaps, what already exists but one happens never to have heard of, or had forgotten, or hasn’t cared to learn.

Quite unlike our ancestors, who would strive to take part in that harmony of nature to which they aspired, a harmony with which they sought to commune in dance, there is a brand of contemporary dance that surrounds itself with phoney ritual, and, very often, with a choreographic High Priest, sole master of novelty and Great Designer of a Cosmos that has studiously left the general public locked on the outside.

There can be little doubt but that some contemporary dance figures have gone over to destructured or uncontrolled rituals that have to do with basic bodily functions, broken enchaînementsand lines deliberately dissolved into the chaos of pulsations. Now that classical dance has been shuffled off as a dusty museum piece, it is contemporary dance that has taken over the task of defending almighty Authority.

Expressivity, principle of liberty

The fact that dance forms be socially determined has led to very different approaches to the body. The classical dancer’s is a physical ideal: fully turned-out, long, slender lines and over-arched feet. Anyone who falls short of those standards will be deemed unfit for "the dance". In contemporary dance, physical differences, although they may not be systematic, are tolerated. In character dance, those differences are necessary if the work is to be expressive.

Classical dance and contemporary dance stress the body and its evolutions, to a degree that costume is greatly reduced. Little is hidden, and the legs, for example, are displayed to their fullest extension on pointe. The close-fitting costume recalls Greek sculpture or Gupta statuary.

In contemporary dance, accessories are often everyday objects, and costumes, skimpy little frocks. On occasion, the interpreters present themselves in the altogether, the aesthetic value of which lies fairly close to Nought.

Character dance for its part can easily - perhaps too easily - justify the use of costume and colour to amplify movement. The swirling petticoats seem to join in the dance themselves. Caucasian capes spring into the ballet as an actor. This deployment, that may sometimes be otiose, of kilometres of stuff, ribbons, and bits of finery, has fostered a fuddy-duddy image of character dance, each girl an adorable little doll, in her red skirt rimmed with lace, her hair braided with flowers and ribbons. But character dance must nevertheless found innovation on tradition, while shewing the public figures and images that, by instinct, they will recognise.

It may not seem obvious at first glance, that character dance does allow both the choreographer and the dancer his freedom. The huge Soviet troupes sublimating a "mass soul" cherished by centralised authority, has not been very much of an image of respect for freedom. And there has been an assumption that character dance stands for rural values, that have little or nothing to do with the concerns of our own day.

But character dance draws from the culture of every walk of life, of every people, and of course, minorities. It is a vehicle for understanding between peoples, and can also be a militant and political form of dance, that allows each the right to individuality. Character dance, one tends to forget, includes the Indian, the Flamenco, the baroque and the Gypsy.

Just like an actor on the spoken stage, the character dancer must incarnate countless personages, rigid neither in body nor in spirit (10). He must be sensitive to the forms of expression of his own day. Igor Moisseyev attempted to stage "modern folklore and traditions" such as football, or assembly-line work. Not always to the best of effect.

From the imaginary, to the artist’s truth

Character dance paints mankind, and human beings in all their particularities and peculiarities. But it is not an ethnic dance, as it is not the product of a single nation’s folklore.

Through innovation, character dance remains open to the creator and the interpreter. This has enabled its detractors to denounce it as "unauthentic": but have they not confused authenticity and ethnic identity, by paying so little heed to social identity ? Under no circumstances can character dance correspond to ethno-dance. The study of ethnic dances does exist, just as there are performances of "pure" traditional dances. They are not, however, the subject of character dance, that does refer back nonetheless to precisely those traditions.

Flamenco is no less authentic for a Spaniard than any other popular dance of his nation. But, having become institutionalised, it is now acknowledged amongst the art forms. "institutionalised" ! That is the key word. Many other dance forms are not, and therefore seem suspicious.

But, as we have seen, the mission of character dance is not to be "authentic" but to "lie truthfully - mentir vrai, as Vitez said of the spoken theatre. What counts is the realm of imagination, surrounding what can be represented. To that end, one must seek inspiration in tradition, in the broadest sense of the term, in other epochs and personages - even invented ones - and then transpose, sculpt, knead, brush, and bring to life worlds that resound in our own spirit today.

Surviving confusion

Have the authorities not tended to support "mass" rather than popular culture, just as they have supported an elitist form of culture ?

Indeed, the French authorities flat-out refuse to support any and all experiments based on character dance, on the basis that it does not belong to any established category. This aesthetic and political choice has meant that here in France, character dance is locked out of subsidy, locked out of international festivals of traditional dance here, to which foreign groups alone will be invited, and locked out of choreographic contests.

But character dance is a path that our own age might find instructive to pursue: the sources from which it draws inspiration, its direct connection to our day, allow it to respect the artist’s freedom. It is theatrical, and it has an aesthetic, and thus allows the artist multiple forms of expression, by finding the deeper meaning of the tradition he is responsible for passing on. The time is long since past where the personages that appeared in baroque dance, or in the huge Soviet ensembles, were mere ciphers, representing rank and caste, lacking individual moral qualities. The time is long since past when figures from the baroque era, or those in the huge Soviet ensembles, were mere ciphers devoid of all nuance in terms of character, rank or social status. Character dance is the coryphee of the Greek chorus, that speaks in the chorus’ name, though acknowledged nonetheless as an individual by all.


(1) Science of the people

(2) For space reasons, we cannot discuss here whether the myth antedated the rite, or vice versa.

(3) I have kept Maurice Louis’ definition in mind, when using the terms folkloric dances, or popular dances: "Popular is that which was created, or which sprang up from amongst the people, that which pleases the people. "Popularised" means items, known to have come from elsewhere than the people, but that nonetheless are come down to us through the people. As for folkloric items, these are traditional items in popular circles." In Le folklore et la danse, Editions Maisonneuve et Larose, Paris 1963.

(4) This theoretical development of history varies in chronology from one country to the next, rather as though Georg Hegel, the theoretician of history, had found an entente with the field-worker that was Karl Marx…

Germaine Prudhommeau writes: "There was a real school, a real study of dance in ancient Greece, in Cambodia, in ancient India, and from the Fifteenth Century onwards in France etc." (Histoire de la dance, tome 1, Editions La Recherche en Danse, Paris 1995).

(5) Paul Bourcier: La danse en Occident, Editions du Seuil, Paris 1978.

(6) En dedansor turned in: common positions in character dances, being the inverses of en dehors or turned out. In almost all forms of dance (save for some Japanese dances, for example), the turnout, even slight, is the aesthetically correct position. However, character dances use turnout, parallel and turned in, cunningly moving from one to the next.

(7) Cf. Yves Guilcher, article " Les danses traditionnelles et le bal en France", in "Histoires de bal : vivre, représenter, recréer le bal", Cité de la musique - Paris 1998.

(8) Personally, I like the term "demi-caractère dances", that use a popular motif, but are based upon the steps of classical dance nonetheless (Cf. the Spanish and Chinese dances in The Nutcracker).

(9) Tamara Zifert, Boris Berexin, Serguei Tsvetko, Nelly Boudarenko, Vivian Pak, Lev Golovanov.

(10) Olga STENS in Pour la danse de caractère- Article, 1958