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«Alexandra Carter In 2007 the Department of Dance, Film and Theatre and the National Resource Centre for Dance (NRCD) at the University of Surrey ...»

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Pioneer Women: early British modern dancers

The National Resource Centre for Dance, University of Surrey

Alexandra Carter

In 2007 the Department of Dance, Film and Theatre and the National Resource Centre

for Dance (NRCD) at the University of Surrey received a Resource Enhancement

Scheme award from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project which

was to benefit from this funding aimed to preserve, catalogue and disseminate research findings from four collections held at the NRCD.1 All of these collections contained material pertaining to women dance artists who were practising in Britain primarily in the early/middle twentieth century. By opening up these archives, the Pioneer Women: early British modern dancers project will make an important part of Britain‟s dance heritage accessible to scholars and to all those interested in this underresearched and barely recorded period of history. It will also form the basis for an expansion of sources by attracting further deposits; through a series of oral history interviews which are being conducted with „second generation‟ participants, and in newly filmed reconstructions of works of the period from the Natural Movement repertoire.

The largest collection coheres around the dance form of Natural Movement, developed and systematized by Madge Atkinson (1885 – 1970). Its core vocabulary extends natural ways of travelling and gesture, with a lyrical style that emphasises expressiveness and musicality.2 The second largest collection contains material on a dance form contemporaneous with Natural Movement, the Revived (subsequently Classical) Greek Dance. Devised by Ruby Ginner (1886 – 1978), it was initially based on her research into the Hellenic Greek chorus. This dance form embraces different movement vocabularies, qualities and moods, ranging from the emotional imperatives of the bacchic to the athleticism of the pyrrhic.

Two of the smaller collections contain material on Leslie Burrowes (1908 – 1985) who was the first English dancer to study at Mary Wigman‟s school in Dresden (1929 – 1931). Donated by her daughter in 2003, it contains scrapbooks, photographs, books and other ephemera, including letters from Wigman to Burrowes. Also donated in 2003 is a collection of photographs, correspondence, programmes, music scores, gramophone records and other ephemera from Ludmila Mlada, also known as Ludi Horenstein (1918 – 2003). Mlada studied with Marie Rambert in the late 1930s and later performed on tour with her company; she danced with the Ballets Jooss in the 1940s, further trained with Sigurd Leeder and presented her own work in the 1950s under the auspices of the Contemporary Dance Theatre Centre and the Related Arts Centre. These two collections would, therefore, throw an interesting light on the burgeoning British „contemporary‟ dance scene. Furthermore, ephemera contained in the two larger collections above, including four albums of cuttings and photographs of Anna Pavlova, who was a friend of Ginner, would be of interest to ballet scholars.

The focus of the project is primarily on the Natural Movement and Revived/Classical Greek Dance archives. The former, donated by Anita Heyworth, comprises 38 running metres. It contains approximately 2000 photographs, mainly from the 1920s and 1930s; scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings from 1905 – 1965; almost five hundred theatre programmes, posters and playbills; original costumes for about 30 dances;

music scores and descriptions of many dances in prose and notation. It includes documents and ephemera on the teaching of Natural Movement: session plans, syllabi, scrapbooks on the London College of Dance (1946 – 1965) and minutes of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing‟s (ISTD) Natural Movement branch (1925 –

1979) which offer an insight into the development of the formal training. The Bice Bellairs collection on Revived Greek Dance, and other smaller donations on Classical Greek Dance, extends to 7 running metres. They contain similar material: press cuttings, photographs, albums, music scores, books and manuscripts.3 Both of these main collections contain material which illuminates Atkinson‟s and Ginner‟s own professional practice and situates them within the broader dance context of the time.

Periodicals such as The Dancing Times, theatre programmes and press cuttings of other artists‟ work demonstrate their awareness of and congruence with not only British dance activity but also the pervading international climate.

The cultural context During the first three decades or so of the twentieth century there were strongly discernible trends in artistic, educational and broad cultural beliefs and practices.

These cohered around the themes of nature and the „natural‟, and revised perceptions of the body and its place in a holistic view of what it was to be human. Further, the role of movement in physical education and the very nature of education itself were receiving revisionist attention. Largely, these debates emerged from what were perceived as the strictures of the Victorian era. The Hellenic model of society, located specifically around the fifth century BCE, was privileged as an ideal. Far less connected to the reality of Hellenic times and more to its idealised conception, central to all these new ways of thought and behaviour was the changing role of women. The participants in the Greek-style/‟natural‟ forms of dance were almost solely women.

These dance forms facilitated choreographic creativity by women which is not commonly found - or rather, made public - in the history of Western theatre dance up to this period. They embodied new emancipations; allied with the principles of dress reform they allowed women not only to explore a much more overt relationship with their bodies through participation and performance but also to do so in the public domains of the salon, the stage and the open air.

Madge Atkinson and Ruby Ginner The summary above of the cultural landscape is a most pertinent one within which to

situate the work of two of the women artists who worked in Britain during this period:

Madge Atkinson and Ruby Ginner. Of the two, Atkinson is possibly the least well known in the sense that although her work was prolific, she did not publish in book form, unlike Ruby Ginner and another important practitioner of the time, Margaret Morris. Interestingly, however, an undated, typed manuscript of plans and part content for a nine-chapter book has been found in the archives entitled Dancing based on Natural Movement, edited by Mary A. Johnstone and Madge Atkinson, but this was never published (NM/E/2/3/1).4 Atkinson dedicated her life to the technical development, choreographic practice and teaching of Natural Movement. The term is now synonymous with her, but it was not of her own devising. She had studied at the Annea Spong School of Dancing (Natural Movement) and although she acknowledges that „my own inspiration came from the Duncan School and from Miss Annea Spong of London‟ (Atkinson, The Ball Room, Dec. 1926: 27 NM/M/5) Atkinson did not study directly with Isadora Duncan.5 What is significant, however, in relation to the trend toward antiquity as inspiration, is Atkinson‟s comment that although she admires the ideals of the Greeks, „we who live in the 20th century must gain what we can from these past glories, yet make our dance for today the natural outcome of our feelings.

So it is that I would call it “natural” rather than “Greek”‟ (Atkinson, The Ball Room Dec.

1926: 27 NM/M/5).

Atkinson was born and worked in Manchester. Ill health and filial care prevented her from following a career as a professional actress but she became interested in the work of Isadora Duncan, via Spong (above) and the Eurythmics of Dalcroze.

Combining these in a training system which embraced the relationship between movement, music and expression, she devised the dances for theatre productions at the Gaiety Theatre and offered public performances of her own new work. (It is important to signal here how regional activity tends to be missing from history.

Manchester is a case in point, for in the early part of the twentieth century, it was a city which flourished as a result of the cotton trade and this provided the economic base for the burgeoning of the arts.) Atkinson opened her School of Natural Movement in Manchester in 1918 where she was joined by Mollie Suffield as her partner in this venture. Four years later she was invited by the ISTD to form a Natural Movement branch with a systemised approach to training and one which redressed this lack in Duncan‟s work. Atkinson‟s approach was valued for its educational benefits and filtered through Manchester schools until the late 1930s. It was taught at the Bergman Osterberg Physical Training College by her pupil and life companion, Anita Heyworth, who also undertook delivery of the form at the Cone School of Dancing in London. In 1944, Atkinson and Heyworth were invited by Grace Cone to help establish the London College of Educational Dance (later London College of Dance and Drama) which was the first dance specialist teacher training college in the United Kingdom.

Atkinson died in 1970 but the Natural Movement work of the ISTD continues not only through teaching but also in the collection of archive and study material and the reconstruction of dances (see http://www.istd.org/dancestyles/naturalmovement/ intro.html) Ruby Ginner initially trained as an actress, during which time she studied the chorus of Greek theatre. Inspired by its dramatic qualities, she extended her studies to the art of dance. In 1913 she founded The Grecian Dancers and soon after the Ruby Ginner School of Dance. Joined by the mime artist Irene Mawer, this became the GinnerMawer School of Dance and Drama. As the theatre performances declined later in the 1920s the education work expanded and was absorbed into schools by teachers who had encountered it at physical training colleges. In 1923 Ginner founded the Association of Teachers of Revived Greek Dance. Her methods were absorbed into the ISTD and some into the Royal Academy of Dance Free Movement syllabus.

Ginner was an advocate of classical Greek dance in her writing as well as in the theatre and education. She produced three books (1933, 1960 and a reprint of part of the latter in 1963) plus journal articles. Ginner acknowledged the cultural trends within which she was working. Although her claims are personalised, she claimed that

–  –  –

Both Atkinson and Ginner presented their theatre repertoire primarily during the 1910s

- 1930s. As the above synopses shows, they addressed the problem of Duncan‟s work by filtering their ideals through much more systemised methods of teaching. The sheer number of performances and the cuttings held in the archives indicate that these „natural‟ dance forms were not only popular with audiences but also very well received by the press. And yet, although the teachings of Atkinson and Ginner are sustained in the private sector of dance education, their theatre work and their general achievements have almost completely disappeared from history. There is a dearth of texts which acknowledge indigenous British dance and, as historians generally tend to focus on theatre dance, the legacies of dance in education and (particularly) training in the private sector have yet to be fully explored. As such, diversification into these fields by British dance artists such as Atkinson and Ginner has diluted rather than strengthened perception of their achievements. The sources held at the NRCD, exemplified below, hint at those achievements and their synchronicity with the times.


Photographs The archives are rich in photographic images. Pictures of Pavlova, Duncan, St.Denis and other artists from the 1920s speak eloquently of Atkinson‟s and Ginner‟s interest in the various dance forms of the period. In the Atkinson collection, many of the images of the dance are taken in either the photographer‟s or her own studio. It is a tribute to both the developing art of photography, the photographer and the performer that some of these poses are highly precarious and some even capture a sense of the moment of movement. For example, there are several shots by Longworth Cooper of what Alter describes as a „signature pose‟ of the period (1994: 106). This entails a side profile, with a highly raised front leg in a skipping position. The back is, often impressively, arched backwards and the arms reach out either laterally, diagonally or in a vertical position. There is also a strong sense of movement in, for example, images of fabric flowing through the space. A work performed by Anita Heyworth entitled The spirit of the bush fire (featured in the Dancing Times July 1927: 90 (p.386 in bound copies) and NM/M/5), depicts a dancer lying on the floor, head down, with an large arc of fabric swirling through the air above her (Fig.I).

The extensive photographic records in the archives also present a view of prevailing trends in photography and, as such, are of interest in their own right. As Ewing claims, „dance photography, no less than dance, can be regarded as a language, with a vocabulary, grammar and syntax‟ (1987: 10). From the end of the nineteenth century an amateur movement evolved which became known as „pictorialism‟. In an attempt to counteract the low status of photography, its artistic dimensions were explored.

Pictorialism „stressed formal concerns and atmospheric effects rather than subject matter‟ (Ewing 1987: 19). Atmosphere is much in evidence in Longworth Cooper‟s pictures, for although they might have been lit in order to capture a sense of the theatrical, the lighting is also a carefully considered part of the image itself. It is also the „formal concerns‟ which bring much of the photography of the 1920s into the modernist world. Lighting is used to accentuate limb and muscle definition which helps produce both clarity of form and a flat two-dimensionality. This not only refers back to the bas-relief on ancient artefacts which provided much of the inspiration for the dance vocabulary but also, in its linearity, steps into the modernist realm of Art Deco.

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