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Red Stone Dancer & Dancer exhibition view, photo: Paul Allitt
Apache Dance film still

How dance changed modern art

Andrew Nairne, Director

Last week we opened our new exhibition NEW RHYTHMS: Henri Gaudier-Brzeska – Art, Dance and Movement 1911 – 15. What an astonishing period this was for the arts. It feels as if artists in all disciplines were seeking to escape the long shadow of the Victorian era. Musicians, writers, choreographers and artists were experimenting with new forms of expression, responding to the accelerated change they saw around them. In the visual arts, the exhibition reveals how Gaudier-Brzeska and his contemporaries were consciously seeking to make a new art for a new age.

Gaudier-Brzeska was at the heart of all this: hugely ambitious for his sculpture and fascinated by its potential to rival and even exceed the visual power and invention of the towering Rodin. He was also fascinated, even intoxicated by dance. Ballet and dance was not a new subject for sculpture; but typically a sculptor would aim to represent a particular formal, static pose. Gaudier-Brzeska took up a greater challenge: how to capture dance in motion. In the celebrated ‘Red Stone Dancer’, completed in 1914, the semi abstract form of the dancer appears as if twisting and pounding. As your eyes follow the planes and volumes of the sculpture you can almost hear the beat and rhythm of drums.

In choosing dance as a subject, Gaudier-Brzeska chose an art form undergoing its own revolution. The Ballets Russes performing in London were shocking audiences with Stravinsky’s ballets – the folk dance inspired ‘Firebird‘ and the sensational ‘Rite of Spring‘. Both ballets broke away from the traditional forms of ballet. At the same time new dance crazes, such as the highly dramatic, even violent, Apache, were sweeping the popular halls and stages. There is a vintage black and white film clip in the exhibition of Apache. It makes Rock ‘n’ Roll look distinctly tame. All this Gaudier-Brzeska and his artist friends absorbed. To represent the freer, even wild look of the new dance moves effectively demanded a new formal language from sculpture and painting. As the form and look of dance and ballet changed, so art changed too.

NEW RHYTHMS Henri Gaudier-Brzeska: Art Dance and Movement 1911-15, until 21 June 2015, read more.

New Publication: ‘New Rhythms’, 128 pages, edited by Jennifer Powell, fully illustrated with four essays exploring the impact of dance, movement and wrestling on the work of Gaudier-Brzeska and his contemporaries. Special price during the exhibition £14 (£18 after the exhibition), find out more.