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The dancer Vaslav Nijinsky in the ballet Le spectre de la rose as performed at the Royal Opera House in 1911.

On International Dance Day (Monday, 29 April) Dr Megan Girdwood from our Department of English explains how her research concentrates on late nineteenth and twentieth-century modernism, with a particular focus on literature’s relationship to performance, dance and the human body.

What is your research mainly about?

I am interested in how writing became entangled with art forms centred on the body during this period, when we begin to see experiments in new kinds of literature and similar ‘revolutions’ in the world of dance.

I am intrigued by unexpected crossovers between writers and performers: how did a non-textual art form like dance shape literary techniques and aesthetics at the turn of the century? Can the movements of the body be ‘read’ alongside the movements of language?  

Where does your interest in researching dance within late 19th and 20th century literature come from?

My first book traced representations of the biblical figure of Salome and her ‘dance of the seven veils’ across literature, dance, and silent film from the early 1890s to the mid-twentieth century.

Researching the rich and varied history of this figure, made famous in Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé (1893/4), made me aware of the widespread fascination with dance during this period, which saw performers like Loïe Fuller, Isadora Duncan, and Vaslav Nijinsky developing new vocabularies of movement in modern dance and ballet.

Writers including Arthur Symons, W.B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, Mina Loy, and Emily Holmes Coleman expressed a profound interest in dance and saw it as analogous to their own modernist treatment of language and narrative form.  

What is the wider significance of the relationship between literature and dance during this period? 

The way writers responded to dance can tell us about wider shifts in ways of thinking about the human body: as a tool for personal expression, an active creative and cultural medium, and as a biomechanical entity.

From the rigid choreography of the Tiller Girls to the freer movements of the Lindy Hop, dance made visible wider concerns with gender roles, sexual and racial expression, industrialisation and ‘nature,’ and the tension between modernisation and older cultural forms.

‘Movement,’ broadly conceived, was a keyword of modernity: ways of moving and reading movement crossed the boundaries between so-called ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ arts and presented the body as a site of profound meaning.

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