Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes were taking France by storm in 1909-11. With their music movement and colour they were ‘a total work of art’ which broke free from the codes of classical dance. This new perspective on ballet may be what stimulated the growing interest of painters and sculptors who took it as their subject. Isadora Duncan’s pioneering dance style based on natural movement reflected increasing freedom in the arts. In the context of such developments, links between art and dance were strengthened, with a shared taste for rhythm and the primitive. The new styles of dance were particularly suited to artists working from life, as unlike classical ballet, the poses and movements were natural and unpredictable.
Matisse’s painting ‘La Danse’ is often associated with ‘The Dance of the Young Girls’ from Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’, written for the Ballets Russes. The composition or arrangement of dancing figures is reminiscent of William Blake’s watercolour “Oberon, Titania and Puck with fairies dancing” from 1786. It was painted with a companion piece ‘Music’ and originally hung together, comprising the two main elements of Ballet. It features five muscular dancing figures in red against a simplified blue and green landscape. The simple style and strong contours reflect Matisse’s interest in primitive art whilst using a fauvist colour palette of intense red figures against a cool background. Form matches content – the rhythmical pattern of nudes dancing in a circle conveys feelings of emotional liberation and hedonism. With hands linked, they are swept off their feet giving an impression of momentum. There is only a slight break in the circle between the hands of the two foremost dancers, creating a sense of tension but also an invitation for the viewer to join in.
Like Matisse, J.D Fergusson depicts a group of nudes dancing in a stylised landscape, titled ‘Les Eus’. This time the figures are more densely layered and include male as well as female dancers. Their free rhythmic actions also correspond with the new dance style of Isadora Duncan and the Ballets Russes. Fergusson moved to Paris in 1907 for the artistic stimulation which Scoltand couldn’t offer him. Whilst there he absorbed the new ways of looking at the world pioneered by French artists like Matisse and Cezanne, and would have seen Matisse’s ‘La Danse’ at the 1910 Salon d’Automne. His interest in the subject of dance grew when he began to receive free tickets to the Ballets Russes and regularly sketched the dancers there.
His use of bold line and strong tonal contrasts emphasise pattern whilst supressing depth. A sense of rhythm is created by repetition of the curved lines of the dancers in the surrounding foliage. The title is believed to have come from the term “Eurythmics”, coined by Emil-Jacques Delacroze in 1911 for his new science of dance. The Eurhythmics movement emphasised the relationship between dance and health, and promoted the understanding of music through physical movement. It was highly influential on Fergusson and his work.
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was a French artist and sculptor living and working in London from 1911-14. Like Matisse and Fergusson, it is likely that Gaudier’s innovative translation of movement in his sculpture ‘Dancer’ was influenced by the liberations taking place in contemporary dance. Gaudier found inspiration from the Ballets Russes when they came to London. He worked closely from his friend and model Nina Hamnett. Although the proportions of Dancer appear to have been manipulated, observation from life is seen in the otherwise anatomically correct pose and sensitive modelling of the muscle and bone structure. She is poised in dance with her hands above her head, legs bent as if dismounting her plinth.
Rodin’s ‘Dance Movements’ are a likely source for Gaudier’s conception of Dancer. Gaudier took many of his ideas about what sculpture should achieve from Rodin’s book L'Art, which promoted the goal of capturing life through movement. Rodin’s words are echoed in Gaudier’s own expression that 'Movement is the translation of life and if art depicts life, movement should come into art, since we are only aware of life because it moves’. In imitation of Rodin, Gaudier said he wanted ‘a model who didn’t pose at all, but did everything he wanted to, walked, ran, danced’. He fulfilled this desire when sculpting Dancer, with his request that Hamnett 'turned around slowly’ whilst he worked. Dancer captures a paused moment, where the twisted tension of the body anticipates a release of energy. The elongation of the limbs and sinuous form modelled in clay add to the sense of fluid movement.