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Dancing Machines: Choreographies of the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

By Felicia McCarren.

Book review by Carrie Gaiser

Spring 2005

On an 1896 poster advertising the then-new technology of the cinema, a Loie Fuller-esque dancer figure spreads her voluminous skirts to provide a surface for the projected image of a train. This poster neatly allegorizes the central themes of Felicia McCarren’s book, Dancing Machines: the close connections between dance and the developing technology of the cinema at the turn of the century, and the convergence of dancer and machine in modernism’s obsession with movement. Focusing specifically on the Parisian avant-garde from the turn of the century through the 1930s, Dancing Machines succeeds in its attempt to re-place dance into the history of early modern machine culture. McCarren’s book charts the evolution of dance from its status as front-page news, even at a moment of burgeoning technophilia, to its subordination to those very technologies it helped develop and sustain. As McCarren writes of the Loie Fuller poster, “the most popular dancer in Paris steps back graciously as the cinema lurches forward.” Dance was ultimately sidelined as “entertainment,” even while it provided the forum for the enactment of the industrialized fantasy of the “dancing machine.”

McCarren signals the importance of an interdisciplinary approach for her book in the introduction. Noting that cinema and dance historians have rarely crossed paths, she ventures that the turn of the century’s convergence of popularized ballet, music-hall dancing, modern dance, and the new technology of film demands an increased awareness of the entwined inter-arts histories of these media. As such, cinema for McCarren functions not merely as a tool to help illuminate historical dance but as a parallel phenomenon that anticipated, developed alongside of, and eventually overtook experiments in choreography. While the broad scope of this book risks overextending its reach — McCarren invokes examples of the dancing machine trope drawn from literature, science, and the visual arts, often in rapid-fire succession — Dancing Machines points to several potentially rich fields of interdisciplinary inquiry.

For McCarren, the “dancing machine” that emerges from the nexus of movement and technology is a hybrid, changeable figure that invokes two simultaneous histories. The first, influenced by work-science (studies on the economization of movement, designed to increase worker output), attempts to distill the movements of the body to an energy-efficient productivity. The second anthropomorphizes the machine, reconnecting technology to its “mythic, ritual, or religious functions” (11) and granting it the capacity to channel the “motor power” of the universe. What connects these two histories is the notion of the “economy of gesture.”

In McCarren’s analysis, mechanization and spiritual renewal coincide in the newly technologized focus on movement at the turn of the century. Chapter One, “Economies of Gesture: Mechanics, Thermodynamics, Cinematics,” and Chapter Two, “Choreocinema,” both examine how the preoccupation with movement implicated dance in the field of work-science and in the development of early cinematic technologies. Citing Étienne-Jules Marey’s time-motion movement studies using sequential “chronophotography,” she offers an illuminating account of how cinematic precursors made the visual analysis of the components of movement possible. These technological advancements in photography, while furthering the development of film, also contributed to the disciplining of the American laborer’s work habits. McCarren balances her subsequent analysis between the two histories of the machine she outlines in her first chapter and their alternating utopian and dystopic forecasts.

One of the central contradictions of modernism McCarren points to in Dancing Machines is the impossibility of distinguishing between the dancing machine as a
critique of the industrial age and the dancing machine as an “American, cinematic, productive” utopic fantasy (37). Chapter Four, “Ballets Without Bodies” picks up on this latter articulation of the dancing machine through an analysis of the so-called “machine ballets” of the early twentieth century. The Ballets Russes, the Ballets Suédois, the Futurists, and artists and filmmakers such as Ferdinand Léger and René Clair, all created works that expressed their fascination with the possibilities of the machine. Léger’s film of 1924, Ballet mécanique, for example, depicted everyday objects that “danced” through an animation process of film 64 editing and collage. Léger’s film continued a trend of figuring the combination of dance (especially the idea of dance, or dance without dancers) and the machine as the culmination of modernity (123). In this move, moreover, machinic technologies subsumed dance, removing movement from the fleshly bodies that performed it: “In Ballet mécanique modernity is represented as objects in maddening motion, taking on a life of their own; a revolution of the animated inanimate or abstraction of the human labeled dancing. As if dancing had been made obsolete, technology and cinema absorb its functioning” (125). While the dancing machine may have been celebrated for its potentialities, as the twentieth century progressed, its human progenitor was ultimately left behind.

Fittingly, the figure of the dancer — perhaps best represented here by Isadora Duncan, to whose life and work McCarren weaves references throughout Dancing Machines — also functioned in literary modernism as a symbol of a mythic, disappearing “natural” past. Chapter Three, “Abstraction,” provides an example of how some artists, in contrast to Léger et al., employed dance to critique the industrial age rather than to explore its potentialities. In this chapter, McCarren delves into poetry to illustrate how literature looked to dance to find ways of writing movement in  the mobilized, mechanized machine age.

In Chapters Five and Six, McCarren adds a new layer of complexity to the “dancing machine” by examining its racialized representation. At this point Dancing Machines
ventures into its richest, and most dense, material — material whose complexity might have warranted its own separate volume, with more prose fleshing out the connections between race, dance, and technology. Chapter Five addresses how race influenced the reception of Asian performers as more machine-like, either as depersonalized automatons or as cosmically tuned “Orientals” who harnessed the forces of the universe through their “mysterious” powers. For playwrights of the Twenties and Thirties, the Asian performer often served as a signifier of the mechanization of labor and its resulting alienation and dehumanization. For instance, William Butler Yeats praised dancer Michio Ito’s “detached,” “super-human,” and “trance-like” performance in Yeats’s Noh-inspired play, At the Hawk’s Well, using language reminiscent of the “mystical, mechanical . . . Orientalized automata of an earlier century” (137). McCarren also points out that Brecht developed his notion of the alienation effect after witnessing Chinese actor Mei Lan-fang perform in Moscow. 

Chapter Six continues to examine the connections between race and machine culture, this time in the context of Josephine Baker. Simultaneously obsessed with the “primitive” and with the technological, the Parisian public of the 1920s elevated dancer Josephine Baker to stardom. As an American, Baker stood for the industrialized jazz age United States (often a symbol of the machinic in contrast to Europe); as an African American, Baker evoked an exotic, mythic, pre-technological “Africa.” McCarren demonstrates that the cinema drove the rage for “primitivism” and technophilia in 1920s Paris by introducing on film African and African-American dance forms to French audiences. She also analyzes several feature films, such as Zou Zou (1934) and Princesse Tam-Tam (1935), which emphasized Baker’s role as a fantasy projection of primitive naturalism. Paradoxically, Baker’s “naturalness” was exhibited and made widely accessible through recording technologies that mechanized the performance of her “Africanness.” Less clearly developed is McCarren’s claim that the cinematization of Baker’s dances helped her resist the commodification of static “primitive” art objects collected and displayed in museums such as the Institut d’Ethnologie in Paris. Although McCarren helpfully warns against the conflation of static images of Baker with her filmed performances, this insight doesn’t explain why a moving image is less prone to commodification, or how film enabled Baker in particular to break out of the matrices of power that mediated her public image. Nevertheless, this chapter is one of McCarren’s best. Through race, it draws together many of the floating discursive strands of the book: the competing definitions of, and contradictory responses to, the machinic; the strong ties between dance and labor; and the role of the cinema in making the pre-technological “primitive” easily, and ironically, consumable through technological means.

What would have fully rounded out this book is an answering of the larger significance of the various“dancing machine” artistic phenomena analyzed within its covers. McCarren might have established the linkages between the earlier visual and performing arts encounters with technology, and their contemporary manifestations as experiments involving new media. Dancing Machines largely leaves the task of connecting the avant-garde histories its author so painstakingly excavates to their present-day iterations up to the reader. A few more moments of reflection on the stakes of the early modern dancing machine for the development of contemporary arts practices and technologies would have helped to ground the wealth of detail McCarren provides in relation to this one time period.

Dancing Machines would be an excellent introductory text for a wide variety of courses covering modernism and the inter-arts experiments of the Parisian avant-garde. For film history courses, Dancing Machines would offer a helpful contextualization of early twentieth-century dance and the concern with economies of gesture that contributed to the formation of early cinema.In its coverage of a diverse array of objects, McCarren’s book succeeds as an interdisciplinary mélange that is limited only by time period. While readers might wish for a more linear thesis to act as a compass through the conglomeration of disciplines, one cannot help but appreciate how deftly McCarren has reinserted dance’s importance in the development of the cinema, literature, visual arts, and industry of the early twentieth century..

Carrie Gaiser is a Ph.D. student in Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

This review of Dancing Machines originally appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Film Quarterly.


Dancing Machines: Choreographies of the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. By Felicia McCarren. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003. ISBN: 0804739889 $50.00.


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