“Fleeting Magic Designs”: Arnold Genthe and the Dance

Written by Maureen Maryanski, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.

In the early 20th century, a new form of dance was emerging, one fostered by periods of experimentation in European cities and transferred to American stages by impassioned personalities led by Isadora Duncan. As this new, modern dance both challenged and influenced other dances from ballet to vaudeville, the lines between these forms became blurred allowing for a cacophony of creative expression. The dance world was expanding and changing in a myriad of ways, and nowhere was that more evident than in New York City, where high and low dance shared the same urban space and exchanged ideas and inspiration. Modern dance, as with other modernist movements of the time, sought new forms with which to express the spirit of modern times, and as Duncan phrased it, to express “the free spirit, who will inhabit the body of the new woman; more glorious than any woman that has yet been…the highest intelligence in the freest body.”

As modern dance developed and evolved, dance photography also began to develop, influenced by photographer Arnold Genthe (1869-1942), who utilized his signature style to capture dancers “in the free movement of the dance.” As discussed last month on the blog (http://blog.nyhistory.org/beyond-a-photographic-mask-an-introduction-to-arnold-genthe/), Genthe avoided posed photographs, choosing to capture his subjects in an unobtrusive manner, the better to express the essence of a human being. This same principle he applied to his dance photography. Here it was not just the soul and spirit of the dancer he sought to capture, but the motion of the dance, those “fleeting magic designs made by the human body.” Genthe’s goal was to create an image that suggested both the “proceeding as well as the following movement,” that suggested motion, “fluent, dynamic, natural.”

In his memoir, Genthe spent several pages discussing the difficulty of photographing this ephemeral art form adequately, claiming that very few of his pictures do dance justice, even those published in the 1916 volume The Book of the Dance. However, he is considered one of the pioneers in the field of dance photography, and his images include some of the leading participants in early modern dance, including Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, and Anna Pavlova.

The following examples of dance photography from the Genthe collection at the New-York Historical Society offer insight into the variety of dances performed in early 20th century New York City.

Isadora Duncan (1877-1927). PR 19, Genthe Collection
Isadora Duncan (1877-1927). PR 19, Genthe Collection

Lauded as the “Mother of Modern Dance,” Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) challenged established forms of dance through an emphasis on expressing the human spirit through movement. She performed throughout Europe and America and became a popular symbol and subject for modernists and artists. Photographed in New York between 1915 and 1918, Genthe was originally commissioned to take only a passport photo, but Duncan was so enraptured with the photograph and his style she had him take several more photographs of her and her dancers. As Duncan wrote in her autobiography My Life, his “pictures were never photographs of his sitters but his hypnotic imagination of them. He has taken many pictures of me which are not representations of my physical being but representations of conditions of my soul.” These photographs have since become some of the most famous made of Duncan and were included in the memorial volume Isadora Duncan: Twenty-four Studies by Arnold Genthe (1929). This photograph features Duncan barefoot and in a white Grecian tunic, signatures of her early dances and the inspiration she drew from Ancient Greece.

Isadorables. PR 19, Genthe Collection
Isadorables. PR 19, Genthe Collection

Duncan saw the education of the young as one of her key missions. To that end she opened several schools during her lifetime to teach young women the art of the dance. The first of these opened in Germany in 1904. From this school six Duncan protégées emerged who traveled and danced with Duncan into the 1920s.  Lovingly called the Isadorables, Duncan eventually adopted the six girls, and they took her last name. In addition to photographing Duncan, Genthe photographed the Isadorables between 1915 and 1918 in solo portraits and group shots, such as in this outdoor image.

Margaret Severn (), dancing at the water's edge. PR 19, Genthe Collection
Margaret Severn (), dancing at the water’s edge. PR 19, Genthe Collection

Margaret Severn (1901-1997) was an internationally acclaimed dancer who trained in ballet in London before returning to the United States during the First World War. She is most well-known for her role in the Greenwich Village Follies of 1921 and her use of Benda masks, which she performed with on the vaudeville circuit until 1928. These life-like papier-mache face masks were sculpted by Polish-American artist Wladyslaw T. Benda (1873-1948) and used in plays and dances in both New York and London, including stage productions for Eugene O’Neill and Noel Coward. This print of Severn dancing on the beach was made between 1924 and 1942 from a 1923 negative and is sometimes referred to as “Scarf Dance.” Another Genthe photograph of Severn from a similar, or possibly the same, beach photo shoot was published in the January 1924 issue of Vanity Fair.

Marion Morgan Dancers. PR 19, Genthe Collection
Marion Morgan Dancers. PR 19, Genthe Collection

The Marion Morgan Dancers was a troupe of predominantly female dancers founded and led by Marion Morgan (d. 1971) who performed interpretative dances based on classical legends and antiquity, such as Helen of Troy.  Originally formed in California, they appeared on the vaudeville stage for nearly a decade, from 1916 to the mid-1920s. At that point, the group began working in Hollywood, contributing inserted dance sequences to films such as Don Juan (1926) and  Up in Mabel’s Room (1926). Morgan also choreographed sequences for several films of her partner, director Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979), including Ten Modern Commandments (1927) and Manhattan Cocktail (1928); however, the group and Morgan’s choreography did not survive the transition to sound films. Morgan’s dances emphasized pantomime and tableaux, as well as elaborate staging and costuming, as evidenced by this Genthe photograph from the period.


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