As a regular ballet practitioner and with my research in mind, I was particularly excited to attend the “Rodin and Dance: The Essence of Movement” exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in London. I enjoy the small scale of Courtauld exhibitions, which tends to force very focused themes. The exhibition fully delivered, with a well structured selection for a specific period in the artist’s work.
The show’s main exhibit is the sculpture series Dance Movements from Rodin’s final years (1911). This is a series of small plaster and clay sculptures, about 30 cm in height, depicting the female body in positions of extreme leg and torso flexibility. The sculptures were based on live drawings from Alda Moreno, a dancer in the Paris Opera Comique.
A selection of Rodin’s drawings can be seen next to the sculptures. They look like rapid sketches on paper – quick, energetic pencil strokes defining the model’s pose, complemented by sparse colour brushstrokes in watercolour. The groups of casting moulds in the same room I thought the most insightful pieces. They show how each pose was broken apart into a limb element, intended for recombination. Seeing this process one notes that Rodin was not interested in the static pose so much as the potential of each limb for adding sculptural variety, for a dramatic or even sensuous effect.
The exhibition attempts to show that Rodin had a lasting interest in dance by adding a small series of photographs, drawings and a hand mould from South East Asian dance troupes visiting Paris, as well as the bronze sculpture of the most famous male dancer in Paris between 1910-1913, Vaslav Nijinsky from Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. They carry mostly a connecting thread of Rodin’s interest in anatomy and drama of movement. Core flexibility training in ballet and Western dance focused mostly on legs and torso, whereas South East Asian dance developed the same for hands, as they were the centre of dance expression. Nijinsky’s appeal was likely due to his unusual body – a pair of singularly muscular thighs, developed mostly for extraordinary leaps and a new dance language, rather than the romantic, lithe poses Paris ballet audiences were used to. I was not personally convinced that Rodin’s interest was long-lived, since all of this is relatively concentrated in time. From my perspective, Rodin has a commitment to sculpture and dance is a new means to an end.
Where I thought the exhibition fell short: the lack of complementary dance scholarship. It tried to make the point that Rodin was interested in dance other than “classical ballet” given this was where the pose “extremes” were found. With the exception of the hands mould, all poses depicted were part of ballet training. Alda’s poses can be named from a ballet dancer’s warm-up – “pied à la main”, “arabesque penché”, “attitude en dedans” and front split with forward “port de bras”. It was odd, as the Courtauld has Degas in the permanent display, a well researched artist with an equally strong, earlier dance focus. Also, the years of 1911-13 were pivotal years for ballet and western dance. More background could have better clarified the artist’s fascination. Locally, the Royal Ballet has both the material and experts. Shows singling out dance’s influence in art are so few, that this felt like a lost opportunity.
Despite the last point, I definitely recommend a visit. It is wonderful to appreciate this lesser known part of Rodin’s work, and see his late inspiration and experimentation. “Rodin and Dance: The Essence of Movement” can be seen at The Courtauld Gallery until 22 January 2017 and later next year at the Musée Rodin in Paris.