Report on the talk “The Dawn of Modernist Dance in the Age of the Dancefloor”

Kobayakawa Kiyoshi (1899-1948), Dancer, 1932. Nihon no hanga – Japanese Print Collection.

On Thursday 17th of March, the Sainsbury Institute hosted a Third Thursday Lecture, titled The Dawn of Modernist Dance in the Age of the Dancefloor, with introductions by Dr Ryoko Matsuba and speaker Dr Daria Melnikova. Dr Melnikova, who received her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 2018 and was a previous Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow from 2020 to 2021, was kind enough to return to discuss a portion of her current research on the evolution of modernist dance in Japan, and the forum of creative exchange resulting from such dance. Recently, in March 2021, Melnikova published an article titled “What is Futurism? Russia and Japan Exchange Answers” in The Art Bulletin.

The talk began with an explanation of The Age of the Dancefloor (Odoriba jidai) in Japan which spanned from the 1910s to the 1930s and paralleled similar movements in America (the Jazz Age) and France (Annés folles). These decades, according to Japanese sociologist Gonda Yasunosuke, were characterised by the Philosophy of Fun, which was exemplified by the idea that the dancefloor was a separator between work and home, with more emphasis on individualism.

Dance brought freedom to the masses in this era through things such as Home Dance (established by Tanabe Hisao) which allowed dances to be learnt and practised at home, along with music sheets that allowed scores to be played on both Japanese and European instruments. Dr Melnikova explained how these new Home Dances of the early 20th century were previously limited to the elites in Japanese society, as shown in art from earlier centuries such as Amusements in a Mansion – a mid-17th century screen, and that through the dissemination of dance and music materials, Home Dances became an activity of mass culture.

Dances were not just limited to the home but were also a form of socialising, a key literary example of this being Naomi (chijin no ai) by author Tanizaki Jun’ichiro. Melnikova informed us that dance halls were a commodity and spaces of ecstasy and eroticism, and that the Mogals (modern girls) were emblematic of these 1920s dance halls.

This modern, popularisation of dance offered a new look into what art could do, and critics and artists alike drew a line as to whether dance of this type was art. Dr Melnikova cited the father of modern dance, Ishii Baku, as claiming two types of dances: “those that are treated as art, and those that are treated as entertainment”. These new dances required the study of both new art and new music, however even the study of Ballet and Opera – considered to have extremely high artistic value – lived a short life at the Imperial theatre in 1912.

Interestingly, Melnikova said, even though the first ballet performances did not spark significant interest, Modernist dance did. Modernist dances sparked collaborations and inspirations between art, literature, and music, as the moving body was a large factor in these ‘new art movements’. Inspiration came not only from dance as the embodiment of rhythm but also from the body of the dancer himself, as exemplified in Togō Seiji’s Playing the Contrabass, 1915.

One form of collaboration that emerged during this era was Dance Poetry in which the aforementioned Ishii Baku and composer Yamada Kōsaku had great involvement. Kōsaku said that “dance poetry is the purest form of music and the purest form of dance” which signifies the great importance of collaboration during the Age of the Dancefloor. One such example was a dance performance by Ishii Baku that was translated from a page of Kōsaku’s diary – combining the popular diary format of contemporaneous writing and the new importance of dance to express the inexpressible.

Dr Melinkova then ended with a quote by Ishii Baku that aptly summarised the significance of this era of Japanese dance: “Japanese dance world finally opened its eyes to the world…finally, Japanese dance took an essential step forward. Those who protect the tradition of Japanese dance, those who try to build a new spirit on top of the tradition, those who try to build a new dance outside the tradition, and those who try to blend them together… In this whirlwind the dawn of a new Japanese dance is now coming.” (1933)

The Dawn of Modernist Dance in the Age of the Dancefloor was a talk that brought the audience a new appreciation of Japanese dance and the collaboration between different artistic movements of the time. We as the audience, and as scholars, are very appreciative of the time spent giving this talk and are grateful for all the new information that Dr Melinkova has brought to us.

Aiden Fraser
MA Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies, UEA

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