Thursday, March 5, 2009

Theatre and Early American Films Part 3: Dance. (Visual Documents about Lost Ways to Perform in Theatre)


As I talked in my post "Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse, Audiovisual Documents on the Net and An Extinct Way of Playing", early silent films are real documents about what we considered extinct ways of acting (and in this case of dancing). I was greatly surprised when I found in an US State Department site a big collection of early American films, most of them simple transposition of short stage performances (or parts of them): comedy, acrobatics, dance, "melodramas", and even some kind of tragedies.

The difference with other early cinema shorts filmed by Edison or Meliès (documentary images or camera tricks, even stories made especially for cinema) was that these I am showing here were chosen because were interesting "stage performances" for the eye, workable and practical for the new only visual Media, Cinematography, but also because were common and successful theatre performances at the time; some of them based in play but staged on cinema set, so the change was in place but not in style. The American Mutoscope & Biograph Company changed its simple style of doing things when DW Griffith entered to direct the company and when Edison's company joined (buying a big part of Mutoscope) to make a big Cinema Enterprise.

So, we have here some real documents about physical movement and performances on theatre from the end of 19th century and beginning of 20th. These are not playing by the best of the time nor even the stars but for common actors, dancers and performers.

We can quietly and calmly watch positions, chains of actions, gestures, even tempo and rhythms utilized on American stage more than one century ago. Once more, and that has been my own objective publishing, we can see this film-documents as one different point of reference for a new appreciation to what we have called "good playing" and "bad playing" during the "dictatorship of Realism" in the 20th century.

Dance Films

This is what The Library of Congress site says about its Dance films collection:


The selections in the dance category reflect the wide variety of dance styles that were performed on the variety stage during this period. It appears that many of the performers used in these films actually performed on the vaudeville stage. The Franchonetti Sisters, advertised by the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company as a "popular team of vaudeville artists," perform the French quadrille dance. Fougere, "the famous Parisian chanteuse," performs her ragtime cakewalk, "Hello, Ma Baby." The cakewalk dance, popular in minstrel shows, is performed in these motion pictures by a professional troupe from New York ("Cake Walk" and "Comedy Cake Walk"). Crissie Sheridan performs a skirt dance similar to those done by the popular Annabelle. Versatile dancer Ella Lola performs two dances, a period-style belly dance (Turkish Dance, Ella Lola) and one based on the "Trilby" craze. (In the play "Trilby" by George Louis Palmella Busson du Maurier, an artist's model named Trilby falls under the influence of the hypnotist Svengali.) Kid Foley and Sailor Lil provide a vivid example of a Bowery dance reminiscent of the Parisian "Apache dance." Cathrina Bartho performs her Speedway dance in "A Nymph of the Waves" that takes advantage of film tricks to make it appear as if she is dancing on waves. Ameta , a specialist in "novel" and "elaborate" dances, according to The New York Clipper, creates a swirling funnel from huge pieces of cloth in a variation on the skirt dance. (The comedy and burlesque sections also contain dance performances including "The Boys Think They Have One on Foxy Grandpa, but He Fools Them," "Karina," "Princess Rajah Dance," and "Turkish Dance, Ella Lola.")"

I repeat the same introduction I wrote for the first part of this series of entries on early American films.


  1. Hi Gastavo, Im wanting some advice about Chinese Shadow puppets and within your amazing blog I cannot find an email to send you this message. I am based in the UK and working on a play involving sustainability my puppets for the moment are quite linear but the Monkey King play you show has movement in the puppets I have never seen before. Can you possibly help me out with this???????? - Orla

  2. I'm not sure if I will be a good adviser but you can write to:
    and please write the name of the post where you see the video.


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