Willa Cather and the Dance: "A Most Satisfying Elegance"

Willa Cather Book Cover

(New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009)
ISBN 978-0-8386-4203-0
Price: $75.00

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From the author:

This book traces the importance of modern ballet on the thematic plots in Willa Cather’s novels and aims to create new ways of reading her texts.

By the turn of the century pioneers of modern dance were following in Isadora Duncan’s footsteps, seeking a new type of expressive movement that would free them from the staid conventions of European classical ballet. A similar transition was taking place in Russia, producing an exciting reform that resulted in Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. So by the time Cather’s interest was kindled there were three major professional schools of dance: the traditional classical ballet of Italy and France; the modern or barefoot dancing promoted by Isadora Duncan; and the modern ballet of the Ballets Russes. Cather dismissed the first type as being antiquated, and the second style as being unskilled. Her artistic interest lay in the Russian company that produced such talent as Anna Pavlova whom, according to her friend Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Cather revered as “a superlative mistress of coordination and aesthetic charm.”

Perhaps one of the times when Willa Cather’s world “broke in two” was when she first saw Anna Pavlova and Michael Mordkin perform at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1910. From that point on, dance could be categorized as being either pre-Pavlovian ‘entertainment’ or post-Pavlonian ‘high art.’ For although there appears to have been no sequential growth pattern in Cather’s treatment of dance themes in her short stories, they do reveal two very distinct ‘before’ and ‘after’ phases that seem to commemorate the moment when modern ballet was accepted into the Kingdom of Art.

Cather then adopts and adapts traditional ballet synopses and characterizations, incorporating them into her earliest novels in an increasingly complex and multi-layered fashion. She appears to have sustained the ballet theme throughout her oeuvre, devising new and intricate ways of synthesizing and reworking this classic material – often using ballet plots to subvert and reverse the surface readings of her works.

The Appendix provides a unique list of the major dance performances presented in the New York area from 1906 (the year Willa Cather moved to the city) until 1940 (when she published her last novel). Information derives from Lillian Moore’s notebook entitled Metropolitan Opera Solo Dancers and Choreographers (1906-1910), and from meticulous research from advertisements, reviews and articles in the New York Times (1906-1940).

From the Readers:

“In Willa Cather and the Dance, Wendy K. Perriman opens a new field for Cather scholars: the world of the dance. Her remarkable scholarship is a pathfinder’s breakthrough to another field of knowledge relevant to the work of Willa Cather. It offers new insights into transatlantic modernist culture. Cather boasted that she would never repeat herself, and in this book Perriman shows that she also applied that principle to ballets and dances that she wove into her creations. Cather’s subtle allusions reveal her comprehensive knowledge of and taste for the dance. Perriman’s prodigiously thorough survey of such allusions generates a short history of dance performance in America . . . .

Cather, it seems, could heroize the artists of the ballet as she also did those of the stage. An audience member relaxes here while learning new material, for we follow the informed instruction of a seasoned dance historian who is also a fine Cather scholar.”

Merrill Maguire Skaggs, Ph. D.
Series Editor of The Willa Cather Series (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press),
scholar, author and late Baldwin Professor of Humanities (Drew University)

Willa Cather and the Dance is “a substantial addition to the scholarly corner devoted to uncovering traces of the dance in literary writings . . . . [it] will prove invaluable to dance scholars . . . . [Perriman] has done her fellow researchers a service.”

Lisa Ferrugia Atkinson
Dance Chronicle (Volume 34, Issue 2, 2011): 330-335.