Rodin and Dance: The Essence of Movement at the Courtauld Gallery

A delicate exhibition, in typical Courtauld style: a few rooms, a very specific theme, and a clear message to convey. ‘Rodin and Dance‘ is an exploration of dance and sculpture, a study of the ways to capture motion in still media.

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In the last 20 years of his life, Rodin became more and more fascinated with movement, and more specifically with ‘how to record a particular moment’ of a given movement. This, coupled with his interest in non-balletic dance, including Cambodian dances and acrobatics, resulted in several artistic experiments, which all saw dance as their fil rouge.

From experimental little sculptures to exquisite drawings, Rodin studied the human body in motion very closely, in many cases with the help of his model Alda Moreno. Ironically, he had no intention to exhibit the outcomes of his research. However, we can only be thankful to the Courauld Gallery (and the Musée Rodin) for organising this intimate, precious display, which feels like a journey into the endless possibilities of expressive movement.

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Auguste Rodin, ‘PAS DE DEUX B’, 1965

I was lucky enough to attend a talk by Dr Matthew Ingleby (Queen Mary, University of London), curated by Dr Charlotte de Mille, where some Rilke was thrown into the picture. Some of his texts were read out loud, from his celebrated ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’, to less-known essays and poems. In spite of Rilke being one of my favourite poets, I was completely unaware of his unconditional admiration for Rodin’s work. Rilke worked as Rodin’s secretary in Paris for seven years, accessing much of the material on display at the exhibition, and published a book about him in 1903. I also had no knowledge of his deep passion for dance, exemplified in his poem ‘The Spanish Dancer’ – I’m giving it at the end of this article.

Starting from Ovid’s Pygmalion and ending with a Sonnet to Orpheus, Dr Ingleby drew an interesting triangulation of poetry, sculpture, and dance. What I took away from his talk was the position poetry sits in within this triangle. Poetry, and Rilke’s in particular, acts as a sort of trait d’union between the warm, dynamic world of dance and the still, lifeless realm of sculpture. Indeed, Rilke used poetry as a medium to engage with both. On the one hand, he believed that poetry could breathe new life into sculptures, especially ancient and fragmentary ones. In his ‘Ancient Torso of Apollo’ he does imagine Apollo’s “unimaginable head”. On the other hand, in poems like ‘The Spanish Dancer’, Rilke celebrated the hasty vibrancy of dance, capturing its palpitating nature. At the turn of the century, Rilke was determined to make poetry a life-giving force, as inspired by Dante (<3) and Baudelaire. This idea was a central aspect of Modernism more in general, as part of the modernist reaction to the life-less machinification of modern life.

It was wonderfully stimulating to listen to poems read out loud in an exhibition space, sometimes looking at the very artefacts that inspired those poems. In Rilke’s words (originally referring to Rodin’s torsos created as finished pieces), the exhibition shone with ‘an eminently poignant unity’, that of motion captured in artistic form.


The Spanish Dancer – Rainer Maria Rilke

As on all its sides a kitchen-match darts white
flickering tongues before it bursts into flame:
with the audience around her, quickened, hot,
her dance begins to flicker in the dark room.

And all at once it is completely fire.

One upward glance and she ignites her hair
and, whirling faster and faster, fans her dress
into passionate flames, till it becomes a furnace
from which, like startled rattlesnakes, the long
naked arms uncoil, aroused and clicking.

And then: as if the fire were too tight
around her body, she takes and flings it out
haughtily, with an imperious gesture,
and watches: it lies raging on the floor,
still blazing up, and the flames refuse to die –
Till, moving with total confidence and a sweet
exultant smile, she looks up finally
and stamps it out with powerful small feet.


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