The Electric Body
Ecstasy, Spasm and Instability in Dance: Movement Notation from Vladimir Stepanov to Vaslav Nijinsky
The relationship between the discovery and application of electricity and the human body in the 19th and 20th centuries is complex and multifaceted. Used to stimulate nervous and muscular reactions in the fields of medicine and biology or to record the more intimate movements of the body (cf. the electrocardiogram), electricity established the basis of what today we might call the modern electric – or digital – body. Another aspect, hitherto little explored, is that of the relationship between the electric body and the aesthetics of movement in dance. Visionary choreographers – those who anticipated ‘modern dance’ – such as Vaslav Nijinsky realised that the involuntary movements, often spasmodic and out of control, which electric stimuli could incite (Luigi Galvani comes to mind), could also suggest totally new ideas to the dancer. On the other hand, this kind of movement, syncopated, spasmodic and often uncontrollable, also elicited somewhat morbid analogies with mental disease – a field of research as much ambiguous and equivocal as the new European dance itself wherein hysteria mingled with ecstasy and schizophrenia with emancipation from all conventions. The focus of this essay is on Nijinsky’s choreographic concepts vis-à-vis ecstatic or ‘lunatic’ movement, for his, indeed, was a modern ‘electric body’.
Keywords: Dance notations • Russian ballet • Theatre and performance • La Salpêtrière • Nijinsky • Body movements