Ballet, between acrobatics and feelings: some photo reflections

Two days ago, The Guardian published an article featuring two “grand dames” of ballet: “Ballet´s Gillian Lynne and Beryl Grey: dancers should be pushed to the limit”. They both claimed that contemporary dance is not as hard as it was 70 years ago. But, most interesting, they also complained about the changed nature of ballet performances nowadays. According to Grey:

“There doesn’t seem to be as much depth of spirit and soul. It’s much more acrobatic. People want to see millions of pirouettes and legs going remarkably high. It’s a bit more like a circus, and the depth of feeling that one tried to express [previously] isn’t always there. You find it in one or two dancers. I think it reflects society. We’re a much more superficial society … Even though art does reflect its age, I would love to see less accent perhaps on technique and more feeling. I often come away impressed [with] what I’ve seen, but it hasn’t moved me.”

I have reflected on how ballet photography has changed over time elsewhere, and I can see what Grey means. This is one of the many pictures of Anna Pavlova, one of the most recognized ballerinas of the Russian Ballet around 1900, posing as the Dying Swan


Here we can see the very Grey

ImageBeryl Grey, 1927 (Photo: Baron)

And these are some of the contemporary pictures we can find in popular websites like Pinterest




Svetlana Zakharova (unknown photographer)

These pictures could confirm Grey´s suspects: the first pair of pictures are about expression, the  second one about technique. While we all could try to imitate the gestures of the first ones, we could suffer severe damage if we try the second.

But this is not entirely truth. Anyone who has danced knows that expression and technique are not separated concepts, and the greatest dancers are precisely those who master both of them.  Moreover, one could say, with reason, that the contemporary pictures I have chosen are not representative enough. And I would agree with this critique. I don´t think all contemporary dance is about technique (the last picture is very expressive to me indeed, and you cannot see this video without being moved ).

However, I also do think there´s has been a change in the history of ballet and its photographic representation, and that this change is related to emotions. I agree with Grey that art reflects society, or better, reflects on society. Art appropriates, rejects or negotiates contemporary concerns. And emotions are among our contemporary concerns. Are we a superficial society, as Grey points out? Probably, but this doesn´t mean we don´t feel. We feel other things, and we value other feelings. Is not the amazement about the limits of the body an emotion? Why being moved about legendary, tragic histories of love should be most worthy than being impressed by the movement alone?

Feelings have not disappeared, they just changed.

Darwin and the Emotions

“It is easy to observe infants whilst screaming; but I have found photographs made by the instantaneous process the best means for observation, as allowing more deliberation”

Darwin, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872

We all know Darwin´s evolutionism, mainly developed in his On The Origin of Species (1859). Less known is, however, a later book dealing with emotions: The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). This work sold 9000 copies in the first four months and a second edition was launched in 1889, just after Darwin´s dead. So, it became a very popular book in the Victorian England. One of the reasons of this popularity was, of course, its authorship: Darwin was one of the most recognized scientists, and his work was expected with great enthusiasm. Furthermore, Expression was one of the first scientific book illustrated with photographs.

ImagePlate II, “Low Spirits, Anxiety, Grief, Dejection, Despair”, Expression, 1872. Wellcome Images

According to the abovementioned quote, these photographs served as an evidence for his study of emotional expressions and his theory about their origin. This makes sense if we think about emotional expressions like crying, when facial muscles are in movement, but also in the case of grief, expressed through contractions of the eyebrows that could only last for a moment. Darwin was a naturalist and his method was then based on systematic observation. Therefore, he needed a tool able to fix these fleeting states, and photography soon appeared as the most suitable technology for this purpose.

What interests me the most is, of course, his use of photography. His was a fascinating practice for several reasons that I can only outline here. Firstly, photography became for Darwin a technology of observation in a very particular way. When you read the Expression, it is obvious that most of the descriptions are not based on the study of the pictures. In fact, he recognizes the experiments he performed with his own children or those carried out by other doctors in the colonies and the asylum. Then, it seems that the pictures were used to “summarize” and illustrate the collection of gestures that most of people do when expressing grief or love. But he also often draws on the work of Duchenne de Boulogne, a French physiologist who studied the reaction of the facial muscles in different expressions by stimulating them with electricity, and documented the process with photographs (Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine, 1862 – we´ll talk about this soon!). Some of Duchenne´s pictures were indeed included in Expression. Then, Darwin´s conclusions were based on his observation of natural emotional expressions, but also on his study of scientific photographic evidence.

The most interesting thing is that this photographic evidence was not always produced scientifically. Many of the pictures were taken by Oscar Rejlander, a studio photographer based in London. Most of them were taken with the specific purpose of showing a particular expression, as in the case of the picture N. 3 in plate II. But some of them, like the picture N.6, were commercial photographs that Rejlander exhibited in this studio. Darwin collected this kind of commercial pictures, which became data of his empirical research. 

But the link between Darwin´s photographs and victorian popular culture was not limited to Darwin´s collection of studio portraits. As a consequence of the success of the Expression, one of the pictures became really popular. It was called the “Ginx’s Baby”.

ImageO. Rejlander, “Ginx´s Baby”, 1871.

I wanted to introduce the conversation in this blog with Darwin because I think he is a great example of how emotions have been defined over time, and how they have always been in the interplay between scientific theories and popular culture. In this case, photography was the technology that enabled this exchange, not only through the visual culture created by photographic images, but also through the practices of collecting, posing and producing pictures. To uncover these relations will help us to understand the history of emotions, as well as the cultural, social and political role played by photography in history.