Dance at Expo 58: corpus analysis

item doc

The 1958 dance writings of Marcel Lobet, Georges Sion and their colleagues confronted very diverse artistic concepts along with the underlying cultural values that accompanied them. All the while, the Expo’s official ideology was one of reconciliation. As early as 1953, the organisers of the World Exposition had indeed insisted on highlighting the unalienable potential of mankind to manage nature and society by means of science and the arts for the sake of world peace, emancipation and general prosperity. Quite a statement during the Cold-War era.
At Expo 58, the arts were given an explicit role in this ‘humanist modernism’ (J. Kint). Art was to denounce the dangers of science in the nuclear era, but – albeit with its human quality – art also had to a celebrate progress against the background of economic prosperity in the West and Russian détente in the East. Visitors of Expo 58 could attend theatre plays, concerts, opera and an unprecedented number of dance performances. At the Brussels town hall square, Columbus’ pioneering spirit was glorified in a play while the Antwerp theatre festival astutely programmed Doktor Faustus. The symbolic paragon of tail-coated fraternity, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, was programmed next to a succession of choreographers and dance companies from many different countries that were staging their own dance idioms, traditions and ambitions for the world and for each other to see.

The international encounter greatly impressed Les Beaux-Arts and Le Soir critics alike. Not only did critics like Sion, Lobet and Marcel Burnet note the overwhelming success of dance at the Expo, but the Belgian dancer Lydia Chagoll did the same in Plaidoyer pour un ballet belge. In 1958, the spectacle element and visual power of dance was able to enthuse large audiences and allowed dance to compete with film and television, the iconic media of modernity. In Belgium also, there had been an increasing interest in bodily culture and spectacle events to the extent that they gradually outranked the once-superior verbal expressions of culture. International dancers and companies had been hosted both in Antwerp and Brussels before, but never on as large a scale, with an equal scope and with the media taking as ample notice.

Dance revival?

Marcel Lobet is interesting for his acute awareness of living in an era where dance flourished as never before – with modernity’s achievements serving both as levers and as dead-weights. Despite the aesthetics of his time and despite his social setting, it is not a mere conventionalist we hear. ‘Depuis quelques années, nous assistons à une véritable renaissance du ballet, et il y a là un phénomène esthétique qui retient même l’attention du profane. A l’ère du cinéma, cet autre art du mouvement qu’est la danse retrouve un essor qu’il n’avait plus connu depuis quarante ans, depuis les Ballets Russes’, he proclaimed in an 1955 article.  In a publication on dance and television, he further investigated the relationship between these two media under such headings as ‘Le ballet dans la vie de l’homme d’aujourd’hui’, ‘Le ballet dans la civilisation de l’image’, ‘Le téléballet’, ‘Une fenêtre ouverte sur l’univers des coeurs’…
In 1955 however, in an assessment of the international dance scene that Lobet made in the wake of a series of performances in Antwerp, Brussels, Paris and Aix-les-Bains, he seemed undecided as to which path to follow in order to keep dance in phase with the times. He distinguished ‘le ballet moderne’ from ‘la tradition classique’ while at the same time expressing mixed feelings about Birgit Akesson’s and Martha Graham’s (neo)-expressionism, or about the music-hall influences in the work of Roland Petit. The cutting-edge mix of academism and innovation in the work of Jerome Robbins and Balanchine for the New York City Ballet did fascinate him, but Lobet preferred to place his bet on a renewal in French dance.

Two years later, in an article in Théâtre dans le monde, the future still proved uncertain. ‘L’art chorégraphique est à un tournant de son évolution’, said Lobet, ‘D’une part, certaines expériences modernistes semblent avoir déjà épuisé leur pouvoir de renouvellement; d’autre part, les formules classiques ou néoclassiques rencontrent une faveur inattendue dans des pays voués jusqu’ici à la danse expressionniste ou au ballet folklorique. [...] Cette constatation amène l’observateur à s’interroger sur l’avenir du ballet. De même que la peinture est passée du figuratif à l’abstrait pour revenir déjà à l’allusif, verrons-nous le ballet renoncer de plus en plus à l’argument – qui en faisait autrefois une pantomime – pour se réfugier, lui aussi, dans l’abstraction, tenue pour l’expression de la danse pure?’ Roland Petit lost his emblematic role as leader of the (French) modernist movement. He was replaced by Maurice Béjart, and unlike his more conservative colleagues, he was a supporter of abstract dance and of psycho-analytical inspiration in the art form. The Théâtre dans le monde survey also investigated such themes as political commitment in times of Cold War and the relationship between spectacle and expressionism in dance in the age of the film and entertainment industries.

A cultural geography of dance

It was now Maurice Béjart who defined the limits of artistic experimenting for Lobet and his colleagues, as is clear from their essays and reviews in 1958, the year of the Expo. Dance was allowed technical and thematic freedom, but if it wanted to be considered as an art form it had to remain within the realms of  ‘ballet’. In that respect, Lobet situated himself uninhibitedly within the French cultural framework, which for that matter mainly served as a distinguishing marker to the sphere of influence of German expressionism. Only in one essay, ‘La chorégraphie moderne absente de l’Exposition’, did Lobet complain about the absence of expressionist innovation on the dance stages at Expo 58 when it seemed to be flourishing in Anglo-Saxon and German-oriented regions. In his other writings though, he never failed to refer to expressionism as an outdated aesthetic, rightly due for an inevitable and universal defeat by the ballet tradition.
Lobet’s misgivings on expressionism were the logical result of a longstanding criticism on what was seen as the ponderous narrative pretensions of German art. In the French cultural sphere of influence, this critical attitude resulted in modernist avant-garde and conservative responses alike. One positive result was that, independent of any literary or theatrical requirements, corporeality and sensuality were in high esteem. The situation was different in Flanders, because there German expressionism had continued to flourish in the interval years between the two wars. It was not until the Second World War that the Antwerp choreographer Jeanne Brabants ‘converted’ to academic dance, because at that point she too felt that German dance was at a ‘deadlock’. All the while, the ‘serious’ expressionist heritage remained more acceptable in Flanders than in the francophone city of Brussels. The Flemish, on the other hand, could not appreciate Serge Lifar, an icon of the French Opera who was idolized by Lobet, whose body language they considered too sensuous, effeminate and coquettish.
A second geographical demarcation in the anthology concerns the so-called ‘Americanisms’. The fifties witnessed the final breakthrough of the consumer society and the entertainment industry, which opponents and defenders alike associated with the United States. If the German alternative was too oppressive, America’s modernity proved too shallow. The main worry was that American dancers should threaten a romantic view on art that held on to an elevated presentation mixed with a strong metaphysical tinge. But, there was also the fear that Paris should lose its status as cultural capital of the world. In Lobet’s opinion, the Americans should never foster any illusions of ever being able to compete with the traditional European ballet schools. On the other hand, his writings showed no mercy for the local aesthetics and themes.
Les Beaux-Arts theatre critic Georges Sion was more lenient in his view on American choreographers. In 1953, Sion toured the States and published an enthusiastic account of his travels, Its title, Puisque chacun a son Amérique, revealed his message. ‘Américanisme? Bien sûr, et pourquoi pas?’ was how he put it in 1958. Sion’s writings were restricted to reviews of performances; in Les Beaux-Arts,he did not have a forum for broad-ranging essays as did Lobet. In ‘L’exposition en soixante spectacles’, an overview article for La Revue Générale Belge,he warned the readers against hypocrisy. Transgressions of conventions were glossed over when it came to French choreographers, whereas in American choreographers they were simply second nature. Non-western cultures should not be judged too quickly either, because ‘good taste’ was a complex notion if one didn’t have sufficient background knowledge to adequately interpret their performances.

Still, Sion couldn’t refrain from wanting to safeguard the elitist West European art aesthetics. He denied folkloric dance the status of ‘true’ art, authentic as it may be as a means of expression for the people of the world.  In that respect, the Expo’s humanist voluntarism could not outweigh the fear of a ‘confusion de valeurs’. And although Lobet on his part was very sensitive to oriental temple dance, one has to take into account that this form of dance had been appropriated by the West for centuries – with the aim of making physical spirituality acceptable. Unlike Lobet and Sion, André Scohy, the critic from the colonies, went beyond stereotypes.  In a series of articles for Les Beaux-Arts, he depicted Congolese citizens in a contemporary setting, dancing in cafés in Leopoldville. All in all, the strained relations between western intellectuals and non-western, often colonial manifestations during Expo 58, constituted a third line of geographical conflict throughout the anthology.

The humanist body image

The writings of Lobet and Sion are at their most intriguing in the passages where they rise above the aforementioned conflict-lines – when they express their confidence in the Expo’s optimistic view on man and art. Paul Caso wrote on this ‘nouvel humanisme’ in ‘La vie artistique’ of Le Soir on 10 April 1958. He describes the Expo’s cultural project as a counter-proposal to Georges Braques’ sally that art was meant ‘pour troubler’, while science was made to reassure.  ‘Il n’est pas exclu,‘ wrote Caso, ‘qu’à la fin de notre siècle, on puisse tenir la réciproque de cet aphorisme pour une des clefs du domaine exaltant de l’art moderne.’ The sciences caused unrest in the atomic era but intellectuals were firmly set on protecting humanist cultural values and modern art was to be their pawn. Their hope was that by adopting the modernist slogans, they would be able to make the avant-garde change tack once they had drawn level. In the hope that it would fall into step and thus stop causing unrest or alienation, artistic renewal was legitimated as part of a tradition.
As a consequence, Sion and Lobet continued to back up the illusion that art was a potential expression of human essence, grafted both in present times and in eternity. ‘L’homme demeure au centre’ was an axiom for both Caso and Lobet; but meanwhile, the tensions in dance criticism betrayed that it was the average French citizen’s conformist view and colonial attitudes that ruled the game. ‘Il est la proportion et celle-ci est la beauté’ was their reaction, thus instigating an aesthetic of balance and control. It looks as if Lobet, Sion and their colleagues considered it their mission to curb an unmanageable, globalising modernity by means of a criticism that partly gave in to the visual culture of modernity, by promoting bodily display to a new expression of ‘humanity’, while on the other hand holding on to the conclusive role of the old verbal culture, of French tradition and morals.
Lobet, as a modern aesthete, took refuge in an abstract and ‘pure dance’ that held the possibility of transcending literary anecdote and would thus be able to glorify the human body’s so-called ‘universal’ powers of expressions. Lobet was highly intrigued by the directness of the human body and how it added an intrinsic up-to-the-minute quality to dance: ‘cet art toujours neuf’. He was convinced that the combined assets of ballet and film or television could potentially make the body more expressive in its own right, independent of any accessory literary references, as shown by his writings of 1963. And together with Lifar, Lobet reiterated in 1958 that : ‘la technique corporelle sera toujours le moteur du renouvellement et du rajeunissement de la danse.’
But to that effect, the body had first and foremost to remain unblemished, whole and sensuous, a worthy metaphor for the public’s and the critic’s positive image of humanity. Martha Graham, whom Lobet considered a child of German expressionism, caused him to wonder where ‘cette joie un peu sensuelle du corps qui danse’ had gone to. Lobet feared dislocation and disruption, and the term 'désarticulé' kept appearing in Lobet's descriptions of the dance vocabulary and compositional style of overly audacious innovators. Any attempt at disrupting the ‘harmony’ and stylistic principles of West-European artistic conventions amounted to no less than an attack on a generally accepted view of the world.
It was precisely for that reason that Lobet did not unconditionally accept the human body in the limelight. The perception of sensuousness and emotion needed the guidance of a romantic, critical discourse in order to avoid excessive coarseness or any tendency toward cheap entertainment. ‘Pure’ bodily display also needed the inspiration of an ethical or metaphysical context. Thus, the noble tradition of artistic reflection on ‘le Beau et le Bien indissolublement jumelés, la connaissance du Mal, de l’Amour et de la Mort’ was safeguarded. Lobet cherished Béjart precisely because of his ability to maintain that ‘soul’, that ‘inspiration’, that ‘style’, those ‘ethics’ and ‘harmony’ within the modernity of his work. Béjart’s choreographies were about purified expression and modern sensibilities but his dance vocabulary was less alienating than Martha Graham’s. Dancers in his psycho-analytical ‘ballets-problème’ did not end up with their bodies and souls in shreds. Their dancing remained vertical and transcendent which, according to Lobet, allowed them more physical and spiritual integrity.
All the same, much of Brussels’ public in the late fifties thought Béjart’s work to be both shocking and sensational. Albert Burnet, who was Lobet’s colleague and successor, admits – in Mélanges Marcel Lobet  to the fact that in 1957 he hadn’t come round to appreciating Béjart’s work. But under Lobet’s supervision, his attitude gradually changed, up until the point where he began using Béjart’s work as his baseline for comparison in his dance criticism for Le Soir, a career that continued up until 1988. Lobet convinced not only Burnet of Béjart’s importance. It was on the strength of Lobet’s reviews of Béjart’s work during the Expo, and of his Sacre du Printemps in the following year, that Béjart received the offer from director Maurice Huisman of the Brussels Monnaie to showcase his Ballet of the XXth Century at his venue.

Lobet thus proves to be a man of many faces. He is at the same time internationally knowledgeable and chauvinistic, sensitive to sensuality and moralizing, modern and traditional, and he feels threatened by the abstract art that he so admires. Shrewd judgement and erudition are the consistent factors in his writings. Apart from that, it is surprising how much space he received – or managed to extort – in Le Soir to clarify or fine-tune his views and judgments on the dance-field of that time. Also, there was no trace of humour or pamphleteering, neither in his work nor in that of his colleagues. It was Lobet’s doing that Le Soir offered contributions about theoretical questions in dance with a frequency and quality that are hard to imagine in any of today’s quality newspapers. In that respect, it would certainly be worthwhile to undertake further chronological and comparative research as to the position of Le Soir and Les Beaux-Arts in the Flemish and Francophone field of the media. In the Flemish newspapers, it was Piet Deses from Antwerp and André Minne from Gent who also reported on the World Festival while in La Libre Belgique. Jacques Franck had just started off on his long career in which dance criticism was to play a prominent role. As from 1963, Eric de Kuyper also contributed to a balanced appraisal of the international dance scene in the Flemish press - Sarma created an anthology of his writings some years ago.