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Date of Award
Restricted Thesis: Campus only access
Bachelor of Arts
Dr. Elizabeth Outka
As the Romantic Era in ballet came to an end during the late nineteenth century, the subsequent rise of early modern dance coincided with shifts away from realism in literature, a convergence which invited poets like Stéphane Mallarmé to consider the ways in which these two disciplines informed one another. Mallarmé, a French symbolist poet, saw the female dancer as an ideal symbol for a new, suggestive mode of poetic expression. In response to a performance by Italian ballerina Elena Cornalba in 1886, he wrote an essay entitled “Ballets” in which he proposes that “the dancer is not a woman who dances…but a metaphor summarizing one of the elementary aspects of our form”; the poet only has “to lay, submissively at the feet of this unconscious revealer of truths” who “silently writes your vision, like a Sign, which she is” (107, 109, 110). This essay, one of the many reviews he penned after attending dance performances, represents in microcosm the interdisciplinary dialogue between poetry and dance occurring in the early decades of the twentieth century. Given that dance derives its expressive power from movements that often lack a designated meaning, the individual gaze of each audience member, and especially the gaze of poets like Mallarmé, significantly impacts how viewers understand both performers and performances. Choreographers and dancers, however, do rely on specific ideas and images to inspire their creative visions, and ignoring these intentional meanings risks invalidating dancers’ embodied experiences. The interpretive tension emerging here becomes even more complex when considered through the lens of the era’s uneasy gender politics. Navigating this conversation requires equal consideration of the ways in which male poets like William Butler Yeats and choreographers like George Balanchine understood the role of the dancer and, conversely, how female artists like Hilda Doolittle and Bronislava Nijinska sought to assert the legitimacy of their own creative expression. Taking a balanced, analytical approach to these interactions reveals more clearly the presence of an 2 inequitable power dynamic; in both poetry and dance, the masculine gaze1, or the interpretive lens of male readers and viewers, sees self-sacrifice as inevitable and desirable for the creative woman. Framing the female dancer as an ideal symbol for poetry is just one manifestation of this gendered imbalance, and only through a true dialogue among the works of both poets and choreographers can she become fully re-embodied. In the sections that follow, I explore the masculinist perspectives of Mallarmé, Yeats, and Balanchine, as well as the opposition that H.D. and Nijinska waged against them, with the aim of offering a new, more balanced pas de deux between disciplines.
Fleming, Karen, "‘She is not a woman, but a metaphor’: Power, Gaze, and the Female Dancer in Modernist Poetry and Dance" (2021). Honors Theses. 1581.
Available for download on Sunday, June 07, 2026