The Fin-de-Siècle New Woman as Dancer: Incarnation on the Stage

Helena Goscilo, University of Pittsburgh

My talk analyzes the cultural significance of the stage dancer as modern Salomé in fin-de-siècle Russia generally, and in Anastasija Verbickaja's bestselling novel, Keys to Happiness, specifically.By the early twentieth century, the Biblical young acrobatic dancer intent on pleasing her adulterous mother, Herodias, by dancing for her reward of John the Baptist's head had metamorphosed into the Decadents' quintessential man-eating Venus flytrap. Flaubert's Hérodias, Massenet's Hérodiade, Wilde's Salomé and Beardsley's illustrations, Richard Strauss's opera, Djagilev's theatrical and ballet productions of the seven-veiled dancer, and the scandalous enactment of Salomé in the theater by Maud Allan and "the icon of sexual inversion," Ida Rubenstein, had transformed the scriptural dutiful daughter into a secular castrating vamp.

With the aid of slides, and engaging the scholarship of Jane Marcus ("Salome: the Jewish Princess Was A New Woman," 1974), Françoise Meltzer (Salome and the Dance of Writing, 1987), Elaine Showalter (Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle, 1990), Doug Adams and Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (Dance as Religious Studies, 1990), I argue that the rationale for Verbickaja's choice of Salomé/Isadora Duncan as a paradigm for the New Woman in Keys to Happiness stemmed from that figure's multiple cultural associations crucial for her protagonist's biography and image--as femme fatale/phallic woman; genetically doomed scion of a "degenerate" family and part mirror of her adulterous mother; internationally acclaimed, "divinely/infernally inspired" artist, whose art conquers and castrates/decapitates men.

Because the contradictory image of the dancer as the New Woman corresponded to the high culture identification of creativity with transcendence, while simultaneously satisfying the popular enthusiasm for body movement as sexual enticement, it proved ideal for Verbickaja's work of intellectual pretensions and mass appeal. A conflation of the Symbolist ideal of fatally gifted creator, on the one hand, and the free-wheeling performer prepared to "exhibit" her body before thousands of spectators/voyeurs, on the other, Verbickaja's Mar'ja El'cova epitomized the Heroine of Paradoxical Times.