From Dance to Dance – Early dance films

Selected moments from the history of dance films on the occasion of the 120th anniversary of Hungarian dance recordings. An extremely rich, unexplored topic in which one can only leap from one dance recorded on camera to the next.


Once the image ‘moves’, then it goes without saying that there is a great affinity in it ‘capturing’ movement. We know this is impossible, we can only produce the illusion of real movement from stills and photographs… as the pioneers, the early filmmakers managed. And what better than with dance, the art mankind invented for himself in good mood, for rhythm and melody.

When we happen not to be dancing, let’s at least watch it for our pleasure...

One of the earliest ways of evoking dance was with the device called the phenakistiscope, a disc with apertures cut at regular distances between the sequential phases of a figure drawn on the outer edge. On observing the spinning disc in the mirror through the apertures, the animated pictures appear to ‘move’ and the figure begins to dance. Belgian physicist and astronomer Joseph Plateau (1801-1883) was the first person to turn this into a profitable business.

Hypnotic effect

The elicitation of movement, or rather motion due to its brevity and repetitive nature, had numerous versions based on the same core principle: combined with a double disc (and then there is no need for a mirror, the stroboscope), with revolving cylinder (this is also without a mirror, the zoetrope), with a prism mirror and lighting (the praxinoscope), and with a projector (laterna magica, magic lantern), equipped with lenses, magnification and a crank.

‘Flipbook’ similar to Tolstoy’s

This was followed by the replacement of the disc with the serial-photo pages containing many more phases of movement (mutoscope, otherwise the kinora) and then finally, the flexible (film) reel of indeterminate length. (Naturally, all this also served science, but here we examine the process from the aspect of entertainment, and more specifically the genre of dance.) It was noted about Leo Tolstoy how much he enjoyed flicking through the flipbook on which a female dancer lifted up her skirt. Perhaps just such a flipbook... All well and good, but there will never be lifelike movement from these little picture pages. The true illusion of movement called for the obsessed photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) who emigrated from England to America, and who initially produced different movements, including dance steps and turns, with hand-drawn phenokistoscopes. The brilliant photographer André Adolphe Eugéne Disdéri (1819-1889) recorded configured dancers in different poses on a negative plate using his four-lens camera. Although his aim was to save money on the production of visiting cards, by observing the repetitive recordings it was easy to get a sense of the aethereal nature of movement. For example, this famous picture series later mounted on card shows Maria Surovshikova, Russian ballerina wife of Marius Petipa, the brilliant French ballet master and choreographer, when she was in Paris, at the studio of Disdéri, in 1862. Eight years later he repeated the same thing with his camera capable of serial exposures, with glass plate snapshot images washed with a light-sensitive emulsion placed around the evenly revolving disc stopping behind the lens.

In Paris, physiologist and photographer Georges Demenÿ (1850-1917) – who may have been of Hungarian descent – worked in a similar way at approximately the same time as Muybridge. His marvellous glass plate series from 1894 shows the concentration and joy of a ballet dancer gracefully on points as she says, see, I’m dancing and it shall be recorded thus forever, as long as somebody is able to ‘spin’ these plates.

Georges Demenÿ’s balerina, 1894

And now we are at the gateway to a new era, the year 1894. This is when in America Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) reached the culmination of his film experiments, by now with the flexible, copiable, spooled celluloid film reel that he standardized for capturing, in principle, an infinite number of motion phases. Edison set up the stage in his tar-paper studio called the ‘Black Maria’ after the vehicle used to transport prisoners. Here, his artists and dancers performed for him, photographed by his technician William Kennedy Dickson (1860-1935) using a kinetograph that he himself had constructed. Then the general public – peeping in to the screening box (kinetoscope) fitted with magnification glass and started by inserting a coin in the slot – could marvel, individually, at the programme, for example, the Spanish Carmencita dance, of the film reels glued together at the two ends (thus making an infinite loop) and running on rollers:

...or the entrancing ‘butterfly dance’ by the beautiful Annabella Moore (1894):

However, the French competition was not lacking in innovation either. In the very same year, that is, 1894, the Lumière brothers, Auguste (1862-1954) and Louis (1864-1948), prepared their first motion pictures on translucent paper (one of which can still be seen today) and the first version of their classic études, End of the Work Day, shot with their cinématograph (which at the same time was used to screen the film because by transposing the side walls it was suitable for both recording and projecting). However, in truth the Lumière brothers only made their real breakthrough one year later, in 1895, with their spring-summer screenings and with their public performance on 28 December of that year. Since tickets must have been sold for this, and since then screenings became a regular feature, this day is marked as the date of birth of cinema. Interestingly, dance scenes, which were made for film, were missing from the first programmes shown by the Lumières. Of course, this is understandable if we are aware that the Lumière brothers were primarily interested in the direct, dynamic pictorial capture of the surrounding social and natural world. But not exclusively! They also shot staged scenes, including dance sequences. First, they photographed Tiroleans dancing in outside:

From 1896, they frequently added various staged folk dances and ballet scenes in their mixed programmes:

Lumière dance scenes: Russian dance, Italian tarantella, stage dance, ballet

Danse serpentine I., Loie Fuller (1897):

Le carnaval de Venise (1897):

These film scenes were also on show in Hungary for years. Unlike the ballet scene with prima ballerina Carlotta Zambelli filmed by Paul Nadar (1856-1939, son of Félix Nadar, the famous early photographer), who also took pictures of artist Mihály Munkácsy, which until recently was unavailable but now anybody can see it on the Internet:

Nor could we watch the Parisian girls, but today they can be seen, just like Zambelli. William K. L. Dickson, who by that time had left Edison, recorded their dance in 1897. The best part of the motion tableau is that the dancing girls are evidently thoroughly enjoying themselves:

In 1896, Alice Guy-Blaché (1873-1968), who, from being a secretary at the Gaumont company, rose to become one of the most significant pioneers of filmmaking, was the next French genius to shine. Dance features in all her films and it can be stated that in her wake, there is virtually no French film of the period that did not include ballet scenes. Guy-Blaché’s first short, La fée aux Choux (The Fairy of the Cabbages, 1896), is pure ballet. However, only her own remake from 1900 has survived:

Guy-Blaché also created her own Danse serpentine (1900), and its parody (with Bob Walter, in 1897), but perhaps her most famous dance production is Pierrette’s Escapades (Les Fredaines de Pierrette) also shot in 1900. This is a kind of Harlequin-Pierrot and Columbine pantomime, in which Columbine rejects Harlequin in order to court the favour of Pierrot/Pierrette:

As one can see, Pierrette is also danced by a woman (thus the feminized name), which is why some on YouTube term this the ‘dance of lesbians’.

Lujza Blaha and Mihály Kis in the csárdas scene of A táncz (The Dance) perform an extract from the folk play A piros bugyelláris (The Red Wallet), which they played (to great acclaim) on the stage earlier. One of the stills of the film is shown on the coloured postcard. (Source: NFI)

Sári Fedák as János vitéz, 1904

The situation is totally different as regards Hungary, with the scenes known collectively as A táncz (The Dance) shot a year later, that is, 120 years ago this year. They were created as illustrations for a scripted lecture on the history of dance given by Gyula Pekár (1866-1937) to the music of Aurél Kern (1871-1828). The ‘motion photographs’ of A táncz are sitting neglected on a shelf somewhere, but in the magnificent photographs that have survived we can discover something similar to Pierrette’s Escapades: with the exception of the csárdas scenes, the girls’ partners are exclusively female. This is partly for ballet history reasons: according to the ballet dictionary, travesti (or transvestite) means the dressing of an artist in the clothes of the opposite sex. Up to the end of the 17th century, men dressed in women’s clothes, and from the second half of the 19th century to the late 1920s women dressed in men’s clothes, because until 1684 men danced the female roles as well, and from 1850, starting from the decline of ballet, women danced the male roles as well. Presumably, from this date it was considered beneath the dignity of men to dance on stage almost naked, for which reason there were few men so they had to be substituted by women. That is, it was a solution born out of necessity and not from a content-dramaturgical consideration.

Sári Fedák’s famous János vitéz also belongs here: in a bold move, the role was assigned to the actress of unparalleled character simply because there was no equivalent talented young male actor for the part. Naturally, there may have been an ulterior motive in this decision: the piquancy of a female figure playing János vitéz (and other male protagonists played by women common at the turn of the century) probably aroused considerable excitement among the general public and, consequently, higher box office takings for theatres.

Geréb Anna