In Debussy’s Paris, dance stands at the crossroads between the arts of music and painting.  Dance incorporates both sight and sound, translating musical values into visual forms.  Edgar Degas, one of the visual artists Debussy is known to have particularly admired, depicted the onstage performances and backstage flirtations of young ballet dancers during a period when French ballet was itself considered to be in artistic decline.  Meanwhile, dance also thrived in popular entertainment venues.  A leading figure of the bohemian counter-culture of Montmartre, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec portrayed the stars of the café-concert and cabaret as they performed the can-can and other popular dances.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, dance came to play a critical role in shaping abstraction in the visual arts.  This period witnessed the invention of new kinds of dance conceived as “high art” rather than mass entertainment, as choreographers chose concert pieces by Debussy and other well-known composers to accompany their creations.  The American-born performer Loïe Fuller, whose manipulations of silk drapery and electric stage lights made her a celebrity in 1890s Paris, pioneered such a form of modern dance, choreographed, on at least one occasion, to music by Debussy.  Toulouse-Lautrec created a series of lithographs of Fuller dancing, each one differently inked and dusted with gold and silver to convey the shifting visual impression of the dancer with light playing off her swirling skirts.

The Ballets Russes, established in 1909 by the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, introduced a new kind of collaboration among choreographers, artists, and composers. For a time the company was a fixture on the Parisian cultural scene.  In creating the ballet L’Après-midi d’un faune, the renowned dancer Vaslav Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes explicitly referenced the concept of a correspondence of art forms.  Nijinsky’s “Cubist” choreography for Debussy’s Faune as well as for his Jeux (“Games”) claimed for dance and the body a central role in the development of abstraction, continuing the conversation between music and the visual arts that had preoccupied avant-garde artists and critics over several decades. 

Image Credit: Léon Bakst. Russian, 1866–1924. Nijinsky as the Faun, cover of the theater program for the 7th season of the Ballets Russes, 1912. Color mechanical print. Collection of the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University, Gift of Herbert D. and Ruth Schimmel, 2003.0856.517. Photograph by Peter Jacobs

Loïe Fuller Link: This 1896 film by the Lumière Brothers shows a dancer performing The Serpentine Dance in Loïe Fuller’s style. The film was handtinted at the time to evoke the changing effects that Fuller achieved with stage lights playing off her swirling skirts.