14 October 2015 -

Unknown Photographer, Serge Lifar and Alice Nikitina in La Chatte, 1927.

I am very grateful to the Design History Society for funding my attendance at its annual conference at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. This Conference Award enabled me to present a twenty-minute paper titled ‘More Beautifully Moved Being: Designing the Dancer, c.1920-33,’ and to broaden my understanding of how design practice and history are evolving in an international context.

As a researcher of Russian emigre ballet and its relationship to dress and embodiment, I did not regard myself as the typical design historian. However, this year’s conference theme ‘How We Live and How We Might Live: Design and the Spirit of Critical Utopianism’ felt both fascinating and incredibly relevant to my work. In the process of formulating my proposal and preparing my paper, I was able to return to the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch’s writings on the dancers in The Principle of Hope. Bloch regarded the trained, supple and apparently effortless bodies he witnessed at Isadora Duncan’s Loheland school as blue-prints of ‘more beautifully moved being.’ He perceived that these mainly female dancers’ free-flowing practice tunics and rhythmic movements were proleptic of a Socialist utopia where individuals were free and yet united through their communal activity. Although my PhD on Russian emigre ballet and embodiment has drawn upon Bloch’s work, preparing my DHS paper gave me the opportunity to focus more specifically on his notions of dance utopia, and consider how, and to what extent these played out in the contexts of 1920s emigre ballet studio dynamics, practice costume, and avant-garde choreography.

My conference panel, intriguingly, if cryptically, titled ‘Design at the Edge,’ also included Sara Johnson, who presented a paper on the cornucopia of funerary rituals and body disposal options available in the United States, and Jeanie Sinclair, who discussed the confluence of art and lifestyle in postwar St Ives. Before the panel, we wondered what the common thread between our papers might be. Afterwards, Jeanie felt that we had all dealt with the design and management of bodies in some way: mine were supremely physical, both controlled and free; Sara’s were loved, disintegrating and inconvenient in their expired state, and her’s were festive and bohemian. I thought that the theme of designed lifestyles united our papers, as we had all discussed alternative, utopian possibilities for life, creative and death practices.

The conference as a whole gave me an expanded sense of design history’s diversity, in terms of subject-matter, methods and presentation. The range of papers and events, delivered in the futuristic environs of California College of the Arts and other Bay Area technology hot-spots, inspired me to think critically and creatively about the kind of design history I want to practice.

Author biography: Katerina Pantelides is a PhD candidate at the Courtauld Institute of Art, working on the relationship between Russian emigre ballet and embodiment in the interwar period. She is also a co-founder of Fashion Research Network, an organisation which seeks to promote the work of early career scholars in fashion and dress.


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