Philip M Ward
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Josephine Baker

The electric body: Nancy Cunard sees Josephine Baker (2003)

On 22 September 1925 the Cunard liner Berengaria docked at Cherbourg. Among the disembarking passengers was a group of African Americans. They were the cast of a revue, hastily assembled in New York by a white American socialite and would-be impresario, Caroline Dudley Reagan, and booked into the Théâtre des Champs Élysées, Paris. The show, which they had begun to rehearse only on the transatlantic crossing, was called La revue nègre. It was Dudley’s attempt to show Parisians ‘real’ Negro music and dance and to capitalise on the French cultural elite’s obsession with what became known in the 1920s as ‘négrophilie’. By the time the show opened on 2 October it had been transformed from a vaudeville conceived for a white American public into a more complex music-hall production adapted to French tastes. It is instructive to follow through the reaction of one audience member - the writer, publisher, civil rights activist and society rebel Nancy Cunard - to see how black dance was read by one of its more thoughtful white afficianados.

The show began with a big ensemble number – a Mississippi river dock scene – introducing all twenty-five performers. As the scene climaxed, there was an extraordinary apparition, described thus by French critic Pierre de Régnier:

A strange figure in a ragged undershirt ambles onto the stage looking like a cross between a boxing kangaroo and a racing driver… She is in constant motion, her body writhing like a snake or more precisely like a dipping saxophone. Music seems to pour from her body. She grimaces, crosses her eyes, wiggles disjointedly, does a split and finally crawls off the stage stiff-legged, her rump higher than her head, like a young giraffe.

They had to wait for the finale to see more of her. With partner Joe Alex she executed a sort of improvised pas de deux, billed as a ‘danse sauvage’. Many years later Janet Flanner, the veteran New Yorker correspondent, recalled the impact of that ‘savage dance’:

She made her entry entirely nude except for a pink flamingo feather between her limbs; she was being carried upside down and doing the split on the shoulder of a black giant. Midstage he paused, and with his long fingers holding her basket-wise around the waist, swung her in a slow cartwheel to the stage floor, where she stood, like his magnificent discarded burden, in an instant of complete silence… A scream of salutation spread through the theatre. Whatever happened next was unimportant. The two specific elements had been established and were unforgettable – her magnificent dark body, a new model that to the French proved for the first time that black was beautiful, and the acute response of the white masculine public in the capital of hedonism of all Europe – Paris.

This was a new star, Josephine Baker. Flanner was absolutely right about the ‘white masculine public’. A brief survey of the Paris-based critics of the day shows that, however they dressed it up in aesthetic garb, however worthily their reviews invoked the names of Rousseau and Bougainville, their ‘acute responses’ were markedly sexualised. In modern parlance, Baker was ‘pure theatrical Viagra’. Critics emphasised her ‘animality’ and ‘primitiveness’. To ee cummings she was ‘a creature neither infrahuman nor superhuman but somehow both: a mysteriously unkillable Something’. To dance critic André Levinson the ‘undeniable rhythmic superiority of these negro dancers is nothing less than an adjunct of their irrepressible animality’. To another critic she is ‘this gracious little exotic animal… who teaches us about the brutality only certain races have’. Le Corbusier devised a ballet scenario for her in which he imagined her ‘dressed as a monkey’. Critics had two ways of investing importance in Baker and rescuing her from their own fantasies of the exotic. One was to identify her as living sculpture. Thus Levinson read her as a ‘black Venus’ in whom ‘the plastic sense of a race of sculptors and the frenzy of the African Eros swept over the audience’. The other was to represent her as an ‘ambassador from the jungle’ come to redeem an effete European civilisation. Paul Brach thanked her for ‘abandoning the heat of a tropical river’ to ‘breathe on the banks of the Seine and unto our grey and tired lives’. The critic of Volonté believed she held the secret that would spare the great cities of the world from ‘dying from the weight of civilisation’. The artist Paul Colin, whose images of Baker and posters for La revue nègre did so much to establish her iconography, speculated that her dances foretold the ‘era of a new civilisation, finally relieved of fetters centuries old’. Of course, these were canny men who knew perfectly well that Baker had never been anywhere near a tropical river. Robert de Flers in Le Figaro countered that, far from redeeming civilisation, poor and uneducated black performers like Baker were the ‘dregs’ of modern civilisation. Arnold Haskell, the English dance critic, wrote that she ‘always seemed to be playing up to what the public wants the negro to be’. Black artist and Parisian ‘negrophile’ were locked into a nexus of supply and demand.

If it is true that Baker was only ever ‘performing’ primitivism, can we still find significance in her dancing? Baker’s improvisations transgressed the conventions of choreographed dance; she strung together steps with every appearance of spontaneity. Where European dancers showed the front, presenting the body as a unified line, Baker contrived to move different parts of her body to different rhythms. Most shocking to dance purists, she used her backside, shaking it, as one of her biographers says, as though it were an instrument. The embodiedness of this dance was new, at least outside folk traditions. Where European classical dancers strive upward, she was grounded. According to Levinson, where in the European tradition the harmony between the movement of the body and the rhythm of the music is constant and tacit, Baker’s dancing was based upon direct and audible expression of the rhythm. ‘Negroes dance with their senses’, wrote Ivan Goll, ‘while Europeans can only dance with their minds’. Such black dance challenged two trends in European dance which, arguably, by the 1920s were losing vitality: the high art tradition of the Ballets Russes and the ‘expressive dance’ movement of performers like Mary Wigman and Isadora Duncan. Ironically, both trends had associations with the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (where the Revue nègre premiered). Before it changed ownership the theatre had been home to Diaghilev’s company when in Paris; it was the scene of the scandalous premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1913. A piece in Vogue, February 1925, ventures the opinion that ‘the Negro… dances better than Nijinsky’. Blaise Cendrars compared Jean Börlin’s dancing in La création du monde to that of a ‘mulatto, Negro… With your Swedish peasant feet, you are the exact opposite of the Ballets Russes’. The interior of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées is decorated with frescoes by Maurice Denis depicting Isadora Duncan barefoot, in flowing tunics. Baker’s style was compared by some critics to the freedom of movement that Isadora Duncan championed for dancing. The Greek-inspired Duncan was horrified, and wrote: ‘It seems to me monstrous that any one should believe that the jazz rhythm expresses America’. Duncan’s art, like the ‘serpentine dances’ of her predecessor Loie Fuller, depended on the skilful extension of the body through costume. In a joky reference to the fairytale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, Baker once implied that, since she wore (almost) no clothes in her act, she had created an art of pure essence.

        Josephine Baker     Nancy Cunard     Josephine Baker and Chiquita  

Somewhere among the testosterone-rich early audiences of La revue nègre was Nancy Cunard, in Parisian self-exile. Before turning to Cunard’s reception of Baker, it is worth attempting a comparison between these two women. Baker was born in 1906 in the slums of East St Louis, the illegitimate daughter of a washed-up song-and-dance pair. Her father left within a year of Josephine’s birth. Her mother took up with another man and bore him three children. Her natural father had Hispanic blood; her stepfather was much darker-skinned, and so were her step-siblings. She claimed that her mother rejected her for ‘not being black enough’; auditioning later for Broadway shows, she was rejected for being ‘too black’. From her neighbours she learned the latest steps and dances – the ‘Mess Around’, the ‘Itch’ – as they passed through black urban centres. Driven by the need to escape the poverty of this upbringing, she hung around theatres, working her way up from dresser to comic chorus girl. By March 1924 she finally reached New York in the chorus of an all-black show, Chocolate Dandies. Even then, specialised as a comedienne and novelty dancer, she gave little forewarning of her subsequent transformations. But she announced it as soon as she reached Paris. Paul Colin, unhappy with her ‘made in Harlem’ outfits, marched her off to the couturier Poiret. As Baker herself puts it in one of several rewritings of her life story: ‘Since I personified the savage on the stage, I tried to be as civilised as possible in daily life’. The same journalists who had watched her ‘animal’ performance in La revue nègre covered her arrival at the first night party, now fully and fashionably clothed: ‘At heart, perhaps, this pretty little "savage" is well and truly Parisian’, wrote Henri Jeanson. A cartoon of 1926 depicts her as a society lady with a monkey’s tail protruding from her dress. This is the key to her self-creation over the next ten years. Initially, her performances were full of leaping and acrobatics, of a sort that her audience read as ‘animal’. But as she in turn read her audience, her imagery became more sophisticated. The animality was externalised. Many iconic images show her, elegantly dressed, with her pet leopard Chiquita. She took French lessons. Gradually, the singing took over from the dancing. Janet Flanner’s column from 1930 shows how equivocally this development was viewed by her earliest admirers:

Miss Baker… has, alas, almost become a little lady. Her caramel-coloured body, which overnight became a legend in Europe, is still magnificent, but it has become thinned, trained, almost civilised… There is a rumour that she wants to sing refined ballads; one is surprised that she doesn’t want to play Othello. On that lovely animal visage lies now a sad look, not of captivity, but of dawning intelligence.

But it was too late for such regrets. Baker had discovered that she could play the chanteuse, as successfully as she had played the ‘pretty little savage’. She even made a bid for literary status. She opened her own night-club, Chez Josephine, with a house magazine featuring art work, fashion and poems. In 1930 a novel appeared under her name. Mon sang dans tes veines (My blood in your veins) is a parable about interracial love. The black heroine dies in the act of giving a blood transfusion to her estranged white boyfriend, the mixed blood in his veins now meaning that he can never marry the pretty (white) flapper to whom he has since become engaged. How much of this farrago is Baker’s work, how much that of her two credited collaborators, is unknown. All this activity brought Baker immense fame and a considerable income. Her marriage in 1927 to a self-styled Italian ‘Count’ confirmed her conquest of, and assimilation into, white Paris.                         

The contrast with her admirer Nancy Cunard could hardly be greater. Born into a life of ease, her literary success speeded along by her mother’s social contacts with editors, Cunard too broke with her ancestry, identifying with the racial ‘other’. The famous photographs of her – by Man Ray and Cecil Beaton – are exercises in self-construction, as surely as when Baker poses with the pet leopard or, her face whitened by the heaviest makeup, is photographed on the arm of ‘Count’ Abatino. Baker, by the 1930s, was very rich; Cunard, after the breach with her mother, Lady Emerald, was most probably not. Jane Marcus has written fascinatingly about photographs of Cunard taken by Barbara Ker-Seymer employing the ‘solarization’ technique – negative prints which made the white subject appear black. Is it fanciful to read ‘Josephine Baker’ as a ‘solarization’ of ‘Nancy Cunard’, the skin tones reversed, the career paths running in opposite directions? And, if so, can this be a subtext in Cunard’s troubled reading of Baker?

In a revealing autobiographical passage Cunard recalls her childhood dreams about black Africa,

with Africans dancing and drumming around me, and I one of them, though still white, knowing, mysteriously enough, how to dance in their own manner. Everything was full of movement in these dreams; it was that which enabled me to escape in the end, going further, even further!

Here is a self-identification with black dance as a means of escape and self-abandon from what ‘civilisation’ had made her. Raymond Mortimer said that what first struck him about Cunard was her ‘regard’ – he uses the French word to mean not only the eyes ‘but the way in which they confront the visible world’. Sight is no less subjective than the other senses. What those ‘Arctic blue’ eyes of Mortimer’s description ‘saw’ when they ‘saw’ Baker was what they wanted to see: a promise of escape, an image of female self-abandon, or a betrayal of both those things.

To my knowledge, Cunard only wrote about Baker on two occasions. The first was in a despatch from Paris for Vogue in May 1926. Here she writes about the new show at the Folies Bergère. La folie du jour, Baker’s first Paris show as headliner, was designed to exploit the contrast of ‘culture’ and ‘nature’. The lengthy warm-up before the star’s entrance had eight scantily clad girls being shown the wealth of Paris. As each girl selected fashionable clothes from among those on show, she left the stage more fully dressed than she entered. Then Baker made her entrance, reversing this recapitulation of cultural ‘evolution’. Baker was the ‘savage’ Fatou, wearing only her famous girdle of bananas. As she danced, the bananas bounced and bobbed like so many flaccid (but perhaps, in the imagination of her audience, tumescent) phalluses. In her review for Vogue, Cunard unashamedly sides with ‘nature’ against ‘culture’. She deprecates the ‘interminable series of naked women contraptioned into fans’ but revels in ‘the perfect delight one gets from Josephine Baker, most astounding of mulatto dancers, in her necklets, bracelets, and flouncing feathered loincloths’ as she ‘contorts her surprising form through a maze of complicated rhythms’. Baker is even better on her own here, Cunard believes, than when surrounded by the troupe of the Revue nègre the previous autumn. Little is made here of Baker’s blackness – instead, Cunard defines the dancer’s ‘otherness’ in terms of outlandish appearance and physical versatility – nor of her nakedness, which Cunard evidently reads as ‘natural’, unlike the confected eroticism of the white chorus-line.

Cunard’s regard was turned on Baker a second time in one of her own contributions to the Negro anthology, the vast anthology of African-American literature and art which she edited and which, apart from her colourful life, remains her greatest achievement. By the 1930s, as we have seen, Baker’s public image had had a consummate make-over. This was confirmed by her show La joie de Paris, which opened at the Casino de Paris in December 1932. Baker had been taking ballet lessons with Balanchine and in the new show, distancing herself from the barefoot ‘Fatou’ of her early years, performed in ballet shoes for the first time. Having worked on her voice as well, she sang a lot more. One of her numbers was a skit on the growing fad for sunbathing, ‘Si j’étais blanche’, with a lyric suggesting that Baker was now lighter-skinned than a lot of tanned Parisiennes. For this she wore a platinum wig of marcelled ringlets. This song had a serious undertow, for, from her earliest appearances at the Folies Bergère, Baker had rubbed her skin with lemon juice in an attempt to make it seem lighter. All this was too much for her erstwhile fan Nancy Cunard. In the piece for Negro, Cunard quotes several ‘dreary’ French critics who exult at Baker’s transformation:

Civilisation has done its work – Josephine is from now on assimilated by the western world… she seems to whiten as we gaze at her – by far the best example of the perfecting of the black race by its intellectual contact with European civilisation.

This was a travesty of what Cunard had first seen in the Revue nègre: ‘the magnificent tornado, the wild-fire syncopation of Josephine Baker’s beautiful brown electric body’. Her dancing ‘could be compared to the purest of African plastic in motion – it was free, perfect and exact, it centred admirably in the spare gold banana fronds round the dynamic hips’. The tyranny of French ‘national taste’ is read by Cunard as a form of ‘nationalism and colonisation’ (her phrase) every bit as insidious as that in English-speaking countries. Baker, says Cunard, is ‘so supreme of her type as to be – paradoxically sounding – unique’. In seeking to make of Baker a ‘whitened, gallicised actress’, French critics have mistyped her. But what ‘type’ is she supposed to be? According to her biographer, Cunard often expressed the wish that her black American lover Henry Crowder had a darker skin or behaved in a more primitive, exotic manner. ‘Be more African,’ she reportedly told him. She had similar aspirations for Baker (although, so far as we know, they never met). The Baker whom she had first seen in 1925, the ‘savage’ dancer, this was the ‘authentic’ Baker, whose subsequent transformations were a betrayal imposed on her by her new host country.

Cunard saw what she saw. Looking back seventy years later, we may see differently. For me there are two problems with Cunard’s reading, and they are linked. One is a racial essentialism that expects the African-American performer to embody the ‘primitive’. The other is a denial of Baker’s own agency. Cunard implies that Baker has been made over by the French critics – and made over into something that she was not, a betrayal of her ‘type’. In fact, Baker was a chameleon who profited from a benign conspiracy with her Paris public. Each side willed the same outcome, but for different reasons. Paris could interpret her success as a triumph of France’s civilising mission; she could see it as outperforming the whites at their own game, most visibly by toppling Mistinguett, the previous (white) queen of Paris revue. Baker’s willingness to be what the public wanted – by turns, ‘savage’ dancer, sophisticated cabaret artiste – can be read many ways, as a psychological need rooted in her childhood, as the socioeconomic imperative of the poor black who had traditionally developed mimicry as a survival technique in white society. However, I think these metamorphoses were willingly undergone, not least because it was a gratification to discover in herself the technical abilities to carry them off. The young Cunard, ‘though still white’, had known, ‘mysteriously enough’, how to do the ‘savage dance’. In Baker she found her solarized self, a black woman who did the ‘savage dance’ for a living. But when Baker asserted her independence from stereotypes of blackness and hung up her bananas, Cunard could not follow her. Their paths did not cross again.

 

Further reading

Petrine Archer-Straw, Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s (2000)

Anne Chisholm, Nancy Cunard (1979)

Janet Flanner, Paris Was Yesterday 1925-1939 (1973)

Sieglinde Lemke, Primitivist Modernism: Black Culture and the Origins of Transatlantic Modernism (1998)

Jane Marcus, ‘Bonding and Bondage: Nancy Cunard and the Making of the Negro Anthology’, in Borders, Boundaries and Frames: Essays in Cultural Criticism and Cultural Studies, ed. Mae G Henderson (1995)

Ean Wood, The Josephine Baker Story (2000)


Ó Philip M Ward 2003

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