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Khayyam’s Rubaiyat: Echoes in Dance

March 19, 2013

Rubaiyat-Publicity-ImageWhen you happen to be in Singapore early May, you might want to attend a dance performance by Raka Maitra, based on FitzGerald’s translation. In this production, the dancers’ bodies converse with the sea of ideas that Khayyam sets adrift in his work. Using techniques of odissi and contemporary vocabularies drawn from Indian movement traditions, they manifest many reflections of his poetry through the body. Music influenced by Sufism and inflected by Hindustani classicism carry forth the journey of the dancer and the experience of the spectator. (from the SISTIC website).
The event takes place 3-4 May, in the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Read more on their website.
Coindicence or not, hundred and ten years ago, a pantomime performance by Genevieve Stebbins was published, featuring Marie G. Macdonald posing to a selection of quatrains from the Rubáiyát. The booklet that was issued in 1903, showed a number of pictures illustrating the poses, including director’s instructions on how to move from one pose to the next one. Almost as if in a dance in slow motion.WernerIll
The instructions read:
“A book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou
[Picture IV: Sink on left knee, recline on left thigh.]
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
[Picture V: Push up on left arm and raise right arm obliquely forward for jug, head in same direction]
The booklet also contains the score of a “Rubaiyat Nocturne”, unfortunately without the composer’s name.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 20, 2013 5:06 pm

    That is a very interesting mixture, Jos. Just shows how widespead the Rubaiyat influence has been and still is. We wish we could get to Singapore in May.

  2. Bob Forrest permalink
    March 22, 2013 12:09 pm

    I don’t know how widely known this is, but Isadora Duncan also combined dance with the verses of Omar Khayyam. The story is well told in Allan Ross MacDougall’s book “Isadora: Revolutionary in Art and Love” (1960). Isadora had been introduced to FitzGerald’s translation, when young, by her mother (p.25). The idea of dancing or striking poses to the verses of Omar Khayyam appears to have been Isadora’s own – originally the verses having been read either by her sister or her brother. Then, in 1899 she met Justin Huntley McCarthy, the Anglo-Irish author of a successful play, now long forgotten, but who just happened also to be (as readers of this blog will know) the author of a prose rendering of Omar. Thus it came about that in New York in 1899 Isadora did her stuff whilst McCarthy read out his version of the verses. MacDougall tells it thus:

    “Mr. McCarthy, together with the young dancer, certainly drew a large and interested audience, mostly of women as theatrical matinees usually are. Well-dressed, well-fed, well-corseted, well-bred women, very proper ladies indeed, there to do honor to a poet whose pagan poem probably lay on their drawing room tables bound, as was the fashion, in limp leather. Settling down as placidly comfortable as they could, the ladies listened to Mr. McCarthy’s rich Anglo-Irish voice lecture them on the life and times of the Persian poet. When he began to read his version of Omar’s words and a slip of a girl, a hussy, some termed her later, came forward to illustrate the words with her pretty poses, many of the staider, more Victorian members of the high-brow audience received a galvanic shock. The creature before them had not only bare arms and neck, but when her legs- pardon, limbs – stretched out from under the lacy frock, they too were bare!

    The youth of today find it difficult to conceive of the vestimentary conditions imposed on performers over fifty years ago. No actress would have dared to appear then on the stage with any part of her anatomy save the face uncovered. Accustomed as we now are to seeing figures both male and female parading on a public beach clad in the most abbreviated bikinis or slips, we find it droll that for well into the twentieth century ladies went trippingly into the sea covered from neck to toe-tip with voluminous garments which left everything to the imagination. Even in the privacy of the home, the proper attire for sleep had to cover the body from the neck to the wrists and to beyond the ankles. The “limbs” of the Steinway were covered, and in conversation among gentlefolk such a word as “leg” was indecent and unutterable.

    In one newspaper account of the performance, the dancer’s partner was exonerated:

    It was no fault of Mr. McCarthy’s that certain society women of New York got up and left the theatre. . . . Mr. McCarthy was properly garbed and conducted himself in every respect as an elocutionist and a gentleman should. Notwithstanding this, a matron arose, and giving a horrified look at Miss Duncan’s beautiful bare arms and lovely legs, unchecked and unobscured by stockings, left the house. She was followed by a bunch of vestals, and within five minutes as many as forty women had withdrawn.” (p.42-3)

    Later she was to repeat the performance in England, notably at the studios of William Holman Hunt, Edward Burne-Jones, G.F.Watts and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema! (p.52) Isadora never did things by halves…..

  3. Douglas Taylor permalink
    March 23, 2013 1:59 am

    The “Rubaiyat Nocturne” is actually the 5th Nocturne of Ignace Leybach, Op. 52.

  4. March 25, 2013 5:40 pm

    Thanks to Bob Forrest and Douglas Taylor for their further information on the Rubaiyat and dance. The story of Iasadora Duncan’s reception is a fascinating example of the change in social mores. Regarding the music, we have never heard of Ignace Leybach. Did he produce other works of interest?

  5. July 28, 2013 10:02 pm

    Throwing a single stone can put many birds to flight, just as the dawn makes the stars vanish from sight.

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