Reception and analysis of Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian aesthetics in the writing and choreographic practice of Six Dance Figures: 1900-1948

  • Rachel Straus

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    This thesis investigates how Friedrich Nietzsche’s two original aesthetic concepts, the Apollonian and the Dionysian, helped to articulate the self-understandings of modern dance and ballet in the writing and choreographic practice, produced between 1900 and 1948, of six key figures in the history of Western concert dance: Akim Volynsky (1861-1926), Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), Mary Wigman (1886-1973), Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943), John Martin (1893-1985), and Lincoln Kirstein (1907- 1996). As partially inspired by the identities of romanticism and classicism, the formulations created by Nietzsche (1844-1900) provided a set of ideas that helped to communicate the tensions between two early twentieth-century, concomitant dance movements: modern dance and neoclassical ballet. In The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Nietzsche conceptualised the Apollonian to signify rationality, purity, order and the individual; and these values were employed to help articulate the neoclassical ballet aesthetics of Volynsky, Schlemmer and Kirstein—the latter in reference to George Balanchine’s neoclassical works. Nietzsche designated the Dionysian to signify ecstasy, sensuality, chaos and the communal; and these values were instrumental in the formulations of modern dance aesthetics by Duncan, Wigman and Martin— the latter in reference to Martha Graham’s works. Expanding upon pioneering scholarship devoted to Nietzsche and dance, this thesis also examines the scholarly discussions about Nietzsche’s diverse references to dance in his philosophical works. The methodology of the present research is based on the conceptualisation of ‘interpretive’ social science by the sociologist Max Weber. According to Weber, concepts can be used to achieve an interpretation of historical movements through a reconstruction of social actors’ self-understandings. The actors themselves, that is to say, the artists and dance writers analysed in this work often expressed their intentions, purposes and opinions in terms of the Apollonian-Dionysian opposition, as defined by Nietzsche. This project seeks to reconstruct, clarify, and synthesise the attempts at self-understanding of the historical actors under study.
    Date of Award18 Jun 2019
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Roehampton
    SupervisorStacey Prickett (Supervisor) & Helena Hammond (Supervisor)


    • Nietzsche
    • Apollonian
    • Dionysian
    • Modern dance
    • Neoclassical ballet
    • Isadora Duncan
    • Akim Volynsky
    • Mary Wigman
    • Oskar Schlemmer
    • John Martin
    • Lincoln Kirstein

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