Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Dancer

We all form stereotypes. One of mine was how prim and proper life was in late 19th century New Zealand. My big surprise when I was researching 19th century poetry for my anthology The New Place was to discover Frank Morton. His poems, though sentimental, were strikingly different and gave the lie to that particular stereotype. He enjoyed baiting (in his words) ‘prudes”, and he celebrated pantheism and an end to “wowserism.” In a rollicking introduction to his one published volume Laughter and Tears, he really got stuck into the political and literary establishment. Australia has had many literary larrickins, they exported one here with Morton. His poem not only purveys the vigour and verve of the dancer’s movements it also exhibits a sexual frankness surprising for its era. Also obvious is the class structure of God’s Own Country in the 1890s.

‘The house is darkened, and the air is thick
With heavy odours of the music-hall
Here in the crowded Circle, eloquent
Of perfumed flesh voluptuously warm
In open bodices; with this, faint scents
Of women's hair, and tawdrier fragrances
Incisively persistent. Here and there
A naked shoulder gleams across the gloom

Up in the teeming Gallery
Bill and his garish girl, exuberant,
Spice talk with hot, ungentle repartee,
And scuffle for positions next the rail.
Down in the Pit, Respectability
Talks politics, and makes the best of things- –
The orchestra preluding. In the Stalls,
Smug city-men exchange their dingy thoughts
And snigger anecdotage, mostly lies,
About the awaited lady.

Then the stage
Starts into vision as a a pool of light
With Nita smiling roseate in the centre
Rouged, pencilled, undemurely confident –
The moment’s tyrant, wholly conscious of
Supremacy, she scorns the god’s applause.
And so she stands a moment’s space at poise,
Immobile, almost listless, though her eyes
Are full of life. It seems as though she were
Half soothed and half intoxicated by
The greenish sweetness of the violins …

And then she dances …
Languorosly at first
As though the motion bored her. First she lifts
One little foot (the modern dancer’s foot,
Scarce beautiful, the only charm she shows
That is not perfect in its shapeliness) –
Lifts one small foot and flings it far above
Her shoulder, while those mortals in the stalls
Divine the shrouded splendour of her hips,
And lay up thoughts for future use. And next
She bends her supple body forward, like
A wand of hazel, while her fearless eyes
Flash challenges the gleeful gods translate,
And her bare breasts protuberant take their part
In the so-insolent triumph of her pose.
And now the rhythm assails her, and she flings
Into a maze of motion that suggests
Romano's Graces frenzied with champagne.
She moves in purple worlds of art and sense,
Making the best of both; and all the while
Bedevils men with her tormenting eyes,
And wins from brazenly decollete dames
(White breasts abulge in open bodices),
Up in the circle, comment critical.
Murmurs of `Wanton hussy!' and the like.
And in the teeming gallery up above
Bill and his garish girl approve the dance,
Leaning wide-eyed and warm across the rail.
And in the stalls the city-men applaud;
And in the Pit, Respectability
Is somehow glad he left the wife at home,
But claps and shouts his bravas with the rest,
As Nita, panting, smiles and slips away.’

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