Dance Pictures: The Cinematic Experiments of Anna Pavlova and Rita Sacchetto

Dance was a popular subject of early cinema. Solo vaudeville and burlesque dancers appeared in early moving picture experiments such as Thomas Edison’s Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1895) and the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company’s Betsy Ross Dance (1903). [1] As film technologies evolved, dance continued to be thematized: for filmmakers, dance served not only as a means to display film’s capacity to represent movement, but also a means of creating rhythm, pace, and mood onscreen. Dancers, too, embraced the possibilities of film. Though some were skeptical of the new technology’s ability to accurately capture their movements, many others capitalized upon film’s ability to record their usually fleeting performances.

In recent years, a nuanced, sophisticated body of literature on the relationship between dance and the silent cinema has emerged. Film scholar Tom Gunning, of course, has written at length about dancer Loïe Fuller’s silent films, noting both cinema’s “attraction” to dance as a means of displaying bodies moving through space, and Fuller’s dance style and strategies as representative of the attraction mode of much early cinema. [2] Similarly, Carrie Preston’s monograph Modernism’s Mythic Pose makes the compelling argument that the principles of movement and gesture established by François Delsarte heavily influenced the aesthetics of both modern dance and silent film. [3] Dance scholars Felicia McCarren and more recently Erin Brannigan have gone further, arguing that dance effectively anticipated cinema in presenting bodies moving through space and time and the associated scopic regimes. [4]

This scholarship is profoundly useful, both for its theorization of cinematic presence and movement, and its reconceptualization of the relationship between dance and silent film as complex and symbiotic. However, the theoretical focus of much of this work leaves relatively little space for close study of many silent-era dance films. Particularly neglected are the wealth of narrative features that integrated dance. This blind spot is not unsurprising: not only have many of these films vanished, but because their dance scenes are often designed to serve the film’s narrative and create atmosphere, they are often of less interest to dance scholars engaged in envisioning contemporary dance aesthetics and the choreographic styles of particular dancers. [5] As a result, however, a vast trove of silent films thematizing dance remain unexamined, and relatively little attention has been devoted to the plethora of ways in which dance and dancers were incorporated into narrative features, and dance films and their stars were received by critics, dance patrons, and film audiences.

This essay explores the cinematic experiments of two early twentieth-century dancers: Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, who starred in the 1915 Universal film The Dumb Girl of Portici, directed by Lois Weber, and Danish dancer Rita Sacchetto, the lead in director Holger-Madsen’s 1913 Nordisk film Den hvide Dame (The Ghost of the White Lady). In neither of these films is dance particularly prominent: it is not thematized in the narratives or the subject of lengthy scenes. In fact, The Ghost of the White Lady does not actually include what most audiences would recognize as dance. Nonetheless, the influence of Pavlova and Sacchetto’s choreographic aesthetics, movement styles, and ongoing stage experiments are palpable in both. Taken together, I argue, the two films demonstrate how the cinema became a space for dancers to extend and reimagine their stage aesthetics, experiment with choreography, and explore new movement styles. This creative work, in turn, served as both motivation and inspiration for filmmakers to experiment with new cinematic techniques. When viewed as dance films, then – in dialogue with their stars’ stage projects and public persona and with an eye trained on the ways in which dance was referenced in promotional materials, trade press, and public discourse – these two films and others like them tell us a great deal about early twentieth-century explorations of cinematic technology, its relationship with live performance, and the exhibition practices surrounding live and mediated female bodies. [6]

Staging the Screen
In 1915, Anna Pavlova was contracted by Universal to appear in the film of her choice. She quickly settled on a screen adaptation of D.F.E. Auber’s 1828 opera La Muette di Portici under the direction of Lois Weber. The film, like the opera on which it was based, told the tragic tale of a mute seventeenth-century Neapolitan girl named Fenella who is seduced and then ruthlessly abandoned by the Spanish nobleman Alphonse, catalyzing a long-brewing Neapolitan rebellion against the oppressive Spanish occupying forces. [7] Since her childhood, Pavlova told Motion Picture Magazine, “it has always been my anticipation that I might one day be seen in a sort of dramatization of Auber’s great opera.” [8] The Dumb Girl of Portici premiered amidst much fanfare at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles on November 5, 1915, before being distributed around the country.

Though critics at the premiere raved, declaring both Weber and Pavlova “new geniuses in the motion picture world,” the film did not do particularly well on the road. [9] Critics praised the film’s settings as “elaborate and beautiful,” and its mob scenes as “some of the most wonderful photoplay mobs yet seen,” but neither they nor audience members were sold on Pavlova’s performance. [10] As Kitty Kelly wrote upon the film’s arrival in Chicago, Pavlova’s Fenella was “a lithe, spirited creature” clearly dedicated to the project, but she “wins our interest rather more than our heart.” [11] The problem, it seems, was the perceived distance between Pavlova’s onscreen performance and her stage performances. A New York Times reviewer explained, “The Pavlova of film is not Pavlova, the matchless artiste whose dancing has brought the civilized world to her twinkling feet. Only at rare intervals in some swift movement or some graceful posture held for an instant does the screen reflect her great art.” [12] As the mute Fenella, Pavlova employed a movement style that was radically different from the graceful ballet that most audiences were familiar with from her stage performances, and increasingly rare in films by the mid-teens: she gestured with broad, codified histrionic movements, adopted exaggerated, studied facial expressions, and performed barefoot, childlike dances filled with wild, ungainly leaps and twirls – in short, she transformed herself from prima ballerina into a mute, untrained peasant girl.

Early in the film, for example, we watch as a corps of Neapolitan dancers (played by Pavlova’s company) entertain Alphonse’s father the Duke with a choreographed character dance to Glazunov’s “Mazurka” that might easily have been borrowed from one of the company’s stage performances. But Pavlova does not appear; rather, the film is edited to make clear that Fenella (Pavlova’s character) is both literally and figuratively removed from this staid courtly performance. An intertitle cuts to a shot of the Neapolitan peasants dancing on the beach in a spontaneous, free, and unpracticed manner – a clear contrast with the choreography of the court dance. As we watch from Alphone’s point-of-view (he’s hiding behind a boat up the beach), Fenella spins wildly and leaps about, accompanied by a tarantella from Auber’s original score. Her movements are lithe and poetic, yet utterly graceless, a rooted and heavy quality replacing the airy, lifted movement typical of ballet. Then, dancing around the boat on the shoreline, Fenella backs into Alphonse and recoils in surprise. Suddenly, her body is not just ungainly, but weak: she swoons, and falls against him. A second dance is much the same: before Alphonse in a wooded glen, she steps from foot to foot with her hands on her hips, dipping her shoulders and head to both sides as she approaches and retreats from him. Moments later, she leaps toward him, head thrown back, arms over her head, a blissful smile on her face in a grand pantomimic gesture. Again, her body fails in his embrace, her arms dropping to her sides and head rolling back. Even those critics who praised these performance styles were forced to admit that audiences “hardly recognized” her in these passages; [13] as one Chicago reviewer wrote, they “could tell it was brilliantly done, but…were not accustomed and they were not quite sure of their own feelings.” [14]

Though her dances in the film were quite different from the ballet divertissements she had performed while touring the United States in years past, it is ironic that Pavlova’s film work was deemed at odds with her stage work. The Dumb Girl was produced shortly after Pavlova purchased the near-bankrupt Boston Opera Company and began touring the country with the new joint opera-ballet company performing operas with significant dance sequences, including, of course, La Muette. It was a stage project, then, that inspired her onscreen performance. [15] In October of 1915, as Pavlova’s new company took residence at the Midway Auditorium Theater in Chicago, Universal erected a studio in a neighboring park. [16] They filmed in the morning, then Pavlova and her company hurried next door to perform a matinee (Pavlova was the only principal in both productions); filming resumed in the afternoon, and was cut short most days so that the company could prepare for their evening performance. Certainly, the film was distinct from the opera: its narrative was condensed and shifted to focus more squarely on Alphonse’s betrayal and Fenella’s demise. However, reviews suggest that Pavlova’s depiction of Fenella was consistent across the two productions. Indeed, phrases used by opera critics to describe Pavlova’s performance in La Muette – “impassioned pose and gesture” and “wonderful technical skill” – are echoed in the descriptions of those film critics who recognized Pavlova’s acting style as pantomime, such as this one from Motion Picture News: “a proven pantomimist who runs on the gamut of human emotions from joy to deepest tragedy, while her grace controls a revelation of mood interpretation.” [17] Pavlova’s performance, then, fell flat not because it was so unlike her live aesthetic, but because it was so similar to her current stage project. It was the decision to use pantomime, increasingly associated with the stage rather than the cinema, which created the tension.

The Dumb Girl contained two sequences that audiences and critics nearly unanimously praised. In a prologue before the film’s narrative begins, and in an epilogue after it concludes, Pavlova dances alone on screen in a tailored white dress and toe shoes. As one reviewer wrote with palpable relief, these scenes “effectively introduced [Pavlova] in a dance given in conventional ballet costume, a pleasing exhibition that, at least, suggests the quality of the dancer’s wonderful art.” [18] Yet it is in these two sequences that seem so closely allied with her stage performances that Pavlova’s dance is most clearly adapted to exploit the possibilities of the filmic medium. Following the opening credits and a title announcing “Mlle. Anna Pavlova,” an idyllic lakeside scene comes into focus, reeds blowing in the wind as Weber’s Invitation to the Dance was played by the theater orchestra. Pavlova appears in a tailored white dress, her arms rounded over her head in fifth position, then stretching open and gracefully dropping to her sides. Assisted by a partner who is rendered almost entirely invisible to the camera by his black clothing and mask against the shadowy black backdrop, Pavlova performs a combination on pointe, disappearing off-screen. Then, a jump cut enables her to suddenly – magically – reappear mid-air; with the assistance of her invisible partner, she is able to descend, impossibly slowly and equally magically, gently landing in another arabesque. [19] She poses for a moment, then bourrées towards the front of the stage again, sinking to the floor, then rising and executing yet another jump, from which she descends again with fantastic slowness, her partner still so difficult to see that it is only when the edge of her skirt gets caught on him, and doesn’t quite fall as it should, that one’s attention might be drawn to his vague, shadowy outline. Eventually Pavlova moves backstage and, with another jump cut, vanishes into blackness.

The epilogue is similar. After Fenella is accidentally stabbed to death during the film’s closing melee, an intertitle, “Do you remember?” appears, followed by a flashback to Fenella and Alphonse’s earliest encounters. Then the dark screen fills with downwardly drifting white clouds as the theater orchestra plays Chopin’s Waltz in C-sharp minor. Pavlova appears in a pose a bit left of center, wearing the same white dress as in the opening sequence; the large translucent clouds that continue to scroll down in front of and behind her create the illusion that she is slowly rising, a small figure drifting towards heaven. She moves unhurriedly on flat feet, raising her arms, then crossing and lowering them in front of her, stepping up-screen with large graceful movements not unlike those with which Fenella danced on the beach. Suddenly she rises on point and bourrées off-screen. Within a few moments, a jump cut brings her back to the center of the screen, this time on pointe, her Fenella-like movements traded for a balletic vocabulary. With small, precise steps, she turns and then strikes an arabesque, arms overhead. As the clouds continue to fill the screen, at times superimposed over Pavlova as well as behind her, obscuring her figure, she alternates between the two movement styles, first balletic and then more static on flat feet. Sinking to one knee and bending her head to her chest as the clouds continue to descend, she appears momentarily suspended. Finally she rises again, slowly unfolding her body and ascending onto her toes to bourrée off-screen, disappearing from view for the last time.

It is doubtless that the white dress and toe shoes Pavlova wears in these scenes were more familiar to her fans than Fenella’s wild hair and raggedy dress; her balletic movements, too, were more akin to those of her most well-known stage dances. Yet there is no mistaking these choreographic sequences for those she performed onstage. Here, Pavlova’s dance is transformed through cinematography, double exposures, jump cuts, and lighting; it becomes a new art, one that acknowledges both the conventions of the stage and the evolving possibilities of the cinema. These scenes are akin to what film scholar Tom Gunning has labeled the “cinema of attractions”: they privilege the act of showing, placing both Pavlova and the illusory possibilities of film as a medium on display. [20] Unlike the scenes within the film’s narrative, in which Pavlova pantomimed and danced before the camera using the same gestures and combinations that she likely used onstage in La Muette, here Pavlova dances with the camera. Her choreography consists not solely of her movements, but of her movements as they are rendered on and by film: she is able to dance, but also to vanish and reappear as if by magic, to bourée in the clouds, to fly. It is in the prologue and epilogue, then, far more than when she is costumed as Fenella, that Pavlova is “hardly recognizable.” In these scenes, Pavlova appears to become capable of dancing in a way that she cannot onstage; her dance becomes something fantastical, ethereal, and new.

Screening the Stage
Pavlova was not the only dancer to turn to narrative features as a site in which to extend her physical capabilities and develop her stage aesthetics in new directions. Dancer Rita Sacchetto, who debuted at the Munich Künstlerhaus in 1905, then spent several years touring Europe and the United States performing with Loïe Fuller and in solo concerts, was spotted by a Nordisk executive during a performance in Copenhagen and offered a contract to star in several features. She agreed, and between 1913 and 1917, appeared in eleven films by Danish director Holger-Madsen and several more by other Danish and German filmmakers. [21]

One of her early appearances was in Holger-Madsen’s 1913 film Den hvide Dame, released in the United States in early 1914 as The Ghost of the White Lady. Unfortunately, the film is now presumed lost, but contemporary reviews, film stills, advertisements come together to generate a fairly clear sense of the production. [22] The film’s narrative is relatively unremarkable: Sacchetto stars as Lady Vera, a wealthy young woman who the Count has chosen for his son, Eric. Eric, in love with another, begs Vera to help him halt the wedding. Vera agrees and works with Eric to hatch a plan; predictably, it is a success and the film ends with Eric marrying his true love. [23] Sacchetto’s performance, however, was highly praised. As one critic wrote, “She plainly puts her whole heart into the play…her portrayal becomes a living thing, pulsating with the real red blood of youth.” [24]

The climax of the film – and of Sacchetto’s performance – come in the scenes where Lady Vera formulates and enacts the ruse to stop the wedding. Early in the film, the Count tells a group of house guests that the life-sized portrait of a dark-haired woman clad in a long white wedding gown that hangs above the fireplace is the White Lady, the daughter of a previous owner of the estate who died heartbroken and alone after her father refused to allow her to marry her sweetheart, the son of a servant; ever since, her ghost has emerged from the painting and haunted the estate at night. During the story, the film’s audience is invited to imagine her movement: a double exposure creates the illusion of a translucent white figure slipping from the frame and walking slowly down the hall. Inspired by the legend, Vera and Eric commission a few guests to entertain the Count with several bottles of champagne. Eventually, he is carried off to bed, and Vera and Eric slip up to the Tower Room, where the White Lady’s wedding gown has been packed away for years. Donning it, she hurries downstairs and drapes the White Lady’s portrait in black velvet, then helps two young men into the suits of armour that flank the painting. Her conspirators prop the sleeping Count in a chair nearby, and Vera takes her position within the painting’s frame, assuming the White Lady’s pose. At the appointed hour, the Count is startled awake to see the ghost of the White Lady step from the frame. She orders him to a table as the two suits of armour approach him menacingly; there, trembling, he signs a document promising that Eric can marry whomever he chooses. Then, as a trade periodical noted, he is “taken back to his chamber to complete his slumbers undisturbed.” [25]

It is the perfect conceit for a film of this period. Like the dance sequences that bookend The Dumb Girl of Portici, this scene includes the sort of marvelous celluloid illusions so fascinating to early film audiences. However, unlike Weber’s film, which incorporates cinema of attractions-style moments into the prologue and epilogue, The Ghost of the White Lady manages to make space for them within the narrative proper: indeed, the film’s narrative hinges on this moment of visual trickery and wonder. This sequence takes on an additional layer of meaning when considered in the context of Sacchetto’s dance aesthetic, as well. In her live stage performances, Sacchetto created what she called Tanzbilder: pantomimic dances based on artworks by Velázquez, Botticelli, Gainsborough, and other famous artists. Because Sacchetto’s stage dance performances were neither recorded nor notated, it is difficult to know precisely what these tanzbilder looked like; the very few dance scholars who mention Sacchetto at all tend to assume that they were a form of tableau vivant. However, period reviews, interviews, and Sacchetto’s own writings suggest that they were actually the opposite. Instead of attempting to reproduce paintings onstage by stilling live bodies into motionless poses and flattening three dimensions into two as tableaux vivants did, Sacchetto sought to interpret these works through narrative dances, using her body and movements to more fully realize the artist’s original intentions and reveal to audiences a sort of embodied critical reading. [26] At times this “completion” was fairly straightforward. Critics describe her Spanish dances, for example, as portraying the character of Velázquez’s naturalist paintings through her movements, poses, and facial expressions. [27] In other cases, her approach was more elaborate. Her Botticelli tanzbilder, Der Tanz Der Simonetta, for example, narrated the death and mourning of Renaissance beauty Simonetta Vespucci, a subject that is explicitly portrayed in any of Botticelli’s paintings. Most likely, the dance was (very) loosely based on Botticelli’s 1482 panel painting Primavera: like the painting, the dance featured a circle of three women dancing in a garden and women carrying flowers; the dance’s musical accompaniment, Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song,” gestured towards the painting’s title; and by the early twentieth century, several art historians had published nuanced readings of the painting as a tribute to Simonetta.

Sacchetto’s performance in the climactic scene of The Ghost is not as opaque as her Botticelli interpretation. Indeed, the film’s ruse depends not on her ability to interpret a painting through movement, as she did onstage, but to replicate the painting as exactly as possible, much like a tableau vivant model would. Yet as in her stage performances, she did not still her body to become the painting, but rather, infused the painting with movement and a motive. The film’s audience is never truly invited to mistake Lady Vera for the portrait; unlike the Count, they know that this is Lady Vera performing, and that she has choreographed the entire encounter. Moreover, just as Sacchetto’s tanzbilder were intended to “complete” the works of other artists, Lady Vera’s performance offers a narrative completion: when the Count acquiesces to his son’s marriage, Eric is protected from the fate of the White Lady, ending the legend’s hold over the house.

While Sacchetto’s live performance aesthetic translated into an ideal concept for filmmakers, the filmic medium also offered Sacchetto a means of reimagining her dance aesthetic. Through carefully timed cuts, double exposures, and other editing tricks, The Ghost of the White Lady merged Sacchetto’s pantomime with a painting far more seamlessly than she ever could onstage: in the film, the White Lady’s portrait is literally infused with the expressivity of Sacchetto’s gesturing body. Certainly, the White Lady’s emergence from the painting was a profoundly collaborative moment involving countless artists and technicians. Yet Sacchetto – like Pavlova in her prologue and epilogue performances – was the sole visible creator of the illusion, the object of the gaze.

Both The Dumb Girl of Portici and The Ghost of the White Lady are products of studios that were in the midst of establishing conventions and formulas that would appeal to the mass public and generate revenue. Yet they are simultaneously sites of innovation and experimentation: spaces in which Anna Pavlova and Rita Sacchetto worked with Weber, Holger-Madsen, and others to explore the new choreographic and movement possibilities that emerged through cinematography and editing. Onscreen, both dancers rehearse, and then extend and re-imagine their stage performances and aesthetics, teasing apart the stage and the screen, the live and the mediatized – and troubling the boundaries between them.


Portions of this essay have been published in chapters 4 and 6 of my book, Body Knowledge: Performance, Intermediality, and American Entertainment at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[1] Annabelle Serpentine Dance is held by both the Museum of Modern Art and the Library of Congress, along with two additional films made by dancer Annabelle Whitford: Butterfly Dance and Sun Dance. Betsy Ross Dance and other dance shorts made by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company are held by the Library of Congress.
[2] Tom Gunning, “Loie Fuller and the Art of Motion,” Camera Obscura, Camera Lucida, ed. Richard Allen and Malcolm Turvey (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2003), 75-89; Tom Gunning, “Light, Motion, Cinema!: The Heritage of Loïe Fuller and Germaine Dulac,” Framework 46, no. 1 (Spring 2005).
[3] Carrie Preston, Modernism’s Mythic Pose: Gender, Genre and Solo Performance (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).
[4] As McCarren writes, dance preceded cinema in seeking to “make liveness into an image, taking the spectator into a different experience of time or space, bringing to the eye what was previously imperceptible.” See Felicia McCarren, Dancing Machines: Choreographies in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2003), 28. See also Erin Brannigan, Dancefilm: Choreography and the Moving Image (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).
[5] One crucial exception is Elizabeth Kendall’s book Where She Danced: The Birth of American Art-Dance (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), which describes dance’s role in early Hollywood productions, particularly the pipeline of Denishawn dancers that appeared onscreen. Additionally, there has been significant scholarship focused on dance within Hollywood sound films, most particularly Hollywood film musicals; see, for example, Adrienne McLean, “Flirting with Terpsichore: Dance, Class, and Entertainment in 1930s Musicals,” in The Sound of Musicals, ed. Steven Cohan (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010): 67-81; Allison Robbins, “Doubled Selves: Eleanor Powell and the MGM Backstage Musical, 1935-1937,” Journal of the Society for American Music 7, no. 1 (2013): 65-93; and Carol Clover, “Dancin’ in the Rain,” Critical Inquiry 21 (Summer 1995): 722-47. Several recent works also incorporate narrative sound films with dance, including Melissa Blanco-Borelli’s recent edited volume, The Oxford Handbook of Dance and the Popular Screen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Sherril Dodds’s Dance on Screen: Genres and Media from Hollywood to Experimental Art (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), and the edited collection by Judy Mitoma, Elizabeth Zimmer, and Dale Ann Steiber, Envisioning Dance on Film and Video (New York: Routledge, 2002).
[6] My thinking about the relationships between live performance and film is heavily influenced by Philip Auslander’s seminal monograph Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (New York: Routledge, 1999). In my book, Body Knowledge: Performance, Intermediality, and American Entertainment at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, I theorize this relationship, and particularly the ways in which dance and other movement arts troubled this boundary in the early twentieth century, in more detail.
[7] Reviews of the film’s premiere from both Chicago and Los Angeles refer to musical accompaniment arranged by Adolph Schmid, the conductor who toured with Pavlova’s Ballets Russes and the Boston Grand Opera joint company. This accompaniment seems to have drawn heavily from the opera score, with additional classical works interpolated to accompany Pavlova’s dances in the opening and closing scenes. See, for example, “Pavlowa at the Globe,” Moving Picture World (22 April 1916): 607. Additionally, Moving Picture World reminds exhibitors that the film is “intended to be presented in conjunction with emotionally appealing music, such as that arranged by Adolph Schmidt” [sic], and urges exhibitors to present the film “with an adequate musical accompaniment.” See “The Dumb Girl of Portici,” Moving Picture World (22 April 1916): 640-41. Pavlowa was the commonly-used spelling of Pavlova’s last name among early twentieth-century Americans. In this chapter, when not quoting, I will use the standard contemporary spelling.
[8] Quoted in Keith Money, Anna Pavlova (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), 214.
[9] Grace Kingsley, “Anna Pavlowa in Filmland,” The Los Angeles Times, 23 October 1915, III3.
[10] Kitty Kelly, “Another Step in Photoplay Progress,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 31 January 1916, 8.
[11] Kelly, “Another Step in Photoplay Progress,” 8.
[12] “Pavlowa Dimmed in Film,” The New York Times, 4 April 1916, 11.
[13] Kingsley, “Anna Pavlowa in Filmland,” III3.
[14] Quoted in Money, Anna Pavlova, 221.
[15] In addition to inspiring the film’s narrative, the stage project was actually funded by the film: Pavlova, who had long avoided film appearances, agreed to make the film primarily in order to raise enough capital to buy the opera company.
[16] New York Tribune, 5 December 1915, 6.
[17] Descriptions of Pavlova’s opera performances are drawn from Eric De Lamarter, “Boston Opera Opens Season,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 5 October 1915, 15; an unlabeled review of a Manhattan Opera House performance on October 25, 1915; and H.E. Krehbiel, “Opera with Dumb Prima Donna,” New York Tribune, 26 October 1915, 9. The quoted review of the film is from “‘Dumb Girl of Portici’ Given Premiere in Chicago,” Motion Picture News 13, no. 6 (12 February 1916): 822. Pavlova’s use of pantomime onscreen was also praised by The Musical Courier, where a critic wrote that the film was “rich in opportunity for the pantomimist and its highly dramatic and colorful story offers exquisite dance numbers for the star and her Ballet Russe.” See “Why Pavlova Posed for Moving Pictures,” The Musical Courier (26 August 1915): 16.
[18] “The Dumb Girl of Portici,” Moving Picture World (22 April 1916): 641.
[19] Pavlova’s “invisible partnering” works remarkably well; the only sign that there is someone assisting her – besides the impossibility of her jumps – comes when part of her dress gets caught on him and remains unnaturally suspended.
[20] As Gunning and others have noted, though the cinema of attractions is associated primarily with very early film, traces of attractions remained visible even as cinematic aesthetics shifted; the “desire to display” and storytelling often operated hand and hand. See Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, its Spectator, and the Avant Garde,” Wide Angle 8, no. 3-4 (1986): 63-70 and Gunning, “‘Now You See It, Now You Don’t’: The Temporality of the Cinema of Attractions,” in The Silent Cinema Reader, ed. Lee Grieveson and Peter Kramer (New York: Routledge, 2004), 41-43.
[21] With director Holger-Madsen, she made Mens Pesten raser (1913, released in the U.S. as During the Plague), Ballettens Datter (1913), Fra fyrste til knejpevært (1913, released in the U.S. as The Gambler’s Penalty), Den hvide Dame (1913, released in the U.S. as The Ghost of the White Lady), Uden Fædreland (1914, released in the U.S. as Without A Country), Et Huskors (1915), Tempeldanserindens Elskov (1915), Trold kan tæmmes (1915, a Taming of the Shrew adaptation), Et Harem sæventyr (1915), Grevinde Hjerteløs (1916) and Hvor Sorgerne glemmes (1917). She also appeared in films directed by Robert Dinesen and George Schnéevoigt, as well as two written by Carl Theodor Dreyer: Nordisk’s Den skønne Evelyn (1916), directed by A.W. Sandberg, and the company’s Rovedderkoppen (1916), directed by August Blom. As Karl Toepfer notes, Sacchetto was not the first dancer to appear in Nordisk films; dancers were used in Afgrunden (1910), Vampyrdanerinden (1911), Det blaa Blod (1912), and Atlantis (1913). See Karl Toepfer, Empire of Ecstacy: Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1997), 236.
[22] In an email exchange, Danish Film Institute archivist Mikael Braae told me that The Ghost is presumed lost; of the four Sacchetto films advertised in American trade periodicals (and presumably the only four that Great Northern imported), there is a known print only of Fra Fyrste til Knejpevaert. As a result, my description is based on stills and promotional materials held by the Danish Film Archives, as well as reviews in American newspapers and trade magazines, as the film was appearing in U.S. theaters by early 1914.
[23] “A Feature that Charms,” The Moving Picture World 19, no. 3 (January 17, 1914): 276.
[24] “A Feature that Charms,” 276. Advertisements for the film also highlighted Sacchetto’s performance; as one read, “it is impossible to convey the emotions aroused…by the splendid art of Miss Sacchetto.” See the advertisement for The Ghost of the White Lady and Princess Elena’s Prisoner, Moving Picture World 19, no. 7 (14 February 1914): 845.
[25] “A Feature that Charms,” 276.
[26] As Sacchetto explained in an interview with Craftsman magazine in 1910, “There is no art which does not depend more or less for its complete achievement on the complementary art of pantomime, because the artist cannot as a rule present the fullness of his vision without the aid of some human being who holds for him for the time being an expression of the ideal he wishes to portray.” Giles Edgerton [Mary Fanton Roberts], “Pantomime: Its Place in Education and Its Significance to the Arts,” Craftsman (March 1910): 638.
[27] Caroline Caffin and Charles Henry Caffin, Dancing and Dancers of Today: The Modern Revival of Dancing as Art (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1912), 227-28. It was not just American writers who were saw a resemblance between Sacchetto’s movements and the work of Spanish painters; reviews reprinted in a German promotional booklet convey similar sentiments. See “Rita Sacchettos Kunst und Bestrebungen,” 14, Rita Sacchetto Clippings, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and “La Loie and ‘Muses’ Please Washington,” The Washington Times, 12 October 1909, 9. Critic J.R. Hillebrand concurred, noting that her dances “were in keeping with the art of the Velázquez period.” J.R. Hillebrand, “Rare Triple Bill for Opera Lovers,” The Washington Times, 18 December 1909, 14.

About the Author

Mary Simonson

About the Author

Mary Simonson

Mary Simonson is Assistant Professor of Film & Media Studies and Women’s Studies and the Director of the Film & Media Studies Program at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. She completed her doctorate in Critical and Comparative Studies in Music at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century opera and dance, film music, and dance on screen; she is particularly interested in American music and cultural contexts, feminist theory, and issues of performance and embodiment. Her book, Body Knowledge: Performance, Intermediality, and American Entertainment, 1907-1917(Oxford University Press, 2013) explores the interplay of the live and the mediatized in turn-of-the-century American musical, dance, and film cultures. Her work has also appeared in the Journal of the American Musicological Society and Women & Music, and edited collections.View all posts by Mary Simonson →