John Cooper – Imperial Balls: An Art History of Sex, War, and Dancing in India, England, and the Caribbean

Nautch dancing in Lucknow and Calcutta

The Anglo-Indian word nautch derives from the Urdu nach, the Sanskrit nritya and the Prakit nachcha, meaning ‘dance’. Rather than signifying a specific dance form, nautch points towards a social setting for dance in diplomatic, mercantile and social exchanges between Indian elites and the British Raj from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. The visual culture of nautch dancing is rich. It was inflected by multiple traditions of image-making. It was one of the most repeatedly illustrated scenes of imperial experience and includes work by both Indian and colonial artists in a variety of media.

This part of the dissertation is an art history of nautch dancing and its performers: those who danced, those who watched, and those who made its visual records.

Colonial ballet in England

The ‘Classic’ or ‘Romantic’ ballet of the 1830s and 1840s was replete with what were then called ‘dances of national character’. These folk-based forms encompassed an international geography including the Caribbean, North Africa, Eastern Europe and India, with a special fixation on dances of Spanish origin. A new professionalized class of flexible dancers emerged to render these national idioms in step with audience demand and they were matched by a class of artists and printers who documented, amplified, and embroidered their travel in images.

This part of the dissertation follows the traces left in the archive by women dancers who passed not only across the boundaries of national habits but also across the stages of theatres, clubs, saloons, music halls, drawing rooms and streets in imperial London.

Social dancing in the Caribbean

The complex social fabric of Caribbean colonies gave rise in the early nineteenth century to a range of dance cultures. Plantations, colonial theatres, markets, ball rooms, barracks and streets were all sites of expressive physical movement in which a range of West African and European performance traditions were articulated under conditions of profound social change. These various dance worlds were represented by a range of artists who reflected- by turns indulgently, satirically, ambivalently, and critically- on the make up of Caribbean society.

In this section of the dissertation I document the process by which the social forces at work in the Caribbean were transformed into choreographic ornament borne in different ways on different performers’ bodies.