In dance as well as other arts, Orientalism[1] is usually understood as an exoticising and fairy-tale-like, often also eroticising way of depicting Eastern cultures, which was fashionable in the West especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Since the late 20th century, the appropriation of other cultures and their representation as cases of exotic “otherness” has been very negatively perceived. The key contribution to the critical debate was Edward W. Said’s 1978 book, Orientalism.[2] In dance, Orientalism has produced not only ‘oriental’ fantasies and ballets set in Asia, but especially in the early 20th century, artistic figures who, with the pioneers of free dance, renewed and expanded the means and body image of Western dance.

The East has left its mark on Western performing art forms long before exoticising Orientalism. Ancient Greece and especially the vast Roman Empire drew influences from Asia as well as North Africa. In the Middle Ages, influences from the East came to Europe with the Crusades – in dance, the medieval Morris dances are an example.[3] The Roma tradition also carried influences from the East to the West, especially to Spain, where it left its mark on local traditions such as flamenco.

In Europe in the 1700s, the military threat of the Turkish Sultanate diminished, but Turkishness continued to inspire many artists. Alongside the Turkish-inspired phantasies, another enthusiasm for an even more distant culture, chinoiserie or China-mania, developed in the 1600s and 1700s. It grew into a fad that encompassed fashion, interior design, architecture and the performing arts in the 18th century during the Rococo period, and remained one line of European culture until the 20th century. Many ballets and operas featured fantastic Chinese characters who had little to do with the real China. They were inspired by Western travellers’ illustrations of scenes in China and the decorative paintings on porcelain objects imported from there.

The entrance of Muhammad and the scholars from a 17th century French court ballet.  Bibliothèque nationale de France ark:/12148/btv1b10544045j

In the French court ballets (ballet de cour) of the 1600s and 1700s, Turkish and Chinese characters were particularly popular. Their nationality was reflected mainly in their fantastic costumes, rather than in the dance itself, which was largely based on the French court dance of the time, a forerunner of ballet.[4] During the 1700s, Arab countries and India became the focus of Orientalist art. The vast collection of stories set in Persia, India and the Arab world, Tales of a Thousand and One Nights, was first translated into Western languages in the early 1700s. It provided the subject matter for hundreds of different stage works, including operas, ballets and variety numbers.

Part of India was indirectly under British colonial rule as early as the 17th century. The most sophisticated of the colonial officials soon began to study and translate Indian literature into English. Thanks to these early Orientalists, Indian drama, for example, became known in the West. Sir William Jones’ English translation of the classic Indian drama Shakuntala was published in 1789. It was soon translated into many other languages. The play also made an impression on Théophile Gautier, a promoter of early romantic ballet and dance critic, who adapted the drama into his ballet Sacountala in 1858.

The golden age of early romantic ballet (with which dancing en pointe became popular) was the first half of the 19th century. It was also a time when realism on stage was becoming established. Works were required to have ‘local colour,’ i.e. their sets and costumes had to reflect the cultures and periods in which they were set. Peripheral regions of Europe, such as Scotland, Spain and Eastern European countries, were perceived as exotic and fashionable. For ballet, this meant that dance had to reflect these cultures. This was achieved through character dances or ‘national dances,’ which were performed as separate numbers alongside core scenes danced in classical technique. Around the principal classical ballet dancers, they provided local colour in music, costuming and choreography.[5]

Among Asian themes, classical ballet specifically adopted the idea of the bayadère, the Indian temple dancer.[6] One reason was that a group of temple dancers from southern India visited Paris in 1838. Among the audience were not only dancers but also the aforementioned critic Théophile Gautier, who was inspired by the performance to make the ballet Sacountala and write anenthusiastic essay on the visit.[7] The earliest ballet with a bayadère theme was performed in Paris in the 1830s. But the best-known version is Marius Petipa’s ballet La Bayadère, first performed in 1877 in St Petersburg. The Indian dance troupe Gautier saw was not the first Indian dance visit to Paris – Indian dancers had been seen there as early as the 1760s.[8] But visits by Asian artists were rare until the second half of the 19th century, when the World’s Fair opened the gates to dancers from outside Europe.

World Exhibitions and Dance

The early World’s Fairs served as giant showcases for the world as the Western powers wanted to see it. They showcased inventions, new technologies, art movements and distant cultures, and even their music and dance. The exhibitions held before the Second World War had a very wide-ranging impact. After the war, new media and tourism brought an increasingly globalised world within reach. The first World’s Fair was held in London in 1851. It was a success, with over six million visitors, and provided a basic format that was then varied and developed elsewhere.[9]

The early World’s Fairs usually involved 20–30 countries, including imperial colonies from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The layout of the exhibition area was designed to match the precise political strategies of the organising country. Britain, France and the United States usually played a central role in the World’s Fairs, depending on the country in which the exhibition was held. The colonial countries were humbly on the sidelines, in the role of childish, primitive wards.

Nevertheless, the introduction of foreign cultures had far-reaching consequences. Britain’s extensive display of Indian crafts and architecture fuelled decades of India-mania. This was reflected in visual arts, architecture, design, fashion, music, theatre and dance. Similar consequences were felt at the Japan exhibitions. The Japonism movement resulted in many variety shows, operettas and, for example, Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, in which Japanese culture was portrayed with Western instruments, based on the rules of Western art music. It is therefore typical of Orientalism that new works are based on earlier artworks from Asian countries. In many fields of art, objects and copies of buildings were sufficient sources of inspiration. In music and dance, inspiration was also drawn from living performers, for example at world exhibitions.

From today’s perspective, the most abhorrent feature of the World’s Fairs was the display of living people. Thousands of people were transported from the colonies to the exhibitions and then displayed as representatives of their culture, initially in zoos. If there were not always enough original role models, Parisian prostitutes, for example, could earn extra money by blackening their faces and joining the crowd.[10] There were several factors behind the human exhibitions. Firstly, in the 1880s, the aim was to make exhibitions more entertaining in order to increase the number of visitors. Secondly, anthropology as a discipline was born around the same time. It initially served imperialism by seeking to prove, for example by measuring skulls, that other races were inferior to the white race.

Some good came out of this degrading custom. The ethnic restaurants and tearooms set up in the colonial villages and pavilions in the exhibition areas needed a programme, so artists from the colonies were brought to perform in the West. The late 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century were largely the heyday of Orientalism, thanks to the World’s Fairs. For Western artists, the exhibitions served as a window to a whole new concepts of art. Many simply copied themes or techniques and pasted them into their own works. Others stopped to reflect more deeply on their experiences and were therefore able to create something completely new, like Claude Debussy after hearing Javanese gamelan music in Paris. Many dancers were also inspired by foreign cultures’ concepts of art and body.

The Golden Age of Orientalist Dance

The Asian dance visits to Europe with the World’s Fairs were major events whose influence radiated widely to dance makers. Free art dance, which began in the late 19th century, was the most significant reaction against the academic dance tradition of the time. Alongside it, the development of Orientalism and wider exoticism – a general interest in non-European cultures – provided another means of breaking with the conventions of representing the human body that had emerged in the 19th century. Free dance and exoticism were not mutually exclusive trends: free dancers sometimes performed exotic numbers, while Orientalists may have had a background in free dance.

From the late 19th century onwards, visits of Asian dancers became more common. The Javanese dancers who performed in Paris in 1889 were hugely popular.[11] The success was so great that Javanese dancers were brought to Europe later on. In 1900, the Siamese Royal Dance Company visited Paris and St Petersburg. Six years later, Cambodian court dancers performed at the Marseille Colonial Exhibition. Indian and Sri Lankan dances had been seen in Paris for the first time as early as 1883. In 1931, the Balinese dancers came to Paris. Among the visitors were many luminous artistic personalities. Many of them went on to make extensive tours in the West, sometimes even to Finland.[12]

In this way Asian dances were brought within the reach of Western audiences and Western artists. Sometimes the dances were traditional, but more often they were adapted for Western audiences, for example by shortening them. In the early 20th century, many Western dance artists were inspired by Asian traditions and began to use images of them in their own work. The boom in Orientalism peaked in 1905 and 1906. In 1905, the American Ruth St. Denis premiered her Indian fantasy Radha. The same year, Mata Hari gave her first public performance as a ‘Javanese’ dancer in Paris, and the following year, Canadian-born Maud Allan gave her first scandalous interpretation of the dance of Salome.

Salome, who is mentioned in the Gospel of Mark, caused her stepfather to execute John the Baptist with her dancing. Since the 1870s she had attracted the attention of European artists such as the French symbolist painter Gustave Moreau and the Irish writer Oscar Wilde. The latter published a play on the subject, Salome, in 1891, which Richard Strauss set to opera in 1905. The erotic femme fatale, who dances her way through her will, was a delicacy for Orientalist artists, and countless dancers created their own versions. Salome’s ‘oriental veil dance,’ which very freely simulated dances from the Middle East and Arab countries, became firmly established in the Orientalist dance repertoire for a long time and as a long-lasting hit as an erotic number in cabarets and nightclubs.[13] The solo repertoire of Edith von Bonsdorff, a dancer from the Swedish Ballets Suédois who had married in Finland, included her own version of the Dance of Salome. She first performed it in Helsinki in the 1920s. In 1951, she developed a full-length work on the theme for the Finnish National Ballet.

Mata Hari’s breakthrough performance as an oriental dancer at the prestigious Muséet Guimet in Paris in 1905. Wikimedia Commons

The boom in oriental dances continued until the Second World War. Orientalist numbers had their own special strengths. They could be used to evoke mystical spirituality and ritualism – although these rarely had anything to do with real Asian religions or philosophies. The numbers also had potential for covert and often overt eroticism, thanks to the scant or at least translucent costumes. Most Orientalist dancers performed under stage names, in keeping with the custom of the time. For example, Maud Allan’s real name was Beulah Maide Durrant, Mata Hari’s maiden name was Margaretha Zelle, and Ruth St. Denis’ real name was prosaically just Ruth Dennis. Many also created fictitious personal histories, most famously Mata Hari, who was executed on charges of espionage and who had publicly assumed the role of a Javanese princess.

Orientalist dances in the 20th century were mostly short numbers created by female dancers for themselves. However, the Asian theme was reflected, for example, in the Ballets Russes led by the Russian Sergei Diaghilev, which toured the world from 1909 to 1920. Diaghilev’s initial idea was to introduce Russian ballet to Europe. In 1909, he brought Michel Fokin’s ballet Cleopatra to Paris. Egypt was also a theme of Orientalism, and the ballet’s dance numbers included not only Egyptian dances but also Jewish and Syrian dances. The following year, the company brought Michel Fokin’s ballet Scheherazade, based on a symphonic poem by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, to Paris. Its title character is the imprisoned narrator of the Tales of a Thousand and One Nights, who tells her captor stories night after night in order to preserve her life.

Scheherazade became a huge success and one of the cornerstones of early 20th century Orientalism. Its basic imagery of cruel men waving their curved sabres and women as supple and scantily clad victims, follows the pattern of Orientalism to the letter. In Scheherazade, however, the East is clearly Russia’s own East, Central Asia.[14] In the West, the work was perceived as a reflection of Russian primordial power and Eastern culture. Perhaps the most revolutionary element in the interpretation of Scheherazade was its visualisation. Léon Bakst’s colourful decor and specifically his costume design set a new trend. Bakst’s costumes for the female dancers were skin-coloured, body-hugging underwear that gave the impression that the dancer was naked under her veils and jewellery. More broadly, women’s fashion adopted feathered turbans, baggy harem pants and loose flowing tunics that freed the body from the constraints of corsets.

Orientalism left less of a mark on the male body and dance. In Scheherazade, Michel Fokin created a slightly new image of the male figure as a slave, interpreted by Vaslav Nijinsky, danced in baggy trousers and bare arms. In 1912 Fokin also created an Orientalist but unsuccessful choreography for Nijinsky, The Blue God. The work was set in India, but was inspired by dances performed by the Siamese Ballet in St Petersburg in 1900. Fokin also used the same inspiration to create a more recognisably Siamese-influenced solo for Jean Börlin, who was the principal dancer of the Ballets Suédois led by Rolf de Maré. In keeping with Orientalist practice, the origin or possible authenticity of the dance was not emphasised and the number was presented under different names as necessary: the Siamese Dance, the Celestial Dance or the Oriental Dance.[15]

In the 1930s, Asian artists visited the West more frequently. Around the same time, Western dancers – and artists in general – also began to travel to Asia to study authentic traditions. First-hand knowledge of Asian traditions gradually began to reach Western artists, including Finland as discussed above, and Orientalism was reflected in Finland. Around the same time, in the 1920s and 1930s, a number of Finnish dance artists created and performed their own, often short, oriental numbers.[16]

Paula Tuovinen is one of the Finnish dancers and choreographers who have studied various forms of dance in Asia. In her work Triangeli (1993), she used Sri Lankan low country dance techniques. Triangeli-teoksessaan vuodelta 1993 hän hyödynsi srilankalaisten ns. alamaan tanssien tekniikkaa. Matti Niemi.

After the Second World War, the tradition of Orientalist dance faded. Performances of a medley of short numbers declined in popularity, and most Asian colonies became independent. In the traditional canon of dance history, Orientalist experiments are often dismissed as odd, perhaps even slightly amusing curiosities, despite their popularity in their day and the way they expanded the means of dance expression. The relationship with Asian traditions changed again towards the end of the 20th century, when Japanese butoh took over the world. Western dance makers began to train in Asian yoga, martial arts and dance techniques. These influences can be seen in contact improvisation and many somatic methods.


1 Orientalism is a complex term with many meanings that has been the subject of intense academic and political debate in recent decades. In the British Empire, from the 18th to the early 20th century, it referred to the positive attitude of some colonial officials towards the languages, cultures and laws of the Asian colonies, particularly in India. ‘Orientalists’ can therefore be taken to refer to the early scholars of Asia, and ‘Orientalism’ to all the knowledge that the early Orientalists gathered about Asia. In the visual arts, Orientalists are painters of the 19th century who specialised in depictions of North Africa and the Arab world.

2 This academic approach initiated by Edward W. Said is called postcolonial criticism. It has gained many prominent adherents in both the East and the West. Since its publication, Said’s book has also been subject to exceptionally harsh criticism. Among Said’s critics are Bernard Lewis, Ernst Gebler, William Montgomery Watt, Robert Irwin and above all John MacKenzie, around whom a new school of imperialism studies has grown.

3 Morris dances are group dances, originally performed by men in England, often using swords, sticks,scarves and bells. The earliest written records of Morris dancing date back to the 1400s. Morris refers to Moors (an old-fashioned generic name for Muslims in North Africa). Versions of the dances are known from other parts of Europe, such as the Italian moresca, the Spanish morisca and the French moresque.

4 Christout 1987, 115.

5 Arkin & Smith 1997.

6 The term bayadere, meaning ‘oriental’ or Indian dancer, is derived from the Portuguese word bailadeira, meaning dancer. The Portuguese were the first to establish colonies on the Indian coast.

7 Arkin & Smith 1997, 35; Guest 1986.

8 Kirstein 1984, 26.

9 For an overview of the development of world exhibitions, see Greenhalgh 1988.

10 Décoret-Ahiha 2004, 22.

11 Cohen 2010, 154.

12 For information on early Asian artists who visited Finland, see Thuring 2018, 15–33.

13 Buonaventura 1989, 117–146.

14 Banes 1999.

15 Näslund 2008, 143, 153.

16 More in Miettinen 2018, 46–49.


Arkin, Lisa C. & Smith, Marian. 1997. ‘National Dance in the Romantic Ballet.’ In Rethinking the Sylph, New Perspectives on the Romantic Ballet. Lynn Garafola (ed.). Hanover, New England: Wesleyan University Press.

Banes, Sally. 1999. “Firebird and the Idea of Russianness.” In The Ballets Russes and Its World, Lynn Garafola and Nancy Van Norman Baer (eds.). New Haven/London: Yale University Press.

Buonaventura, Wendy. 1989. Serpent of the Nile, Women and Dance in the Arab World, London: Saqi Books.

Christout, Marie-François. 1987. The Ballet de Cour in the 17th century. Genève: Editions Minkoff.

Décoret-Ahiha, Anne. 2004. Les dances exotiques en France 1880–1940. Pantin: Centre national de la danse.

Greenhalgh, Paul. 1988. Ephemeral Vistas, The Expositions Universelles, Great Exhibitions and World’s Fairs, 1851–1939. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Guest, Ivor. 1986. Gautier on Dance. London: Dance Books.

Kirstein, Lincoln. 1984. Four Centuries of Ballet. Fifty Masterworks. New York: Dover Publications.

MackKenzie, John M. 1995. Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts. Manchester/New York: Manchester University Press.

Miettinen, Jukka O. 2018. “Leena Rintala – tanssija idän ja lännen välissä.” InAnna Thuring, Jukka O. Miettinen and Veli Rosenberg, Ikkunat auki itään! Sata vuotta Aasiaa Suomen näyttämöillä. Helsinki: Taideyliopiston Teatterikorkeakoulu.

Näslund, Erik. 2008. Rolf de Maré – konstsamlare, balettledare, museiskapare. Stockholm: Bokförlaget Lagenkiöld.

Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. London: Routledge & Kegan.

Thuring, Anna. 2018. “Populaaria orientalismia ja satunnaisia aasialaisvieraita.” In Anna Thuring, Jukka O. Miettinen and Veli Rosenberg, Ikkunat auki itään! Sata vuotta Aasiaa Suomen näyttämöillä. Helsinki: Taideyliopiston Teatterikorkeakoulu.


Jukka O. Miettinen

Jukka O. Miettinen (PhD in dance) has taught art and theatre history at several universities and art colleges in Finland and Thailand. He has worked as a lecturer of performing arts at the University of the Arts Theatre Academy. He has been a dance critic for Helsingin Sanomat since 1980 and has published several books and articles in Finnish and English. He has been the artistic director of the Kuopio Dance Festival and the Asia in Helsinki Festival.