The Oxford English Dictionary, the “definitive record of the English language,” defines avant-garde as:
- The foremost part of an army; the vanguard or van.
- The pioneers or innovators in any art in a particular period.
1910 Daily Tel. 1 July 14/6 The new men of mark in the avant-garde.
The first recorded usage of the term avant-garde applied to the arts connotes a masculine accent consistent with its military origins: “The new men of mark” (emphasis added). Women need not apply. But maybe they don’t fit this definition anyway.
Rather than assuming a militant position at the forefront of cultural change, women avant-gardists often come from the outside of culture, operate on the margins, and circle in and out of view, choreographing their moves strategically in relation to traditions that historically exclude them. Taking a cue from classical ballet rather than classical warfare, the feminist avant-garde might be more aptly called the en dehors garde.1
En dehors is a classical ballet term meaning ‘outward.’ En dehors is added to other steps and terms to describe which way a step should be moving. For example, a pirouette en dehors would mean that the dancer would turn ‘outward’ away from the supporting leg.
Another way to think of en dehors is ‘from the front to the back.’ A rond de jambe en dehors would have the dancer start to the front and move their outwards to the side and then to the back in a circular motion.
The theory of the en dehors garde staged here does not form a coherent, linear argument, but rather assembles a series of perspectives, poses, and strategic positions. It’s a theory of artistic and literary experimentation developed in an experimental, collaborative form.
- Thanks to Nancy Selleck, Associate Professor of English, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, for joining the dance and suggesting this term. It seems appropriate that this idea would be generated by a feminist scholar whose field is outside modernist studies and who began her career outside academia as a professional ballet dancer. ↩