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September 1, 2023

Extraordinary Vintage Portraits of American Dancer Nina Payne From the Early 20th Century

Born in Charlestown, Indiana, in 1890, Nina Payne appeared in vaudeville houses when she was only 16. She had her break in La Somnambule, staged by William Morris in New York in 1910: one of the segments was called La Danse de la Robe de Nuit and during one of her performances she carried a lit candle that set fire to her hair and her costume. Payne didn’t flinch, though, but put it out by rolling on the floor.

She then appeared in Cleopatra En Masque and in in a vaudeville act described as “Character Studies in Dance” with sets and costumes designed by artist Homer Conant. Her act was often complemented by striking costumes and accessories, including an elongated top hat.

In 1921, Payne went on holiday to Paris, but, after appearing with a jazz band at the Olympia Theatre, she got a contract for the 1922 season of the Folies Bergere, and ended up staying for two years.

Launched in February 1922 at the Folies Bergere, the show Folies Sur Folies featured Payne as a the Ibis in the tableaux Let Women be Beautiful and performing Cubist and Dadaist dances in The Girl of Tomorrow.

In 1924, Payne went back in New York, but returned to Europe at the beginning of 1925, appearing also in Monte Carlo. She then divided her time between Europe and the United States and, in 1927, she did a tour of the resorts of the French Riviera, where she became known as “the rage of the Riviera,” for her repertoire comprising ancient Egyptian dances, oriental dances, and modernist dances.

Between 1927 and 1928 Payne toured various cities in Europe, including Berlin, Munich, Dresden, Vienna, Budapest and Copenhagen, appearing in a show with Josephine Baker in Vienna. One of her last appearances in Paris was at the Moulin Rouge in April 1929. In the early 1930 she returned to New York and married Charles A. Bostwick, retiring from dancing in public.

It is not rare to stumble online upon pictures of Payne in Confetti, a revue by German composer of hit songs, film music, operetta and vaudeville Rudolf Nelson, and you can easily understand why. The images are in black and white, but you can almost imagine the effects the colors of Payne costume would have created on stage. In the images, Payne is wearing a costume that looks like a crossover between De Chirico’s costumes for the Ballets Russes, costumes by the Bauhaus and colorful costumes made by a contemporary designer temporarily working for the ballet.

In two of the images Payne accessorized the costume with a mask that, matched with the elongated headgear of the costume, made her look like a statue, an alien or some kind of early 1900s gynoid. Yet the images of Payne in this costume were taken in the 1910s (probably around 1916) and in 1925, proving the eccentric Payne was definitely ahead of her time.

(via Irenebrination)


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