How ‘Dickinson’ Star Anna Baryshnikov Pulled Off That Wild ‘Spider Dance’
This season, Lavinia has been embracing her wildness and her weirdness—and her sensuality. Who knew that journey would climax with an unforgettable dance scene set to a metal song?
It feels fitting that the patron saint of Dickinson Season 2 is a dancer whose performances and radical ideas astounded and scandalized people across the world.
The second season of Apple’s wild literary comedy has found Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) grappling with the question of fame while her sister, Lavinia, played by Anna Baryshnikov, realizes she might have a lot more in common with her unconventional sister than she’d previously thought.
At the center of these two journeys, thematically at least, is the legendary, scandalous real-life dancer Lola Montez. For Emily, Lola represents a case study through which one can examine what fame does to (and for) an artist; for Lavinia, she represents the possibilities that await a woman with a strong sense of self.
The Dickinson-ian twist is that the latter culminates in a choreographed musical epiphany set to a Danish metal song.
Lavinia, whose dreams were once steeped in domesticity, has everything she thought she wanted this season: Her new beau, Henry “Ship” Shipley, wants to get married and have kids with her and live a traditional life. But Ship’s smarmy admiration for Vinnie’s gentle domesticity never sits right with her. And when Lavinia hears about the exploits of his larger-than-life ex, the real-life dancer Lola Montez, her aspirations start to shift.
The younger Dickinson sister’s gradual realization that she might be wilder and weirder than she previously thought has been a highlight of this season—and it paid off in a big way this week, as an empowered Lavinia demanded that her man watch her perform an absurd, kinda sexy, bizarrely intense “Spider Dance” inspired by his ex.
Anna Baryshnikov, who plays Lavinia, told The Daily Beast that not a whole lot is known about her character’s real-life inspiration. One thing we do know, however, is that Lavinia was a very sensual person—according to both a tour guide at the Emily Dickinson Museum, whom Baryshnikov spoke to during a cast trip, and an ex of Lavinia’s, who once described her in letters to another woman he wished to marry.
“It describes them sitting in the parlor,” Baryshnikov said of one letter, “and her sitting on his lap and having her hair wrapped around him and her being this very flirtatious, very sensual, kind of very self-possessed person.”
Creator Alena Smith came across Henry “Ship” Shipley, a real man from Austin Dickinson’s Amherst class, while researching potential lovers for Lavinia this season. One of the few things known about him, Smith noted in an interview with The Daily Beast, was that he “was a bit rowdy troublemaker—and, like, once rode a toboggan while drunk.”
Shipley had also famously had an affair with Lola Montez—whose theater routine and socialist ideas scandalized audiences worldwide at the height of her fame. (Her lovers included King Ludwig I of Bavaria and Franz Liszt.)
“She had the most wild life as like a circus performer in Europe and America, who would seduce Kings and like bring down empires—all through her erotic ‘Spider Dance,’” Smith said. “This is why research is such a joy.”
For Lavinia, Lola Montez represents the power and agency that come along with unapologetic self acceptance. But her story is also a fascinating lens through which to examine the questions Emily has asked throughout the season about fame and art. Like the opera singer who touched Emily’s soul so deeply, Lola’s art inspired Lavinia to look at herself differently.
“Even though it’s kind of this silly gag, I think Lola’s burlesque performance and what Lavinia learns about it makes her feel sexy and powerful,” Baryshnikov said. And since the Dickinson sisters would not have had access to YouTube, she and choreographer Danny Mefford had to work together to figure out what Lavinia’s take on a “Spider Dance” she’s never actually seen might look like.
It’s hard to overstate how ridiculous the dance is, and Baryshnikov commits every step of the way—crawling her fingers up a bedpost one second and then flinging herself across the room, kicking her legs this way and that. Only one part of the choreography was predetermined from the get-go, Smith said: “The grand finale of Lola’s dance, which scandalized these Kings and brought down nations was just simply that [Lola Montez] lifted her skirts up and showed her underwear.”
The cherry on top of it all, however, is the deliciously on-the-nose song choice. Throughout the scene, “Lola Montez,” by the Danish metal band Volbeat, blares in the background.
“I’m telling you, we tried other songs,” Smith swears. “They didn’t work!”