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Modernity as Trauma and Frederick Ashton’s Dante Sonata

In January 1940, amid the confusion of wartime London, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet opened its somewhat cautious season with a premiere of Frederick Ashton’s new work Dante Sonata.[1] Conceived after the September 1939 declaration of war, the ballet is Ashton’s response to the developing events of the Second World War. It is a dark, relentless, and violent work with overtones of romantic melancholy that emphasizes nineteenth-century artists’ engagement with Dante’s Divine Comedy. It would become one of the company’s preeminent wartime ballets, regularly performed by the company and strongly admired by audiences both in London and on national tours.  What is surprising about this work is its pronounced expressionist quality—a characteristic often associated with what was becoming known as modern dance.  This article examines how Dante Sonata’s departure from traditional ballet aesthetics can be read as a reaction to a larger onto-historic disposition relating to the growing anxiety about the failed project of modernity.  To do this I argue for the importance of a panoramic view of Dante Sonata in its relationship with both modernity and trauma.

Dance is a multivalent art form. It offers powerful yet nevertheless complex, multi-layered and contradictory meanings. Because of this, it can provide a unique, and if the popularity of dance during the war is anything to go by, compelling form of comment on the deeply challenging events and experiences with which modernity is associated.[2] A work of ballet can focus and express the apprehension and preoccupations of a society and its individual constituents at a particular historical moment and offer a means to think through the defining circumstances of the era.[3] It may offer new possibilities for understanding the responses to trauma in a representational form implemented through and received in live and manifestly enfleshed environments. Exploring Dante Sonata thus offers a fresh conduit for understanding the experience of modernity as cultural trauma, set against the effects of the wider twentieth-century development of Total War.

Dante Sonata and its Contexts

Dante Sonata is a short work of about seventeen minutes whose description in its January 1940 playbill suggests that it “explores the complex and violent relationships between two groups of men and women—called the ‘children of light’ and the ‘children of darkness’ respectively.”[4] The work was created by Ashton in close partnership with the Sadler’s Wells music director, Constant Lambert, while the company toured provincial towns in the autumn of 1939. Ashton developed a scenographic concept built around Dante’s Inferno, which he used as an inspiration to create representations of hell with little narrative relationship to Dante’s text itself. In fact, what is striking is the work’s close relationship with nineteenth-century artistic responses to Dante—themselves historically and artistically interlinked. This includes the music that Lambert recommended, Après une lecture de Dante (1858), which was composed by Franz Liszt as a response to Victor Hugo’s poem (1837) by the same name. Ashton was further inspired by the work of nineteenth-century illustrators of the Divine Comedy (1308–21), including Gustave Doré (1857) and John Flaxman (1807), and attempted to realize their groupings and bodily postures. Designer Sophie Fedorovitch also took inspiration from Flaxman’s line etched prints in designing the backdrop for the work.[5]

The cast of Dante Sonata performs almost entirely in bare feet and the women dance with their hair unbound. The movement style is free-flowing, incorporating an unrestricted torso and the use of levels. The ballet features unbounded locomotion across the floor of the stage reminiscent of the radical movement innovator Isadora Duncan. This positions it in stark contrast to a “classicist” or danse d’école embodiment, which favored the decorum of an upright body and a largely fixed torso so that the legs are free for virtuosic footwork.[6] What is noticeable in the choreography as a whole is the use of stillness and tableaux, with groups of dancers holding positions for varying amounts of time. Unlike classical ballet staging, which favors central solos, duets and small groups, Dante Sonata is almost always an integrated ensemble dance action with a focused use of centre as a frame of reference. The choreography is a progressive repetition of chaotic ensembles developing to a circular or central harmonious grouping and then back to chaos. These episodes are also striking in their similarity to the Flaxman and Doré images depicting the malaise and degeneracy of the groups of sinners in Dante’s Inferno. While the word “children” in the programme note suggests ambiguity, the men and women dancing all have a clear gendered identity and community. Women and men often move as separate groups. Women are used as victims and ominous portents and men depict more direct and violent conflict.

The work opens with a long overture of almost a minute and a half during which the audience sits in darkness. The action begins with a solemn procession of the “light” women in long white slightly transparent loose flowing gowns (the light female chorus) down the diagonal from upstage right, the lighting catching them directly from behind. This is quickly followed by the entrance of the lead male child of darkness, originally performed by Sadler’s Wells dancer Robert Helpmann, shirtless in beige shorts with black satin tubing coiling down from one arm across the body and down his leg. The “dark” female chorus, accompanied by their lead female (originally danced by June Brae), also enter; they are dressed in long black satin skirts—Brae also with the coiling black satin tubing. Together they move around and through the “light” female procession as if preying upon their thoughts. This sinister atmosphere becomes more manifest as the male chorus of the children of darkness, also shirtless and in black form-fitting shorts, charge on stage and the scene erupts in a chaotic scramble. The chorus of “light” men enters from upstage right, disperses the children of darkness and quiets the confusion.

Fig. 1. Dante Sonata, Sadler’s Wells Ballet, lead “light” male with “light” ensemble. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The next section, featuring the “children of light,” includes unison duets by four couples that transforms to three trios as four more female dancers join them. The feeling of the section is pastoral, reminiscent of benediction and supplication; the structure of the groups is symmetrical, directly facing the audience and grouped around center stage. The trios come to a long pause where the man in the center counter-balances his female partners, who recline to the floor on either side;  during this interval, the lead “dark” woman enters upstage right moving behind them as if to suggest the casting of spells. She exits immediately and the “light” group continue in their movements, this time more energetically and covering more space. They again take a held position upstage left just off center, this time in a line of asymmetrical poses reminiscent of melancholy. A woman, the second “light” female soloist, (performed originally by Pamela May), breaks from this group in a frenzied lamentation comprising of quick staccato steps with progressively quicker and larger arm and torso movements that seem to propel her across the floor until she finally falls to the ground.

Fig. 2: Gustav Doré, “Hypocrites—Crucified Pharisee,” The Doré Illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. ©British Library Board, YC.2011.b.2611.

The “light” chorus behind her rapidly exits as simultaneously two “dark” men enter from the downstage left wing and approach the prostrate “light” woman with a series of bravado jumps at the same time as the lead “dark” male enters from the opposite downstage wing. The two “dark” men grab the “light” woman and exit as if leading her away to captivity. They immediately enter again from same wing as if compelled by the lead “dark” man who commandingly occupies downstage center, but this time they are carrying in the lead “dark” woman. These four dancers then perform a largely stationary quartet that moves from the floor to standing with overtones of perverse sexual congress. The “dark” female chorus enter again upstage adding to the frenzy as the lead “light” couple enter from opposite downstage wings and embrace. Each is dragged to opposite downstage corners by a group of the opposite gender and appears to be raped by their assailants. Behind, the group of “dark” children move increasingly erratically as if in a bacchanalian frenzy.

Figure 3: John Flaxman, “The Lovers Punished,” Flaxman’s Illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy. ©British Library Board, YK.2008.a.16086.

The stage empties as the second “light” woman comes and takes the lead “light” woman away, leaving the lead “light” male alone to confront the lead “dark” male. The lead “light” male is immediately overcome by his opponent and is figuratively nailed to the ground in the position of a crucifixus. Two groups of “light” children enter from the upstage corners walking on the diagonal to the downstage body, pick up the crucified dancer (fig. 1) and exit via the diagonal to upstage right. This scene is a striking kinetic re-creation of the Doré and Flaxman illustrations, specifically Doré’s “Hypocrites—Crucified Pharisee” (fig. 2) and Flaxman’s “The Lovers Punished” (fig. 3).

Fig. 4. Dante Sonata, Sadler’s Wells Ballet, lead “light” male (Michael Somes) and female (Margot Fonteyn). ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

 The group is immediately followed across the same diagonal by the lead “light” couple, the woman wearing a mourning veil again echoing Doré and Flaxman (see figs. 3, 5, and 7). This leaves the stage empty for the entrance upstage left of the lead “light” woman who makes her way slowly but is overcome with what appears to be grief and is followed by the lead “light” man who joins her. They freeze as if bookends on either side of the stage. The man then attempts to convince the woman that there is hope but she remains overcome (see figs. 4 and 5).

Fig. 5. John Flaxman, “Virgil and Beatrice Meeting,” Flaxman’s Illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy. ©British Library Board, YK.2008.a.16086.

From this duet, three “dark” male children enter upstage as if to begin the final battle. Their corresponding “light” opponents enter and a stylized fight ensues. The “light” men are seemingly carrying the day, but then all the children enter and the stage becomes an unruly frenzy resolving itself into a sudden but prolonged unison movement of all the dancers that then transforms into as a series of tableaus. These depict the capture of the lead “light” female by the lead “dark” male as she is lifted supine aloft. The orchestra sustains a series of chords as if to indicate a denouement. All the children roll away in different directions into the final striking image of a double crucifixion of the lead “light” male (originally performed by Michael Somes), and the lead “dark” male (Helpmann), center stage right and left. The solitary lead “light” female (originally performed by Margot Fonteyn) is seen upstage center turning slowly and making a beckoning gesture toward the same oblique upstage shaft of light with which the work began (fig. 6).

Fig. 6. Dante Sonata, Sadler’s Wells Ballet, entire ensemble. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London.                      

What brings the conflict and anguish depicted on stage into the lived experience of the everyday is the context of the work’s creation. Immediately after Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war on September 3, 1939, the company disbanded. The theatres were shut and it was anticipated that the men would almost immediately be conscripted. Ninette de Valois, the powerhouse artistic director and company leader, seemed to retreat into domestic life. But within two weeks the theatres had re-opened and Ashton had secured funding for a wartime tour of the country. This was particularly gruelling because travel was often disrupted, tedious, cramped and unsettling. The lodging was poor, as was the food. The company did nine performances a week, a herculean undertaking for the reduced company, consisting of afternoon rehearsals and costume fittings for this new work, all within a regular schedule of evening performances, which also necessitated revision and restaging to suit the particularities of the theatre. Dante Sonata was created in this jumbled and nomadic atmosphere, which was often fraught with exhaustion, anxiety and the ever-present threat of danger.[7]

If the dedication required to create this kind of work under such conditions suggests that the company felt a need to comment through their dancing on the contemporary situation, Dante Sonata’s popularity also suggests it held particular resonance with its audiences. While the Sadler’s Wells Ballet continued to feature ballet classics as well as shorter light-hearted ballets during the war both in London and on tour, Dante Sonata was performed a total of 282 times (182 of these on tour) between its premiere and the end of 1945.[8] The diarist Lionel Bradley, a prolific dance-goer and knowledgeable dance critic, wrote that the reception for Dante Sonata “was more enthusiastic than that accorded any first performance I had seen at Sadler’s Wells in the past 3 1/2 years.”[9] What signals Dante Sonata’s distinctiveness, too, is its rapid disappearance from the company’s active repertoire after the war, when the Sadler’s Wells Ballet almost immediately reasserted its traditional ballet repertoire and aesthetics.[10] The falling away of Dante Sonata from the company’s repertoire seems to suggest the work connected its performers, devisers and audience to their wartime historical moment in a particular and significant way.

Fig. 7. Gustav Doré, “Beatrice and Virgil,” The Doré Illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. ©British Library Board, YC.2011.b.2611.

The Traumatic Subjectivities of Modernity

Anthony Giddens notes of modernity and identity that there is a tension between internal and external, where “modern institutions interlace in a direct way with individual life and therefore with the self.”[11] Both the history of the era and the individual histories of the Sadler’s Wells group illustrate modernity’s traumatic character; in juxtaposing them I seek to illustrate their entanglement. As Cathy Caruth explains, trauma is “not, like the wound of the body; a simple and healable event, but rather an event that . . . is experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known and . . . imposes itself again, repeatedly, in the nightmares and repetitive actions of the survivor.”[12] Trauma therefore has no time; it is not experienced as the coherent flow of events that characterises social reality. Furthermore, this difficulty in fully knowing or accounting for the experience or event results in a temporal lag in recognition or naming. Ana Douglass and Thomas Vogler use the example of the only gradual recognition of the Holocaust over a twenty-year time span to illustrate this effect.[13] Trauma then exerts often unidentified effects long after inauguration and, if identified, often only at a temporal distance.

In this light, Dante Sonata can begin to be understood as a response to personal and collective suffering provoked by earlier histories and socio-cultural forces that pre-date the work’s early Second World War creation.[14] I am, in particular, thinking about the repercussive effects of the First World War era. Historians and cultural commentators have suggested that the extended post-war era leading into the Second World War was overlaid with a deep melancholy. Richard Overy’s telling book The Morbid Age explores the British public’s obsession with crisis and the death of civilization from 1919 to 1939, characterized by what he terms “networks of anxiety” that infused British intellectual, artistic, literary, scientific and philosophical endeavors.[15] Susan Kingsley Kent argues that the traditionalism and intolerance of the era was the result of a shell-shocked nation attempting to repair its traumatized collective psyche.[16] And Stella Hockenhull identifies a pervasive neo-romantic mood during this period in the visual arts that she theorizes is suggestive of an omnipresent haunting by shocking events or experiences in the past that are not or cannot be fully understood.[17] Strikingly, the lingering influence of the traumas of the Great War period erupted in the early 1930s, with widespread attention given to First World War memoirs such as Vera Brittan’s Testament of Youth (1933) and the first exhibition of uncensored wartime photographs (1934), in tandem with the deteriorating political situation in continental Europe.[18] Much of the popular and critical discussion about Dante Sonata suggests that the work was inspired as a response to the coming Second World War conflict.[19] Yet the fears and uncertainties of the coming war can be understood to be grounded in the cumulative and pervasive fears and uncertainties that preceded it. Such fears were tellingly contextualized in the theatre industry publication The Stage in 1940, just prior to the German Blitzkrieg invasion of the Netherlands: “[t]he years that preceded August 4, 1914 were the carefree years of peace. We have long since learnt to look back upon them to refresh our tired memories with a true picture of prosperity and security. Into the serenity of those untroubled days the Great War crashed.”[20]

Adjunct to these larger social upheavals, the increasing urbanization and internationalization of modern life progressively brought different identities together, compounding personal anxieties about identity itself. Indeed, the members of the Sadler’s Wells Company served as useful examples of the complex transnational and marginalized subjectivities that modernity juxtaposed, and illustrate how traumatic personal histories could become intertwined with cataclysmic events. Ashton, for instance, was born in Ecuador in 1904 to English middle-class parents involved in the diplomatic service, but returned to England to attend public school, an aspect of his childhood he found difficult.[21] Shortly after re-joining their son in England, the Ashton family went bankrupt and his father died prematurely, leaving Ashton with the responsibility of caring for his mother. Ashton’s homosexual identity added a further sense of precariousness to an already complex and fraught identity.

The Sadler’s Wells’s musical director, Constant Lambert, spent much of his early teens with a prolonged painful illness that left him partially deaf and with a limp in adulthood.[22] Adding to the challenges of his physical disabilities, he had, like Ashton, a complex relationship with his family’s colonial history. Lambert’s father was the painter George Lambert, now considered to be the father of Australian landscape painting, who abandoned his family for a move to Australia when Constant was in his teens.[23] Adding to the traumatic character of the identifications and desires circling Sadler’s Wells at the time of Dante Sonata was Lambert’s clandestine sexual relationship with the ballerina Margot Fonteyn—who herself provides a complex study in the effects of a transnational and manufactured identity.[24] She was in fact born Margaret Hookam, to a lower-middle-class English father and a part-Brazilian mother, the illegitimate daughter of a Brazilian industrialist. She would become “Margot Fonteyn” as her dancing fame grew.[25] Like both Lambert and Ashton, she had a difficult relationship with her parents and, like Ashton, she spent much of her childhood abroad, in China.[26]

The Sadler’s Wells Ballet was therefore comprised of particularly complex and ambiguous identities, a microcosm of increasingly global negotiations between identity and social value that the evolution of modernity made possible. Here it is not a question of whether the personal histories of three people intersected directly with a historically defining event—although biographer Andrew Motion suggests that Lambert’s father abandoned the family because of the illness and deprivation he suffered serving in the First World War as the official Australian war painter.[27] It is rather that it is in this environment that Dante Sonata took shape, constituted by and as a vehicle of response to the traumatic breaks within modern subjectivity itself as well as the catastrophic events only possible within modernity.

Dancing Dante

It seems to me that a powerful challenge to the common perception of ballet as a controlled and decorous art form can be found in Meredith Daneman’s description of Margo Fonteyn during the impromptu creation of Dante Sonata on the British tour of late 1939. Daneman describes Fonteyn working with designer Sophie Fedorovitch and dance colleague Pamela   May between evening and matinee performances. They would run unconstrained, unshod with hair loose so as to allow “absolute physical abandon” while draped in light fabric so that the potential for movement could be seen (Daneman, Margot, 141–42). This iconoclastic image brings to the fore one of the distinctive representational elements of Dante Sonata, its natural dance aesthetic. This breach with ballet convention as well as the choice of the Divine Comedy as theme indexes the collective and personal traumas of the work’s creators and performers.

As the Fonteyn and May example suggests, the work’s unrestricted running, laid back leg extensions, floor work as well as the use of full body contractions and the uncharacteristically aberrant positions and groupings, represents a break with ballet convention. Certainly, this is not to say that Ashton entirely abandoned established steps associated with the movement vocabulary of the danse d'ecole. The work does feature recognizable ballet steps such as, different forms of développé, piqué arabesque, temp levé, or chassé coupé chassé. But these movements when performed in Dante Sonata abandon the classical ballet’s locked and upright torso (where torso movement if it happens only is done from the waist) and thus recontextualise the steps. Another difference is articulated in the work’s use of bare feet by many of its performers—particularly noteworthy for the female dancers in the company when ballet had an identity so clearly associated with the pointe shoe.

Ashton’s use of a natural dance and an expressionist dance aesthetic within a strongly ballet-identified sub-culture is also striking because of its particular socio-political context.[28] As I have argued elsewhere, the issue of dance style is embedded in the development and ascendency of ballet as an important symbol of national pride that involved the negotiating of female propriety linked to laudable forms of national identity.[29] Ballet battled to distance itself from a historical association with its recent music hall past so that problematic issues around dancing and class were mediated by more acceptable forms of gendered, sexual, and ethnic identities.[30] From the early 1910s, as the importance of ballet as a high art practice rose in the cultural life of London, there was a simultaneous distancing, and in some cases demonizing, of expressionist dance forms—as, for instance, in the writings of ballet critic and Sadler’s Wells supporter Arnold Haskell.[31] Expressionist dance was also pejoratively linked to growing concerns about both Communism and National Socialism in the interwar period; this may have influenced the waning of interest in the expressionism of German dance pioneer Mary Wigman, Austrian Gertrud Bodenwieser and German choreographer Kurt Jooss.[32] What is then striking is that with all these negative associations, Ashton chose to use an expressionist approach in Dante Sonata, and the piece nevertheless resonated with its wartime audiences. It is the incongruity of this state of affairs—where the need to engage with art was placed beyond concerns about the purity of genre and popular aesthetic fashion—that indicates the traumatic force of this historical moment.

In favouring an expressionist approach Ashton is conjuring the influence of dancer Isadora Duncan. This association connects Ashton’s movement choice with an implicit critique of modernity. Carrie Preston links Duncan’s work to a form of anti-modern critique specifically through the use of what she calls “mythic posing.”[33] Preston argues that Duncan incorporated a type of moving stillness into her work as a response and redressing of the calamitous temporal pace of modernity.[34] Similarly, the moments of stillness in Dante Sonata might be understood as a momentary attempt to slow down time, to arrest the relentless flow in modernity’s onward motion.[35] But the critique of modernity in Duncan’s dancing extends to her explicit expression of ecstatic states, freedom of the torso and seeming relinquishing of social constraint. Ashton’s employment of a dancing style that resonates with Duncan’s primitivism and mysticism also implies the desire to return to an antediluvian state. Ashton may have abandoned the language of the danse d’école because it could not articulate the anxiety of what it meant to be a modern subject in London on the eve of the Second World War. Dionysian excess, not the Apollonian control that Jennifer Homans argues is the ultimate goal of ballet, was required for articulating modernity’s traumata.[36]  

If Ashton made the choice to depart from academic ballet in Dante Sonata, in working with Dante he also departed from a prior preference for urbane or light-hearted themes.[37] Expressionist movement languages are in fact well paired with the Dantean themes of corruption, profligacy, misery and even the monstrous. If movement can be understood to speak to the traumas of modernity in how it seeks a language of community or attempts to halt the frenzied acceleration of modern temporality, the choice of the Divine Comedy offers a particular rich collection of themes to express the fear and anxiety of the era. The overarching depiction of Hell can be seen realized in the work’s representation of escalating, repetitive and unresolved conflicts. But the nineteenth century also looms large in Dante Sonata in Ashton’s faithful and compulsive restaging of nineteenth century illustrators’ renderings of Dante. Lambert also returns to the nineteenth century via Liszt and Victor Hugo.

The attachment to Dante (and to a nineteenth-century Dante) suggests a haunting or traumatic return, perhaps as a way to negotiate Ashton and Lambert’s own feelings of loss. Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben suggest that artistic return to the Victorian era more generally was fuelled by a desire for a fictional re-experiencing and belated working through of trauma in the present.[38] Through Doré and Flaxman, the ballet reproduces depictions of a wide sampling of couples in the Dantean universe, including Virgil and Dante, Francesca and Paulo, Dante and Beatrice (figs. 5 and 7).  These are all condensed into the female and male “child of light” couple (fig. 4). This preoccupation points to a need in Dante Sonata to work through what coupling means and how it circumscribes trauma.

Ashton’s repeated impulse to stage these images of companionate union might be understood to reverberate as well in the circumstances of several devastating personal events in the late 1930s. Ashton’s mother, with whom he had lived for more than twenty years, died suddenly in 1939. Also during this time, Ashton’s profound but, in effect, one-sided romance with Sadler’s Wells principal dancer Michael Somes ended.[39] Both these events could well have been deeply ambivalent for someone whose past experiences, detailed earlier, indicate early parental neglect and disapproval as well as difficulty fitting in with his social peers. Here, it might be possible to read “the couple” not simply as a conceit that aided the scenographic cohesion of the work, but also as articulation of Ashton’s feelings of irrevocable loss mixed with grief and guilt. The “children of darkness and light” becomes a cypher through which Ashton is allowed to illustrate and work through—bear witness perhaps—to the complex emotion of these lost and deeply personal relationships. Indeed for Ashton, Dante Sonata can be read as a spiralling ritual meditation on the state and condition of loss and, as Alphonso Lingus identifies, loss’s cavernous effect.[40]

Lambert, also no stranger to traumatic personal experiences, could be understood to be similarly haunted by couples and impossible relationships. What is particularly resonant in Lambert’s affinity for Liszt is the striking similarities in their associations to Beatrice, Dante’s vision of beatific love.[41] Sharon Winklhofer’s revision of accepted historical accounts of Liszt’s composing of his Après une Lecture de Dante offers an insight into these synergies. She triangulates the creation of the work with Liszt’s temperament, his romantic relationship with Marie d’Agoult and the nineteenth-century artistic preoccupation with Dante.[42] Indeed, comparing the two personalities, Lambert and Liszt were both child prodigies. Both had a series of relationships with women they ended their liaison with or left behind. D’Agoult was the first of Liszt’s long-term mistresses and he fathered three of her children. Lambert likewise married the model Florence Chuter in 1931 and had a son with her. They divorced in 1947 although Lambert, from at least 1937, was romantically involved with ballerina Margot Fonteyn. Winklhofer argues that Liszt’s affair in particular was receptive to and, to a certain extent re-enacted, the nineteenth-century romantic fascination with Dante.[43] Dante offered an emphasis on “love as a transcendent state of existence” which was personified in the figure of Beatrice, who was both the immortal goddess of theology in the Divine Comedy and the poet’s comfort and inspiration in Dante’s La Vita Nuova (Winklhofer, “Liszt,” 22). It is difficult not to perceive parallels with Liszt’s search for the feminine ideal in Lambert’s initial fascination with both Chuter and Fonteyn. Chuter was described as an other-worldly beauty and Fonteyn was a particularly potent example of the romantic female ideal with its perceived sense of humility, beauty and nobility.[44]

Dante Sonata’s traumatic fixation on nineteenth-century understandings of Dantean courtly love can be further understood by way of Slavoj Žižek’s essay “Courtly Love, or Woman as Thing.” Žižek argues that the object of desire in courtly love, the Lady, is a projection of the masculine subject’s own narcissistic ideals which involve goodness, self-sacrifice and beauty. The knight, in pursuing these traits through the Lady as his object of desire, fashions impediments so as to continually postpone the fulfilment of his desire. To confront or obtain the object of desire is to provoke an encounter with the Real, which in psychoanalytic terms is the place where the subject unravels and dissolves. In finally obtaining his beloved the traumatic looms because she ceases to be the idealised projection of his own desired perfection and becomes an ordinary and potentially repulsive projection of his own limitations.[45] While Žižek identifies the Courtly Love model with heterosexual relationships, it is also possible to understand Ashton’s attraction to the image of the Lady and its effects on mourning and unrequited love. Indeed Žižek illustrates how sexual difference is a Real that defies the Symbolic and returns the sexual relationship to the impossibility of “knowing” the other. Thus it becomes the way Dante Sonata articulates a cathectic affinity with the nineteenth century’s investment in idealized feminine beauty and purity that offers a way out of trauma’s death drive. The hope of self-redemption as a hope, as well, for a future bereft of suffering is transposed on to the longing evident in the repetition of the romantic yet chaste coupling. The desire for reclamation is particularly resonant in the closing tableau where the figure of Fonteyn’s uncorrupted Child of Light raises her arm as if to acknowledge hope for the future as the lights fade to the same oblique shaft of light with which the work opens (fig. 6). Thus for the creators and viewers of Dante Sonata, the theme and its dancing style may have offered a form of redressing the haunting sense of impossibility in modernity’s teleology of advancement in the enabling but distanced fantasy of the possibility of goodness and hope.

Audiences and Witnessing

As a work of ballet, Dante Sonata offered an embodied testimonial encounter, one which required both the embodied presence of witness and the performer as witness bearer. More importantly, those that came to witness and perform often did so under difficult and dangerous conditions where their bodily safety was at risk.  A case in point is the surprising tendency of London World War II theatre and cinema audiences to remain in their seats during air raids.[46] Sadler’s Wells dancers Dame Gillian Lynne, Pauline Clayden and Henry Danton recalled instances of extreme tension and potential danger where the entire theatrical enterprise of the evening’s performance simply paused amidst sirens and explosions in the distance.[47] In one instance, these dancers reported, the music stopped, audiences remained seated, and the performers held their positions while waiting to hear the engine of the V1 rocket cut out, fall to earth, and explode nearby and then simply carried on with the performance.[48]

This occurrence suggests the desire, or indeed the compulsion, London audiences had during the war to bear witness with their lives through the communality of the theatre.[49] While this behavior may have been complexly motivated, if we return to the notion of cultural trauma it also can be understood to provide meaning not simply to their own personal catastrophes but also their histories intertwined as a culture, with the cumulative force of a thirty-odd-year legacy of socio-cultural rupture. [50] If the growing popularity of dance during the war is any indication, British audiences turned to dance as a mediator of these traumas.[51] Within this sphere Dante Sonata held a particular resonance.

What is distinctive to dance is that the body is the primary focus of expression or communication. More significantly, it is through the body that dance mobilizes a form of body-to-body communication between the performer and the witness. Indeed, several recent publications have focused specifically on dance’s affinity for these distinctive communicative states by exploring the notion of kinesthetic empathy. Dee Reynolds and Matthew Reason have initiated a serious consideration of the role played by proprioception and kinematics in mediating the relationship between self and other.[52] Reynolds notes, “the perception of an affective state in another activates the observer’s own neural substrates for the corresponding states.”[53] This is an intermodal system that does not simply work empathically with only visual images but also through movement sensations where another’s movement can be experienced as physical sensations by the viewer. Similarly, analyzing the work loopdiver by Troika Ranch, Roger Bechtel suggests that the work is a physicalized articulation of the characteristics of a post-traumatic disorder.[54] He adds that it is “not the reading of the piece that is most compelling, but the experience, as an embodied spectator, of witnessing it” (“The Body,” 83). Dance therefore offers both a form for articulating the effects of trauma as well as a potential for understanding its embodied experiencing.

I want to return, then, to the account of Fonteyn and May at a Dante Sonata costume fitting in a freezing ad hoc rehearsal space running barefooted with unconstrained physical abandon. This description has the power to send the witness—unlike the experience of dancing en pointe—to a particular form of embodied being with which they might also be familiar. Along with an empathic understanding of unrestrained and unbounded movement, the witness might then also identify with what could have been the dancers’ accompanying anxiety—from the cold, from cuts and splinters in the feet working in unprepared environments, from the pervasive threat of sudden and catastrophic violence. This perspective has the power to foreground our embodied experience of the world as it engages in a form of empathic bodily sensation with other bodies. As the behavior of wartime theatre audiences suggests, an even more powerful form of embodied identification and empathy derives from the experience of witnessing the work in the theatre. This phenomenon is about watching with others the escalating, repetitive and unresolved conflicts Ashton stages between his children of light and dark, through movement favouring an unrestricted torso, weighted use of the floor and the mobility of bare feet. It is an enfleshed transmission between the witness and the performer.

If the kinaesthetic empathy of this movement form may well have been the power Dante Sonata had with its audiences, a necessary caveat to this position can be noted in Susan Leigh Foster’s Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance.[55] Foster points out that choreographic choices, whether conscious or not, are made within a set of social and cultural values and historic circumstances that are themselves embodied. We live our embodiment within the horizon of possibility that gives that embodiment meaning and purpose. Testimony and its relationship with embodied empathy are predisposed to the specific possibilities and limitations of particular times and spaces. That Dante Sonata departed from a valued embodied dance vocabulary to connect kinaesthetically with an audience also willing to depart from the forms of dance they had previously privileged indicates that it served an  affective agenda particular to this period. Indeed, the Sadler’s Wells Ballet and its audiences would forego the Dionysian in the immediate post-war period and return with even greater force to the embodiment of Apollo. There are a whole host of possible explanations for this reversal—the Apollonian, for instance, may have provided a necessary distancing from the events of the War, or asserted the embodiment of order and control in a climate of imperial devolution.[56] These examples illustrate the socio-historic affective influence on embodied being.

Dance at the Intersection of Modernist Studies and Trauma Studies

This article has attempted to open a space for considering how dance, illustrated specifically through Dante Sonata, can be seen to play a role in mediating the trauma of Britons in the early half of the twentieth century, a trauma linked to the failure of modernist narratives of progress. While Dante Sonata was created during the war and performed extensively during the conflict, it is also responding to matters that extend backward toward crises of earlier twentieth-century Europe. Reading Dante Sonata as a form of negotiating trauma offers an understanding of how in extremis events and experiences have individual and communal effects that are intertwined.

For trauma studies, Dante Sonata offers an articulation and mediation of the trauma of modernity. Here the complex forces I have charted, evolving out of a panoramic view of the work, suggest an understanding of the reality of modernity not unlike Caruth’s assertion about the relationship between history and trauma, where history is “never one’s own” but rather “the way we are implicated in each other’s traumas” (Unclaimed Experience, 24). Encounters with the catastrophic need not be, as Ann Cvetkovich points out, the experiencing of the catastrophic itself; they relate as well to trauma as the outcome of punitive, repetitive, and resolute socio-historic structures of control. These encounters might simultaneously be filtered through what Kaja Silverman calls “the traumatically unassimilable nature of certain historical events.”[57]

Yet in addition, it is dance specifically as a communicative practice that has an affinity for reaching beyond and communicating what is potentially unknown to the individual and collective psyche within the collapse of modernist agendas. Dance thus continues to offer new intellectual ground for modernist studies.[58] Rather than aloof from lived experience, dance—whether the “natural dance” of Isadora Duncan, the expressionism of Mary Wigman, or the formalism of Merce Cunningham and George Balanchine—is a symptom of the effect of an embodied living of modernity.


I am indebted to several readers for their invaluable feedback, including Mary Karen Dahl, Susanne Foellmer, Neil Forbes, Stella Hockenhull, Susan Jones, Emma Meehan, Geraldine Morris, Charlotte Waelde, and Lisa Wilson as well as the support of the American Society for Theatre Research’s Traumatic Structures Working Group. I also would like to thank Stefan Aquilina and the School of Performing Arts at the University of Malta for allowing me to present this work at their Annual Conference in March 2016. I saw Dante Sonata being learned, practised and performed by Birmingham Royal Ballet in the spring of 2014. I was deeply grateful for this opportunity and would like to thank artistic director David Bintley, the Birmingham Royal Ballet dancers, and dance notator Patricia Tierney for their generosity.

[1] The company changed names during the period that I am charting. From 1931 to 1941, it was the Vic Wells Ballet. It then became known as the Sadler’s Wells Ballet and would receive its Royal Charter in 1956 to become the Royal Ballet. See Zoë Anderson, The Royal Ballet: 75 Years (London: Faber and Faber, 2006). For convenience and to avoid confusion, I use “Sadler’s Wells Ballet” throughout the article.

[2] For a discussion of the popularity of ballet during the war see Karen Eliot, Albion’s Dance: British Ballet during the Second World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[3] See Patrick Duggan, Trauma/Tragedy: Symptoms of Contemporary Performance (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2012).

[4] Playbill, Vic-Wells Ballet, January 23, 1940, Production File for Vic-Wells Ballet, Sadler's Wells Theatre, 1940, Victoria and Albert Theatre and Performance Archive, Blythe House, London.

[5] For a discussion of Constant Lambert’s contribution to the creation of Dante Sonata see, Stephen Lloyd, Constant Lambert: Beyond the Rio Grande (Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2014) and Andrew Motion, The Lamberts: George, Constant and Kit (London: Faber and Faber, 1995).  For a discussion of Liszt’s relationship with Hugo see Sharon Winklhofer, “Liszt, Marie d’Agoult, and the ‘Dante’ Sonata,” 19th Century Music 1, no. 1 (1977): 15–32. The importance of Dante in the visual and performing arts is discussed with special reference to Dante Sonata in Jane Everson, “From Dante to Dante Sonata,” in Dante on View: The Reception of Dante in the Visual and Performing Arts, ed. Antonella Braida and Luisa Calè (New York: Routledge, 2007), 53–64. See also David Vaughan, Frederick Ashton and his Ballets (Hampshire, UK: Dance Books, 1977) for a discussion of the significance Gustave Doré and John Flaxman and Fedorovitch’s inspiration.

[6] The term danse d’école is useful to counterpose with Dante Sonata’s choreography. See Geraldine Morris in Frederick Ashton’s Ballets: Style, Performance, Choreography (Hampshire, UK: Dance Books, 2012) who makes the important distinction between style and the ballet code.

[7] See Meredith Daneman, Margot Fonteyn (New York: Penguin, 2004); Julie Kavanagh, Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton (London: Faber and Faber, 2004); Kathrine Sorley Walker, Robert Helpmann: A Rare Sense of Theatre (Hampshire, UK: Dance Books, 2009); and Vaughan, Frederick Ashton.

[8] By comparison, although it would have been more difficult to mount a full-length ballet, the Sleeping Princess, for example, saw only 47 performances (5 touring productions) in this same period. See Alexander Bland, The Royal Ballet: The First Fifty Years (London: Threshold Books, 1981), 263–288.

[9] See Lionel Bradley, Ballet Bulletin 1940–41 (GV1645) for unpublished diaries detailing dance performed in England 1937–53 held in the Victoria and Albert Theatre and Performance Archive, Blythe House, London. Bradley offers the invaluable, singular and insightful perspective of a theatregoer less encumbered by professional agendas.

[10] This change in style and focus can be understood as a return to the dynamics of nation- building in the postwar period. Indeed, the post-war era witnessed a return of a dislike of modern dance aesthetics especially by influential ballet critics Arnold Haskell and Cyril Beaumont and a privileging of the classical ballet traditional of evening-length ballets, where the celebratory reopening of the Royal Opera House in 1946 was given by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet with the performance of the Imperial Russian classic Sleeping Beauty. Karen Eliot hints that this was related to nation-building and a new form of British imperialism in her “Starved for Beauty: British Ballet and Public Morale during the Second World War,” Dance Chronicle 31, no. 2 (2008): 175–210. Sleeping Beauty was also the ballet chosen by American impresario Sol Hurok and Sadler’s Wells artistic director Ninette de Valois to open the company’s first American tour in 1949. This performance at the Metropolitan Opera established the reputation and future fame of Margot Fonteyn and was heralded as the event that the magazine the Dancing Times said “conquered” America. See also Chapter 3 in Victoria Thoms, Martha Graham: Gender and the Haunting of a Dance Pioneer (Bristol, UK: Intellect, 2013).

[11] Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1991), 1.

[12] Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 4.

[13] Ana Douglass and Thomas Vogler, introduction to Witness and Memory: The Discourse of Trauma, ed. Ana Douglass and Thomas Vogler (New York: Routledge, 2003).

[14] While this is beyond the scope of the present article, it is important to note that Dante Sonata has been repeated at particularly fraught moments in contemporary history. I am thinking specifically of Dante Sonata’s 2000 restaging by the Birmingham Royal Ballet fifty years after its last performance. Reconstructed by former Royal Ballet dancers Jean Bedells, Pauline Clayden and Pamela May, all in their seventies and eighties, it could be seen to articulate anxieties around the millennium as well as a response to what has become the crucible of our contemporary era, the 9/11 bombings.

[15] Richard Overy, The Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of Civilization, 1919–1939 (London: Penguin, 2010), 7.

[16] Susan Kingsley Kent, Aftershocks: Politics and Trauma in Britain, 1918–1931 (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[17] See Stella Hockenhull, Neo-Romantic Landscapes: An Aesthetic Approach to the Films of Powell and Pressburger (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2008). Hockenhull in particular draws on the work of Raymond Williams and his notion of “structure of feeling,” which illustrates how affect works between audiences and artworks in particular social, political and historical conditions.  

[18] See Mark Bostridge, introduction to Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth (London: Virago, 2004). See Ariela Freedman, Death, Men, and Modernism: Trauma and Narrative in British Fiction from Hardy to Woolf (New York: Routledge, 2003).

[19] See Everson, “From Dante to Dante Sonata.”

[20] “Theatres of War,” The Stage, May 9, 1940, 6.

[21] See Vaughan, Frederick Ashton.

[22] See Lloyd, Constant and Motion, The Lamberts.

[23] See Motion, The Lamberts. Lambert was a particularly tragic figure whose musical genius was overshadowed by a lifestyle that led to his untimely death due to heart disease, diabetes and alcoholism in 1951 at the age of 46.

[24] See Motion, The Lamberts and Kavanagh, Secret Muses.

[25] See Daneman, Margot.

[26] These members of the Sadler’s Wells ballet are not the only hybrid identities that comprised the company during the war, and while there is not sufficient space to describe these fully, it is important to note the complexity of the identities of people working in the company at this time. This includes: ballerina Moira Shearer, who was Scottish but spent a considerable part of her childhood in Africa; Australian Robert Helpmann, who in 1926 at the age of sixteen toured the Antipodes with ballerina Anna Pavlova before leaving Australia for England in 1932; or even Ninette de Valois, the architect of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, who was born Edris Stannus in pre-revolutionary Ireland to an upper-middle-class military family and was dancing professionally in London’s West End in her early twenties before joining Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1923. See Karen Eliot, Dancing Lives: Five Female Dancers from the Ballet d’Action to Merce Cunningham (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007) for discussion of Moira Shearer; Kathrine Sorley Walker, Robert Helpmann for a discussion of Robert Helpmann; and Ninette de Valois’s memoire Come Dance with Me: A Memoir, 1898–1956 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1959).

[27] See Motion, The Lamberts.

[28] In making this claim, I am aware that the terms “expressionist dance,” “natural movement,” and “modern dance” are contentious and complex with different legacies, histories, and politics. Indeed the difficulty with defining the term “modern dance” is illustrated in an extended exchange in TDR in the late 1980s between Susan Manning and Sally Banes, which highlights how the term has a contradictory contextual and intellectual lineage. See Susan Manning, “Modernist Dogma and Post-modern Rhetoric,” TDR: The Drama Review 32, no. 4 (1988): 32–33; and Sally Banes and Susan Manning, “Terpsichore in Combat Boots,” TDR: The Drama Review 33, no. 1 (1989): 13–16.

[29] See Thoms, Martha Graham.

[30] Larraine Nicholas, “Fellow Travellers: Dance and British Cold War Politics in the Early 1950s,” Dance Research 19, no. 2 (2001): 83–105.

[31] See Haskell’s exchange with dancer Leslie Burrows in the Dance Times between January and March 1933 (volumes 269 and 270).

[32] Larraine Nicholas, Dancing in Utopia: Dartington Hall and its Dancers (Hampshire, UK: Dance Books, 2007). On Jooss, see Suzanne K. Walther, The Dance Theatre of Kurt Jooss (Reading, UK: Harwood Academic, 1993).

[33] Carrie J. Preston, Modernism’s Mythic Pose: Gender, Genre, and Solo Performance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 10.

[34] See Carrie Rohman, “Nude Vibrations: Isadora Duncan’s Creatural Aesthetic,” Modernism/modernity Print Plus 2, no. 3 (2017) for an important further contextualization of the use of “stillness” in Duncan’s dancing.

[35] While it is beyond the scope of this article, the way Ashton worked with illustrators Gustav Doré and John Flaxman and the effect of stillness may be seen as a further reinforcing of the idea of modernity as trauma. A particularly interesting investigation of what can and cannot be seen is Lisa Saltzman and Eric Rosenberg’s collection Trauma and Visuality in Modernity (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2006), ix–xix.

[36] See Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (London: Granta, 2010). Homans has a particularly insightful perspective on ballet as an Apollonian phenomenon, noting that Apollo has a special place in ballet’s story: “He is the god of civilization and healing. . . . His noble physique and perfect proportions represent an ideal: he is moderation and beauty, man as the measure of all things” (xxi). 

[37] From his first work, A Tragedy of Fashion with Marie Rambert’s Ballet Club in 1926 (a dark comedy about a dressmaker’s suicide) to works like Petits Rien in 1928 (suite of dances to Mozart’s eponymous work), Pomona, 1930 (neo-classical comedic rendering of the wedding of Pomona, the Goddess of Fruit), Façade, 1931 (a witty social commentary satirising folk, social and theatrical dance), Les Rendezvous, 1933 (classical rendering of dances in the park), and Les Patineurs in 1937 (Victorian skating party), Ashton favoured themes with a witty urban sensibility, and while he offered a new idiosyncratic interpretation of the ballet vocabulary these were largely works within a classical tradition.

[38] See Marie-Luise Kohlke and Christian Gutleben, Neo-Victorian Tropes of Trauma: The Politics of Bearing Witness to Nineteenth Century Suffering, (New York: Rodopi, 2010).

[39] See Kavanagh, Secret Muses.

[40] See Alphonso Lingus, “Irrevocable Loss,” Plenary Lecture, Theatre, Performance, Philosophy Conference, Sorbonne, Paris, June 2014.

[41] See Kavanagh, Secret Muses; Motion, The Lamberts.

[42] See Winklhofer, “Liszt.”

[43] This interest included the writers Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo. See Winklhofer, “Liszt”.

[44] See Motion, The Lamberts, and Daneman, Margot.

[45] See Slavoj Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Women and Causality (London: Verso, 1994). This as a model of female agency, if one can consider it as such, is particularly troubling. The “woman” is granted a heightened value as long as she remains an unattainable one-dimensional ideal and not a complex and desiring historical subject. See for instance Toril Moi’s Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (New York: Routledge, 1985) for a further discussion of the female as it serves the masculine subject.

[46] See Richard Farmer, Cinemas and Cinemagoing in Wartime Britain, 1939-45: The Utility Dream Palace (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016).

[47] Dancing in the Blitz: How World War Two Made British Ballet, directed by Paul Wu (British Broadcasting Company, originally broadcast on BBC4 March 2014).

[48] It is worthy to note that these audiences would eventually also be subjected to (and continue to sit in their seats) the far greater fear associated with the V2 rocket which offered no such aural warning because it travelled beyond the speed of sound. I thank Neil Forbes for this important insight.

[49] See Duggan, Trauma/Tragedy.

[50] See Farmer, Cinemas. He suggests that cinema audiences remained in their seats during air raids for a number of complex reasons, including peer pressure as well as an important form of resistance.

[51] See Eliot, Albion’s Dance; Andrew Sinclair, Arts and Cultures: The History of the 50 years of the Arts Council of Great Britain (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995); and Eric Taylor, Showbiz Goes to War, (London: Robert Hale, 1992).

[52] See Dee Reynolds and Matthew Reason, ed. Kinesthetic Empathy in Creative and Cultural Practices (Bristol: Intellect Books, 2010). See also Bloomsbury’s new book series Performance and Science: Interdisciplinary Dialogues.

[53] Dee Reynolds, “Kinesthetic Empathy and the Dancer’s Body: From Emotion to Affect,” in Kinesthetic Empathy in Creative and Cultural Practices, ed. Dee Reynolds and Matthew Reason (Bristol: Intellect Books, 2010), 133.

[54] Roger Bechtel, “The Body of Trauma: Empathy, Mourning, and Media in Troika Ranch’s loopdiver,” Theatre Journal 65, no. 1 (2013): 77–93.

[55] See Susan Leigh Foster, Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance (New York: Routledge, 2011).

[56] Shoshana Felman has eloquently illustrated the reasons for a flight from witnessing catastrophe post-World War Two and its often disastrous outcomes. See Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York: Routledge, 1992).

[57] See Ann Cvetkovich, An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality and Lesbian Public Cultures (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003); Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins (New York: Routledge 1992), 52.

[58] See Susan Jones, Literature, Modernism, and Dance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) for an extensive exploration of dance’s relationship to literary modernisms. See also Modernist Cultures 9, no. 1 (2014), guest edited by Carrie J. Preston.