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Restaging Little Theater Online

This article is the final installment of a special series on the Visualities blog exploring digital archives connected to modernism’s visual cultures. Contributors to the series introduce and model the uses of online resources spanning art, film, media, book history, print cultures, and more. In attending to specific visual artifacts from these collections, they also reflect on issues of methodology raised by developing and using digital archives, including in times of crisis and remote working. In this article, Grace Brockington shares from her experience in working to analyze and adapt the writing of Vernon Lee through an online exhibition and a creative collaboration with the dance company Impermanence Dance Theatre in Bristol, United Kingdom.

Alix Beeston

In 1915, the writer and philosopher Vernon Lee (otherwise known as Violet Paget) wrote a pacifist allegory entitled The Ballet of the Nations: A Present-Day Morality. It was circulated by various means and in different versions: in the summer of that year she recited it in the studios and little theaters of Chelsea, in London, where she lived during the First World War; a few months later, she published it with Chatto & Windus in a limited edition of five hundred, with a “pictorial commentary” by Maxwell Armfield; and in 1920 she republished it with John Lane as Satan the Waster: A Philosophic War Trilogy, without the illustrations, but with an introduction and notes which presented her own, elaborate commentary on the text and the recent conflict.[1]

The danse macabre that Lee imagined in The Ballet of the Nations was written, spoken, and illustrated—but never danced, despite apparent opportunities to adapt it for the stage. Chelsea was a center for experimental performance during the war. Armfield ran his own theater company on Glebe Place, a five-minute walk from Lee’s lodgings on Oakley Street, and Lee gave one of her recitals at the Margaret Morris Theatre on King’s Road, which became a fulcrum for little theaters in London after it opened in June 1914.[2]

From this distance of time, the fact that neither Armfield nor Morris ever staged Lee’s Ballet looks like an aberration. That’s how it struck me when I first discovered the book, and what led me eventually to a collaboration with the Bristol-based Impermanence Dance Theatre, in which The Ballet of the Nations was translated into a fifty-minute art film and published online as part of a permanent digital exhibition about the Chelsea theaters and their links with the wartime peace movement (fig. 1). The exhibition, which is hosted by British Art Studies and entitled Theatres of War, consists of two parts: an historical display about the work of the little theaters during and after the war; and the film itself, alongside an archive of interviews and footage documenting its production and making it available for historical research in the same way that Lee’s Ballet has become a subject of history.

Filming the Dancing Nations on Brean sands, Somerset, 2018
Fig. 1. Filming the Dancing Nations on Brean sands, Somerset, 2018. Image courtesy of Ella Margolin.

It’s possible that the idea of staging Lee’s story was mooted at the time, but that she resisted it because she wanted to retain control of her own work. As I discuss in Theatres of War, Lee’s relationship with Armfield as her illustrator was fractious; she resented his obvious departures from the letter of her text, and his aestheticizing of her sometimes-brutal narrative. If she had lived to see it, she might also have resented our own cinematic commentary on the book, which edits, updates, and freely interprets the source material. This latitude was partly a matter of time: the one hundred years that have elapsed since the first version of the work and the last. For many viewers, the most poignant moment in the film comes at the end, when what seems at first sight to be credits rolling down the screen turns out to be a catalog of all the wars that have taken place since 1918. The list acknowledges the hindsight that renders our viewing conditions radically different from those of Lee’s audience in the first year of the war, although her final sentence, “And thus the Ballet of the Nations is still a-dancing,” anticipates such a history.[3]

Sonya Cullingforth as Satan, dancing in the Spencer Memorial Chapel, 2018
Fig. 2. Sonya Cullingforth as Satan, dancing in the Spencer Memorial Chapel, 2018. Image courtesy of Ella Margolin.

Our work of interpretation was also a matter of medium: the shift from text, page, and picture to dance, screen, and moving image. Not only that, but a dance film, shot over many days and across multiple locations (a beach, railway sidings, the Spencer Memorial Chapel) and cut and crafted in digital post-production, is radically different in kind from a film-of-a-dance as a record of a single performance on stage (fig. 2). In Lee’s narrative, Satan and his Ballet Master Death incite the Nations to perform a danse macabre in the “Theatre of the West,” accompanied by the Music of the Passions—the good and the bad—and watched by an “audience of Neutral Peoples and Sleepy Virtues and Ages-to-Come” (Lee, Ballet, 15). The nations hack each other to pieces but their bodies constantly regenerate, and when their spirits flag, the passions of Pity and Indignation inspire them to begin the dance all over again. Lee kept the audience to the periphery, but in our film it takes a central role as a dance chorus (figs. 3–4).

The dance chorus performing in the dark studio at Bath Spa University, 2018
Fig. 3. The dance chorus performing in the dark studio at Bath Spa University, 2018. Image courtesy of Ella Margolin
The dance chorus rehearsing tug-o-war in the dark studio at Bath Spa University, 2018
Fig. 4. The dance chorus rehearsing tug-o-war in the dark studio at Bath Spa University, 2018. Image courtesy of Ella Margolin

Separated from the main action in time and space, the chorus enacts its own commentary through choreographed sequences that refer more or less obliquely to the visual memorabilia of the war: a magazine drawing of a woman and a soldier sharing a cigarette, Eadweard Muybridge’s wrestler photographs (for example, fig. 5), reports of soldiers playing tug-of-war, and Marlene Dietrich performing “Lili Marleen” as a song which bridges both World Wars.[4]

Eadweard Muybridge, Athletes Wrestling
Fig. 5. Eadweard Muybridge, Athletes Wrestling, Palo Alto, California, ca. 1881. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

There is license in Lee’s text for such eclecticism. Her musicians are “dressed, or in some cases undressed, in classical, medieval, biblical or savage costumes,” while their music is “at once too archaic and too ultra-modern for philistine taste” (Lee, Ballet, 4, 15–16). Yet the change of medium widens the scope of reference still further. The prominence of the chorus, and its autonomy within the narrative structure of the film, draws attention to the genre of dance film that forms a tradition for this particular interpretation of The Ballet of the Nations, and to art film more broadly. The directors Roseanna Anderson and Joshua Ben-Tovim cite mid-century musical comedy as an inspiration, particularly Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and the films of Busby Berkeley, who was active between the late 1920s and early 1970s. Such films integrate dance sequences into theater structured around plot and character. This attention to narrative departs from the norm of contemporary dance, which, in the modernist tradition of aesthetic autonomy, often celebrates movement as a subject in itself. For Impermanence Dance Theatre, the political urgency and narrative strength of The Ballet of the Nations was a chance to escape what they see as the solipsism of dance film. As Ben-Tovim says, “[T]here’s quite a lot of dance films made where bodies, camera movement, and editing are used to create a ‘pure aesthetic experience,’ but which can often feel too polished—like a big expanded selfie!”

The digital exhibition Theatres of War was an attempt to anchor the film of The Ballet of the Nations, so much a product of the twenty-first century, in the historical world in which Lee’s Ballet was written and read. It also worked to show how references to that world are woven through the film in its costume design, soundtrack, and choreography. In terms of academic publishing, it was a digital first. The journal British Art Studies created a new template for this and other projects which might follow it, enabling research to be presented in the form of an annotated exhibition, led by objects—or rather, high-resolution images of objects—and illustrated, as it were, with textual commentary (for example, figs. 6–7).

Screenshot from Theatres of War exhibition, featuring a photograph of Maxwell Ashby Armfield and Constance Smedley Armfield.
Fig. 6. Screenshot from Theatres of War exhibition, featuring a photograph of Maxwell Ashby Armfield and Constance Smedley Armfield.
Screenshot from Theatres of War exhibition, featuring Sato Takezou’s Portrait of Gonneske Komai
Fig. 7. Screenshot from Theatres of War exhibition, featuring Sato Takezou’s Portrait of Gonneske Komai.

The process of curating an exhibition serves to expand the research field. When the object, the physical material of research, is allowed to structure the argument, rather than merely to illustrate it, it changes the project fundamentally, generating new questions and connections. In the previous article in this special series on digital archives, the creators of the Modernist Archives Publishing Project explain how they use digital technologies to expand our sense of the interconnectedness of objects and agents in the modernist literary field. Similarly, virtual exhibiting enhances a focus on the object among other objects by allowing us to embed it within a wide range of textual materials. Logistical issues associated with physical exhibition, such as transport, conservation, loans restrictions, and the politics of institutional relations, are diminished, as are their associated costs. In theory, anything that can be photographed, filmed, or recorded can be displayed—though we must allow for the expense of copyright, which can be prohibitive, and acknowledge the flattening that occurs when objects of different scale, media, weight, origin, and function are represented on the screen as visual images all of the same size.

There are ways of using photography online to restore “a sense of embodied closeness to the work of art,” as Brandon Truett suggests in his contribution to this special series. In exhibition, the subordination of many different types of material objects to a standard visual format can be turned to advantage, in that it enables lateral connections between items that might otherwise fall into different categories. As Alice Stavely et al. point out, the digital archive “allows viewers to find multiple pathways through a set of disaggregated but related images, redistributed from their places in the brick and mortar archive.”

Two exhibits from Theatres of War help to make my point: the first, a book of poems by John Rodker, published in 1914 with an abstract cover design by David Bomberg inspired by Morris and her students dancing out of doors; the second, a mid-century photograph of disabled children practicing Morris’s movements in a meadow full of daisies (figs. 8–9). These images reproduce objects that were, in the original, different in medium and function: on the one hand, a drawing which celebrates the modernist drive towards aesthetic autonomy; on the other, a photograph documenting the practical, therapeutic applications of modern dance. Yet their reproduction as photographs that conform to the same online template elides these differences, focusing attention on their common ground in Morris’s open-air technique, and on the connections between abstract art (the rhythmic, curving lines of Bomberg’s design) and its source material in the real world (dancers posed in an arc, their arms reaching upwards).

Cover of John Rodker’s Poems
Fig. 8. Cover of John Rodker’s Poems (London: Ovid Press, 1914), designed by David Bomberg. Image courtesy of Grace Brockington; also reproduced in “London’s Little Theatres” in Theatres of War. 
“Children Enacting a Margaret Morris Tableau,” in Grace Kimmins, Heritage Craft Schools and Hospitals, Chailey, 1903–1948
Fig. 9. “Children Enacting a Margaret Morris Tableau,” in Grace Kimmins, Heritage Craft Schools and Hospitals, Chailey, 1903–1948: Being an Account of the Pioneer Work for Crippled Children (n.p. [UK]: Baynard, 1948), 83; also reproduced in “Beyond London and the War” in Theatres of War.

The design of a physical exhibition involves careful consideration of the movement of visitors through the room—how and how much to direct them, where to open up sight lines, how to enable wheelchair access to every part of the display. Online exhibiting changes the relationship between curator and the potentially vastly expanded audience. The viewer has less choice over their orientation towards the object; and the curator can no longer determine when and where audiences will see the show—on phone or desktop, as a distraction at work or during a sleepless night? There are also shifts in the social dynamic of the exhibition: the viewer may be physically alone, or may not be sharing the experience with others in the vicinity, though they might connect with other viewers through social networks.

In such conditions, “visiting” an exhibition draws closer to the private experience of reading—closer, in fact, to the imagined stage of Lee’s diabolical theater in the form that I first encountered it, and to the solitary excitement of working through boxes of Armfield’s papers in the archives at Tate Britain, where I first found a route from The Ballet of the Nations to the wartime little theaters. Those weeks I spent in London—couch surfing, commuting into Pimlico, handling fragile documents, getting to know the archivists—were a formative adventure. When I returned to the project years later, at a stage in my life when I was less able to travel, the Internet offered up reams of new material that I would never otherwise have discovered. There is a trade-off here, but one that Lee might have tolerated. Her Ballet of the Nations spoke urgently about the disaster of war, but its readership was minute. The text’s latest reincarnation as a film has already reached thousands of people across the world, partly through the controlled environment of film festivals, but principally through open-access online publication, where the circumstances of viewing are controlled by the audience.



[1] For the story of the publication of The Ballet of the Nations, see Grace Brockington, “Performing Pacifism,” in Theatres of War: Experimental Performance in London, 1914–18 and Beyond, curated by Grace Brockington in collaboration with Impermanence Dance Theatre, with contributions from Ella Margolin and Claudia Tobin, published as a special issue of British Art Studies 11 (March 2019).

[2] For the story of Chelsea as a center for little theater, see Grace Brockington, “London’s Little Theatres,” in Theatres of War. This section of the exhibition includes a marked-up map of Chelsea, curated by Claudia Tobin, showing how closely connected the Chelsea community was during the war.

[3] Vernon Lee, The Ballet of the Nations (London: Chatto & Windus, 1915). The book is unpaginated, but this line appears on page 20 of the text.

[4] For a discussion of these sources, see “Directing and Choreography,” in Theatres of War. “Lili Marleen” was written as a poem in 1915 by the German soldier Hans Leip, and become popular internationally during World War II.