It’s rare to read an account of the process of learning about a new artform or medium from the beginning. Maybe because, at least for me, it’s hard to remember the first time I read a poem or a novel or saw a painting or heard a piece of music. Or maybe because that experience merges uncomfortably with a non-critical stance of “appreciation,” a word that doesn’t deserve some of the pejorative associations attached to it.
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. 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.
It is perhaps only the advent of animal studies in the last decade that allows us to return to the often-cited comment above and link it in a serious intellectual manner with Isadora Duncan’s own understanding of her dancing and of the dancing body as she was helping to shape and articulate it in modernism. While recent work on Duncan emphasizes her interest in the machine, her
Finally appearing in English translation twenty years after its first appearance in German, Gabriele Brandstetter’s Poetics of Dance: Body, Image, and Space in the Historical Avant-Gardes retains its groundbreaking force.