Victoria Thoms is Research Fellow at the Centre for Dance Research (C-DaRE), Coventry University, UK. She is author of Martha Graham: Gender and the Haunting of Dance Pioneer (2013). Her current interests are in exploring dance and its relationship to trauma testimony. She is Vice-Chair of the Society for Dance Research in the UK.
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.