Sunday, 31 August 2014

Literature, Modernism and Dance

Susan Jones, Literature, Modernism, and Dance, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

The relationship between literature and dance has only recently began to be addressed by scholars and, during Modernism, numerous interactions took place. Susan Jones rightly speaks of reciprocity, as it was not a question of one art influencing the other, but a two-way process, where sometimes dance inspired writers, and some other times literature inspired dance. Jones's intention is to uncover this reciprocal approach, even though most of her examples focus on writers who reflected on and were influenced by dance. They include important names such as Stéphane Mallarmé, William Butler Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett. What emerges from these studies is that dance was indeed a substantial part of the Modernist literary aesthetics.

Accomplished writers like Virginia Woolf did go to the theatre to watch the ballet and were particularly attentive about it. In her work, Woolf’s “interest in spatial forms” and her way of arranging her novels according to specific patterns, can be seen as a kind of “text as choreography”, an utterly beautiful image. One example is given by her most experimental work, The Waves, published in 1931, where her “representation of a cyclical notion of history through the typographical distinction of roman and italicized passages (…) moves closer to an imagining of text as choreography, to be experienced by the reader as one ‘body’ moving in relation to another”.

T. S. Eliot's poem Burnt Norton presents an insightful dance image connected with the idea of stillness, "at the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;/Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is". Jones scrutinises this concept contextualising it within Eliot's knowledge of ballet (he went to see the Ballets Russes) and linking it to a sense of timelessness and transcendence.

Jones’s analysis of Samuel Beckett’s relationship to dance is a welcome surprise. Especially when she talks about Léonide Massine, the marionette topos in the Ballets Russes’ Petrouchka and Beckett’s reflections. Beckett quotes the ballet in his novel Murphy and, according to Jones, “Petrouchka triggered Beckett’s thinking about philosophical treatments of the issue of self-consciousness and movement”. In later works Beckett’s approach to movement became more abstract and oriented towards a “minimalist treatment” as is shown by “his ongoing philosophical interest in the relationship between stillness and mobility”.

On the other hand, there were dancers who chose novels for their work and a fertile example is represented by the experience of various choreographers at Ballet Rambert. Jones highlights that one of Ballet Rambert’s specificity was to work on narrative in order to represent the characters’ psychological insights. She aptly talks of dance drama and presents a list of significant examples, such as Antony Tudor, Andrée Howard and Agnes De Mille whose collaboration with Ballet Rambert in England is little known. The way these choreographers dealt with interiorisation recalls Martha Graham’s use of inner characterization which is quite layered and distinctive. Graham is mentioned but unfortunately no real comparison between her work and Ballet Rambert's dance dramas is given.
Literature, Modernism, and Dance is an invaluable contribution to the study of dance and literature and it starts filling a huge gap within Modernist Studies. It is not the only one, but it is one of the few and, most of all, one of the most documented and original ones. Other notable choreographers and dance companies included in the book are Loïe Fuller, Martha Graham, The Ballets Russes with a splendid analysis of both Nijinsky's Rite of Spring and Nijinska's Les Noces, Léonide Massine and Rudolf Laban. Jones’s analysis is filled with marvelous technical details and observations which do justice to both literature and dance. In particular, the above-mentioned chapters on Woolf and Eliot are revealing and riveting. Furthermore so, if we think of the persistent neglect of the subject on both dance and literary scholars’ part. The reasons are quite complex, as Jones notes, and have to do, for example, with the way dance is seen and was seen with respect to literature and other art forms.

Jones’s choice not to centre on a specific method or approach makes the book almost encyclopedic in scope and, at times, a bit fragmentary. The overall impression is that each chapter is worth a book-length study on its own and one is left with a sense of thrilling anticipation to get some more.

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