Modernism and Dance

Susan Jones: Literature, Modernism and Dance (360pp. Oxford University Press. £55)

In 1930s literary London, ballet was everywhere. Virginia Woolf, several Stracheys, the Bells, E. M. Forster, H. G. Wells, John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield, Aldous Huxley, the Sitwells and T. S. Eliot all attended the Ballets Russes. Louis MacNeice’s Les Sylphides appeared in 1939, and in the same year Henry Green’s Party Going used the same ballet as a structural underpinning. It wasn’t just the intelligentsia, either. Compton Mackenzie wrote two novels with a dance protagonist, and even Eric Ambler’s Cause for Alarm (1938) contained a reference to Diaghilev.

All the more peculiar, then, that those who have since studied modernism, both in the visual arts and in literature, have barely acknowledged the movement’s links to dance. Where is the equivalent to Adorno on Stravinsky and Schoenberg? Where the monographs to match those on Cubism, or the modern novel? If the link between the “Demoiselles d’Avignon” and temporality in fiction is worth examining, why not between that same painting and Nijinsky’s Sacre du Printemps?

A few dance writers have attempted to bridge the gap, but almost no literary specialists. Now Susan Jones, a Conrad scholar as well as, before that, a dancer, is ideally placed to take the subject forward, as one who can see how, “At the still point of the turning world . . . there the dance is”. For the relationship between dance and literature is not merely “one of the most striking but understudied features of modernism”, but one of reciprocity: dance drew on modern literature as much as modern literature was shaped by dance.

Until now, literary theorists seem almost deliberately to have turned away from movement and its presence in their subject. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, there is a famous scene generally referred to by scholars as “the image of the African woman”, even though Marlow is plainly describing movement, not a static “image”, a woman “treading the earth proudly” until “she stopped . . . . Suddenly she opened her bared arms and threw them up rigid above her head, as though in an uncontrollable desire to touch the sky . . . . She turned away slowly, walked on, following the bank, and passed into the bushes to the left”. Everything in that moment is about movement, even as its acquired tag reduces it to a tableau.

Similarly, Gilles Deleuze wrote absorbingly on Samuel Beckett’s three languages, languages of names, voices and images, but despite Beckett’s fanatical care for stage directions, Deleuze never appears to have contemplated the author’s language of movement. Yet Beckett’s knowledge of dance was formidable, and formidably integrated in his work, which drew on Eurhythmics, music hall, ballet and commedia dell’arte. In a more populist vein, Sjeng Scheijen’s acclaimed biography of Diaghilev (2010) referred to the designer, librettist and composer of Parade as its “three creators” with, apparently an afterthought, “Massine as choreographer”. It is not Scheijen’s blind spot that so intrigues: it is that so few – or no? – reviewers even noticed the blind spot. Oversight is the norm for dance.

Jones locates the origins of the modernist nexus of dance and literature in the nineteenth century, with the performances of the only now critically reassessed Loïe Fuller, and with Stéphane Mallarmé and Nietzsche’s writings. Fuller was an innovator, creating mesmeric effects through swirling steps and long silks which were manipulated with her body and with hidden sticks, highlighted by new techniques of lighting. Only a year after her first dance performance in 1892, Mallarmé was already describing her art as a model for literature, both dance and symbolist poetry using compressed forms of expression, with Fuller’s “écriture corporelle” permitting a “poetics of potentiality . . . a signifying practice that in its most abstract and ideal form dispenses with the generation of verbal meaning”, the dancer’s gestures creating an indeterminacy that allowed each viewer to create their own meaning. Three decades earlier, Mallarmé’s “new poetics” had concentrated on “not the thing itself, but the effect it produced”; now Fuller’s “bodily writing” gave the poet a way to become the poem.

Fuller had no formal training. Classical dance was Apollonian, an art of courtly symmetry, restraint, gravity and balance, while the new dance forms that were emerging embraced the dissonance and conflict of the Dionysian, and, possibly most importantly, rhythm over melody. “Now the world of nature is to be expressed in symbols”, Nietzsche wrote; “a new world of symbols is necessary, a symbolism of the body for once, not just the symbolism of the mouth, but the full gestures of dance . . . . Then the other symbolic forces will develop, particularly those of music, suddenly impetuous in rhythm, dynamism, and harmony.”

The struggle between the Apollonian and Dionysian might be said to have created twentieth-century dance, and literature. Modernism turned to the ancient, to ritual, to express itself, with its dichotomies of attraction and repulsion, of the individual and the community. One of the most compelling sections in Jones’s book is her analysis of Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces, recognized by the dance world as a masterpiece on a par with the “Demoiselles d’Avignon”, or Mrs Dalloway. It was, she demonstrates, a complement and response to Nijinska’s brother’s more famous (in reputation, although in reality lost) Sacre du Printemps. In both, a female is sacrificed to the greater community through ritual, and rhythm takes precedence over melody, dissonance over assonance. Both concentrate on symbolic forms, flattened, two-dimensional shapes, scenes rather than narrative, and primitive designs – in Nijinska’s case, constructivist art, in Nijinsky’s, Roerich’s quasi-pastoral primitivism. Both incorporate Mallarmé’s “poetic impersonality”: movement was “pure, self-contained”, not a conduit for dancers to express themselves. And in both the stylized choreography required the “active engagement on the part of the viewer to complete its meaning”. When movement stops, Nijinska wrote, “an illicit ‘intermission’ begins”, not a pause, “for a pause is also movement – a breath, as it were” – that is, Woolf’s “still space that lies about the heart of things”.

This is only one small example of the many cross-fertilizations that Jones so ably explores. Her chapter on Eliot breaks new ground, whether it is the discussion of Petrushka and “The Hollow Men”, or Murder in the Cathedral and Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux lilas, the two pieces staged at the Mercury Theatre in tandem. Tudor’s poetic evocation by elision of “what might have been” displayed in moments of frozen gesture may well have influenced Eliot’s still points. Both men similarly returned to the past – Eliot to the Elizabethans, Tudor to the Edwardians – to create a new present. Her chapter on Beckett is equally enlightening.

But it is these chapters that make other sections of the book so frustrating. Jones has chosen to structure her book chronologically around the development of modernist aesthetics as writing, and thus privileges literature over movement. Given that most of her readers will have a better grasp of the history of literature than of dance, this is unfortunate, as the book dashes ahistorically through the dance world wherever a literary strand takes her. It also forces her into many repetitions, some even word for word.

Another, more uncomfortable reality is the ephemeral nature of dance. Jones devotes a long section to Andrée Howard’s The Sailor’s Return, another vanished work. A few of its scenes were filmed, and there is a programme synopsis. But that is all, and yet Jones discusses the piece as though it can be intimately studied: “Howard’s use of textual detail helped her express in dance the fine gradations of tone and register in the novel”. This may be so, but I would like to know how Jones knows.

What modernism means, for dance, too, is a vexed question, and one that needs to be confronted directly. One of Jones’s definitions is that, as with modernist literature, narrative and character are treated in a non-linear, non-realist fashion. But as early as 1841, Act Two of Giselle was already reaching for the abstract, as was Act Three of La Bayadère in 1877, and Ivanov’s white act for Swan Lake in 1894. Jones discusses the changes to Balanchine’s Apollo from its inception in 1928, when it had a prologue narrating the birth pangs of Leto, and a set with a tumulus up which Apollo climbed to reach his apotheosis as “Musagète”, to the 1979 version which omitted both birth and tumulus. But to describe the loss of the climb, as she does, as a shift from the Dionysian (as demonstrated in the physical manifestation of the upward struggle) to the Apollonian (achieved) is to ignore a number of productions which to this day contain a set of stairs, up which Apollo and the muses continue to progress.

That ultimately encapsulates the difficulty of dance scholarship. There is no one, definitive, Apollo, and thus its meaning, or even its style, is elusive. And this example can be multiplied endlessly. Jones sees the choreographer Léonide Massine as a stark modernist, which in his choice of collaborators he certainly was, working with assorted Cubists, Fauves, even Dalí, and among the first to use symphonic music for dance, “and yet”, she laments, “his impact on modernism in a wider field has been overlooked”. This might be, I would suggest, because his choreography was not modernist at all: working with modernists does not make you yourself modern. As Eliot harked back to the Elizabethans, so choreographers of real modernism – Fokine, Balanchine – frequently invoked the past, while old-fashioned choreographers like Massine, who resisted a deeper modernism, superficially embraced all the current tropes.

As the historian Jennifer Homans has reminded us, dance, with its ephemerality of performance, is an art of memory, not history. Most of dance has vanished into the great unremembered. Where work has survived, and can be analysed – Les Noces, for example – Jones is a peerless guide, moving us back and forth between art forms with a dizzying virtuosity of her own. More generally, the great strength of Literature, Modernism, and Dance lies not in (the impossible) re-creation of the invisible, but in Jones’s exemplary account of how performances and performers endowed artists in other genres with ways to think about their process.

First published in the TLS

Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation, by Andrew Lycett

Andrew Lycett: Wilkie Collins, A Life of Sensation (Hutchinson, 544 pp.)

A nondescript street near Regent’s Park in London bears a blue plaque. It uses the old, postwar style, with a minimum of information: ‘Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), novelist, lived here’. Whenever I pass it, I always wonder, if I only knew which corner to turn, would there be another sign that says ‘…and here’? For Collins was not merely peripatetic (Lycett lists 19 addresses in London alone), but for much of his adult life, he also maintained two families, in two houses.

Collins is less famous today than his slightly older contemporaries – Dickens, George Eliot, Thackeray and the Brontës Major and Minor. And, despite his thirty-some novels, he is really only remembered for two – The Woman in White, a terrific potboiler of a novel, and The Moonstone, which T.S. Eliot called ‘the first and the best’ detective-novel.

‘First’ and ‘best’ can both be argued, but Collins was certainly a pioneer in the new genre that was only just appearing: crime-fiction. He was also a pioneer in the depiction of women detectives – amateurs, to be sure, but independent women who do things. The Woman in White’s Marion Halcombe crawls out on a roof in the dark to obtain proof of a crime; David Copperfield’s Dora finds a cookbook too difficult for her poor little brain.

As Lycett shows in this comprehensive new biography, women were Collins’, shall we say, forte. He claimed to have lost his virginity in Italy at the age of thirteen. The death of his rigidly religious father, a society painter of some fame, who had destined his son for a career as a tea-importer, left the still-adolescent Collins with an inheritance that enabled him to choose his own path, of fiction. He also chose his own life. Outwardly he was a conventional bachelor man-about-town, the man to know when it came to exploring the dives of Paris, or finding a doctor to treat the unfortunate side-effects of those explorations.

He was even less conventional at home. Caroline Graves was a lower-middle-class widow struggling to survive when Collins first met her; Martha Rudd a barmaid at a seaside resort. Although Collins married neither, Caroline lived as the first wife in the zenana, entertaining Dickens (who disliked her) and Collins’ other literary friends; Martha lived in more obscurity, but she and Collins produced three children.

All this despite the ill-health that dogged Collins’ life, and made him an opium addict of heroic proportions. He carried a hipflask of laudanum, and when in pain drank off an entire glassful – six to eight drops in water being the usual dosage.

With a private life as complicated as this, there are many gaps in the record. Some episodes remain cloudy. Collins had an apparently facetious correspondence with an eleven-year-old, but that he addressed her as ‘Mrs Collins’ does give the modern reader pause. His own letters presented this as a joke; if there was more, it remains unknown. But, short of a major discovery of papers, Lycett knows as much as anyone. He is also excellent on Collins’ friendship with Dickens, which he presents, convincingly, as much more of a relationship of equals than Dickens biographers allow.

And he answers the main question of any literary biography: why do we continue to read the novels. Neatly avoiding endless plot summaries, Lycett instead explores the themes that dominate Collins’ work: the duality of appearance and reality, the position of women, legal and medical advances.

And, finally, there is Collins’ sheer readability, his ability to make the reader turn the page, and then turn again, to long to know what it going to happen. Often derided as mere populism, story-telling and suspense are rare and precious gifts. Collins had them in spades.

Review first appeared in The Times

Belinda Jack: The Woman Reader

At the beginning of the 20th century, Virginia Woolf made a case for a “Room of One’s Own” for all women, without which they could not become writers.

Near the end of the century, Doris Lessing focused on readers. Libraries, she said, were the most democratic of institutions: there, no one can tell you what to read, or how to read, or what to think about what you have read.

In reality, both notions are utopian: people have always been told what, when and how to read, and libraries enforce this through acquisitions policies, whom they admit and when. For literacy is dangerous to those with power. Anything written down is beyond the control of its creators: reading is interpretation.

How we think about reading is also open to interpretation. Both men and women have historically been painted with books. For men, it indicated professional status, or scholarship, or a religious vocation; for women, the interpretative range is wider. Images of the Virgin Mary reading at the Annunciation began to appear in northern Europe in the 15th century. Three centuries later, a Rococo painting showed a woman reader in a reverie, one hand on her book, the other vanishing under her skirts – reading is no longer about devotion, or even mental stimulation, but suggests a worrying sexual self-sufficiency.

Belinda Jack sets herself the task of charting this vast subject, from early cave paintings (handprints establish that women as well as men were involved in their creation) through the classical world, when the literacy of women cast reflected glory on the wealth of their menfolk, and the Middle Ages, where reading revolved for the most part around religious communities and the courts.

The 16th century brought together improved technology, which reduced the price of books, more widespread education, which increased the number of readers, the Protestant Reformation, which encouraged individual Bible study without the mediation of a priest, and the rise of the middle classes. With the subsequent increase in literacy came, naturally, an increase in attempts to control reading, with the appearance of conduct books, telling women how to be good wives and mothers. By the 17th century, miscellanies, where women copied out their favourite passages, give us, for the first time, hard evidence of what was being read, rather than what ought to have been read. In the 19th and 20th centuries, novels became renowned – and denigrated – as women’s reading, and arguments for and against raged in the press and private correspondence, giving us an insight into readers’ responses.

As a subject, women’s reading is vast, yet it is also intensely private, and it has left little trace for most of history. Even in recent centuries, when readers’ views survive in diaries and letters, the narrow focus on reading is a slippery thing. And so Jack constantly finds herself sliding away from reading, ending up discussing writing, where she looks at the books women authors may have read, or education, concentrating on the books students were told they should read. Sometimes, no reading is involved at all: when the collection of one 17th-century bibliophile was sold, her books were found to have most of their pages uncut – she collected, but did not read.

And while for the most part Jack uses a bland, neutral language, her prejudices, when they peek out, can be startling: writers, she writes, “cash in” on women’s interests – in this case it is fashion she is discussing, but had it been art, or music, would she have chosen the same denigratory verb? Her views on what constitutes good reading are equally forthright. The 12th-century oral tradition, she tells us, was “full of redundant stylistic repetitions – rhymes, clichés and ornate but meaningless flourishes”. Really? Repetitions and flourishes like Homer’s “wine-dark sea”? Surely oral devices are different to written ones, not inferior to them. But no, for she goes on: Dickens, apparently, wrote for “chambermaids” rather than the “educated”.

With this division between high and low, or even middlebrow, it is perhaps not surprising that Jack disregards the power and reach of 18th-century circulating libraries, and barely mentions magazines, with only a single line on Addison and Steele’s widely read Tatler. In her discussion on the 19th century there is nothing on Gothic novels nor their successors, sensation fiction, supposedly a women’s genre, and just one lonely mention of penny dreadfuls and working-class Sunday newspapers.

Perhaps this is because the book is, essentially, about upper-class women. In the 19th century, Jack’s representative readers are Jane Austen, the journalist Harriet Martineau, Lady Louisa Stuart, and the wife of the philosopher Thomas Carlyle. To drive her class bias home, she adds that women were able to find employment “principally” as teachers, actors and writers – overlooking the millions of female servants, agricultural labourers and factory workers.

Yet these women too read, if not as often or as widely as their upper-class sisters. Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, wrote: “I have made a world of my own: for which nobody, I hope, will blame me, since it is in every one’s power to do the like.” It was indeed within their power, although that power was limited by social expectations. My great-grandmother, an immigrant to Britain from Eastern Europe, arrived with a “ladies’ prayer book”: on the right-hand pages were the Hebrew prayers; on the left were, not translations, but explanations, to suit lesser female minds. Facing the prayer for the dead it said, simply, “Here you cry.”

Philistines inside the gates, part 2,037,047

This is just bile, so you may want to move on — move along, move along, says the mental policeman, nothing to be seen here that isn’t seen every other day.

But if you want to stick with me for a moment, nothing I am about to say will surprise you. In Britain, the Tories have decided today that the roads of the country should be sold off. There isn’t enough money to repair them, but there’s enough money for a commercial company to take profits out of them. Yes, you work that one out.

And while you’re doing it, spare a thought for Nicholas Hoare, one of civilization’s beacons. He owned three bookshops in Canada — OK, so it’s not a cure for cancer, nor did he discover life on Mars. But he created three points where people who wanted to think, to reflect, could come together; where people could explore more than their own small worlds. In effect, he created three small spots of mutual respect and decency.

This is not a story of changing reading habits, or the velociraptor that is Amazon. This is a much sadder, and more brutal story. Two of the three shops, faced with rent hikes of 72%, will now be forced to close. And who is this rapacious landlord? Well, it’s the government, the National Capital Commission, the crown corporation that ‘looks after’ (I use the inverted commas advisedly) federally owned land.

And the government is permitting — probably egging on — these shocking price hikes. Nothing to do with us, guv, their spokesman says. We can’t help it, can we, if the land has become more valuable. No discussion, no mediation, just pay up or piss off. We don’t care what kind of shop you have — we can probably get a fast-food place in there, or maybe even that holy grail, a mobile-phone shop. Then we’ll be laughing.

I have, here, nothing clever, nothing funny to say. Just shame on you, Canadian government. Shame on you, NCC. I hope, when you go home after a long day closing down businesses that people value more than in just dollars and cents, when you go home at night, and your children want you to read them a story, you spare a thought for Nicholas Hoare.

Cleveland Street Workhouse under threat again

Below is a leter from the group that fought to save the Cleveland Street Workhouse, the sole surviving 18th-century workhouse, and a probable model for the workhouse in Oliver Twist. The building was indeed listed, but now it looks like the University College Hospital Trust is hoping that weather and squatters will damage the site so badly that it can then be sold off to developers for ‘luxury’ apartments (is there any other type?).

Please take the time to write and register your concerns (details below), and if you have any access to the press, use that to publicize this backward step. And please tweet and Facebook your support.

Dear Cleveland Street Workhouse supporter,

Thank you for continuing to support our campaign to save the Cleveland Street Workhouse. Your signature, together with nearly 6000 others, was vital in our effort of obtaining listed status for the workhouse. As you will hopefully be aware, the workhouse was granted Grade II listed status by the Secretary of State in March 2011, however it has come to our attention that the building may again be under threat. We are therefore asking for your help once again.

University College London NHS Foundation Trust recently decided to evict the current guardians of the site, leaving the building exposed to possible further decay, speeding up its demise. With the recent spate of squatting in the area, our group is also concerned that squatters may take over the building and damage it, further exacerbating the situation.

The Cleveland Street Workhouse has served as short term accommodation for young professionals for more than 3 years. The inhabitants have been placed within the building through a “Protection by Occupation” scheme, which forbids squatters from occupying the premises and helps prevent decay. Without constant monitoring and heating during the winter months, the elements will take their toll.

In light of these potentially disastrous developments, we would like to call upon UCLH NHS Foundation Trust to reconsider this decision.

If you could take a moment of your time to write to the University College London Hospital Trust expressing your concern about recent developments, you would once again provide invaluable help to preserve the building. Due to the urgent nature of the situation, please address your correspondence direct to UCLH NHS Foundation Trust’s CEO:

Sir Robert Naylor

Chief Executive

UCLH NHS Foundation Trust

235 Euston Road

London NW1 2BU

e-mail: [email protected]

 

For more information, please visit our website:

http://www.clevelandstreetworkhouse.org/ -OR- http://bit.ly/fZCI3V

 

Thank you for your continuing support.

Kind Regards,

Aimery de Malet Roquefort

on behalf of the Cleveland Street Workhouse Group

www.clevelandstreetworkhouse.org

Ikea dooms the book

You don’t have to be Nostradamus to recognize that when Ikea says no one wants books anymore, no one, perhaps, wants books anymore. Word is just out that Ikea has redesigned its famous ‘Billy’ bookshelves. Why is this interesting? Well, because it uses the word ‘book’ together with ‘shelves’, but it doesn’t really mean it. Apparently, the new Billy (excuse the first-name terms: we’re very informal in Sweden) is deeper, the same height but – brace yourselves – the shelves are closer together, so that standard paperbacks no longer fit.

Yup, that’s it: Ikea thinks (knows?) that people don’t actually put books on their bookshelves. So what do we rename these things? [Book]shelves? Place-to-put-my-stuff-shelves? Tchotchke-holders? Whatever, they sure as hell ain’t bookshelves.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Not even, sadly, in literate Stockholm.

Goodness, what a fuss

The Booker shortlist is announced, to predictable screaming and whining. What, no Hollinghurst? What, no Barry, no Ali Smith, no this no that no the other? Boyd Tonkin in the Independent writes that we need to ‘fix’ the prize, which has apparently gone woefully astray, in order to ‘issue a final, authoritative verdict on the year’ (that is a quote from someone, possibly Julian Barnes, although it’s not quite clear).

Oh yeah? And how do we do that? Who does that? Whose finality? Whose authority? They’re books. It’s a matter of taste, for God’s sake, I want to scream (and sometimes do, but quietly, so as not to frighten the horses).

Hollinghurst wasn’t chosen. Well, the earth has obviously tilted on its axis. Even if you think The Stranger’s Child was perfection (and I didn’t – the opening section was astonishing, and then it just faded away to a series of random encounters) – even if you did think it was perfection, it was one of hundreds of books, and there were only six slots. It’s like the annual newspaper story of the student with umpty-eleven starred A-levels who doesn’t get into Cambridge. Well, no, says rationality; s/he didn’t, because there were another couple of hundred students with umpty-eleven starred A-levels too. It doesn’t mean the student’s no good, or the novel’s no good, just that there are a finite number of places and a combination of taste, circumstance and sheer bloody random chance selected others for the slot.

We can’t ‘fix’ the prize, because it’s perfectly obvious (or it is if you’re not required to churn out the annual newspaper column of angst) that this is the deal: this bunch of people chose that bunch of books; another bunch would chose something else.

There is no final, no independent authority. Much like life, really. Which may be what people really object to.