Susan Jones, Literature, Modernism, and Dance.
In Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927), Lily Briscoe, looking at the empty steps outside the Ramsay's house, all at once finds things transfigured: 'Suddenly, the empty drawing-room steps, the frill of the chair inside, the puppy tumbling on the terrace, the whole wave and whisper of the garden became like curves and arabesques'. (1) 'Arabesque' is a term used both in visual art and in music and both influences might be at play here--but after reading Susan Jones's Literature, Modernism, and Dance, it also becomes possible to see Woolf as choreographing the drawing-room steps, the tumbling puppy and the garden to form a moment suddenly charged with balletic energy. Jones's study opens up new possibilities for understanding some key moments in canonical modernist texts and it offers new ways of thinking about some of the crucial questions at the heart of modernist work. There has been ongoing work on the connections between modernist literature, music and visual art--from Christopher Butler's important work on Early Modernism (Oxford University Press, 1994) to very recent studies of classical music in the work of Virginia Woolf (Emma Sutton) and Ezra Pound and visual art (Rebecca Beasley). Jones shows that as well as demonstrating an interest in visual art and music, modernist writers were crucially concerned with and informed by thinking about dance.
Jones looks carefully at a range of early twentieth-century developments in dance, moving from the 'extravagant spiral[s]' (p. 17) of Lo'ie Fuller's swirling performances, to the Ballets Russes and Sergei Diaghilev, to the underestimated influence of early twentieth-century choreographer Leonide Massine, to Rudolf von Laban's attempts to provide dance with a 'language of its own' (p. 210) through innovations in dance notation. From this historical foundation Jones traces the ways in which writers of the time engaged with dance. She focuses on specific moments of dance in modernist literature--such as Gudrun's peculiar eurhythmics in front of cows in Women in Love (1920) and the social dance in Woolf's The Voyage Out (1915). She also investigates how modernist writers discussed dance--exploring, for instance, Woolf's repeated references to Vaslav Nijinksy's iconic leap in Le Spectre de la rose (1911). Most excitingly, Jones's work not only illuminates specific references to dance but also more subtle references to bodily movement--such as how 'Footfalls echo in the memory' in T. S. Eliot's 1936 poem 'Burnt Norton'. (2)
The chapters progress through balancing historical background and interpretative work. Early chapters focus on the beginnings of modernist engagement with dance, looking at Stephane Mallarme's interest in the figure of the dancer and notions of dance in the poetry of William Butler Yeats. A chapter on Friedrich Nietzsche introduces contemporary debates over whether dance should be seen as Dionysian or as Apollonian and another chapter notes how discussions of dance and ballet extended to cover movement more broadly. These ideas then echo and reverberate in close studies of particular writers, dancers and choreographers. There are excellent chapters focusing in detail on Eliot, Pound, Woolf, Joseph Conrad and Samuel Beckett, as well as repeated close readings of D. H. Lawrence.
Throughout the book Jones draws on early twentieth-century writing on dance, archive footage of early twentieth-century ballet and images from particular performances and on knowledge of ongoing developments in dance today. Additionally and most notably, the book demonstrates a close, acute feeling for what it is to dance and to perform. Susan Jones performed as a soloist with the Scottish Ballet before entering academia and one of the striking aspects of the book is its sense of ballet from the inside. Jones's experience of dance is evident, for instance, in a passage thinking about the energy involved even in moments of stillness in dance: 'The musculature remains alert, in readiness to move, energy spirals through the body even as it alights on the perfect stillness of a moment ... the mind of the dancer reaching within, towards and beyond an apparently temporal confinement of the body' (p. 227).
Jones's complex explorations of stillness in dance are used to explore what exactly Eliot, in the 'Burnt Norton,' might mean when describing how 'at the still point, there the dance is' and one of the most intriguing aspects of this book is the way it keeps shedding new light on subtle philosophical questions within modernism. (3) The book is suggestive on the question of stillness in modernism, on ideas of the nature of grace and on the interplay between gracefulness and self-consciousness in modernist literature. It is also centrally interested in the sublime. Jones repeatedly reaches for the idea of the sublime in thinking about what dance expresses in modernist literary works. Her book offers valuable insights into modernism's most ungraspable, difficult and sensuous moments.
One problem with the monograph is that its attempt to cover a wide range of material can sometimes lead to simplified readings of particular writers. Many writers are mentioned only in passing--sometimes they are then the subject of close study in subsequent chapters but occasionally accounts of their work can seem a bit brief, off-hand and reductive. There is, for instance, an odd moment where, having discussed Gerald and Rupert's wrestling in Women in Love and Anna's dance in The Rainbow (1915), Jones suggests that these moments show Lawrence's limits: 'In characterizing nudity and movement as something confined to the domestic space, Lawrence paradoxically reflects the narrow attitudes to the body that led to the suppression of his work in England' (p. 76). Such a statement seems peculiar in the light of the frequency and enthusiasm with which Lawrence's characters engage in open-air nudity, culminating in the scene where Connie and Mellors run out into the heavy rain in Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928) and Connie dances with eurhythmics-inspired movements.
These slightly hit-or-miss moments seem due to the occasionally overreaching but always-engaging ambition of the work. The book covers a lot of ground and sometimes the selective principles by which material is included are not always clear--though the constant jostling of ideas is part of the excitement of this book. In gathering and analysing such a range of material Jones has done a great service to modernist studies and many more explorations will be possible as a result of this monograph. Jones demonstrates that 'The relationship between literature and dance ... offers a remarkable source for understanding modernism in the first half of the twentieth century and beyond' (p. 309). And this remarkable, generous and scholarly book opens up such source material, infusing the arabesques, gestures, measured steps and poised stillnesses of modernism with a new sense of interpretative possibility.
University of Exeter
(1) Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, ed. David Bradshaw (Oxford, 2008), p. 199.
(2) T. S. Eliot, 'Burnt Norton' (1935), Four Quartets, in T.S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and Plays (London, 1969), 1.11, p. 171.
(3) Ibid., 1.65, p. 173.
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|Publication:||Literature & History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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