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Prompted in part by the transatlantic centenary celebrations marking the scandalous success of The Rite of Spring, modernism and dance have of late been performing an exciting pas de deux. Through symposia, traveling exhibitions, articles, and book-length studies of Ballets Russes choreography, music, and artistic and literary connections, viewers and scholars have been treated to an exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) series of windows on the historical relation between modernism and dance. We might wonder, then, if there could possibly be anything left to say about their intersections. Susan Jones’s monumental book Modernism, Literature, and Dance proves that there is plenty, and that there are great discoveries to be made in the ongoing excavations. Instead of closing down discussions or providing the definitive word, it helps us to find new angles on certain thoroughly familiar authors (Pound, Eliot, Beckett, and particularly Woolf), but also to discover artists whose choreography might lend itself to the same rich readings previously reserved for modernist writers (Massine, Nijinska, Tudor, Schlemmer).
Jones frames her argument to appeal to specialists and non-specialists in literary and dance studies alike. Guiding her reader through condensed histories of classical dance and modern dance, explaining differences between body positions and movements for the untrained reader (6), she deploys excellent literary close-reading skills to argue for parallel treatments of, for instance, memory in the work of Anthony Tudor and Marcel Proust, or gender relations in Virginia Woolf and Bronislava Nijinska. Acknowledging the risk of oversimplification, which attends on drawing parallels between two media, she nonetheless advances compelling arguments about the onslaught on traditional forms (bodily, syntactic, narrative) in modernist dance and literature alike, although she also takes pains to note that prior tendencies in the nineteenth century had already begun to move dance in this direction (5).1
Part of the richness of Jones’s book comes from the multiple windows she opens onto dance’s place in the modernist period and beyond. Any treatment of dance in this period necessarily includes performances by the Ballets Russes, but in Jones’s account those performances spill out beyond the stage—into the various cities in which they performed, and into their variegated audiences. Her subtle analyses follow their publics–such as the Bloomsbury group or Ezra Pound—back to their own homes and studios, wherein the lingering memory of the dances took on flexible new plastic or verbal forms. Nor did the Ballets Russes and their contemporaries spring fully formed from the minds of their creators and dancers. Jones further fleshes out the place given to dance in philosophical and aesthetic treatises in the nineteenth century, noting in particular the dynamic of Dionysian and Apollonian forms in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, and not only tracking Mallarmé’s writings on specific dancers but also pulling the reader’s body into the picture by hinting at Mallarmé’s deployment of insights gained from dance spectatorship in the typographical experiments of his late poetry (26).
Jones’s book is studded with readings of particular choreographies by Nijinska, Massine, Tudor, and others, deftly placing us as readers in the body of the dance. She also turns our gaze on the dance’s spectators, on the flickering and focusing of attention that is at work in their writings. Writers such as Yeats or Pound, she resonantly argues, found in dance not an illustration of their aesthetic concerns but a vehicle for their processing: “a way of thinking about their practice, about forms of creativity and the troubling issue of creative authority” (11). Virginia Woolf, watching concert and social dance alike, betrays a kind of exhilarating envy in feeling the ungainliness of her own bodily movements, registering in dance-like terms the coming-and-going of affective pulses, hopes, and memory traces, as Jones notes in wonderful close readings of The Voyage [End Page 203] Out and Through the Lighthouse. Indeed Jones’s reading of Woolf becomes quite mesmerizing as she draws connections to the choreography of Bronislava Nijinska: noting the modernist gap in the narrative unspooling of Les Noces (1923), Jones...