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  • Dance, Ritual, and Arthur Symons's London Nights
  • Heather Marcovitch

Arthur Symons considered himself to be a genuine amateur of the European music halls and wrote frequently on his friendships and love affairs with the actresses and dancers.1 London Nights (1895) constructs the music hall as a ritual space, the performers and audience as participants in a near-sacred rite that is camouflaged by the conventions of modern entertainment. In these poems, Symons draws on sources as diverse as Victorian anthropological writings about ritual in tribal cultures, the meaning of tragedy in Nietzsche's philosophy, the search for the transcendent, or the noumenal, in Decadent and Symbolist writings, and the theatres' reputations for sexual trafficking. It is a strange, sometimes unwieldy mix of sources, but the result is a recurring argument that within dance, and even within the dances of the London music halls, is the return to a more conscious connection to the universe and, as such, the means to transcend the banalities of everyday modern existence.

Late-Victorian writings on dance, whether literary or critical, generally posited the ballet and the female ballerina by extension as both conventional entertainments and exotic spectacles. In her book on the music-hall ballet, Alexandra Carter points out that notwithstanding the popularity of the ballet among women audience members the images of the ballet and of the female dancers that performed it were produced by a male elite who were "drawn to the 'world apart' produced by the exotic subject matter, colour, spectacle, and erotic connotations."2 The figure of the ballerina was described in terms of dainty Victorian femininity, her movements not that different from the social dancing performed at balls; Carter notes that "the personal qualities of the ballerinas in action are repetitive: the girl-like qualities of gaiety and vivacity, and the lady-like ones of charm and grace were noticed more than any other attributes."3 The pervading note in dance criticism [End Page 462] in the late nineteenth century focused on the ballerina's attractive form but contained her performance within the bounds of middle-class entertainment; she was pleasing, but not provocative, precise in her movements, but not virtuosic.

The literature of the fin de siècle eroticizes the ballerina more overtly. Such writings tend to connect the ballerina's erotic appeal directly to the sexual desire of the male spectator. In Henry Harland's short story "P'tit Bleu," one of the more provocative descriptions of a ballerina's performance, the music-hall ballerina evokes a thinly concealed orgasmic response from the narrator:

And she danced with constantly increasing fervor, kicked higher and higher, ever more boldly and more bravely.... With her swift whirlings, her astonishing undulations, and the flashing of red and black and white, one's eyes were dazzled.... My head burned, and my heart yearned covetously.... She danced with constantly increasing fervor, faster, faster, furiously fast: till, suddenly—zip!—down she slid upon the floor, in the grand écart, and sat there (if one may call that posture sitting), smiling calmly up at us, whilst everybody thundered, "Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!"4

Harland takes the sexual connotations of dance into more reified territory; instead of sexual thrills being connoted by touch and proximity between dance partners, they are transferred along erotically charged currents from the dancer to the spectators watching. The eroticism of the dance gives way to a fairly conventional patron-artist relationship between the narrator and P'tit Bleu. But Symons uses similar modes of sexual desire as a catalyst for a more in-depth look at the ritual significance of the modern ballet. This article looks at Symons's notable departure from the insistent feminine coding of dance criticism by turning to the erotic power noted by writers such as Harland. Symons, however, takes the descriptions of eroticism one step further in order to argue for a deeper ritual significance explaining this powerful effect on his typical male spectator.

There have been differing criticisms about the life and work of Arthur Symons, which together offer a complex account of his poetic views. While the most widely known branch of criticism places him squarely alongside his fellow poets of the...


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