It was great delight to attend the Royal Ballet School’s recreation of Ninette de Valois’ experimental study The Arts of the Theatre (1925) to the music of Ravel’s La Valse.  It was the culmination of a project resulting from archivist Anna Meadmore’s exciting discovery of Ursula Moreton’s choreographic notations in the School’s collections.

The evening fell into four parts:  an illustrated talk by Meadmore, followed by an initial performance of the work by five dancers from the Upper School.  Then, after a brief pause, Meadmore interviewed each of the young dancers, sensitively eliciting their individual responses to the work, and taking questions from the online audience.  Finally the dancers danced again, giving us all a second chance to watch a work that had not been performed since 1932.

The Arts of the Theatre was probably commissioned by P.J.S. Richardson for a Sunshine Gala, and offered de Valois an opportunity to experiment and extend her choreographic voice beyond the frame of the commercial theatre.  The work begins with five dancers representing the theatrical arts, Music, Painting, Dancing, Comedy and Tragedy, clustered together stage left, kneeling or lunging with arms outstretched and faces turned downward.  As Ravel’s music seems to breathe life into them they become a seething mass before each one in turn separates herself, dances a pointe solo, and then exits stage right.  Finally they return and dance together before subsiding once again into their original group with the dancer that we now know is Dancing at the centre:  the end is the beginning and they await their next reawakening.

Meadmore’s first task for this project was to transcribe Moreton’s notes, which are not a complete choreographic record; there are omissions, and although there are graphic diagrams there are no adjectives conveying the qualitative aspects of the piece.  She then worked with other members of the Royal Ballet School staff, including pianist Domenica Cardullo, and designer Suzie Holland, alongside the dancers themselves, to arrive at an informed interpretation of what the work may have been like.  It was an exceptional opportunity for the dancers to work with archival resources and participate in a reconstruction project.  Gaps in the choreography were filled by examining de Valois’ other works, paying close attention to the sources of her movement vocabulary and aesthetic, and examining the cultural and artistic influences to which she was subject.  There is no record of Kathleen Dillon’s original designs, and so the stylish costumes for this production were inspired by those for other, contemporaneous, works, using five colours (one for each dancer) carefully modulated to fit the colour palette of the 1920s.

The first dancer, Grace Carroll, as Music (originally Dorothy Coxon’s role), wore a delicious blue and white asymmetrical dress over matching blue footless tights.  Her lovely suspended arabesques en lyre, rippling fingers (like a pianist), hand gestures and circular arm movements conveyed the idea of music-making, and sound-waves.  Viola Pantuso, in green, was Painting (de Valois’ own role).  There were no notes for this dance, and so her generous solo with expansive, swooping bends and was based on motifs from other works including Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Biches and de Valois’ Rout and The Rake’s Progress.  In an elegant touch, a backward bourrée spelled the letters ‘E S’ for Edris Stannus (de Valois’ pre-stage name).  Ava May Llewellyn, dressed in white, followed as Dancing.  This role, for which there were no notes, but which is known from another description to have been ‘flowing and wide’ with high developpés and grands jetés en tournant, had been Molly Lake’s.  As Lake had danced with Anna Pavlova, the recreated solo drew on Pavlova’s surviving work, as well as de Valois’, to convey the feeling of flame-like, flickering movement, and used movements such as the attitude devant with an inward swing from Pavlova’s The Dragonfly.  Rimi Nakano, in yellow, took Margaret Craske’s role as Comedy.  Like a small jester, peeping through her fingers, or chasing a butterfly made of her locked hands, her solo was full of charm, fun and surprises, such as the pas de chat with floppy wrists.  Lastly came Eleonora Ancona, in Moreton’s role of Tragedy.  A Cassandra-like figure, dressed in red, she delivered a dramatic and expressive solo as she splayed her fingers, or twisted and wrung her hands, clasped together in gestures of despair.

It is hard to tell how close (or not) this performance was to the original work, but the reconstruction is important because it goes beyond reconstituting lost steps, and seeks to understand de Valois’ intention, and the artistic forces that informed her work.  It shows that she was innovative (she was the first choreographer to use La Valse), and interested in experimenting with movement styles to express meaning.  On this occasion, the work was performed by dancers trained in very different ways to dancers nearly a hundred years ago.  They had to embody new ways of moving and use alien gestures, such as Comedy rubbing her belly to suggest laughter, with conviction.  The investigation has revealed links between de Valois and the ‘Hellenic’ and ‘natural’ dance movements, and also that Pavlova’s influence on de Valois may have been more significant than recognised hitherto.  The experience was clearly beneficial to the dancers, one of whom remarked that it had helped her dancing in class; it has also shown the value of collaborative dance research between archivists and practitioners, and how by working together, they have much to offer the arts of the theatre.

Maggie Watson

16th May 2021