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OUR STAGE AND ITS CRITICS
BY Edward Fordham SPENCE
OF “THE WESTMINSTER GAZETTE”
The Skirts of the Drama
A case lately came on for trial in Paris relating to a quarrel that arose a long time ago. Incidentally, it may be observed that “the law’s delay” is even greater in France than over here, where, indeed, until the most august regions of the courts are reached procedure is comparatively rapid, and on the Chancery side cases are tried as hats are ironed, “while you wait.” The question in Paris raises one of importance, but in itself is mere matter for merriment.
Mademoiselle Sarcy sued her manager because he tried to make her depart from traditions; and, although she is a prima ballerina, required her to wear flowing petticoats in the ballet of Hérodiade. The matter stirred Paris prodigiously.
With us, of course, the ballet has cea sed to be of importance . In Mademoiselle Genée we had a dancer as well entitled to immortality as those about whom our fathers raved, and Russian dancers of brilliance have appeared, but opera and the legitimate theatre pay no attention to ballet except at pantomime season; and whilst probably the average keen playgoer of Paris is acquainted with the names of the orthodox steps, and is aware that in the ballet one begins as petit rat, then becomes a quadrille ballerina, develops into a coryphée, blossoms into a minor subject, grows into a subject, and eventually emerges and reaches the stars as a prima ballerina, few of us know anything about the subject.
The whole fight in Paris raged round the question whether, regardless of period or nation or style of music, the prima ballerina is entitled to wear the scanty parasol skirt and petticoats in which she delights. The ladies of the ballet, with modern tradition on their side, resent any alteration in costume. The matter is not one of propriety in the ordinary sense of the word; the propriety of ballet costumes is out of the range of rational discussion. No one can doubt that if we had never seen anything but ordinary society drama and a ballet were launched at us in customary costume the police courts would take up the matter.
It is even known that there was a time (not Sir Henry’s) when the Lord Chamberlain interfered at the Lyceum and was defeated by ridicule. Custom has settled the question of propriety, and it may be confidently asserted that it never occurs to the mind of the prima ballerina that any human being could regard her costume as indelicate. The trouble in Paris was that, despite the wish of the other persons concerned in the ballet, the star insisted upon proving lavishly to the public that she did not resemble the traditional Queen of Spain. She went further: she demanded her pound of flesh-or padding-she wished to exhibit what in technical slang is called le tutu, a term descriptive of the abbreviated costume and possessed also of a secondary meaning, which may be imagined by taking the ordinary tourist’s pronunciation of the words and translating it. Trilby’s “the altogether” in connexion with tights explains the matter.
The question is one of art, and here lies its humour. It is not physical vanity on the part of the ladies, for they know that sculptors would hardly choose as subjects the lower portion of women whose legs have been over-developed by a training so arduous that it is found almost impossible to get English girls to go through with it. But-and here’s the rub-the dancer has a respect for her craft, which, like the actor’s devotion to his art, tends to produce erroneous ideas, and this is why the fight has taken place.
At the bottom, it becomes a question of virtuosity. Art has suffered appallingly in every branch from the mania for cultivation of dexterity in accomplishment. To the prima ballerina the dancing is more important than the dance, to the actors the playing than the play, to many painters the facture than the picture, and so on. Music has been the main sufferer, particularly on the vocal side, and certain kinds of opera have been buried under the vocal acrobatics of the singers. One sees occasionally in shop windows, and, it may be, in human habitations, a species of abominable clock that has no kind of casing to conceal the works; it suggests the image of a prima ballerina. With the perfectly modest immodesty of the little boy cited in discussion by Laurence Sterne, she delights in exhibiting the works; more truthfully than a once famous conjuror, she insists upon showing us “how it is done”; and that really is quite the last thing a person of any taste wishes to know, or, rather, desires to have forced upon him.
Obviously, it is the duty of everyone who pretends to be educated to have some acquaintance with the mechanics of the different branches of art, but he does not want to be taught in public. Unfortunately the performer displays a natural desire to show his own cleverness rather than that of the dramatist. He treats himself as the cart when he is only the-horse.
Drama has suffered severely from this; indeed, in our theatres we have
reached the topsy-turvydom of having the dramatist write for the players instead
of having the players act for the dramatist. Sterile art is the general outcome.
A great form of architecture perished with the architect who, forgetful of noble
design, indulged in desperate tours de force and offered to the stonemason
the opportunity of executing miracles in stone lacework.
Dancing has stood still since the dancers have gyrated frantically in order to prove their mechanical dexterity, and drama is in the doldrums because the players, with the assistance of the press, have induced the public to regard their performance as more important than the work which it is their duty to represent. The last statement is becoming inaccurate. It is hardly extravagant to say that when a play is written at the dictation of an actor the acting will be more important than the piece, for but little good work comes out of drama concocted under such circumstances.
The dancers are really dancing on the ruins of their art. They have lessened their skirts and their popularity at the same time. Old pictures show (and I believe that old measurements are preserved to indicate the fact) that in the days of the famous pas de quatre-not, of course, the one at the Gaiety-skirts were worn far longer than the modern tutu.
The costume of the prima ballerina assoluta in our grandfather’s days was something like an umbrella and a pair of braces: the umbrella shrank to the en-tout-cas, and the en-tout-cas to the open parasol; unless the movement is arrested, in the course of time a lampshade will be reached, and ultimately, say, fifty years hence, the Genée of the period will have nothing more of skirt and petticoat than some kind off ringe round the waist, indicating, like our coccygeal vertebrae, or the rudimentary limbs of the whale, a mere useless atrophied apparatus.
It was once possible for the poses and movements of the dancer to be graceful-the phrase “the poetry of motion” had a meaning. With the stiff tutu sticking out almost at right angles, elegance is quite impossible. The present “star” resembles in outline one of the grotesques used by Hogarth to illustrate his theories in his “Analysis of Beauty,” and one is inclined to laugh at her awkwardness when she walks; nor is it easy to admire when she whirls round like a dancing dervish, the tutu mounting higher and becoming more and more rectangular the faster she goes.
Mlle. Genée, delicious and graceful, in some flowing character-costume, and
then ridiculous in the tutu that she adores, proved this more than any amount of
written explanation. She was such a great performer, so perfect in mechanism, so
harmonious from little foot to dainty head, so brilliant in her miming, that one
was forced to say sorrowfully “Et tu-tu, Genée.” Unfortunately the virtuoso
mania is irresistible, and, so far as graceful dancing is concerned, there is no
hope that we may see such a pas de quatre as won fame in the palmy days of the
ballet; we have reached the reign of the pas du tutu, and, almost wish we had
arrived at the pas du tout.
During the last few years there has been a great stir in the dancing world. Some time ago Isadora Duncan gave a private exhibition at the New Gallery of certain dances in a style intended to be a revival of old Greek dancing.
A little later Miss Ruth St Denis presented in public some strange, quite beautiful, performances consisting of dancing, miming and posturing supposed to suggest ideas of Indian life, and her finely restrained, truly artistic work deeply impressed both the critics and audiences.
Afterwards came Miss Maud Allan, alleged-no matter with what degree of truth-to be an imitator of Isadora Duncan, and she made a great “hit,” her most popular performance being a “Salome” dance, which was considered by some people to be indecent. Certainly of her costume the French phrase “qui commence trop tard et finit trop tôt” might justly be used, for she carried nudity on the stage to a startling degree. In a good many other dances her work was rather pretty and quite unobjectionable, but vastly inferior to the art of Isadora Duncan or Ruth St Denis.
The theatrical season of 1908 ended in a blaze of-dancing. At what is generally deemed about the dullest moment in the year Isadora Duncan appeared at the Duke of York’s Theatre, and kept it open and well attended for almost a month. The affair is unique in the history of our theatre. One can imagine a playhouse running on the basis of a big ballet, with a story, popular music, magnificent scenery, gorgeous costumes, huge corps de ballet, half-a-dozen principals and immense advertisement. In this case we have had more or less isolated dances to music generally severe; for scenery only a background of subtle yellow, taking strange tones under the influence of different lights; for costumes only some beautiful, tranquil, simple Greek drapery; for corps de ballet a few children; for principals one woman, with an intelligent face, but certainly no great beauty; and in the way of advertisement very little, except some honestly enthusiastic press notices, and fortunately nothing in the form of photographs of nudities or half-nudities.
There has been a triumph of pure art under austere conditions, such as can
hardly be recollected on our stage, unless in the case of Everyman-pure art akin
to the theatrical, indeed parent of the drama. The word histrionic is derived
through the Latin from an Etruscan word which means “to leap” and was originally
applied to dancers.
Historically, the matter is interesting. Drama began in dance and developed from it, dance and drama going hand-in-hand for a long while; then a separation came, and dance has tended more and more to become meaningless and conventional, and, in the chief school of dancing, purely technical. The Spanish school is still alive, reinforced by the North African, and in the main showing some tendency, often perfectly restrained, towards the indecent. Our own step-dancing remains popular, and for a while the hybrid skirt-dancing triumphed, chiefly because of the genius of Kate Vaughan and talent of her successors, one of whom, Katie Seymour, worked out a clever individual compound of styles.
The “Classic” school, classic in quite a secondary sense, which has been represented by what one can conveniently call the ballet, year after year has worked towards its extinction by the over-cultivation of mere technique, of execution rather than imagination.
The greatest artist of this school in our times is Genée; natural grace, a
piquant individuality, and a fine power of miming, have lent charm to work the
foundation of which is really acrobatic, and consists of remarkable feats made
too manifest by an abominably ugly costume.
Isadora Duncan goes back in style to the early Greek; dancing, however, necessarily to more modern music, for the reason that we do not know how to reproduce much of the old, and possibly would not like it if we could. To her work one may apply the phrase of Simonides, that “dancing is silent poetry.” Preferable is the term that has been used concerning architecture: Schelling, in his “Philosophie der Kunst,” calls it “frozen music,” a term ridiculed by Madame de Staël. Peter Legh wrote a book on the topic, published in 1831, with the title “The Music of the Eye.” The book is poor, pretentious stuff, but the title seems nicely applicable to the dancing of Isadora Duncan. To a deaf man her work would be entirely musical-to a Beethoven or Robert Franz, deaf after, for a while, full enjoyment of sound, her dances would, I believe, represent complete, delightful, musical impressions. It may be that sometimes in her work she attempts impossible subtleties, endeavouring to express ideas beyond the range of melody-for it is difficult to imagine that any dancing can be more than expressive of melody, though no doubt to make this true “melody” must be understood in a large sense. How far away this is from dancing which consists in the main of executing more or less complicated steps “in time” with the music, or such appalling vulgarities as a cake-walk. It must be admitted that one of the Tanagra figurines is sadly suggestive of a characteristic pose in the cake-walk-though it may well be that it is a mere pose which led to none of the abominations with which our stage has been deluged! In the case of Isadora Duncan we have seen poses and movements of extraordinary beauty, exquisitely sympathetic with fine music. No doubt occasionally she has made a concession, as on her first night, when she danced to “The Blue Danube” waltz by way of an encore, putting, however, her own interpretation on the music and her sense of it. Those who are acquainted with Greek sculpture and with some of the classic drawings of the old masters will see that to a very large extent her work is a revival rather than an invention; but this fact-which she acknowledges-in no degree diminishes the merit of her performances, for the execution is of wonderful beauty and the application of the old ideas to music of a different type is very clever. Her work alone has well repaid the audiences, many members of which have made several visits to the theatre; it has, however, been supplemented by dances in which young children were the performers, dances so pretty in conception and delightful in execution that one has felt the whole house thrilling with pleasure. Nothing like these children dances, nothing of the kind half as charming, has been given on the stage in our day.
The one complaint possible against Isadora Duncan is that she has rendered us immoderately dissatisfied with what had once moderately contented us; and the fear is that we shall promptly have a host of half-baked imitators, who will copy the mere accidentals of her system without understanding the essentials, and will fancy that the whole matter is one of clothes and music, and prance about bare-legged, meaninglessly. It is hard to see how this is to be avoided until there has been time for her pupils to grow up; it is certain, however, that if the new idea, the new-old idea, takes root, there will be a revolution in dancing, which may have far-reaching effects. Drama of the strictly intellectual type will remain unaffected; possibly there will be a new development of the musico-dramatic. It has been suggested that musical comedy is waning, and the period has been reached when the average piece of this class spells failure. There is, of course, nothing in the work of Isadora Duncan which limits it to one principal, and naught to prevent the combination of singing and dancing. Off-hand it seems rash to suggest that spoken dialogue could be harmonized with these. It is imaginable that the authors of Prunella could see their way to combine with work somewhat on the lines of their charming piece such ideas of dancing as have been suggested by Isadora Duncan. The result should be a novel, delightful form of art, not necessarily hybrid.
After Isadora Duncan’s public performances came the deluge and the country was flooded with women indecently unclad, who flapped about on the stage displaying their persons and their incompetence lavishly. The authorities have been very lax as regards such performances, many of which were so obviously crude and clumsy that it was clear that a succès de scandale was sought deliberately. Of course some of the performers may have had merit. Later on (in 1910) there arrived some brilliant Russian dancers whose work is of too great value and importance to be dealt with in a single paragraph.
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