Ballet Imperial

Article excerpt

`So everything, in its ruin, seems in England to live a new life; and it is only this second life, this cottage built in the fallen stronghold, that is English'. (1) Writing during the First World War, it is not surprising that the American philosopher, George Santayana, should indicate the end of English predominance. Yet his point is that the English have always been like this. The base of power, the geographical nation itself, is on such a small scale that even in its grandest ventures, Santayana suggests, there has always been something essentially domestic and familial about English motives and conduct. The nation's intention was not to assert some abstract ideal of power, but to extend `home' throughout the world. Conversely, when the English imported ideas and styles from abroad, they broke them down to fit the English sense of things. In architecture, the `military, religious, or civic' significations of French and Italian design were copied by the English, but with a new subordination of part to part: the Englishman's castle was homely.

Santayana was dealing in cliches. England had long been seen as quaintly venerable by American visitors. One detects the strong influence on Santayana, as on so many others, of Washington Irving's cosily picturesque Sketch Book (1819-20). There is a pleasurable lamentation over the decline of England, signalling as it does the rise of America. Equally, while the sense of ancientness is perhaps an aspect of every empire's claim to legitimacy, the balance between past and present shifts when decline sets in. The present becomes harder and less rewarding, while the past expands and develops. Santayana's vision of England as the `cottage built in the fallen stronghold' was one that would become increasingly recognizable to the English themselves. But what about the `second life', of the `cottage built in the fallen stronghold'? What cultural forms were used to maintain the guise of power after the real power had gone? One increasingly important sign of this domestic or feminine afterlife of empire was, I will argue, the rise of English ballet. There is a great deal to be written of the connections here, taking in the gender and aspirations of such pivotal figures as Ninette de Valois and Marie Rambert, as well as the regal self-effacements of `princess ballerinas' such as Markova and Fonteyn, and the softening of manner that would define the English balletic style. There is also the thematic and symbolic content of the repertory, from the ironic pretence of Ashton's Facade in 1931 to the revival of The Sleeping Beauty in 1939. Further, one needs to look at the contemporary critical response, and the composition and reactions of the audience. I touch on all of these things in what follows. But the cultural function of ballet between the wars, and especially in relation to Englishness and gender, is conveniently brought into focus by a novel for children that, although a `classic', has received little critical attention. Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes, set in the early 1930s and published in 1936, offers a remarkable commentary on post-imperial decline and, more particularly, on the feminization of national identity that ensued. First, though, what of ballet, power, and femininity?

The ballet aesthetic has always turned on a paradox of self-projection and self-effacement. The dancer's body is a customized body, in that it is made over to particular designs. With the `turn out' from the hips and the centring of movement and balance in the small of the back, it is a body that is at once powerful and erect, but deliberately and completely vulnerable to the gaze of the audience. For `turn out' flattens the profile, making more of the dancer available to the looks and desires of the viewer. It also enables the dancer to move quickly in any direction without elaborate preparation, and in this respect it emphasizes and makes visible the fact that the body is also made over to the demands of the score and choreography. …