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Related stories
South West tour notes
Dante Sonata: an echo of the heart
Kit Holder on Small Worlds
Small Worlds: Helen Fownes-Davies' costume designs
Frederick Ashton
The history of Elite Syncopations

What's on

South-West tour spring 2008

Everyman Theatre
29 - 30 April 2008
The Lighthouse
2 - 3 May 2008
Northcott Theatre
6 - 7 May 2008
Hall for Cornwall
9 - 10 May 2008

Click here for a full diary of performances and links for how to book.

Full performance diary

Click here for performance listings.

Dante Sonata: An Echo of the Heart

One of the first ballets I saw, on discovering dance as a schoolboy in the early 1940s, was Dante Sonata, and I still remember the effect it had on me.

With air raids, rationing, campaigns on land and convoys at sea, the war could never be far from our thoughts, and here was a work proving that ballet could sum up all the anguish of the time, at least as well and maybe better than any of the other arts. There was nothing propagandist about it; unlike the patriotic ballet about Saint George which Ashton was persuaded to make later in the war, based on Spenser's The Faerie Queene (a very dull piece).

Dante Sonata was overwhelming, however often I managed to see it. After all this time, in very different circumstances, how does the piece stand up?

Well, have wars ever gone out of fashion? And anyway, the feelings of the time had been widened to cover all kinds of torment and shame. This was a ballet of real power about abiding and universal sorrows.

It was made in the first few months of World War II. When Germany started that conflict by invading Poland in September 1939, a man of Frederick Ashton's age, about 35, could not help realising the terrible implications for death and destruction. Less than 21 years had passed since World War I and, although Ashton had been in South America while that lasted, he then arrived in a land where most families had experience of death and injury. More recently, the horrors of wars in Ethiopia and Spain had been all over the British press.

Air raids were imminently expected, and battles by land and sea. In fact there came first a short respite (the so-called 'phony war') while Germany concentrated on eastern Europe, but Ashton did experience an immediate effect on his work because London theatres closed. The way he and the Vic-Wells Ballet's music director Constant Lambert found to keep the company together was to arrange an improvised tour of regional cities, with only two pianos for accompaniment, and the dancers' pay dependent on the box office takings. (Ninette de Valois stayed in London looking after her GP husband's medical practice, because his partner had been conscripted.)

The dancers gave nine performances a week instead of their usual three; travel (on their one 'free day') was uncomfortable and difficult, digs poor and food worse. In spite of this, the new ballet was devised and rehearsed during the tour, and given its premiere in January 1940 when the company was able to return for a month to Sadler's Wells.

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