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South West tour notes
Dante Sonata: an echo of the heart
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Frederick Ashton
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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

It was very different from anything Ashton had done before. His thoughts were not only about what he later described as 'the whole stupidity and devastation of war', but also of his mother's death just a few weeks earlier. He picked Dante¹s poem The Inferno as a starting-point, and Constant Lambert proposed that for the score he should orchestrate Liszt's piano Fantaisie, quasi Sonate, itself inspired by Victor Hugo's 'D'après une lecture de Dante' (After reading Dante). Hence the title, Dante Sonata.

Illustrations to Dante's poem, in particular those of John Flaxman, provided inspiration for some elements of choreography as well as the stark designs by Ashton's trusted collaborator Sophie Fedorovitch. The ballet showed, according to its brief original programme note (anonymous, but I would guess by Lambert) 'the warring attitudes of two different groups of equally tortured spirits' afterwards designated Children of Light and Children of Darkness. The first group, led by Margot Fonteyn, Pamela May and Michael Somes, were all in white; the others were often described as wearing black costumes but in fact only the women's skirts were black, and the snakes which curled round the bodies of their leaders, Robert Helpmann and June Brae. A few simple lines provided the backcloth.

Sombre, impassioned and highly dramatic in its movement, Dante Sonata was a tremendous success, and within a few years received over 300 performances. The critic P.W. Manchester wrote that 'it has a dreadful relevance that finds an echo in all our hearts' and, after seeing it dozens or scores of times, that she had never known the cast fail to respond fully to the emotional power of the music.

There was some criticism about the inclusion of an erotic undertone and about the images of crucifixion that occurred more than once, but I never thought that these jarred in their context (and Flaxman's drawings may have helped inspire them). Nobody seems to have worried about the use of bare feet, unfamiliar though that was at the time. One of the most memorable solos was the one created for Pamela May, running in a tormented rhythm with hair, hands and body all moving in desperation. Fonteyn and Somes danced as if in a mixture of shame and hope, while Helpmann exulted in the sinister power of his malevolence.

Compelling as the individual contributions were, this was above all an ensemble piece, one that gripped its dancers and its audience in a passion of emotion. Unseen for half a century, it was often in my thoughts as a work that ought to challenge and reward new generations; now can we all live up to it?


John Percival is a freelance dance critic and author of several books on dance and dancers.

Birmingham Royal Ballet perform Dante Sonata as part of the 2008 tour of the South-West. Click here for more information.
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