The Weekly Machen
The following article is significant for it marks Arthur Machen’s first assignment as a contributor with the Evening News, a position he would hold for the next eleven years. Vibrantly, it shows that from the very outset of his tenure at the paper, Machen boldly proclaimed his artistic and spiritual vision. Through art, in this case dance, man may rediscover the secret language which leads to both ecstasy and the recovery of ancient but permanent truth. As his initial column demonstrates, Machen would transcend the narrow confines of common journalism.
Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) was one of the most accomplished and famous dancers of the twentieth century. Footage of her immense talent still survives today.
The “Language” of the Dance:
Anna Pavlova’s Lesson to London
April 22, 1910
There are many languages in the world.
“Certainly,” you may say; “never was truism more obvious. There is English, there is French, there is German, and—not to make a catalogue—there are a hundred-and-fifty languages spoken in the Indian Empire.”
But that is not my meaning. The spoken word varies from country to country, as we all know. But there are other languages which have nothing to do with the spoken word which are universal in their interpretation. We do not usually think of these languages as tongues, we call them architecture, painting, sculpture, music—and dancing. And if one thinks of it one sees that every one of these arts—or “language”—does express in its own way some emotion of the human soul, some passion of the heart, some thought of the mind. A Gothic cathedral, a masterpiece by Raphael, a Greek statue, a fugue of Bach; each of these things is, as it were, a separate voice discoursing in its own tongue of the splendors and mysteries and glories of the human soul and of the universe.
Most people will admit all this—if it be pointed out to them; but the odd thing is that, till quite recently, we had forgotten that dancing was one of the supremest and most beautiful of those “languages” or arts that have been given to humanity. I say that up to a very recent date “dancing” meant the waltz; a social amusement, not a mystery, and a beauty. We have been reminded of late years that the dance as well as the picture and the poem may be, ought to be a symbol of the soul; and now Anna Pavlova and her company are teaching all London this lesson.
At the Palace Theatre
Of these nights the Palace Theatre is a wonderful sight.
From the moment you enter, early in the evening, you feel the sense of expectation and preparation. One “turn” succeeds another. Each is excellent in its way, and each is applauded; but all the while you are reminded of the overture to a great opera.
The curtain rises on a classic scene. Not on gardens of the true and antique Greece, but rather on that world that the eighteenth century thought to be Greek.
There are hanging woods and obscure groves and shining waterpools, and far peaceful distances; here is a flight of marble steps, here the statue of a goddess, here a pillared shrine devoted to the rural deities, and upon this scene, somewhat conventional, a little reminiscent of Mr. Alexander Pope, not altogether unlike Kew Gardens, as seen by a poetic eye, there is exhibited the phantasmagoria of the Russina dancers.
There are, of course, the “set pieces” by the whole strength of the company. The figures in strange, glittering, barbaric costumes glance and shine and dart across the stage as if jewels and precious stones were endowed with life and movements; as if the words of a frantic lyric were to take bodily shape and express themselves visibly before you. The music swells and dies away, quickens and sinks slowly to its close; and the dancers float to and fro, meet and pass one another, are lifted, it seems, into mid-air, then beat the ground with swift, emphatic feet; and all the while a story is being told with an art as vivid as that of the Sicilians.
All this is good; but the audience are waiting for Anna Pavlova and Michael Mordkin. And when they appear one feels that dancing is indeed a language—a speech that has its profound and mystic secrets.
Many years ago I was travelling in the South of France—in that famous, that legendary and beautiful land of Provence.
I went for a walk outside the town of Nimes, and wandered amongst gentile hillsides, by ways where the weeds were thyme and rosemary. The olives, silvery green with the green of the sea near land, grew upon those gentle and swelling hills; as a contrast there were the dark ilex trees, the darker spires of the cypress, and sotted here and there little temples—as they seemed—of shining white. And the sky glowed, a violet blue. The little white temples, I suppose were the summer-houses (and tool-sheds) of worthy, comfortable citizens of Nimes; I daresay that there were many pleasant family parties in these temples; and perhaps stout men, sitting in the classic shade, poured rum into their tea, and pronounced the “five-o’-cloque” an excellent English innovation.
But, all the same, I felt that I had travelled, not so much in space, as in time. Somewhere or other a line had been crossed—and I was in the old world of the the old gods, wandering amongst gardens and olive-groves, where there might be seen at any moment the apparition of the nymphs and the fauns.
And such was the impression that I gathered from the dancing of Madame Pavlova and her companion.
Significance of Nymphs and Fauns
They invented their half-classical scene with a dignity and mystery which it did not in itself possess. There was a dance called “L’Automne Bacchanale” which was in truth a great evocation and incantation. The two figures, garlanded and gracious, advanced and retreated, pursued and fled, rose up in ecstasy and sank down in dying passion, whirled around, around in a dance that had in it all the fervours and joys with which Keats sang of the autumn festivals; and about the figure of the woman floated opaline gauzes, films of pale purples and faded roses, and dim greens that seemed like a picture of some shadowy sunset on a September evening, when the sun is observed before it swims down beneath the mountain, and the rising moon is but the far prophecy of coming light.
And the music swelled and grew and died with strange cadences; and I felt, as I say, that here something of the ancient world had been recovered, that one could understand the secret significance of such worlds as nymph and faun, of all the wonderful fairy-tales in which the old peoples told the truth.
Yes; the truth: the truth that matters. that is of eternal significance to men. There is of course the “scientific” truth: the farmer looks on the autumn fields and estimates so many bushels of corn to the acre; the sportsman finds that the pheasants are strong and healthy; the hunting man thinks that things look promising. But there are other things: there are the secrets of the woods, and the hanging fruits, and the warm mists that veil the hills, and the sunlight that shines on the streams; and it is of these hidden and marvellous secrets that one learns in the dance called “L’Automne Bacchanale.”
The faun and the nymph were not altogether the inventions of childlike and childish men.
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One thought on “The “Language” of the Dance”
Fascinating – thank you! I searched for “L’Automne Bacchanale” and found it was part of Glazunov’s The Seasons – and its Wikipedia article includes a photograph of Anna Pavlova as Bacchante, apparently taken in Berlin in 1913. Her Wikipedia article has a painting of her as Bacchante by John Lavery dated 1911. And the Wikimedia Commons Gallery linked there has yet another photograph of her as Bacchante from 1913 or 1914. So one can get some further sort of still impressions of what Machen saw. On YouTube there is a film of a production of the complete ballet in modern costumes apparently at the Mariinsky Theatre where she danced it in 1907: I take it that the part corresponding to what Machen saw begins at 29:18, though I doubt there is any continuity with the choreography he saw…