Ballet of the Nations

A thought-provoking film, released to coincide with the centenary of the Armistice in November 1918, in which war is imagined as a diabolical dance choreographed by Satan and Ballet Master Death is currently touring the UK, including several performances in and around Bristol.

Ballet of the Nations is based on the pacifist writings of poet and writer Vernon Lee (1856-1935) published under the same title, richly illustrated by the acclaimed artist Maxwell Armfield, in 1915 – a year after the start of the Great War.

The project, which has received funding from Arts Council England, was organised and initiated by Dr Grace Brockington from the University of Bristol’s Department of History of Art based on her research and interest in the works of Vernon Lee.

The film is produced by Bristol-based dance/theatre company Impermanence and it is hoped will provide a focus for debate about conflict, trauma and the legacies of the First World War.

Dr Brockington said: “Lee’s text imagines war as a diabolical dance which degenerates into a massacre, choreographed by Satan and Death, and locking the nations of the world into an endless cycle of slaughter and mutilation.

“The book still challenges readers through its analysis of the psychology of war and the ways in which people can be seduced into violence; and through its accurate prediction that the First World War would generate yet more conflict, despite the expectation that it would be ‘the war to end all war’.

“It also presents a performance challenge because the dance which Lee so graphically imagined was never actually staged. It was our ambition to bring her project to fruition by staging the first dance adaptation of her book.”

Lee’s publication was rooted in a culture of experimental performance that developed in Britain during the war, against the grain of mainstream theatre, and often in sympathy with the wartime peace movement.

The new production reanimates that world of movement, using the evidence of archives, art works, footage, photographs and illustrated books to develop a richly textured evocation of the wartime ‘little theatre’ movement.

The film – narrated by actor Billy Zane, who featured in the 90s blockbuster Titanic - begins with Satan and Ballet Master Death discussing how to reintroduce chaos into a complacent society. Satan instructs Ballet Master Death to assemble an orchestra of human passions to provide the music for a corps de ballet of Nations to perform the dance macabre of war.

What follows is the assembly of the orchestra, filmed in the atmospheric cavernous tunnels beneath Bristol Temple Meads. Following this assembly, we see the core Nations perform their dance, joined by a larger cohort of Nations for the final act, Revenge. The film is interspersed with danced sections performed by a Chorus, evocative of the choric elements of classical Greek tragedy.

The project’s historical dimension will be augmented via an online exhibition curated by Dr Brockington, at the Paul Mellon Centre (PMC), the London branch of the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA), though its open-access, online journal British Art Studies ( BAS ). After the promotional tour, the film will be instated as the centre-point of the exhibition.

The project benefits from partners including The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The University of Bristol’s Brigstow Institute and The Unity Theatre Trust. A full list of tour dates is available here.