|Mirth by William Blake from|
John Milton's “L'Allegro”
In George Balanchine’s great ballet Apollo, choreographed to one of Stravinsky’s most ravishing scores, we see the god summon three Muses to assist in the invention of dance. One of these is Calliope, Muse of epic poetry; her presence stands as a symbol of the fact that choreographers have many times drawn on poems for themes to be developed into dances. Without giving an exhaustive catalogue, I’ll begin by mentioning Le Corsaire, based on Byron’s narrative poem and choreographed by Petipa in 1899. There is Fokine’s Le Spectre de la rose, drawn from a lyric by Théophile Gautier, as well as Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un faune from 1912, which was inspired by the Mallarmé poem. And that same theme was thoughtfully updated in the early 1950s by Jerome Robbins in a work for the New York City Ballet. A few years earlier, Robbins had choreographed The Age of Anxiety, a ballet based on a dialogic long poem by W. H. Auden. Stepping back a decade, recall Martha Graham’s Letter to the World of 1941, whose title comes from the first line of Dickinson’s poem, “This is my letter to the World/That never wrote to me,—”. The work has two characters, named simply “The One Who Dances” and “The One Who Speaks,” the latter reading passages from Dickinson in the course of the dance. From the same years is Graham’s Appalachian Spring, choreographed to one of Aaron Copland’s most vital scores and drawing part of its inspiration from a passage in Hart Crane’s “The Dance”:
O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bendsAnd northward reaches in that violet wedgeOf Adirondacks!
We’re also concerned here with the complementary question, how poetry has drawn on dance—as religious ritual, performance art, or a popular pastime—for subject matter and for aesthetic cues. A vast topic, because the association of the two arts is as old as the Western tradition. Only think of the Psalms, the Bible’s most ringing praise songs—for example, Psalm 149, which exclaims, “Let them praise his name in the dance: let them sing praises unto him with the timbrel and harp.” Or, to turn to Greek tradition, recall (from Book 18 of the Iliad) the description of the shield that Hephaistos makes for Achilles. Among the subjects sculpted on it is an elaborate scene of dancing, with young men and women engaged a choral performance described this way: “At whiles on their understanding feet they would run very lightly,/as when a potter crouching makes trial of his wheel, holding/it close in his hands, to see if it will run smooth. At another/time they would form rows, and run, rows crossing each other./And around the lovely chorus of dancers stood a great multitude/happily watching, while among the dancers two acrobats/led the measures of song and dance revolving among them.” [Richmond Lattimore, trans., ll. 570-72; and ll. 599-605]