A D R I A N  S T O K E S


Stokes - the Balletomane

by Matthew Springett

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Leonide Massine, circa 1935.
Leonide Massine, circa 1935.

Adrian Stokes and the Ballet

Part 2 only of Matthew Springett's dissertation is published here


Richard Wollheim, to whom we owe much of our understanding on Stokes, sees his criticism in terms of two major components, a love of art and the influence of psychoanalysis.1 Stokes’ writing on the ballet is no exception. In his opening lines he declares his manifesto to convey to the reader his passion for ballet:

I try to communicate in this book my passion for watching ballet. I attempt to induce all those who love theatre and who have not seen the ballet to go at once.2

And the ideas of psychoanalysis are given as an explanation of the ‘deeper root of ballet’s glamour’:3

To explain the glamour of the theatre as a whole, I should say that it resides in this: the projection of man’s interior physical and mental life into terms of the outside world, and particularly into terms of man’s exterior, of appearance and the movement of the body.4

To-Night the Ballet (June 1934) comes when Stokes was involved in a period of intense creativity and writing. He had published his first mature work, The Quattro Cento (1932), was writing The Stones of Rimini (Part of which was published in 'From The Tempio' Criterion, XII, October 1933) and while standing in for Antony Blunt as the art critic at the Spectator he wrote: 'Mr. Ben Nicholson's Painting' (27th October 1933) 'Miss Hepworth’s Carving's' (3rd November 1933); 'Mr. Henry Moore's Sculpture' (10th November 1933); and 'Matisse and Picasso' (24th November 1933). During this time he wrote a review of Klein's The Psychoanalysis of Children (1932). By the end of 1937 he would have completed his third major book, Colour and Form (1937).5 To-Night the Ballet, in coming mid-way through this five year period of productivity, contributed to the development of his theory of art - and most particularly that of 'Carving' and later 'Modelling'.

To-Night the Ballet expounds Stokes theory of the ballet, whereas his other book on the subject, Russian Ballets (1935), 6 presents a specific critique on a number of examples. For this reason, much of what I have to say will depend upon the former title. The other writing on ballet which I have had access to is A Note on Abstract or Symphonic Ballet (1951),7 but this broadly reiterates the arguments of the earlier 1934 book.

In the first part of the initial version of this text I looked at Stokes intense engagement with environment and most particularly architecture as the primary construct of environment. In this part it is my contention that for Stokes both the ballet and architecture achieve comparable effects.

It is obvious to say that ballet and the stage space in general as an external object is capable of facilitating projections of inner phantasies, and as such achieves comparable effects to those of architecture. Ballet, however, achieves a particular kind of projection. The pleasure that Stokes derives from the ballet is evident throughout To-Night the Ballet. Ballet is for Stokes an externalisation that creates a sense of well being. It is akin to the art and architecture of Italy and is the antithesis of the urban landscape of Hyde Park.

What is it in ballet that Stokes finds so appealing? If this question can be answered then it may throw light on his theory of art in general. I have identified a number of themes that I want now to consider each in turn.



The Stage


Stokes encourages us to think of the stage as more than simply a flat surface on which the dancers move. He describes it as a ‘box’. He is referring to the traditional proscenium arch theatre in which an audience is placed facing towards a stage that is divided from them by an open archway. When the audience first enter the theatre a curtain is drawn across the arch. The opening of the curtain as the ballet begins suggests that we be invited to look in upon another world:

It is perhaps a house in section, like a doll’s house when the façade has been taken off. We see the life that goes on inside: every detail is revealed to us.8

Every member of the audience is focused on the space behind the proscenium arch. The life inside is not just that of the dancers but includes everything within the box - bodies, space, movement, and music. The space is not merely air, but a substance in which the performers move:

If we are sitting in the front stalls we scent and feel the air of the stage when the curtain goes up. The dancer makes of that air a thing that seems tangible to us. The stage is not a mere flat floor. It is all that lies behind the proscenium arch: it is a box with small apertures on the flanks, the mice-holes from which the dancers come before us.9

Stokes sees a deeper significance to this ‘box’. He reminds us that classical building are based upon the geometrical proportions of the human form, and claims that square buildings suggest the structure of the human body:

To a less degree all square buildings, I think, exhibit a humanism of this kind, for they reflect in geometrical form the most general aspect of our awareness of our own bodies, conscious as we are of possessing a front and a back with arms and ears at the sides.10

He sees the box of the stage in proportion to the surface of the human body, and therefore the contents within it as representing inner processes of the body:

The audience who gaze at the dancers in the stage’s rectangular box lying open to them, enjoy in fantasy the inner processes as tangible objects, that is to say, enjoy as tangible objects that are beautifully arranged, the ceaseless unconscious life inside the body.11

Behind the proscenium arch is a life in which we project ourselves and make order out of inner bodies.

The association between external forms and internal objects has a parallel in Melanie Klein’s work. Klein points out that humans in everyday speech tend to speak of parts of their body in the third person, so for example when stubbing your toe you might say, "Oh my poor foot" rather than, "Poor me". Parts of our body are given almost individual status. One famous example is of an adult patient who nursed the different organs of his body. He described the ailments of his throat, his chest, his nose, his ears, etc., and which medication he gave to each. It was as though he was nursing close friends rather than himself. Klein said of him, ‘The internal objects (organs and parts of his body) experienced very concretely as actual little people inside him, are looked after physically, like ill members of his family."12

It is this concept of internal objects as approaching the status of external objects that supports Klein’s theory that it is the relationship of the individual with external objects that leads to our conception of our inner world. Ballet provides external images that are at the same time human forms, which makes ballet a particularly poignant example of an external imagery of internal objects. Stokes realises this poignancy when he concludes the first chapter in To-Night the Ballet; ‘The painter’s imagination has not bred images, but human beings as images.’13

Stokes perception of ‘tangible objects... beautifully arranged’ representing the ‘unconscious life inside the body’ depends on ballets’ ability to represent not only the surface of the body in the geometrical square ‘box’ of the stage, but the objects beneath the skins surface. Space, bodies, and music are the externalisation of internal objects. This is just the same function that architecture as a body carries out in the street. It is part of a ‘mise-en-scène’. In the last chapter I used the example of the barrel-organ story to demonstrate the primacy of architecture, but perhaps a more accurate description would be the primacy of bodies. In the street those bodies are ‘passers by’, ‘traffic’ and architecture; on the stage they are dancers, scenery and music.

In both the ‘street’ and the stage ‘box’, space itself is accorded significance. In the ballet Stokes says of space, ‘When I watch a ballet … I am acutely conscious that this rectangular space of the stage is assaulted from every side. [His italics] Three arts direct their searchlights on this space.’14 The three arts that assault it are visual scenery, movement and music. Each assaults the space. Ballet’s particular attraction within the theatre is explained for Stokes by its ‘assault on space’.

Dancing is specifically an assault upon space, an assault of love, a similar assault to that of the carver upon his stone … ballet is the most spectacular mode of assaulting space.15

The importance of the assault on space for ballet is reiterated in Russian Ballets.16 Stokes also makes a reference to it in the index of the latter book under ‘Carving’.17 Stokes writing on artists such as Hepworth and Moore, who were absorbed with the ‘direct engagement of the medium’, can be seen to influence his writings on ballet. His description of the dancers assaulting their medium, space, aligns ballet with his Carving tradition. The dancers have a strong affinity for the space in which they move, just as the Carver is ‘stone struck’.

Stokes conceives of the theatre as an externalisation of the inner world. Just as the barrel-organ gathers together piecemeal and rhythmless projections in the street, so in the theatre the combination of music, movement, bodies and space generate a sense of well being. They gather together the part-objects and restore the ‘destroyed mother’ making a whole. All the parts of the street are fractured until brought together by the barrel organ. In the ballet music, movement bodies and space are a ‘milieu’ to recreate, project and introject a permanently restored whole mother.


The Edges of Form


Stokes has a particular place for the edges of forms within his writing. It is my contention that these edges are for Stokes like the surface of the body. They are the skin that delimits the border of the inner world; the perimeter where the self meets the outer world. They are significant for without them we cannot distinguish between the individual and the ‘otherness’ of things. The awareness of the edge, or surface, of the body is a vital aspect of recognising whole objects. The paranoid-schizoid position can be understood as the absence of this edge, and hence the perception of omnipotence.

Thus, the importance for Stokes is the realisation in the external world of the edges of things since they give rise to the concept of whole objects and hence the depressive position. The integrated mind is achieved through the process of reparation. As outlined in chapter one the paranoid position involves reparation, which is seen by Klein, and accepted by Stokes, as a driving force behind creativity. External objects are representatives of those damaged objects inside. Once restored and made whole they can be internalised as repaired internal objects. Reparation can only occur once whole objects -- those with edges -- can be projected and introjected.

The geometrical edge of the stage ‘box’ delimit the surface of an integrated whole object. It can easily be equated to the surface of the body, since the contents of the box are explicitly related to internal objects. Thus the stage facilitates the projection and introjection of whole objects. External objects on the stage can be the representatives of internal damaged objects. They are restored in the ballet, and then internalised as repaired internal objects. This cannot occur, however, until whole objects are recognised in the depressive position, for which edges are a vital component.

Stephen Kite’s explanation of the genesis of Stokes’ aesthetic in the urban landscape of Hyde Park is relevant here, since an awareness of the edges of things can be detected from Stokes’ descriptions in Inside Out. An obvious edge is the railings of Hyde Park, they are a perimeter that both excludes and protects:

The railings were cruel, I think, because of the tramps who sat on seats outside, in waste-paper and drowsy filth: and whatever was railed within the park, suggested a burning-cold, a searing prohibition against those who would slink away into the iron ivyness of copse or plantation.

Here Stokes views the park from the depressive position, but has not yet found a sense of well being since he has not restored the mother. External objects are projections of inner ferment. The urban landscape within Hyde Park is the representative of internal damage that has not yet been repaired. The railings exclude the tramps, which are projections of bad objects that Stokes wishes to exclude from the body. The objects railed within the park represent the dangers phantasised to come from within the body. Stokes interprets his experience of the urban landscape of Hyde Park through psychoanalytical explanations of ‘bad’ objects phantasised as being both within and without the body. This notion of within and without the body is made possible by the recognition of the surface of the body as a border between two distinct worlds. The railings are the projected image of this concept of the mind, as is the geometrical stage ‘box’. Except in the latter case the projected internal objects are repaired and internalised aiding the development of the integrated mind.


The Harmony of Music and Movement


Stokes uses the word harmony specifically so as not to confuse the relationship between music and movement with interpretation of, or identity with, each other.

The connection between music and action … should be one of harmony rather than of identity.18

Stokes gives a vivid example of a contemporary silent film Tabu by Flaherty. In it an indian chief arrives in a European ship at a small pacific island where the indigenous people come out to meet him in small boats and canoes. They ride the torrid sea accompanied by the music of Smetena’s Moldau. The point is that while the music interprets the waters of a European river as a representation of the eddies and flows of European history, the action is that of a south pacific indigenous people that are in no way related to the colder climate of northern Europe. By their difference, however, they find a harmony in synchronisation that amounts to more than the sum of their individual parts:

The music does not merely accompany the charade, but … gives it a further raison d’être.19

One supports the other and creates a very wide field of interpretation for the mind to play with:

The reinforcement of an image by elements snatched from entirely different conditions, coincidences that form a definite whole, and the fact of their coincidence, stimulate the imagination enormously, provide an entire shelter for the spirit each time the experience is repeated.20

Stokes considers the ballet a superlative example of this combination of music and movement. The movement is not an interpretation of the music, or vice-versa, but complimentary elements brought together that add to one another. Both the music and the movement have their own qualities that do not necessitate the other, however, when placed together they form a whole, which to be realised does necessitate each part. Although there is a difference between each element together they create another identity.

One of the few things that Stokes singles out to have learnt from Oxford is the idea of ‘identity-in-difference’ as outlined by one of his tutors, F. H. Bradley, in Appearance and Reality. In short, ‘identity in difference’ is the idea that differences may exist between things when considered as separate entities, but together they have identity in so far as they are aspects of something grander and bigger than themselves. The idea of identity-in-difference can be applied to Stokes’ conception of the ballet. The music and movement of the ballet may have separate unrelated interpretations, but combined they reinforce each other. This is not to preclude the synchronisation of both the music and the movement in the ballet, which is different from identity. To the contrary, synchronisation of ballet is a vital component.

The synchronisation that exists in the ballet between music and movement Stokes views as an enhancement of the everyday experience of sound and action. It is like the synchronisation that occurs in the street when the barrel-organ is played. It is an enhancement that unites different disparate bodies. He sees the desire to bring these fractured elements together as one reason for our attraction to the ballet:

I must content myself with observing that music, or, at any rate, enhanced concerted noise of every description, is today the concomitant of most people’s waking hours. That is one reason why the ballet possesses a particular relevance to ourselves, the art in which sound and movement are so perfectly adjusted that their relationships provide perennial images to the mind.21

It is the synchronisation of the music and the movement to form a whole object that recreates the integrated mind.

In Hyde Park, which as I have said was Stokes’ Dystopia and image of the ‘destroyed mother’, sound provoked many ‘images of dismemberment and anxious aridity’. Like ballet, sounds experienced in Hyde Park were related to movements, but in contrast they were not synchronised, or ‘perfectly adjusted’. Stokes traces the connection between sound and action to his early childhood. Sound is seen to be indispensable to movement:

It is noticeable that not only were these fantasies provoked by sound but contain in them the projection of a great deal of noise. Even the scenes of my early childhood sustained their life through music, the circulation of traffic. Where there is movement there is noise, and from the noise we fashion images of movement.

In our urban life, sound qualifies visually scenes which otherwise are confusing and meaningless to the eye. What the eye alone might perceive is inhuman to a degree. The arts today concerned with interrelationship of sound and movement, particularly ballet, are able to draw upon a wealth of life-giving fantasy which in one form or another is common to millions.22

The synchronisation in the ballet of music and dancing is comparable in its effect to that of the barrel-organ in the street. When the barrel organ grinds its tune Stokes ‘discovers the rhythm of their [pedestrians] walk’, and finds in them ‘an almost heroic meaning’. ‘Music that breaks in upon the scenes of movement gives rebirth not only of feeling but of perception’.23



The ‘Line’ of Ballet


Stokes dedicates the third chapter of To-Night the Ballet to defining the ‘classical ballet’. He traces the routes of ballet through the ‘romantic ballet’, which he sees as synonymous with the classical ballet, back to the Italian Renaissance. His reasons for doing this are not based on any known historical account, but through the characteristics of ballet that he interprets to be parallel to the art of the Quattro Cento. It is important to realise that for Stokes the Quattro Cento is not the same thing as the Quattrocento, although some works of art are classified as belonging to both. To Stokes the Quattro Cento is a style of art that incorporates the artistic output of diverse figures ranging from Agostino di Duccio in fifteenth-century Rimini to Cézanne in nineteenth century Provence. For Stokes, the ballet is part of that same European tradition of art, which began as he sees it within the Quattrocento in Italy and hence he traces the Classical Ballet back to Renaissance Italy. Stokes identifies the ‘turning out’ of ballet as reason for its inclusion within this European tradition:

The ‘turning out’ of the classical dancer’s thighs, legs and feet, give the broad base-line for jumping and turning and enable a balance that could not otherwise be attained. All five positions are ‘turned out’: the second and fifth positions allow the dancer to move sideways easily without turning the body. ‘Turning out’ is the essence of ballet.24

The significance of ‘turning out’ is that it allows the dancer to reveal as much as possible of himself to the spectator. Whatever the convulsions of a dance, the dancer maintains an openness, anything other than this would create an ugly ‘line’. The maintenance of the line in ballet preserves openness to the audience, allowing the spectator to see not only a profile of a human form but also the side and back. The turned out leg shows something of the front, something of the back and something of the side. Stokes traces this to seventeenth and eighteenth-century salutations:

In making his salutations the eighteenth century gentleman gracefully showed himself, not only his front, but the sides of his legs and part of the back in the obeisance. He steps forward and he steps backwards, he shows himself in different perspectives. Such were the origins of the classical ballet as we have it today.25

The word ‘perspective’ is significant. The exposure or turned out nature of ballet links it to Stokes’ characteristics of the Carving tradition, which as shown in the last chapter are considered by Wollheim to be the characteristics of the Quattro Cento. The use of perspective exposes the art to us, allowing it to face us head on. Ballet in ‘turning out’ is an outward art. Outwardness is for Stokes, or at least up until 1937, a measure of the quality of the art. Externalisation of the inner life of the artist in their work is common to all art, but the degree of exposure is seen to vary. Art is most complete when feeling is made concrete and defined. The exposure of feeling in the outer object of art is a characteristic of the Quattro Cento. Ballet is part of that tradition:

I would claim that ballet is the stylised, cultural form of the European dance because ballet expresses the agency of the human body, the very same mode of projecting feeling that characterises all the greatest European visual art. The same fixity without distortion and without sternness, the same outwardness is the hall-mark of our art, a steady revelation that calls to mind the open face of the rose or smooth mountains in unbroken sunlight. All art is the conversion of inner states into outward objective form. But whereas the objective form is the constant in art, the degree of outwardness thereby expressed varies a good deal. It is the pleasure of many visual arts to intimate, by means of the objective form, an inner state: whereas, in the highest achievements of European visual art, that same inner intensity is entirely transposed into something smooth, gradual yet immediate: time and succession are converted into spatial forms, not merely symbolised by spatial forms. We like to have the mystery cleared, to see our feelings laid out as something concrete and defined. We would win for self-expression the homogeneity and the soft light of stone, stone with its gradual, even lighted surfaces. Watching the classical ballet I am constantly reminded of Agostino di Duccio’s low reliefs in the Tempio Malatestiano at Rimini, figures seemingly pressed from the round into relief, preserving many values which could be seen in a statue only if we walked around it. The values of the round are expressed frontally by these gradual surfaces. Like the limbs of the dancer, those of these fifteenth century figures are turned outward; otherwise no synthesis could have been made of their various facets … In ballet the human passions are expressed by the gradual uncontorted curves and straight lines of the extended human body. There is no residuum, no veil. The human body is purged of atmosphere. All is shown.26

From this somewhat lengthy quote, we learn a great deal about Stokes’ aesthetic appreciation of ballet and its inclusion within his Quattro Cento. For Stokes all art is a form of externalisation of inner life, but not all art exposes itself fully. Art of the Carving tradition, or the Quattro Cento, is for Stokes appreciated by virtue of its complete openness and exposure. It reveals the ‘absolute’, the inner life. In ballet nothing is hidden, ‘all is shown’. It is worth pointing out that in ballet, unlike other arts, the artist is also the art; the sculptor becomes the sculpture. Thus it is evident that the exposure of the art is the exposure of the inner life of the artist.




Dancing is specifically an assault upon space, an assault of love, a similar assault to that of the carver upon his stone … ballet is the most spectacular mode of assaulting space.27

For Stokes, the awareness of space is related to the ‘direct engagement of the medium’.28 He conceives of space in relation to his own bodily powers and properties. As such art becomes an externalisation of the inner life. Stokes relates to art in the same way that he relates to his own body, hence the intimacy of feeling.

The carver assaults the stone in order to draw to the surface an externalisation of his inner world. An artist engages with his medium as he engages with his awareness of himself. The dancer assaults the space around him in order to realise the image of the internal world on the surface of his own body. For the dancer his medium - space - brings the inner world to the surface of his own bodily form. He has ‘bred not images, but human beings as images’.29 The importance of the surface of the body, the border between inside and outside, is embodied in the dancer. The ballet is the only art in which the body becomes the image of itself.

The function of art for Stokes is an externalisation of the inner world. All art is an externalisation, but not all art fully exposes its inner life. In the ballet, however, the dancer exposes his inner life on the surface of his own body; he turns his frame out towards the spectator; it is an outward art that exposes the ‘absolute’ of the inner life.

In his childhood environs of Hyde Park Stokes projects the anxiety of his inner world. In the ballet, just as in the art and architecture of Italy, he finds projections that once internalised create an integrated mind. The synchronisation of music and movement form an identity of something grander and bigger than themselves. Stokes associates this grander and bigger identity with the corporeality of the outside world. Just as the barrel-organ gathers together piecemeal and rhythmless projections in the street, so in the theatre the combination of music and movement generate a sense of well being.




Stokes use of the Language of Psychoanalysis


I would argue that it is the language of Kleinian psychoanalysis that is used by Stokes to describe his engagement with architecture. Without wishing to question the validity of psychoanalysis as a causal explanation of his engagement with art and architecture, it seems obvious to me that his aesthetic appreciation pre-dated his use of psychoanalytical language. Much of his aesthetic writing, namely that prior to analysis, contains no explicit reference to psychoanalysis.30 The following passage appears in an undergraduate notebook dating from the 1920s under the title of ‘The Barrel Organ’:

Ah. How pleasant it is to hear the barrel organ. I am sitting in a dull old hall at Oxford a hard grey February morning … I am back again in my nursery among my toys … I have lived in London all my life and a barrel organ has visited me every Wednesday between 1 and 2 … I will introduce romance and sunshine into the bleak hall and be a child once more. While the music lasts, but he has stopped.31

This earlier account although undoubtedly a piece of nostalgia reveals the same transforming effect of the barrel organ on architecture as is discernible in the later version. What alters is the absence of psychoanalytical language as an explanation of the event. The aesthetic effect of the environment on Stokes and his description of it remains consistent, but in the 1920s account no causal reason is given. I would argue that to talk only of the cause of experience is reductive and quite different to the experience itself. In relation to ballet Stokes points out the difference between description and experience: ‘Were it possible to describe any ballet to my satisfaction, there would be little necessity to go to it.’32 This introductory statement can assumedly be applied to his later explanation of the ‘deeper root of ballet’s glamour’:33

To explain the glamour of the theatre as a whole, I should say that it resides in this: the projection of man’s interior physical and mental life into terms of the outside world, and particularly into terms of man’s exterior, of appearance and the movement of the body.34

It is well established and accepted that Stokes used psychoanalysis as an explanation of his childhood encounters within Hyde Park, his engagement with architecture and I have now suggested his love of ballet. It has perhaps not been said loud enough that while Stokes offered psychoanalysis as explanation he did not conceive of it as a replacement for the encounter itself.

If we read beyond the empirical explanation of architecture, ballet, or the visual arts as a form of reparation, I believe we approach Stokes’ true aesthetic appreciation of the environment. The advent of psychoanalysis coloured Stokes aesthetic but did not fundamentally alter it. Stokes was able throughout his life, like so many with artistic temperament, to engage in an intense and intermittent way with the environment.




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