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What Does Literature Feel Like?

“Gestures of Air and Stone”: Translating Ethan Frome into Dance in Cathy Marston’s Snowblind

Adeline Chevrier-Bosseau

Résumés

Quand la chorégraphe Cathy Marston a commencé à travailler à une traduction chorégraphique du roman d’Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome, c’est l’importance des sensations et des éléments dans l’œuvre qui l’ont le plus inspirée : elle a alors cherché comment se dansent l’identité et la couleur locale de la Nouvelle-Angleterre, et comment la littérature peut se ressentir à travers une lecture chorégraphique. Le titre de son ballet, « Snowblind », rappelle la vision anthropomorphique (ou animalisée) de l’ardoise qui émerge du sol dans le roman de Wharton, représentée comme des animaux enneigés qui sortiraient leurs museaux du tas de neige pour respirer (Wharton, 1911 19) : un visage presque entièrement recouvert par la neige, dont les orifices (yeux, bouche, nez) sont obstrués par cette neige qui étouffe leurs sens et bride leur expression. Plus que le triangle amoureux, ce sont les émotions étouffées, l’affect emmuré dans la pierre, qui sont au cœur de Snowblind et Ethan Frome : un bouillonnement de magma dont les passions ne peuvent s’exprimer que dans un silence de pierre, impénétrable – en-deçà du langage verbal, à travers les sensations. Cet article retrace les signes de la présence de la danse et de l’expression somatique dans l’œuvre de Wharton, afin d’examiner dans quelle mesure Ethan Frome se prête de manière organique à une traduction chorégraphique. Après avoir montré comment le Delsartisme aux États-Unis et la danse ont pu influencer la composition de son roman, et la manière dont Wharton pouvait concevoir l’expression somatique des affects à travers des gestes d’air et de pierre, il s’agira d’explorer de quelles manières Cathy Marston s’est inspirée des éléments sensoriels et de la dimension somatique du roman de Wharton pour proposer sa propre lecture chorégraphique, qui nous invite à nous demander comment se ressent la littérature par le corps.

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  • 1 Ethan is represented “drag[ging] himself across the brick pavement” (Wharton, 1911 3).
  • 2 “I had had an uneasy sense that the New England of fiction bore little—except a vague botanical and (...)
  • 3 In an interview presenting Snowblind for the San Francisco Ballet Unbound Festival of New Works, Ma (...)
  • 4 Creating a choreographic piece from a literary work is more than a transposition from one medium to (...)

1What does reading Ethan Frome feel like? Hard, cold, painful, tortured—condensed pain; from the very first page, the readers, via the narrator, are confronted with Ethan’s pain, his labored movements1 and his physical entrapment, his “lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain” (Wharton, 1911 3). This “ruin of a man” (3) immediately evokes destruction and tragedy, a crumbling body, destroyed and scarred by the “smash-up” (4) whose circumstances the narrator seeks to uncover. The stone imagery Wharton uses repeatedly in her introduction and in the novella associates Ethan with a minerality that calls to mind stone crumbled to dust, but also hardness, resurgence, permanence, survival—something that endures, that remains, despite the passage of time and repeated elemental assaults. Ethan is the ruin, the agglomerate of damaged bricks held precariously together, but also the “outcropping granite” Wharton’s novella wishes to expose, as explained in her introduction to Ethan Frome (xvii).2 By making these “granite outcroppings” (xviii) one of the focal points of her novella, Wharton associates literature with physical sensation and affect. Granite is not sedimentary, it is magmatic rock, crystallized and solidified lava pushing its way out: it symbolizes burning material underground, eruption, and solidification into something cold, coarse and rough to the touch, and materializes conflict and trauma, like a keloid scar. Ethan, Mattie and Zeena, Wharton’s “granite outcroppings,” all embody the repression of a part of themselves buried underneath the ground and the elements (Ethan is described as the “incarnation” of the land’s “frozen woe, with all that was warm and sentient in him fast bound below the surface” 14), but also what remains in spite of it all and survives to tell its tale of pain and sorrow. When choreographer Cathy Marston sought to translate Ethan Frome into dance, it was precisely the “elemental feel”3 of Wharton’s work that inspired her, more than the story of the three main characters. Marston used her own empathic reading of Ethan Frome and the sensations that emerged as the starting point for her choreographic creation: in that sense, it is a translation, from one language (verbal) to another (physical, non-verbal, which expands on all the non-verbal, bodily experiences recorded in Wharton’s text) that Marston is proposing with her ballet, more than an adaptation, the change of medium being less the central focus than the expression of affect.4 What Ethan cannot say in the novella, he will dance on stage, therefore making the trapped affect readable through somatic expression. The very title of her piece, “Snowblind,” recalls the anthropomorphic (or rather, animalized) vision of the “outcroppings of slate” “nuzzl[ing] up through the snow like animals pushing out their noses to breathe” (Wharton, 1911 19): a face of stone half-buried in snow, whose­ orifices—eyes, ears, mouth—are covered by the falling snow that muffles their expression and their senses. Less than the story of a love triangle, Ethan Frome and Snowblind are both about thwarted emotions, affect trapped in stone, a stream of magma whose burning passions can only be expressed in stony, impenetrable silence—beneath verbal language, through sensations. This article will therefore seek to bring to light this trapped affect and the ways in which its impossible expression is read and felt when reading and translating Ethan Frome into dance as well as seeing and dancing Snowblind.

  • 5 “Air et pierre se rencontrent dans l’image parce que, dans beaucoup d’images fortes, se rencontrent (...)
  • 6 “Affective practice, like other forms of practice, rests on a large unarticulated hinterland of pos (...)

2In Gestes d’air et de pierre, Georges Didi-Huberman examines the marble dance of the Donatello low-relief in Florence and associates these “gestures of air and stone” with a desire to give some form of permanence to transience and motion, to express what remains.5 Gestures of air and stone, like Keats’s Grecian urn, crystallize desire, grief, and mourning, but without resorting to verbal language. Interrogating what the experience of reading and choreographing Ethan Frome feels like necessarily entails an exploration of the way affect and sensations, like the “granite outcroppings,” find a way to emerge from beneath the physical restraint and the stony silence that thwarts their expression, in Wharton’s novella and in Marston’s piece. In Affect and Emotion, Margaret Wetherell explains how the “turn to affect is mainly a stimulus to expand the scope of the social investigation. It leads to a focus on embodiment, to attempt to understand how people are moved” (2). Considering what literature feels like, how literature can be organically linked to affect and emotion, means shifting the focus to the body and embodied practices—whether one understands affect as “includ[ing] every aspect of emotion” or referring to “physical disturbance and bodily activity (blushes, sobs, snarls, guffaws, levels of arousal and associated patterns of neural activity), as opposed to ‘feelings’ or more elaborated subjective experiences” (2). It is worth underlining that the examples Wetherell uses (“blushes, sobs, snarls, guffaws, levels of arousal and associated patterns of neural activity”) are all non-verbal expressions of an emotional state, which is particularly relevant when investigating a silent character like Ethan Frome—whose main characteristic is the inability to express his feelings in an articulate way—especially in his choreographic adaptation, since dance is non-verbal language. Indeed, dance explores what Wetherell calls the “affective hinterland” which “always escapes entire articulation.”6 All the non-verbal cues, the pre-movements, the moments when intention to move becomes perceptible between performers on stage, what dancers commonly refer to as someone’s “energy,” were crucial in the making of Marston’s Snowblind. This essay focuses therefore on the ways in which choreographer Cathy Marston picked up on the “feel” of Wharton’s novella and how all the non-verbal, embodied practices and situations contained in Wharton’s text might have given way organically to a dance translation of Ethan Frome.

3I will begin by examining how American Delsartism and dance might have shaped Edith Wharton’s understanding of the physical expression of affect through non-verbal gestures of air and stone and influenced the composition of Ethan Frome, therefore integrating the body and its affective sentience in the text. I will then explore how Cathy Marston drew on the affective, physical and sensory elements in the novella to propose her own somatic and choreographic reading of the novella, thus offering readers and ballet audiences alike a reflection on what literature feels like. Throughout this paper, I will delineate how dance—as a physical language transmitting affect, narratives, and emotions through a constellation of textures and nuances conveyed by movement, lighting, costumes, and the corporeal conversation with the music—is uniquely appropriate to convey in the most vivid way what literature feels like.

Breathing stone: Wharton, Stebbins, and Tableaux Vivants

  • 7 Dawson adds that “during the period when Ethan Frome was in its draft forms, Wharton read and annot (...)
  • 8 Ruyter explains that “through Delsartean training, a considerable number of late-nineteenth-century (...)
  • 9 Ted Shawn’s foreword to his book about Delsarte confirms the importance of the “Delsarte craze” whi (...)
  • 10 In many respects, tableaux vivants are a form of performance that has strong ties with dance. Nover (...)

4The narrator in Wharton’s Ethan Frome is trying to uncover what lies beneath Ethan’s silences, which memories and affects have been “snowed under” (15), thus making reading Ethan Frome, the character, and Ethan Frome, the novella, a quest for buried feelings. This quest for affect presides more generally over the composition and reading of Wharton’s work. According to Melanie Dawson and Jennifer Travis, Wharton’s novella is to be read in the overarching context of growing public and scholarly interest in the quantifying, identification, and origins of pain, affect and emotion. For Dawson, Ethan Frome focuses on “emotion genesis” (125), which showcases Wharton’s knowledge of the ongoing contemporary debates about the origins of emotions: “by orienting the novel’s emotional work to issues of epistemology, Wharton drew on her familiarity with Darwin, Spencer, and a host of psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists, all of whom can be imagined as influencing her interest in affective origins and adaptations” (129).7 In her chapter on “the science of affect,” Travis notes that when Wharton was writing Ethan Frome, “emotion was not only the stuff of university study or literary criticism, it also was the subject of extensive cross-disciplinary and often rigorously masculine debate at the turn of the century, from the trenches of labor activism to the benches of law courts” (158). Particular emphasis was placed on the relation between the body and emotions, as exemplified by William James’s essay “What is an Emotion?,” which Dawson references several times, or the Delsartean physical discipline and somatic practices which investigated how emotions were processed through the body. French artist and pedagogue François Delsarte’s main claim (famously echoed by Martha Graham) is that the body (and therefore movement) “never lies”: every little movement, even minute ones like instincts or pre-movements, are connected to and reveal an emotional state. Delsarte’s theories of movement were brought to the American public (and largely expanded on) by his disciple Steele Mackaye after Delsarte’s death in the early 1870s and led to a new awareness of the mind-body connection. This growing interest in the connection between the mind, emotions, affect, and their physical expression through the body can explain why Wharton was particularly invested in the question of the origins of emotions, how they arise, and how they can be expressed (or rather, how Ethan fails to express what he feels, how his emotions always remain below the surface and cannot take form through verbal language)—in short, how emotions, much like the “granite outcroppings” of the novella’s introduction / landscape, are formed and how they emerge. As Nancy Lee Chalfa Ruyter notes, while the influence of Delsartism on dance practices has been amply documented, “the relevance of American Delsartism to women’s social and cultural history has been almost totally ignored. In works on nineteenth-century American women’s lives, health, education, and so on, there seems to be little awareness that American Delsartism even existed, let alone any sense of its importance” (xvii). This explains the lack of scholarship on the influence of Delsartism and the ensuing growing awareness of the mind-body connection on non-dancers, and particularly women. However, Delsartism held a very significant place in nineteenth-century and turn-of-the-century debates about the body, particularly women’s bodies: from performance techniques and new modes of performance (like statue-posing, for example) to advice given to young women on how to carry themselves and behave appropriately8 or to the dress reform movement, Delsartism is connected to all the major elements of the conversation about women’s bodies from the 1870s onwards.9 As a woman who had an active cultural and social life, Wharton could not possibly have been unaware of this, as the reference to tableaux vivants10 in her work shows, even though the role Delsartism and physical expression played in the author’s own understanding of bodies and emotions has not been explored in a significant way at this point.

  • 11 See Katherine Joslin’s discussion on Ellen Olenska’s dresses in The Age of Innocence (Joslin 123-12 (...)
  • 12 “The supreme excellence is simplicity. Moderation, fitness, relevance – these are the qualities tha (...)

5In her reading of “Tableaux Vivants and Still Lifes in The House of Mirth” (59), Emily Orlando highlights “the tradition of the drawing room convention” of performing scenes from famous paintings and particularly Pre-Raphaelite art (59), but never mentions the influence that the physical performances of Delsartean practitioners and dancers like Isadora Duncan would most certainly have had on Wharton. The House of Mirth was published in 1905, and her autobiography confirms that Wharton had heard of Duncan some seven years before that when she was invited to a garden party in Newport where Duncan was to perform (Wharton, 1933 320). While Wharton doesn’t mention a specific date, the 1898 program for Duncan’s Newport performance entitled “Done into Dance” allows us to infer that Wharton knew of Duncan before she left for Europe that same year and subsequently became famous. Scholarship on Wharton and fashion, for example, confirms that Wharton was familiar with the turn-of-the-century dress reformers’ ideas,11 and given the emphasis on simplicity in her 1897 piece on The Decoration of Houses,12 one could even argue that Delsartean principles and the spirit of simplicity of the age permeated her entire conception of the body and the body in space (in this case, the domestic space).

  • 13 “Her pale draperies, and the background of foliage against which she stood, served only to relieve (...)
  • 14 Her 1893 Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics established “dynamic breathing” as the core elem (...)

6The leading figure of American Delsartism in Wharton’s time was Genevieve Stebbins, a performer, teacher, and writer who popularized and expanded on Delsarte’s principles with her statue-posing and tableaux vivants that were all the rage in the 1880s and 1890s. The tableaux vivants scene in the twelfth chapter of Wharton’s House of Mirth reveals the author’s familiarity with that art form, as well as the Delsartean principles taught by Stebbins and Steele Mackaye: the succession of the tableaux, from Botticelli’s “Spring” to Lily Bart’s performance as Reynolds’s “Mrs Lloyd” is compared to “some splendid frieze,” “in which the fugitive curves of living flesh and the wandering light of young eyes have been subdued to plastic harmony without losing the charm of life” (Wharton, 1905 105). In her chapter devoted to “Genevieve Stebbins on Stage,” Ruyter writes that this dynamic, frieze-like quality was precisely Stebbins’ signature: “Genevieve Stebbins presented statue poses not as separated scenes (as was common in much of posing throughout its history), but in a series of images in which the transitions figured at least as prominently as the poses themselves. Whether or not she invented this format, it was her hallmark” (117). Lily Bart’s body positioning,13 the very statuesque texture of her “draperies” against the “foliage” background, as well as the dynamism of the “noble buoyancy of her attitude, its suggestion of soaring grace” (Wharton, 1905 106), recall Stebbins’s “harmonic poise,” which, through “tranquil poses—with the weight predominantly resting on one leg (the foundation of ‘harmonic poise’) and one or both arms in some kind of gesture” (Ruyter 119), is meant to embody the “moral poise” and spiritual qualities of the subject portrayed. Stebbins’s Delsartean practice emphasized “dynamic breathing”14 and, like her contemporaries and disciples, she was fascinated by Greek statuary (Ruyter 91-93). Lily Bart’s performance therefore echoes Stebbins’s still reenactments of statues or paintings, the epitome of a “gesture of air and stone,” since the body is immobile and yet living and breathing, like a statue brought to life: the folds and creases of the “draperies” (Wharton 1905, 106), as still as a marble statue’s, contributed to blurring the line between stone and flesh in Stebbins’s performances, and created the impression of a breathing marble figure.

  • 15 Carrie J. Preston briefly discusses Wharton’s engagement with Delsartism in The House of Mirth in h (...)

7While The House of Mirth is certainly legible through the principles of American Delsartism and the teachings of Stebbins,15 another, perhaps less obvious, example of this influence can be found in Ethan Frome, which may be read as a study in pain in tones of white, grey, and darker hues, peppered with splashes of red (Mattie’s scarf, the blood on the snow in the “smash-up”), a tableau vivant representing suffering. References to painting abound in the novella, and the connection between art and affect is constant. In the first chapter, the reference to painting is the vehicle used to express Ethan and Mattie’s communion of “silent joy” and wonder:

And there were other sensations, less definable but more exquisite, which drew them together with a shock of silent joy: the cold red of sunset behind winter hills, the flight of cloud-flocks over slopes of golden stubble, or the intensely blue shadows of hemlocks on sunlit snow. When she said to him once: “It looks just as if it was painted!” it seemed to Ethan that the art of definition could go no farther, and that words had at last been found to utter his secret soul. (Wharton, 1911 34)

8Similarly, the nuances of white and grey are infinite in the novella, like so many impressionistic brushstrokes expressing the various qualities of snow, from the powdery “white waves” (17), the “glitter of winter” (140) and the frosty “white and scintillating fields” (56), to the greyer “pure and frosty darkness” (29) of snow in the night, or the fading color of the “wet snow, melting to sleet” (98). The snow is given an affective charge and represented with a material, plastic quality—like the accumulated, thick brushstrokes in impressionistic art, a sculpture on canvas or on the page. Associated with the various types and textures of snow, the sky expresses affect: Ethan’s moment of peace in the “early morning stillness” (56) is duplicated in the crisp, “crystal” brilliance of the sky and snow, whereas trouble is announced in the “thick fleecy sky threaten[ing] snow” (79) or the “muffled sky” (88) that presides over Ethan and Mattie’s last evening alone together in the house. Like the folds and creases of the draperies of the Greek-like tunics worn by Stebbins or Lily Bart’s carefully draped garments, the textured, expressive snow can be read as a “matière-émotion,” or “emotive fabric,” as Michel Collot might say (Collot). Other materials, like fabric, play an important role in the novella (and, as we will see later, in the ballet), with Mattie’s “cherry-colored ‘fascinator’” (30), her “crimson ribbon” in chapter IV (82) or the “strip of stuff” (93) that acts as an affective conduit between Mattie and Ethan in chapter V:

The sudden heat of his tone made her colour mount again, not with a rush, but gradually, delicately, like the reflection of a thought stealing slowly across her heart. She sat silent, her hands clasped on her work, and it seemed to him that a warm current flowed toward him along the strip of stuff that still lay unrolled between them. Cautiously he slid his hand palm-downward along the table till his finger-tips touched the end of the stuff. A faint vibration of her lashes seemed to show that she was aware of his gesture, and that it had sent a counter-current back to her; and she let her hands lie motionless on the other end of the strip. (95)

  • 16 She adds that “judging and quantifying pain became fundamental to the development of an industrial (...)

9For Travis, “this form of mediation permeates several other moments in the narrative as well” (150). According to her, Mattie’s scarf in the barn scene is as significant to Ethan emotionally as the “strip of stuff” they both hold, since it “absorbs his emotions” (Travis 150). The broken “pickle-dish” (Wharton, 1911 85) represents “the climax of this form of mediation”: “its use is a confirmation of Mattie’s love for Ethan, the unspoken object that locates their passions” (Travis 150-151). The snow that envelops the pair after the sled crash in chapter IX (Wharton, 1911 171) and reflects their emotions and states of mind throughout the novella, as well as the other “emotive fabrics,” are all ways of expressing feelings that cannot be uttered by the characters. Travis positions Wharton’s aesthetics within turn-of-the-century material culture, especially in relation to the quantification and categorization of pain: “the displacement of feeling in Ethan Frome, the manner by which sentience resurfaces in the stuff of the everyday, is not only a literary device; it is also a critique and exploration of the extent to which suffering in a secular idiom could be and, indeed, was taken to be primarily cognizable in material terms” (151).16 In that sense, Wharton’s evocation of her characters as “granite outcroppings” in the introduction can be read as referring to their organic bond with their native land, as stone cropping up from the soil and being one with it, and as a way to materialize the stifled emotions, the “frozen woes” and stony suffering of Mattie, Ethan and Zeena—not only as emotion trapped in stone, but as stone, magmatic rock (as mentioned in the introduction) being itself the outward manifestation of traumatic outburst.

Matière-émotion: Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome and dance

10Resorting to materials to express—or expand on—emotion could also have been inspired by two other performers, Isadora Duncan and Loïe Fuller, also American expatriates living and working in Paris at the same time as Wharton, who not only pioneered new dance techniques, but devised new ways of expressing affect through the body, while experimenting with fabric. Before she actually saw her perform in Paris, Wharton had heard of Duncan through “a philanthropic Boston lady” who had invited her to perform in Newport (Wharton, 1933 320). Wharton’s autobiography records how impressed she was when she first saw Duncan perform on stage twenty years later:

One of the loveliest flowers on the bough so soon to be broken was the dancing of Isadora Duncan. Hardly any one in Paris had heard of her when she first appeared there, but in me her name woke an old memory. […] And then, twenty years later, I went one night to the Opera in Paris, to see a strange new dancer about whom the artists were beginning to talk… I suppose that liking or not liking the conventional form of ballet-dancing is as little to be accounted for as one's feeling about olives or caviar. To me the word “dancing” had always suggested a joyful abandon, a plastic improvisation, the visual equivalent of ‘Like to a moving vintage down they came, / Crowned with green leaves, and faces all on flame…’ in Keats’ glorious bacchanal. The traditional ballet-dancing, the swollen feet in ugly shoes performing impossible tours de force poising and bounding, reminded me, on the contrary, of ‘But, oh, what labour—Prince, what pain!,’ and except in Carpeaux’s intoxicating group, and Titian’s “Triumph of Bacchus,” I had never seen dancing as I inwardly imagined it. And then, when the curtain was drawn back from the great stage of the Opera, and before a background of grayish-green hangings a single figure appeared—a tall, rather awkwardly made woman, dragging a scarf after her—then suddenly I beheld the dance I had always dreamed of, a flowing of movement into movement, an endless interweaving of motion and music, satisfying every sense as a flower does, or a phrase of Mozart's. That first sight of Isadora's dancing was a white milestone to me. It shed a light on every kind of beauty, and showed me for the first time how each flows into the other as the music merged with her dancing. (Wharton, 1933 320-322)

  • 17 Gilbert and Gubar also refer to Cynthia Griffin Wolff’s reading of Lily Bart as associated to art n (...)
  • 18 On Duncan and Delsartism, see Ruyter 1979 36-37, and Daly 122-139, where she also discusses Duncan’ (...)
  • 19 For a longer discussion of Isadora Duncan, Loïe Fuller and Delsartism, see Cappelle (ed.) 159-171. (...)

11Wharton’s account reveals that what moved her was the plastic quality of the performance (through the references to fabric, but also to visual arts and poetry made flesh), as well as its synesthetic quality, where dance, music, and poetry all combine in one glorious performance. Duncan’s performance is life itself for Wharton (as revealed by the image of the “dead boughs” turning into “acres and acres of silver fruit-blossom,” 322): the multiple references to flowers in this passage of Wharton’s autobiography also recall another contemporary performer, Loïe Fuller, and particularly her “Lily” dance—which Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue was part of the cultural web of references that impacted Wharton’s understanding of the body in motion (138-139).17 Like Stebbins, Duncan was influenced by the physical ethics of Delsartism, and its quest for “true” movement: according to Nancy Ruyter, Duncan “agreed completely with the two basic ideas that underlay Stebbins’ work: that classical antiquity represents the ultimate in artistic achievement; and that by means of the physical, the divine may be reached” (Ruyter, 1979 37).18 Her early performances were also tableaux vivants, as Ann Daly explains in her seminal work on Duncan, and she too performed scenes from Botticelli’s paintings (92). In her autobiography, Duncan herself underlines the importance of the influence of Greek art on her conception of dance (64-67), recalling her visits to the Louvre and her days spent reading books about Greek art in the library of the Paris Opera. Duncan’s signature flowy Greek tunics at the beginning of her career were meant to allow the body to move freely, without the constraints of a corset and the intricacies of the ballet costumes and footwear of the time, but the draperies, folds, and creases also duplicated and prolonged the smooth flow and organic movements of the liberated body. With her own experiments in costume and lighting, Loïe Fuller pushed this use of fabric as an affective conduit further: her dance was even more abstract than Duncan’s, since the body was mostly hidden under the layers of fluid fabric animated by the twirling motions of the dancer and the rods she had inserted in the sleeves. In many respects, these early experiments with “emotive fabrics” prefigure Martha Graham’s own use of the tube dress in her piece Lamentation (1930), in which the torsions and stretching of the fabric worn by the dancer echo and prolong the tortured emotions portrayed in this dance conceived as an anti-war protest.19 They were truly revolutionary at the time since in traditional classical ballet technique—which was dominant when Duncan and Fuller started their careers, especially in Europe—affect was mainly expressed through the pantomimic code established in the wake of Noverre’s Lettres sur la danse, with gestures to signify joy, pain, crying, etc, which are still performed on stage today. In this context, costume has a narrative function, according to Noverre’s principles; Duncan and Fuller, on the other hand, performed non-narrative dances, whose aim was less to tell a story than to show the beauty of the dancing body, to be the dance, to allow the body and the costume to perform unadorned, unaffected natural emotions onstage with more immediacy than when mediated through more elaborate costumes and an entire narrative arch. If for Wharton dancing equaled “joyful abandon” (Wharton, 1933 321), the unrestrained expression of emotion, Duncan and Fuller’s experimental techniques would have corresponded to her conception of dance. In an 1898 interview for the New York Herald, Duncan explained that “the dance is a series of movements being the expression of connected thought, and is in its higher exercises a concentration of mind and body on the understanding of a form of emotion”; Duncan’s expressive dancing, its organic expression of emotions, is what appealed the most to Wharton according to her autobiography (320). Daly underlines that although Duncan did resort to pantomime to some extent in her more narrative dances (like her patriotic Marseillaise created at the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914), her dancing “mined the body’s unique capacity for displaying in its form the subtlest shades of emotions” (139) and adds that:

Her body referred to states and emotions by actually possessing their various shapes, rhythms, and dynamisms, as she found them coded in nature (the rhythmic force of waves, for example), in art (such as Botticelli’s Primavera), and in everyday life (much as the Delsarte manuals must have taught her to do). (139)

  • 20 In her autobiography, Duncan explains that her first “instincts for dance,” to quote a line from Em (...)

12Loïe Fuller, like Duncan, believed that the dancing body should express natural, unrestrained human emotions; both choreographers extensively resorted to natural metaphors to express how the body should move organically.20 In her autobiography, Loïe Fuller delineates her philosophy of movement and dancing:

What is the dance? it is motion.
What is motion? The expression of a sensation.
What is a sensation? The reaction in the human body produced by an impression or an idea perceived by the mind.
A sensation is the reverberation that the body receives when an impression strikes the mind. […] When an animal is frightened its body receives an impression of fear, and it flees and trembles or else stands at bay. […] In the dance, and there ought to be a word better adapted to the thing, the human body should, despite conventional limitations, express all the sensations or emotions that it experiences. The human body is ready to express, and it would express if it were at liberty to do so, all sensations just as the body of an animal. (70)

  • 21 As Wharton’s own biography reveals with the Newport episode, Isadora Duncan’s first performances we (...)

13My contention is that Duncan and Fuller’s somatic practices and emphasis on the connection between nature, the body, and affect are part of the general conversation around the body—and particularly women’s bodies—that Wharton also participated in, as we have seen earlier. Like Duncan and Fuller on stage, the expressive and natural bodies in motion of Lily Bart and Mattie Silver in Wharton’s fiction both convey and provoke emotions in the spectators and readers; they are transgressive for a late-Victorian turn-of-the-century conservative mindset (as their unfortunate end shows) and echo the revolutionary audacities of dance pioneers Fuller and Duncan, who both struggled to find their place at the beginning of their careers.21

  • 22 This warmth associated to Mattie is echoed in Marston’s Snowblind by the costume choice (Mattie’s v (...)
  • 23 In a similar way, what sets Lily Bart apart in the sequence of tableaux vivants is the natural simp (...)
  • 24 In every company, and for every ballet, there is always an A cast and a B cast, which alternate dur (...)

14In the dance scene in the opening chapter, Ethan experiences a host of emotions and sensations while watching Mattie dance freely. The window separating him from the room where the dancers are seems to be an affective and sensitive conduit, reflecting both the “pure and frosty darkness” Ethan is looking in from and the “mist of heat” of the room (Wharton, 1911 28-29). Later in the chapter, Mattie’s face is also compared to “a window that has caught the sunset” (35), an image which associates expression, emotions, and sensations.22 The volcano metaphor used in the same paragraph when the stove is somewhat anthropomorphized, its “flanks” “heaving with volcanic fires” (29) like the expanding ribcages of the young dancers, exacerbates the contrast between Ethan’s “snowed under” (15) emotions and the youthful joy and energy of the dancers. It also reflects Ethan’s inner state of emotional turmoil: when he sees Mattie dance, Ethan’s emotions are expressed somatically (his heart is “beating fast,” 30), and watching her dance triggers the memory of their emotional affinity (33) as well as feelings of jealousy towards her dance partner, Denis Eady. Mattie’s movements are compared to nature several times, from the light and dynamic “whirl” of her dancing recalling the falling snow (35) to the swift motion of birds: “the motions of her mind were as incalculable as the flit of a bird in the branches” (46).23 In Marston’s choreography, a lot of Mattie’s movements are articulated around stopping and soaring, as well as the momentum of her youthful and lively longing to move, to escape, to live and love; there is something birdlike in both her delicate fragility in the “frozen” sequence when she’s curled up on a chair and in the way she soars towards Ethan in all their pas de deux, as if she was taking flight, transported by her emotions. In the novella, the moment when mediations through nature, sensations and affect are most tragically connected is certainly after the sledding incident, when Ethan initially thinks the “twittering” of pain he hears, as well as the “soft and springy” hair he touches, belong to an animal, before realizing they are Mattie’s (170). According to Jenifer Travis, “it is certainly the most excruciating instance of the kinds of displacements that the novella presents: feeling made real and given substance, as in this final scene, through the body, voice, or pain of another” (149). The natural element, as well as affective mediation (through fabric, between bodies, through various materials—snow included), were crucial in Cathy Marston’s translation process of Wharton’s novella into dance. Indeed, a choreographic translation is itself a form of displacement, since affect is mediated not through verbal language but through the body—or rather, through the bodies of the various performers who interact on stage and the successive bodies that will interpret each role, depending on the cast and when / where the ballet is reprised.24 Displacement in translation is articulated in the changes in syntax, metaphors (a dynamic concept in itself), and idiom. In the case of a choreographic translation of Ethan Frome, Ethan’s inexpressiveness (Dawson 124) and inability to articulate his emotions are expressed in all the somatic and non-verbal cues that come before expression, under the surface, in everything that precedes language—before the granite forms and becomes visible. In dance, all these things that cannot be said can’t be danced in any expressive choreographic idiom, therefore leading to an exploration of pre-movements, thwarted gestures, and expressive immobility—displacing silence through mediation.

Snowblind: translating Ethan Frome into dance

15The “elemental feel” and the repression of emotions, that can only be expressed through mediation, deeply inspired choreographer Cathy Marston when she started working on her choreographic translation of Ethan Frome in the months leading up to the premiere in 2018. Marston also focused on natural movement and tried to devise ways to express all the different emotions and sensations in the most organic way possible. She was particularly struck by the snow in Wharton’s novella and sought non-classical movement to materialize the various qualities of snow on stage, as she explains in an interview given for the San Francisco Ballet YouTube channel:

  • 25 Cathy Marston on creating Snowblind for San Francisco Ballet’s Unbound Festival of new works, poste (...)

It’s very snowy, it’s cold, it’s bleak, so I wanted to find a way in movement to convey this elemental feel, and so we’ve got a group of people who are the snow, and snow can have different qualities, it can be light and playful and beautiful and sort of seductive and fascinating, and it can also be very heavy and it can beat at you and sting, and it can also be very claustrophobic and heavy and smother you, and so we’re using the qualities of snow to amplify the emotional story that’s going on between the three characters.25

  • 26 I’m referring here to Martha Graham’s famous phrase “movement never lies” (Graham 122). Graham was (...)
  • 27 This sequence of frustration is also repeated in the indoor pas de trois, while Mattie helps Zeena (...)

16The snow is actually the first thing that appears on stage in the ballet: it’s always there, always connected to the characters’ emotional states. When the curtain goes up, the dancers embodying the snow perform various sequences stage right: some are in plié parallel, arms outstretched above their heads, and undulate on a vertical axis as if moved by the wind. Meanwhile, three dancers in grand plié à la seconde do a port de bras with one arm bent and the other à la seconde, which moves right to left as they sink into a deeper plié; others roll like a ball on the floor, left to right, towards the wings, before they all successively perform the same gesture, a port de bras with their arms crossed in front of their faces in a semi-circular motion from left to right, as if shielding them from something, while shifting their weight from the left leg to the right leg and going into an arabesque penchée. Finally, the last sequence is a grand plié in first position with the arms crossed, elbow pointing upwards and hands downwards, in a sinking motion towards the floor, which ends with the dancers rolling like a ball towards the wings. The sequences are repeated with different trios of dancers within the group, as they progressively exit stage right. This section works both on verticality and horizontality, to convey the fall of the snowflakes (in the sinking action of the pliés), the force of the harsh wind whirling the snowflakes around (in the upright undulating motion, which also evokes resistance to the elements), and the sweeping motion of the snowflakes whose vertical fall is altered by the wind (in the rolling motion on the floor, but also in the circular and side to side arm movements). The slow pace of the whole snow sequence has an introductory quality, like a second curtain of snow rising to open the main “human” plot, and sets the scene for the unveiling of the main characters; Ethan and Zeena appear as the snowflakes exit, Ethan in a thoughtful posture recalling Rodin’s Thinker (first sitting on a chair, then standing up, always with the Thinker port de bras), Zeena slowly and precariously entering on pointe, clutching her head and stomach as if in pain. The snowflakes’ dance also works as a marginal note commenting on the main action since the port de bras with the arms crossed before the face expresses pain, something one seeks to shield oneself from, a protective gesture, a way of retreating into oneself, and enacts the retreat and stifled emotions of the characters. In the opening segment, the movement combines explicitly narrative pantomimic gestures (like Zeena’s, signifying pain) and less explicitly narrative non-classical steps to recreate the elemental, natural quality of the snow: in that sense, Marston’s exploration of non-human movement and gestures as well as the very notion of an elemental dance, where humans embody non-human entities (in this case, the snow), showcases the influence of dance pioneers like Loïe Fuller on contemporary choreographers and shows how fundamental the nature-inspired Delsartean kinetic investigations of choreographers like Duncan and Fuller have been for the next generations of dancers and choreographers. Natural movement­—that is, dancing inspired directly by the elements, nature, and movement that is organic to the body, that does not “lie”26—is therefore best suited to convey the complex nuances of affect: the snowstorm outside announces the emotional storm within, and as the first pas de deux between Ethan and Zeena ends, the snowflakes reappear stage left, performing the same choreography at a faster pace, thus changing the quality of the choreographic sequence, whose now tenser quality stresses the stormy conflict between the pair and the escalation of tensions. This time, the snowflakes exit on a big renversé attitude with a swifter port de bras that seems to cut into something: all the while, Ethan walks backwards as if violently hit by the snowstorm and looks at his hands before falling backwards and dancing a pas de deux with a snowflake. This dance Ethan does with the snow allows him to express everything that was kept below the surface in the first pas de deux with Zeena: once the snowflake exits stage left, Ethan stands in parallel, with one leg bent and the other extended on the side, and does a circular port de bras as if he was cradling something, before rocking his arms frantically side to side, with more and more force. Then he stands in a lunge and forcefully kicks his back leg and his arms around, as if releasing pent-up frustration, in a movement that amplifies the light jerks of the right leg and lunge at the start of his pas de deux with his wife.27 The two pas de deux have similar features: Ethan carries his wife and the snowflake on his back, but there is more weight, a stronger sense of heaviness in the way he handles Zeena­—it is labored, and almost mechanical, conveying his weariness with his wife’s condition, especially in the split penché, where he takes her elevated leg and tries to bend it, a motif that is repeated several times and which gives the impression that he is trying to put something back in its place.

Film still from Cathy Marston’s Snowblind: Sarah Van Patten and Ulrik Birkkjaer, San Francisco Ballet, 2018

Film still from Cathy Marston’s Snowblind: Sarah Van Patten and Ulrik Birkkjaer, San Francisco Ballet, 2018

17In the pas de deux with the snowflake, the partnering is lighter, and the motifs from the first pas de deux that are repeated (the woman rolling on the male dancer’s back, for example) have a lighter feel. In that sense, this pas de deux serves as a transition between a painful domestic scene and the joyful barn dance scene where Mattie appears: the snow serves as an affective conduit as in Wharton’s novella since the lighter tone of the second pas de deux announces Ethan’s “lighter” mood when Mattie enters. Ethan exits stage right, like the snowflakes in their first appearance, before reentering stage right too: like the snowflakes in the opening sequence, he stands on the periphery of the dance scene, looking at the playful youngsters with a timid smile on his face, his gaze following Mattie whirling across the dance floor as in Wharton’s novella.

  • 28 In any fouetté, the point is to contrast the rectitude of the body (the torso and the supporting le (...)
  • 29 The snowflakes perform ominous and affectively-charged movement in the still scene when Ethan carri (...)

18In her first solo, Mattie also dances a pantomime with the imaginary snow—at first not embodied onstage by dancers: she whirls her arms and hands around, as if dancing with an invisible snowfall, picks up and throws a snowball, lies on the ground and moves her arms and legs as if to make a snow angel. Midway through the solo, a snowflake and Ethan appear, and Ethan has taken on the playfulness of the young dancers and Mattie’s snow-play, repeating with Mattie the prank the youngsters played on each other during the dance scene (a light kick behind the knee). The snowflakes enter one by one and individually repeat the sequences of the opening choreography in a very slow and light way (again, showcasing how changing the intention of the movement in the same choreographic sequence changes its whole color and tone) to signify a moment of respite and lightness during Mattie and Ethan’s first pas de deux. By contrast, when she is (literally) kicked out by Zeena, Mattie’s dance with the snowflakes is full of anguish: the snowflakes’ movement is faster and elevated since jumps are introduced while they were always closer to the ground in their previous appearances. Mattie sways, stumbles, and seems to be dancing against the current, against the snowflakes’ motion, as if pushed back and forth and sideways by the raging snowstorm. The snow pushes her around, replicating Zeena’s violent rejection in the leg extensions and port de bras which create a similar line to Zeena’s harsh kick, on the same diagonal; the battements attitude of the snowflakes is echoed in Mattie’s battement fouetté, after which her upper body collapses instead of staying upright,28 which makes it seem that the force of the attitude kick is blowing Mattie away and around like a leaf in the wind. When Ethan enters, the snowflakes’ movements seem ominous,29 running around behind the dancing pair and performing a violent port de bras, one arm bent upwards at a 90-degree angle and the other one across the upper chest, with the left hand clutching the right shoulder and grabbing the right arm to swing it in a movement that seems to chase away something, as if they were chasing the pair away from one side of the stage to the other. These movements are repeated and amplified in the suicide attempt scene, where Ethan and Mattie, instead of being blown around by the snowflakes, run headlong into them as if into a wall, again and again, until they end up broken on the floor. Marston’s choice not to resort to artificial snow in her piece (as in Balanchine’s “Dance of the Snowflakes” in his version of The Nutcracker, for example), but to have it embodied by a group of dancers testifies to its importance in Wharton’s original novella (where it is almost one of the main characters). It also confirms its affective charge: by being embodied by dancers onstage rather than artificial snow, it mediates the characters’ affective states more efficiently, as the dancers are able to perform similar sequences in many different ways just by changing the intention of the movement—that is, the type of affect it seeks to convey. As Marston explains in the interview quoted earlier, snow has different qualities and evokes many possible affective states—the childlike joy of playing with freshly fallen snow (as when Mattie plays with it making the snow angel, or when the youngsters play around), a picturesque northern winter occurrence that can be enjoyed looking through the window inside the house (as in the opening sequence), freezing cold that feels unpleasant to the skin, or a full-on blizzard, impossible to walk through.… Having the snow danced by a group allows for a wide array of kinetic and affective textures to be presented on stage, as the group of dancers can portray individual nuances while still contributing to a group dynamic, like individual snowflakes in a snowfall or brushstrokes in a painting.

19Throughout her piece, Marston kept Wharton’s mediation through materials, using snow, and in the last indoor pas de deux between Ethan and Mattie as well, in which the pickle-dish and the fabric Mattie is sewing are replaced by Mattie’s apron, which Ethan unties, buries his face in, and finally pulls over Mattie’s head. This symbol of Mattie’s servitude (she puts it on at the beginning of her first scene inside the Frome house) replaces the “strip of stuff” (Wharton, 1911 93) in chapter V: Ethan and Mattie both cling desperately to it, Ethan bent forward and Mattie in an anguished cambré, as if hanging on for dear life to the unspoken symbol of their forbidden bond.

Film still from Cathy Marston’s Snowblind: Ulrik Birkkjaer and Mathilde Froustey, San Francisco Ballet, 2018

Film still from Cathy Marston’s Snowblind: Sarah Van Patten, Ulrik Birkkjaer and Mathilde Froustey, San Francisco Ballet, 2018

Film still from Cathy Marston’s Snowblind: Sarah Van Patten, Ulrik Birkkjaer and Mathilde Froustey, San Francisco Ballet, 2018

20The sets are very simple, and the stage is almost bare: the Frome house is represented by the addition of an upper level where Zeena’s bed is placed, and the downstairs level is symbolized by the chair. A white square of Marley flooring delimitates the dance floor for the barn dance scene as well as the outline of the Frome house, and a cloudy blue curtain which lowers between two tableaux completes the list of set elements. The costumes are also minimal: starry dark outfits in a fluid fabric for the snowflakes, a white dress for Zeena, a red one for Mattie, a blue-grey vest and pants for Ethan, white clothes for the farmhands and the youngsters in the dance scene. As the Snowblind description on the San Francisco Ballet webpage explains:

Abstraction is key for Marston, in both choreography and design. “I’m not working with the classical vocabulary, so all these details of movement do get rather drowned by a big dress [in a period piece],” she says. “We start at the point where a story is based, and I will keep challenging the designers to reconsider how we can suggest something without spelling it out. I love ambiguity in the right moment; it can be quite beautiful.” (Ossola)

21The overall simplicity of the costumes and sets mirrors the stark bareness—or barrenness—of the New England setting in Wharton’s novella, and their scarcity highlights their importance in the affective transactions. In his founding text defining narrative dance, Lettres sur la danse, Noverre developed guidelines regarding costumes that were revolutionary for the time: he wanted simpler costumes which highlighted the body and the dance, and matched the “natural” movement he advocated for. According to him, the transmission of a story to the audience in a narrative ballet should be as immediate and direct as possible, and should a costume have a narrative function, it had to remain as uncomplicated as possible to facilitate the audience’s understanding:

J’aimerois mieux des draperies simples & légeres, contrastées par les couleurs, & distribuées de façon à me laisser voir la taille du Danseur. Je les voudrois légeres, sans cependant que l’étoffe fût ménagée ; de beaux plis, de belles Masses, voilà ce que je demande ; & l’extrémité de ces draperies voltigeant & prenant de nouvelles formes, à mesure que l’exécution deviendroit plus vive & plus animée, tout auroit l’air léger. Un élan, un pas vif, une fuité agiteroient la draperie dans des sens différents : voilà ce qui nous rapprocheroit de la Peinture, & par conséquent de la Nature. (Noverre 184)

22Marston’s costume choices push Noverre’s ideal of simplicity to the point of abstraction, much like Duncan and Fuller before her: the costumes’ function is solely to help identify the characters, and to let the dancers move without restrictions. Only the apron has a real affective charge. Given the bare sets, the music in Marston’s piece is also crucial for the creation of a New England setting: Marston’s choice of Massachusetts-native Arthur Foote and New Hampshire native Amy Beach helps give the piece its snowy New England local color. Selecting Beach for a substantial portion of the score is particularly significant because not only was Beach a contemporary of Wharton (they were born 5 years apart), but she also advocated for a balance between intellect and emotion in musical composition, as her 1931 essay “Emotion Versus Intellect in Music” shows. Musician Beni Shinohara explains in the interview for the “Musicians’ insights” feature on the San Francisco Ballet YouTube channel that:

The music would set the scene for a New England cold and snowy long winter: the orchestra plays dark, melancholic and almost mysterious music. Then there comes very light and playful music which is taken from Amy Beach’s Sonata for violin and piano: it changes the atmosphere to lighten up the whole scene but of course it only lasts until the long dark night comes back again. (‘Musicians’ Insights’)

In the music as in the choreography, the starting point is emotion, as is delineated in Marston’s creative process:

In developing her ballets, Marston begins with emotions. She uses prompts in creating movement for specific characters and situations: among them “torn” and “hope” for Ethan, “numb” and “bitter” for Zeena, “dreamy” and “hyperventilate” for Mattie, “caress” and “stinging” for the snow. At times she sends the dancers off with her assistant Jenny Tattersall to explore how these words feel in the body. This found movement, rooted in emotion, “brings a few non-balletic steps in, which I think helps pepper [the choreography],” Marston says. “It’s like putting flecks of black on a watercolor.”
In Snowblind, every move is character-driven. (Ossola)

23The new emotional choreographic language created in this experimental phase with Tattersall is no longer strictly ballet movement, but neither is it actual pantomime: in the first pas de deux between Ethan and Zeena, there is pantomime, when Zeena performs gestures that look like lifting, smoothing out, or sewing, and non-balletic gestures, like flexed feet and head rolls, her extremities being the only body parts that move when Zeena is carried, stiff like a board, by Ethan. Zeena’s movements in the opening pas de deux are the essence of gestures of air and stone, between her pantomimic air gestures and the way her body stiffens to stone to signify her inflexibility, her hardness, and cold pain. The choreography particularly emphasizes thwarted gestures, stifled movement, pre-movements—a dance vocabulary which is on the margin of actual dancing and reminds us of what Margaret Wetherell defines as the “affective hinterland” (129) that eludes complete articulation. The undefined, open quality of this choreographic “hinterland” also opens the piece up to a multiplicity of readings: because every dancer is physically different (in terms of body shape, technique, expressivity, artistry) as well as emotionally distinct, each performance of the piece with a different cast will open a new palette of affective expression and, consequently, new readings of Wharton’s novella and of the ballet as well. For example, in the original production, Marston clearly capitalized on dancer Sarah Van Patten’s very expressive gaze as Zeena: a lot is said through her eyes, from her pain to her frustration, her furor against Mattie, her jealousy, and the final empathy and resilience she shows in the closing pas de trois. Mattie’s submission to Zeena’s authority is visible for example in the series of pre-movements she performs in the farmhands scene: the small movements of the head, the shoulders, the tension in her arms clasped behind her back, even her breathing, when she is drawing breath as if to speak, show her thwarted expression under Zeena’s inflexible rule.

24Throughout the ballet, principal dancer Ulrik Birkkjaer’s face remains appropriately impassible (only his body can speak and express his suffering in the moments he finds himself alone, or when he is with Mattie), while Van Patten and Froustey (Mattie) deploy a wide range of facial expressions. Another sequence which unfolds in the “affective hinterland” of almost-gestures, pre-movements, and expressive immobility is the indoor scene when the main trio remains immobile while the snowflakes cross the stage from left to right: there is more partnering in the snowflakes’ dance, signifying how entwined the trio’s pain is, and they perform gestures from the trio’s several pas de deux (one dancer in a table position while another rolls over, and similar lifts) as well as ominous ones announcing the disaster to come, like the cutting across port de bras from just before the suicide attempt scene and the battements fouettés that Mattie will do a few minutes later. The three main characters remain immobile, but their absence of movement is not silence: their immobility is expressive, Mattie curled up on a chair, as if dreaming of a better situation and comforting herself at the same time, Ethan in his Thinker pose, and Zeena lying on her side in her bed, her spine visible across the costume, recalling her fragility and inflexibility at the same time—in a posture that expresses her discontent (she is turning her back to the audience, as if sulking) and her pain (she could be lying in this position to soothe her stomach ache, since she clutches her stomach several times in the ballet).

Conclusion

25While Wharton’s novella ends with the narrator’s horrifying vision of the derelict Frome household, Marston’s piece ends on a final pas de trois where Zeena rescues Mattie and Ethan, closing on the image of their intertwined lives. Mattie’s and Ethan’s broken bodies lie in the snow; Zeena’s intense gaze is fixated on them as she makes her way towards the injured pair, and she finds her strength in this scene.

Film still from Cathy Marston’s Snowblind: Sarah Van Patten, Ulrik Birkkjaer, Mathilde Froustey and the corps de ballet, San Francisco Ballet, 2018

26The “tall woman” (Wharton, 1911 174) of the final chapter is the only one who can fully stand erect in Marston’s choreography: she lifts Ethan’s and Mattie’s limp bodies from the ground and drags them across the stage towards stage right, in a posture that resembles a ship’s figurehead—the sick leading the lame, as in a choreographic equivalent of the Raft of the Medusa which signifies resilience, despair, doom, and a desperate attempt to survive at the same time.

Film still from Cathy Marston’s Snowblind: Sarah Van Patten, Ulrik Birkkjaer, Mathilde Froustey and the corps de ballet, San Francisco Ballet, 2018

27In these final moments of her choreography, what Marston chose to flesh out is largely unsaid in the closing chapter of Wharton’s novella—a community of pain, intertwined lives bound together by their common brokenness and their unspeakable tragedy. In Wharton’s novella, the horror is mediated through the narrative voice, which recoils at the (very New England Gothic) sight of the two women (Mattie’s gaze is compared to a witch’s: “the bright witch-like stare,” Wharton, 1911 174), but in Snowblind, the audience has direct access to the three characters’ tragic fate, as the permanently yoked together bodies twist in difficult angles. In a great moment of anguish, Zeena goes into an arabesque while her hands hold Ethan’s and Mattie’s, as the latter lies limp on Ethan’s shoulder, while he supports her entire weight with his shoulder, neck, and side. Mattie’s développé quatrième follows the same diagonal as Zeena’s leg in arabesque to materialize the community of suffering between the three characters.

Film still from Cathy Marston’s Snowblind: Sarah Van Patten, Ulrik Birkkjaer, Mathilde Froustey and the corps de ballet, San Francisco Ballet, 2018

28Finally, Mattie’s limp frame is held up somewhat by both Ethan and Zeena, their arms forming the link of an infernal chain that binds them together, while they are hunched over as if bracing themselves in a great physical effort.

Film still from Cathy Marston’s Snowblind: Sarah Van Patten, Ulrik Birkkjaer, Mathilde Froustey and the corps de ballet, San Francisco Ballet, 2018

29The poignant end, danced to Arvo Pärt’s Lamentate, emphasizes physical effort, labored movement, and common pain, in a somatic choreographic reading of what the end of Ethan Frome feels like—hopeless tragedy, three broken lives inescapably bound together. In the novella, the explanation comes from the epilogue with Mrs Hale, but in Snowblind, tragedy is expressed via the body only, without resorting to verbal language: we as spectators feel their pain, and understand by the unbroken hand connection that they will live the rest of their lives in this state. These final gestures of air and stone signify, as Didi-Huberman writes, both “superlative grace” and “immense mourning,” something like solace and an unbearable loss (65)—“une presque consolation et une perte inconsolable”—that cannot be uttered, but must only be felt.

30Translating a literary piece into dance is reading somatically, through the body: when choreographers read a novel (or novella, in the case of Ethan Frome) with an eye to translating it into a dance piece, they will pick up on every little affective quiver in the text and immediately feel how they could be danced. It is an immediate, instinctive reaction, like breathing in the text when reading and breathing it out into motion. Inarticulate affect, breathing emotions between the words and the lines, become legible through physical embodiment; because dance has the capacity to make intention to move visible—the tension between two bodies, the intensity of a gaze, the quiver of a body about to move, momentum gathering before the body soars—it is uniquely equipped to flesh out the unsaid, the implicit, and to make its emotional charge more vibrant. Marston’s choreographic reading of Wharton’s novella does not only translate into dance what the novella feels like when it comes to experiencing the bleak and snowy New England backdrop and the tragic love triangle, it also operates on a less narrative level and gives readers a more immediate and sentient access to the novella’s “affective hinterland,” therefore expanding our understanding of what literature can feel like.

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SAN FRANCISCO BALLET, YouTube Channel. www.youtube.com/@sfballet. Accessed 26 September 2023.

SAN FRANCISCO BALLET webpage, “Backstage” tab, “About Snowblind” page. www.sfballet.org/discover/backstage/about-snowblind/. Accessed 26 September 2023.

SHAWN, Ted. Every Little Movement. A Book about François Delsarte. New York: Dance Horizons, 1975.

STEBBINS, Genevieve. Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics. A Complete System of Psychical, Aesthetic and Physical Culture. New York: Edgar S. Werner, 1893.

TRAVIS, Jennifer. Wounded Hearts: Masculinity, Law, and Literature in American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

WHARTON, Edith. The Decoration of Houses. 1897. New York: Cosimo Books, 2008.

WHARTON, Edith. The House of Mirth. 1905. New York: Norton Critical Edition, 1990.

WHARTON, Edith. Ethan Frome. 1911. New York: Penguin, 1993.

WHARTON, Edith. A Backward Glance, An Autobiography. 1933. New York: Touchstone, 1998.

WETHERELL, Margaret. Affect and Emotion. A New Social Science Understanding. London: Sage Publishing, 2012.

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Notes

1 Ethan is represented “drag[ging] himself across the brick pavement” (Wharton, 1911 3).

2 “I had had an uneasy sense that the New England of fiction bore little—except a vague botanical and dialectical resemblance to the harsh and beautiful land as I had seen it. Even the abundant enumeration of sweet-fern, asters and mountain-laurel, and the conscientious reproduction of the vernacular, left me with the feeling that the outcropping granite had in both cases been overlooked” (Wharton, 1911 xvii).

3 In an interview presenting Snowblind for the San Francisco Ballet Unbound Festival of New Works, Marston says about Wharton’s novella: “it’s very snowy, it’s cold, it’s bleak, so I wanted to find a way in movement to convey this elemental feel.” Interview posted on the San Francisco Ballet YouTube channel in May 2020, accessible at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2P734mYprg&t=2s (accessed 18 October 2023).

4 Creating a choreographic piece from a literary work is more than a transposition from one medium to another: the question of being faithful to the “original” piece is secondary, since a translation is a creative act, not merely a mimetic one, as French translator Claro likes to explain, quoting poet and translator Emmanuel Hocquard (“je ne traduis pas: j’écris des traductions,” which translates as “I don’t translate texts, I write translations”). See Claro, Violence et traduction, Publie.net, 2008.

5 “Air et pierre se rencontrent dans l’image parce que, dans beaucoup d’images fortes, se rencontrent une grâce superlative et un deuil immense, un geste et un suspens du geste, un désir et un renoncement, une presque consolation et une perte inconsolable” (Didi-Huberman 65).

6 “Affective practice, like other forms of practice, rests on a large unarticulated hinterland of possible semiotic connections and meaning trajectories (built around the discursive, the visual, the tactile, etc.). What we do is non-conscious in the general sense that these possible meanings and significances exceed and proliferate what can be grasped and articulated in any particular moment. […] The affective hinterland always escapes entire articulation” (Wetherell 129).

7 Dawson adds that “during the period when Ethan Frome was in its draft forms, Wharton read and annotated studies by prominent biologists” (130).

8 Ruyter explains that “through Delsartean training, a considerable number of late-nineteenth-century white middle- and upper-class American women and children were able to pay attention to their bodies in a socially acceptable manner, to undergo training in physical and expressive techniques, and even to present themselves to selected audiences in public performances” (Ruyter xvii).

9 Ted Shawn’s foreword to his book about Delsarte confirms the importance of the “Delsarte craze” which swept over America and led to a distorted vision of his principles as well as a commodification of his theories, with advertisers using his philosophy of movement to sell “Delsarte corsets” and Delsarte prosthetic legs (Shawn 18).

10 In many respects, tableaux vivants are a form of performance that has strong ties with dance. Noverre himself described dance as a tableau vivant: “Le Ballet bien composé est une Peinture vivante des passions, des mœurs, des usages, des cérémonies, & du costume de tous les Peuples de la terre” (Noverre 18).

11 See Katherine Joslin’s discussion on Ellen Olenska’s dresses in The Age of Innocence (Joslin 123-125), particularly the significance of Greek and Roman statuary and draperies in the dress reformers’ movement.

12 “The supreme excellence is simplicity. Moderation, fitness, relevance – these are the qualities that give permanence to the work of the great architects. Tout ce qui n’est pas nécessaire est nuisible” (Wharton, 1897 198). Delsartean principles extended to all areas of life, including house decoration, as noted by Ruyter (xvii).

13 “Her pale draperies, and the background of foliage against which she stood, served only to relieve the long dryad-like curves that swept upward from her poised foot to her lifted arm. The noble buoyancy of her attitude, its suggestion of soaring grace, revealed the touch of poetry in her beauty that Selden always felt in her presence” (Wharton, 1905 106).

14 Her 1893 Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics established “dynamic breathing” as the core element of her practice and teaching.

15 Carrie J. Preston briefly discusses Wharton’s engagement with Delsartism in The House of Mirth in her 2011 book Modernism’s Mythic Pose, Gender, Genre, Solo Performance, where she states that “Wharton’s allusions to tableaux demonstrate the popularity of the form in Modernism” (Preston 97).

16 She adds that “judging and quantifying pain became fundamental to the development of an industrial nation,” and, quoting from Wai Chee Dimock’s Residues of Justice, that “there was a great cultural need, beginning in the nineteenth century, ‘to come up with something like a calculus of pain’ (Dimock 141). Edith Wharton writes Ethan Frome precisely within this calculus, at a time when literary critics, law courts, and corporations alike questioned whether lay persons could expand their capacity to understand suffering and to compensate injuries to body and mind” (Travis 154-155).

17 Gilbert and Gubar also refer to Cynthia Griffin Wolff’s reading of Lily Bart as associated to art nouveau flowers and Fuller’s dance (Griffin Wolff 114-115) and to Judith Fryer’s similar conclusion (Fryer 77).

18 On Duncan and Delsartism, see Ruyter 1979 36-37, and Daly 122-139, where she also discusses Duncan’s connection with sculpture, particularly her affinity with Rodin’s vision.

19 For a longer discussion of Isadora Duncan, Loïe Fuller and Delsartism, see Cappelle (ed.) 159-171. See also Garelick 187-194, for further exploration of the influence of Fuller on Graham regarding the use of fabric as an affective conduit.

20 In her autobiography, Duncan explains that her first “instincts for dance,” to quote a line from Emily Dickinson (“I Dropped my Brain—my Soul is numb,” Franklin 1088, vol. 2, 947), came from the waves in her native California coast: “My first idea of movement, of the dance, certainly came from the rhythm of the waves” (Duncan, 1927 2). Her 1902 essay “The Dance of the Future” also opens on the image of the waves, the natural movement of animals in nature, to argue that the dance should go back to the “unrestricted, natural and beautiful” movements of the natural body (Duncan, 1902 262-263).

21 As Wharton’s own biography reveals with the Newport episode, Isadora Duncan’s first performances were not as fully appreciated as her later ones, and Fuller explains in her autobiography how the Paris Opera rejected her work, leading her to turn to Music-Hall stages like the Folies Bergère (Fuller 52-53).

22 This warmth associated to Mattie is echoed in Marston’s Snowblind by the costume choice (Mattie’s velvety red dress) and the character’s fiery personality which is embodied in the impetus and momentum of Mattie’s movements, whose vivaciousness contrasts with the tension (induced by frustration and/or physical pain) and sense of impediment that stiffens the bodies of the dancers performing the roles of Ethan and Zeena.

23 In a similar way, what sets Lily Bart apart in the sequence of tableaux vivants is the natural simplicity of her performance:

“It was as though she had stepped, not out of, but into, Reynolds's canvas, banishing the phantom of his dead beauty by the beams of her living grace. The impulse to show herself in a splendid setting—she had thought for a moment of representing Tiepolo's Cleopatra—had yielded to the truer instinct of trusting to her unassisted beauty, and she had purposely chosen a picture without distracting accessories of dress or surroundings. (…) Its expression was now so vivid that for the first time he seemed to see before him the real Lily Bart, divested of the trivialities of her little world, and catching for a moment a note of that eternal harmony of which her beauty was a part.” (Wharton, 1905 106)

24 In every company, and for every ballet, there is always an A cast and a B cast, which alternate during the whole run of a piece over the season.

25 Cathy Marston on creating Snowblind for San Francisco Ballet’s Unbound Festival of new works, posted on the SF Ballet YT channel in May 2020: www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2P734mYprg&t=2s (last accessed 26 November 2023).

26 I’m referring here to Martha Graham’s famous phrase “movement never lies” (Graham 122). Graham was trained in Delsartean techniques while she was at the Denishawn school, and her father, a physician, would also have heard of Delsartism and his connections between affective states and the body—as Graham’s autobiography reveals since that famous phrase was apparently inspired by her father’s own discourse on the body.

27 This sequence of frustration is also repeated in the indoor pas de trois, while Mattie helps Zeena to her bedroom and Ethan finds himself alone downstairs.

28 In any fouetté, the point is to contrast the rectitude of the body (the torso and the supporting leg, which both remain on a vertical axis during the rotation) while the leg that is doing the battement rotates on a horizontal axis. If the upper body collapses, it signifies loss of balance.

29 The snowflakes perform ominous and affectively-charged movement in the still scene when Ethan carries Zeena to her bedroom while Mattie sits huddled on the chair downstairs: they replicate Ethan’s body positioning in a table position in his first pas de deux with his wife, echoing how he endures and carries the burden of his wife, as well as Zeena’s windmill hand gesture with closed fists down her torso, which can be read as signifying her inner turmoil as well as an unraveling­—her own, or her marriage’s.

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Table des illustrations

Légende Film still from Cathy Marston’s Snowblind: Sarah Van Patten and Ulrik Birkkjaer, San Francisco Ballet, 2018
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Légende Film still from Cathy Marston’s Snowblind: Sarah Van Patten and Ulrik Birkkjaer, San Francisco Ballet, 2018
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Légende Film still from Cathy Marston’s Snowblind: Ulrik Birkkjaer and Mathilde Froustey, San Francisco Ballet, 2018
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Légende Film still from Cathy Marston’s Snowblind: Sarah Van Patten, Ulrik Birkkjaer and Mathilde Froustey, San Francisco Ballet, 2018
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Légende Film still from Cathy Marston’s Snowblind: Sarah Van Patten, Ulrik Birkkjaer and Mathilde Froustey, San Francisco Ballet, 2018
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Légende Film still from Cathy Marston’s Snowblind: Sarah Van Patten, Ulrik Birkkjaer, Mathilde Froustey and the corps de ballet, San Francisco Ballet, 2018
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Légende Film still from Cathy Marston’s Snowblind: Sarah Van Patten, Ulrik Birkkjaer, Mathilde Froustey and the corps de ballet, San Francisco Ballet, 2018
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/22211/img-10.png
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Légende Film still from Cathy Marston’s Snowblind: Sarah Van Patten, Ulrik Birkkjaer, Mathilde Froustey and the corps de ballet, San Francisco Ballet, 2018
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Légende Film still from Cathy Marston’s Snowblind: Sarah Van Patten, Ulrik Birkkjaer, Mathilde Froustey and the corps de ballet, San Francisco Ballet, 2018
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Adeline Chevrier-Bosseau, « “Gestures of Air and Stone”: Translating Ethan Frome into Dance in Cathy Marston’s Snowblind »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/22211 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.22211

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