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The Camargo Society

The Camargo Society

The very year that saw the foundation of the Ballet Club (1930) also saw the formation of the Camargo Society for the express purpose of furthering the interests of English Ballet. Although it only remained in existence from 1930 to 1933, the Society played its part in establishing the new school, for it proved that there were British musicians and choreographers, dancers and designers anxious and ready to work together to produce ballets of their own, if only they were given a chance.

Among the artists who designed for the Camargo Society were John Armstrong, John Banting, Vanessa Bell, Edward Burra, William Chappell, Edmund Dulac, Duncan Grant, Gwen Raverat and George Sheringham. With so much variety of outlook there was an equal variety of treatment. Constant Lambert, as well as proving himself an ideal conductor for ballet, pro­vided two remarkably fine scores, Pomona and Rio Grande, both meriting more attention than they in fact received; and Vaughan Williams was inspired to write Job, one of his finest works. William Walton's witty Facade, which had misfired in the concert-hall because it involved speaking poetry to music, achieved instant success as a ballet. Perhaps Edith Sitwell—whose poems had now vanished from the score and been replaced by Ashton's pert choreography—may have felt aggrieved, but perhaps not, for like the best work of the Diaghileff Ballet, this was the product of friends, of many minds with a single object and of no one quite knowing where the activities of one began and the other ended. Lambert knew how to bring out every point in the orchestration, the subtle satire of the music was reflected in Armstrong's attractive setting, and the dancers, who included Lopokova (British by marriage) and Markova (British by birth), Walter Gore and William Chappell from the Rambert School as well as Ashton himself, exploited every situation. Best of all, it was enormous fun and tapped those sources of English humour, ridicule and satire which are such important English characteristics. It is still danced by the Ballet Rambert with the original charming setting, but Armstrong has redesigned the ballet for Sadler's Wells.

The Camargo Society produced altogether sixteen new ballets and shortened versions of Lac des Cygnes and Giselle. Ninette de Valois and Frederick Ashton got their chance to work for a full-sized company and showed their quality. By the time the Society wound itself up, going out of commission in a blaze of glory with a gala perform­ance of Coppelia at Covent Garden which paid off all the expenses, the Vic-Wells dancers, who under the direc­tion of Ninette de Valois had staged ballets occasionally since 1928 and had begun regular operations after the establish­ment of the Sadler's Wells Ballet School with a tentative once-a-fortnight performance of ballet in September 1931, were ready to take over the Camargo productions and put them into the repertory. Looking back to the achievements of the Camargo Society, they are seen to be considerable. New ballets had been produced, a new movement launched. Frederick Ashton and Ninette de Valois, new-comers then without much experience, now have more than sixty ballets to their credit, many of them of great beauty and importance. Constant Lambert has shown that he is an ideal Musical Director and has been closely identified with ballet ever since. Without his help and guidance the former Vic-Wells, now Sadler's Wells Ballet, could never have got so far. If Ninette de Valois is one of the pillars of that organisation, Constant Lambert is the other.

Of the various productions of the Camargo Society it was Job, a Masque for Dancing (1931), which proved to be the most interest­ing. Invented and largely inspired by Mr. Geoffrey Keynes, who had spent long years in preparing his monumental edition of Blake's works for the Pierpont Morgan Library, much of its success in creating the right atmosphere was due to the sustaining power of Vaughan Williams' noble music, in which the conflict of heavenly and infernal powers is so strikingly expressed. Keynes' project hung fire for so long that the composer, despairing of production, scored it for large orchestra as a concert work, so when it came to be done, it had to be re-scored. For this plastic drama, Ninette de Valois built up a series of mimed actions based on the Blake engravings to give a simple decorative effect. There was little real dancing. The audience had the impression that the great personal drama of Job had been enacted as it might have been seen through the eyes of William Blake, that the engravings had come to life, endowed with movement and colour. For decor, Gwen Raverat turned to Blake's hand-coloured set of drawings, and evolved some stylised back-cloths—one was of limitless sheep under a spreading oak tree—which evoked a memory of the originals. The very simplicity of the setting for the Heavenly Throne at the top of a flight of steps suggested the spirit of a medieval mystery play, but the part of Satan, and especially his triumphal dance, an epitome of pride, envy, hatred and malice, called for true virtuosity and exploited the real resources of ballet-dancing. The Anglo-Russian dancer Anton Dolin took this, the one outstanding part in the masque, and gave a performance which dominated the whole production. At the end Satan is hurled down the long flight of steps from the Throne—terrible and wonderful to see. Throughout he gave an impression of immense reserves, of latent strength, of primeval force.

Later, when Job went into the repertory of the newly-formed Vic-Wells Company, it was given at a special performance when representative music critics from eighteen countries were present. They were immensely struck by the music, but they were puzzled: it was not their idea of dancing or of drama. Nor had the idea appealed to Diaghileff, to whom the scenario had been offered some years before, who had pronounced it to be 'too English'. The Continental mind did not know what to make of it, for it was in fact a wordless masque, an English form of theatrical entertainment forgotten and neglected for close on three hundred years.

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