Billy Zane narrates film of WWI avante-garde theatre piece

Published: 26 June 2019
Reporter: Vera Liber

The Ballet of the Nations front cover

Hollywood superstar Billy Zane will narrate a 50-minute arthouse production of Vernon Lee and Maxwell Armfield's The Ballet of Nations: A Present-Day Morality from 1915.

During the First World War, an avant-garde theatre scene was beginning to flourish in London. In 1915, Vernon Lee and Maxwell Armfield wrote and illustrated The Ballet of Nations: A Present-Day Morality, an allegoric, pacifist satirical response to WWI which was only publicly recited twice and never fully realised as a theatrical production.

As part of the winter 2019 special issue of British Art Studies, coordinated by the art historian Dr Grace Brockington, Paul Mellon Centre’s open-access journal will feature an online exhibition of her research on London’s experimental theatre groups and will also host a new film that re-imagines The Ballet of the Nations produced by contemporary dance company Impermanence and directed by Roseanna Anderson and Joshua Ben-Tovim, with original dialogue inspired by Lee’s text among dance pieces.

The film begins with Satan instructing Ballet Master Death to assemble an orchestra of human passions (including Fear, Panic, Suspicion, Hatred, Heroism, Murder) to perform the dance macabre of war. This is interspersed with danced sections and finally descends into a massacre, locking the nations of the world into an endless cycle of slaughter and mutilation.

The film ends with a list of all the wars that have taken place since the First World War. Anderson explained, “I was thinking about how could we show that this story was from the First World War, acknowledge our own time, whilst gesturing to everything in between? I kept thinking about the last line in the book ‘And thus the ballet of the nations is still a dancing.’ The shockingly long list of wars affirms Lee’s prophetic vision and the foreboding nature of the text.”

The Ballet of the Nations incorporates original dialogue inspired by Lee’s text with production design by Pam Tait, an original soundtrack by electroacoustic composer Robert Bentall and cinematography by Jack Offord.

Dr Brockington said, “we wanted to bring the wartime ‘little theatres’ to life again by showcasing the rich culture of dance, music and art which they produced. The Ballet of the Nations is a tantalising publication because it describes the ‘theatre of war’ so vividly, but was never actually staged—until now.”