“It was one’s body feeling, not one’s mind”

A Pas de Deux for Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and the Russian Ballet

  • Chloe Leung


The Russian ballet was celebrated amongst the Bloomsbury group in the early twentieth-century. Throughout 1910s-1930s, Virginia Woolf enjoyed Russian ballets such as Petrushka, Le Spectre de la Rose and Scheherazade staged by Michel Fokine and Sergei Diaghilev. The expressivity of the dancing body rectifies words which, as Woolf delineates in “Craftsmanship,” are dishonest in articulating emotions (Selected Essays 85). This paper thus divulges an oppositional thinking that belies Woolf’s modernist aesthetics – a compulsion to give words to emotions that should be left unsaid. In To the Lighthouse (1928), this “silence” is communicated in the dancing gestures that populate the novel. Juxtaposing the context of Woolf’s attendance at the ballet with her concurrent composition of Lighthouse, I shall argue that the aesthetic convergence between Woolf’s prose and the Russian ballet is not a coincidence – that Woolf very much had the ballet in mind when she wrote. Woolf’s and the Russian ballet’s shared aesthetics however, do not characterise this paper as a study of influence the Russian ballet had on Woolf. Rather, Woolf involuntarily deploys the language of dance/ballet in articulating ineffable emotions. I will offer a close reading that scrutinizes the underexplored physical gestures of Mr and Mrs Ramsay with a perspective of dance. In projecting emotions, Woolf’s novel sketches a reciprocal network between the dancing body and the mind. I conclude by suggesting that the communicational lapses do not sentence the failure of but sustain human kinship. By extension, the Russian balletic presentation of the dancing body will also reanimate the mind-body conundrum that has haunted academia for centuries.