Angiola Sartorio was a prolific dancer, teacher, and choreographer who subverted fascism in her artistic choices. After receiving a diploma in Laban dance technique, she joined the company of Laban’s pupil Kurt Jooss in 1926. She was the protagonist of many of Jooss’s ballets whose plots undermined dictators and fascism. In the 1930s she staged the dances for several operas. Sartorio then opened a dance school in Florence and created her own company. She taught eurhythmics, acrobatics, improvisation, and composition to promote individual artistic growth. Sartorio's company was widely well-received until it performed for Hitler in Vienna and she had to flee to the United States. Sartorio continued to have a flourishing career as a teacher and choreographer in the United States until her death in 1995.
Early Life and Family
Forgotten for dozens of years in Italy, where she invested most of her energy and talent as a teacher, Angiola Sartorio has only recently been rediscovered. She was the daughter of a great Italian painter, Giulio Aristide Sartorio (1860–1932), whose frescoes adorn the main hall of the Chamber of Deputies in Rome. Her German-Jewish mother, Julie Bonn, came from a family of bankers and diplomats based in Kronberg im Taunus, near Frankfurt. The Bonns’ stately mansion currently houses the Town Hall. When her parents separated in 1905, Angiola went to England with her mother and in 1914 moved to Sweden.
After World War I, Sartorio went back to Germany and in approximately 1918 had an opportunity to see a performance by the father of European modern dance, the Hungarian Rudolf von Laban (1879–1958). This proved a striking and fateful experience for her. Since her mother strongly opposed her desire to become a dancer (at the time a disreputable career), she left home for a year. She was later able to attend the classes of Laban teacher Sylvia Bodmer (1902–1989) and received her diploma from Laban himself. In 1926 she joined the company of Laban’s pupil Kurt Jooss (1901–1979) as a dancer and soon also worked there as a teacher. She had brio and energy, and a talent for grotesque. She was the protagonist of Jooss’ ballet Pavane for a Dead Princess (1929) and a year later had the role of the Madwoman in the important ballet Illusions, an astounding allegory of dictatorship. In 1930 she left Jooss’s company to go to Paris and train in acrobatics and ballet. She went to Italy to see her father in 1932, just before his death.
Teaching, Choreography, and Company
After staging the dances of Verdi’s Macbeth at the Rome Opera House, Sartorio was invited to Florence as choreographer of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, under the direction of Max Reinhardt (1873–1943), which opened the 1933 May Festival. This was a tremendous experience for her. After she choreographed Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus in 1934, again for Reinhardt, he suggested that she follow him to the United States, but Sartorio refused. She had in fact already opened a dance school, whose financing was provided in part by herself and in part by the Florence Opera House. She created a dance company whose link to the school facilitated a constant interchange between theory, classes, and stage, a practice that Laban had introduced. Her pupils came mainly from the middle and upper classes, but Sartorio gave free lessons to whoever could not afford the fees. She taught Eurhythmics, Choreutics, and Acrobatics. She was also the only teacher in Italy of improvisation and composition, subjects which develop individual talent and which, as such, were taught in Italy only long after 1945. German Jewish dancers who had fled Germany constituted the majority of her teaching body.
Performing a great deal in Florence theaters, Sartorio’s company was very warmly received, especially by the foreign press. She choreographed a number of pieces, including Unending Song (1936), to a Jewish popular song by Joel Engel (Yuli Dimitriyevich, 1868–1927), which was very successful. However, her work was considered too innovative for Italy, where the National Fascist Party was imposing ballet as a kind of physical exercise very different from the free identity search implied by modern dance. Sartorio was more and more forced to tour abroad in order to survive. In 1936 Max Reinhardt invited her company to Vienna’s Theater in der Josefstadt and her Unending Song was again very well received. As a choreographer, Sartorio had a talent for the grotesque. She also liked working on energy variations (in accordance with Laban’s ideas), through which she could shape movements of varying fluidity and hint at the borders between, for instance, human, animal, and vegetal life. This was the inspiration for her last solo, Why Should I Fear?, which the ninety-year-old Angiola choreographed in Santa Barbara for Nina Watt in 1993.
World War II and Immigration to the United States
In 1937 Angiola’s company toured Zurich and Vienna and had to perform in front of Hitler. The promulgation of the Fascist anti-Jewish laws spread panic in the company. Profiting from her Italian name and convinced that her late father’s high reputation could protect her, Angiola had never revealed herself as Jewish. Now she understood that they all had to flee. Early in 1939, she sailed for New York, where her Laban training provided good opportunities to teach.
During the summer of 1945 and 1946, she worked at Jacob’s Pillow; from 1947 to 1952 she gave classes at Sullins College, Virginia, and during the summer at Bar Harbor, Maine. Among her pupils were Paul Taylor and Jerome Robbins, who became outstanding choreographers. During the winters she taught dance at Katherine Dunham’s school in New York. She later moved to Santa Barbara, California, where she taught and choreographed up to her final years. She often campaigned for civil rights and the defense of minorities and developed a great interest in Eastern religions. In her last years she entered the United Lodge of Theosophists.
After World War II Angiola Sartorio was a permanent resident of the United States. She died in Santa Barbara, California on May 26, 1995.
American Dance Guild for Artistry, 1994.
Dionne, Alexandra. “Modern Dance Great Honored at Conference.” The Santa Barbara Independent, June 2, 1994.
Veroli, Patrizia. “Una labaniana in Italia. Angiola Sartorio.” In Baccanti e dive dell’aria. Donne danza e società in Italia 1900–1945, pp. 269–289 . Città di Castello: 2002.