Angiola Sartorio

1903 – 1995

by Patrizia Veroli

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 she 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. 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.

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 WWII Angiola Sartorio was a permanent resident of the United States. She died in Santa Barbara, California on May 26, 1995.

AWARDS

American Dance Guild for Artistry, 1994.

Bibliography

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.

3 Comments

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

~~First of all, I want to thank Patrizia Veroli for her work.   I may also have some rather negative information for Mr Friedrichs.

I am a relative of Angiola.   My mother, Lydia, was her step-sister.   In 1918, Giulio Aristide Sartorio remarried.   Out of this second marriage, with Marga Sevilla an actress who had starred in his film "Il Mistero di Galatea", were born my mother and my uncle Lucio.

I met Angiola on various occasions between 1979 and her death.   I had met her also on a couple of previous occasions, but I had been too young to remember much.

Just before our first important meeting with her (Xmas 1979) Angiola had suffered a major loss.   She used to live in a house in the woods just outside the national park of Yosemite.   In the Fall of 1979, given her age, she had decided to move to an apartment in Santa Barbara.   She had found one and left there a couple of suitcases.   On her return to Yosemite, she discovered that her house had burnt down.   No clear origin for the fire was ascertained, but she mentioned some repairs that had recently been done to the heating system.

During our stay with her she took us to Yosemite and also showed us where her house had stood.   It was an eerie experience.   There was a round clearing in the wood.   Everything was covered with snow and you could not tell what may have been there.   The only thing emerging from the snow was the stone fireplace right in the middle of the clearing.   The other telling sign was that most trees still had a brownish color where they had suffered from the fire.

Angiola told us that she had been working for years on a history of ballet, but that all her material and notes had been destroyed in the fire.   As had, I assume, most of the concrete memories of her life.

We met her a number of other times.   In 1989 she came to Hamburg where she had a friend, another ballerina.   My wife and I found the day with these two girls fascinating.   They were both well over 80 and much more active than us.   Angiola had just spent three weeks in India, in a monastery where monks from Tibet had fled, to study and taperecord their dances.   With her permission I returned to Hamburg the following week-end with my laptop and a portable printer.   I asked her to tell me about her life, wrote it down, showed the text to her and added other elements.   After three iterations I had twenty pages (in Italian) that I shared with my cousins, sisters and brother.

I leave my e-mail address – fabio@colasanti.it - for anyone interested in discovering more from the little I know about Angiola Sartorio.

Fabio Colasanti

During her final years in Santa Barbara, Angiola was active in conservation movements, especially in support of National Parks, and she supported numerous efforts in support of the animal kingdom, both wild and captive. Whenever she felt a concern, she took a concrete action in that arena, however limited by her means. She was refreshingly remarkable, and a beneficial exemplar.

In reply to by brian lindberg

Do you know where her papers and other materials are held? My mother-in-law studied dance with her and says that some of her performances under Angiola Sartori were filmed. On the off chance that such a film might still exist, it would be interesting to know where her legacy is archived.

After years of oblivion, modern dance pioneer Angiola Sartorio has recently been rediscovered. This daughter of a great Italian painter and a German-Jewish mother created a dance company which in 1937 was forced to perform for Hitler, an event which precipitated her emigration from Europe to the United States. She is shown here circa 1920s.

Courtesy of Patrizia Veroli

How to cite this page

Veroli, Patrizia. "Angiola Sartorio." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 18, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/sartorio-angiola>.

Donate

Help us elevate the voices of Jewish women.

donate now

The JWA Podcast

Can We Talk?

listen now

Get JWA in your inbox