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Leigh Witchel

Monsters at the Ballet! Is Ballet ever scary?

20 posts in this topic

I'll start by saying that scary performances don't count biggrin.gif

What prompted this question was the performance tonight at NYCB of Firebird. The costumes include some of the most magnificent monsters by Marc Chagall. They are certainly monstrous, but I've never been frightened by them.

Some of the choreography Balanchine seemed most dissatisfied with have to do with monsters - the scenes in Orpheus for both the Furies and the Bacchantes were remade several times, not just by Balanchine (according to accounts, Robbins helped in the monster's dance in the Firebird and Martins in the Furies scene in Orpheus)

So, a few questions: What are the some interesting monsters you've seen in ballet?

Have you ever seen a ballet that frightened you? Truly deadly wilis?

Think of it as an early Hallowe'en and fire away!

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I'm not sure if it's a monster but Merril Ashley's Carabosse used to creep me out.

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Leonid Massine's diabolical slipper maker in The Red Shoes is my favorite.

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That's a good question, Leigh. I wonder if it's possible to do really good monsters these days? Looking at old engravings of court and 18th century ballets, there were lots of monsters -- I don't know how scary they were, but the groteschhi (sp?) specialized in acting roles, demons and villains. They used monsters as the antemasque, to show, through contrast, how wonderful were the gods and heroes. When that concept went.....I wonder if the Wilis were even scary in their day? I think during Romantic Ballet, everything became pretty-pretty, what Bournonville criticized as sentimentality. Some of his monsters, like Golfo in Napoli, have become weaker through the years. I once saw a film of Frank Schaufuss's Golfo that was truly monstrous -- he picked Gennaro up and threw him on the floor. (I mentioned this to several older dancers, who sniffed and said, "you should have seen Poul Vessel.") I'm afraid Bournonville's monsters have become weak over the years, except for.....

.....Sorella Englund's Madge. And, through photos only, Gerda Karstens' before her. A Danish dancer once gave me an imitation of Karstens' performance that literally made me jump back from its force.

There are some performances on film by some very great Russian character dancers in the '40s and '50s that made me long to see them, but, alas, I missed them by accident of birth. frown.gif

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Well, jokes aside, probably the scariest personification I've seen onstage recently has to be Daria Pavlenko's Moyna (or is it Zulma?) when the Kirov did Giselle here a few years ago. She looked to be seething with barely repressed hatred and anger as only a dead, jilted fallen maiden can be. I remember thinking "I sure wouldn't want to run into her in a dark alley!

Death in La Valse can be scary, if it's done very straight (Moncion was good at this). I suppose Drosselmeyer can be, too.

Actually, Irina Dvorovenko can be a truly frightening Myrtha (for once, I'm not being facetious about her!).

I do wonder what was up with the monster in the chicken costume last night in Firebird. Was he trying out for Fille?

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Death in Green Table, if done right, can also be very scary.

Giannina

[ February 01, 2002: Message edited by: Giannina Mooney ]

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I had thought about "The Green Table" too...

But in general, it's not easy for me to find some really "scary" moment in ballet performances (on the other hand, there are quite a lot of "scary" moments in modern dance, for example the moment when Medea becomes crazy in "Cave of the heart", or the arrival of the Minotaure in "Errand into the Maze"...)

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I've often thought that ballet became less interesting after the advent of modern dance, because modern dance syphoned off character dancers, those who would make monsters (either as dancers or choreographers). Now that ballet is invading modern dance and modern dancers are becoming more interested in technique, perhaps the monsters will wander back smile.gif

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That stupid Edward II ballet (by Birmingham RB) contained a scary scene with a hot poker.

Then there are certain portions of Eifman's ballet...yeah, even if I like them very much, generally speaking. smile.gif

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I've never seen a scary Von Rothbart, alas, but I wanted to comment on Jeannie's comment -- I would imagine (never having seen them smile.gif ) that Eifman might be one of the few people working today who COULD make a monster.

I also imagine, having seen few of them, that Massine had the same powers.

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The costume for Rothbart in NYCB's full-length Swan Lake is quite scary. wink.gif

Also, the male corps in The Prodigal Son is rather creepy as well, especially the part where they scuttle across the stage in pairs, like mutant spiders or something.

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I've frequently found the first killing in Robbins' The Cage to be terrifying, especially in Whelan's performance.

Dowell as Carabosse in his production of Sleeping Beauty is extemely malevolent. The moment when he pulls off Catalbutte's wig and plucks at his hair is awful.

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You guys missed "Opus 34" which I saw as a little feller! I only recently overcame my residual fear of surgery from the Operating Room scene and when they turned the lights onto the audience, it was really horrifying. Combined with the atonal music, it was truly scary! I think Balanchine may have been playing with the 50s fascination with horror movies as a driving motive.

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Though the trolls in Bournonville's Folk Tale aren't really monsters, Muri's first appearance, with that wonderful music does make me believe she is wicked, if not truly evil. When done right, Kaschei, in Fokine's version of Firebird, with those long fingernails is really frightening. Way back when, when Swan Lake was done straight, I remember Roghbard being a hovering, shadowy presence in the back which was certainly more effective than today's prancing ninnys. But these aren't really monsters, I guess, more individuals who are evil. I agree, the baldies in Prodigal Son are the closest things to real monsters I think I have seen--which of course has a lot to do with the costumes.

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I wonder how much the fear factor has to do with shock? Once we know the monster will die, we can sit there in safe superiority and watch it happen.

This question has been dancing out in the back of my head all week. I can remember two instances where I was surprised -- not quite frightened, but not completely sure of the outcome (aside from Romeo and Juliet, where it so often looks as though the men have been given their swords an hour before showtime, and I just can't watch). Once was Nureyev in "Swan Lake" (Royal Ballet, c. 1977) in the final fight with Rothbart. For a few seconds, you really thought Nureyev would win. The moral force of his fighting made Von Rothbart seem weak and evil. I think Von R had to remind him that HE was the winner here, because the impetus of the fight changed rather suddenly, but for just a moment.....

Another time was in the Royal Dane's Giselle, with Peter Bo Bendixen as Hilarion. He's a tall man and looks like a stage villain. When he's first surrounded by the Wilis, he scoffs at them. You could hear him think, "Get real, they're only girls." When they begin to dance around him, his reaction to them makes them monsters -- they're just dancing, he's terrified, like a man caught in quick sand. You can see the moment he realizes that they are not just girls, they're malevolent and he is going to die.

In the 19th century, story telling was often done by inference. In Folk Tale, you know the earth moves not because the stage shakes, but because Ove looks at the ground in something between wonder and terror. Maybe the monsters in Firebird don't look quite as scary to us now at least partly because the other characters don't react to them?

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Stephen Jefferies as Archduke Rudolph in MacMillan's Mayerling was truly terrifying in the wedding night pas de deux with Stephanie. If the dancer playing that role had run off the stage and locked herself in her dressing room, it would have been quite understandable.

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Drosselmeyer in the PNB movie version of the Nutcracker gave me a GIANT case of the willies!

We have often had small children cry during the Battlescene in Nutcracker.

We did Firebird with a bug theme and Kaschai was a spider and she was REALLY scary!

Miss

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Two creatures by Yacobson were really scary. First is Shurale in ballet with the same name. All children in the auditorium were frightened and even we, children who danced on the stage, were afraid of the dancer, specially, when this part was danced by Sapogov. Yacobson used his unique talent also in "Wonderland", where Sapogov was an evil creature without bones, so, he even can't walk himself and has to be carried by two servants.

[ February 11, 2002: Message edited by: Andrei ]

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Andrei, in that "other" company, didn't Shamil Yagudin create the role of Shurale for their production? It would be hard to imagine anybody backstage being afraid of him! I remember him as a pretty humorous fellow.

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