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Dark and Fair, and the Blue Knight


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 01 April 2001 - 11:02 AM

Since there was some interest in the employ discussion, I thought I'd raise some other aspects of ballet (and European theater generally) that are becoming buried. One is the question of Dark and Fair -- that some roles are suited to blonds and others to brunettes.

As recently as the 1960s, some blondes wore a black wig to dance Odette/Odile. Moira Shearer wrote that DeValois wouldn't let her do the role "because I was too light in every way." In Denmark, where dark and fair is buried deep in the culture, there's obviously a Nordic skew to the subject: Italians were dark, Danes were fair. But within the Danish repertory, too, there were divisions. Junker Ove is the Blond Youth, James, more troubled, was considered a dark role (although blonds danced it, and the two greatest Junker Ove's were dark, so it's a matter of personality as much as coloring); trolls recognize each other because they have red hair (red was evil, a hangover from the Vikings, in other cultures; Von Rothbart has a red beard; in Scotland, if the first person who crosses your threshold on the New Year is a redhead, you'll have bad luck for a year).

Another thing that used to enrich ballet -- and make it easy to do storytelling -- was color symbolism. Past audiences "read" colors. Eight maidens in green come on, and that's Youth. White, of course, is innocence. (We still have the cowboy with the white hat and the black hat.) But there was also the Blue Knight. I first noticed this in Smakov's book, "The Great Russian Dancers," where he wrote that Gerdt was "Petipa's Blue Knight," and then I found the same phrase in Danish dance criticism of the 1950s. "The beautiful blue couple" -- this was the color of heroes, I think it's why Giselle still wears blue, even when the rest of the village is decked out in their autumnal finery.

Does anyone else have pieces of this puzzle? (I hope this does not detour into a discussion of political correctness. Ballet was born in Europe, and these concepts grew up long before the people who used them had any idea that there were places in the world where there weren't blonds.)

#2 felursus

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Posted 01 April 2001 - 07:21 PM

A friend of mine from Iceland was a principal dancer in Germany. Her "image" of the ideal ballerina was something like Spessivtseva - beautiful and dark. She died her hair for years before coming to realize that you could be blonde and a ballerina. Only problem is that she was VERY blonde - and it didn't always look good under the lights, (too washed-out), so she just made it more golden. LOL

I think we have Hollywood to thank for a lot of the imagery: brunette - strong, experienced, nasty, evil; blonde - young, innocent, fragile, etc. One think of Hermia and Helena in "The Dream". Hermia = a blonde and Helena = a brunette. Because Hermia was the one originally persued by two suitors. This is in some contrast to the EXTREME blondes, who were/are viewed as "sex symbols" (Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, etc.)

Interestingly, there is a film (and if anyone knows where I can get a copy - please let me know) that I saw in England over 20 years ago. It was a Finnish film entitled: "Men Can't Be Raped." It involves a blonde "mousey" woman who is raped and gets revenge by putting on a brunette wig and becoming completely glamorous and haunting the raper. So in Finland it's the brunette who has the "sexy" image - like the "blondes have more fun" image here.

#3 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 01 April 2001 - 07:32 PM

and if i remember correctly, alexandra, kirsten simone donned a black wig when she danced ruth page's 'carmen'.

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 01 April 2001 - 08:07 PM

You remember correctly, pmeja. Also Don Q and Odette. As late as 1977, a young ABT soloist told me in an interview, quite seriously, that she thought she was getting better roles than some of the people her own age (blondes) because "it's easier if you have dark hair."

felursus, the dark/fair imagery predates Hollywood by several thousand years; they're using it (in a coarse form), but they didn't invent it. As for the dark couple/fair couple in Midsummer, that's a storytelling device, I think. It's easy for the audience to realize that the two couples have been split up -- dark with fair, fair with dark -- and when they get back together everything is back in order.

#5 Cliff

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Posted 03 April 2001 - 12:49 AM

Regarding colors, purple was long associated with royalty because purple dye was rare & expensive.

Are there any ballets with a Green Knight? I vaguely recall that a Green Knight represented nature in the Arthurian myths.

Cliff

#6 Terry

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Posted 03 April 2001 - 03:15 AM

What an interesting question!
Actually though, I have always had an image of Giselle as a girl with dark/brunette hair and couldn't imagine her being blonde for some reason...I don't have any specific images for other roles but I do feel slightly that dancers with darker hairs leave a little more of an impression (of course, the dancing counts too) on stage, especially if they're in the corps.

#7 Alexandra

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Posted 03 April 2001 - 11:01 AM

Cliff, I remember the Green Knight, but not that he was associated with nature -- it makes sense.

You're righta bout purple and royalty. I think, in fact, there were times when "common people" weren't allowed to wear purple. In Renaissance England, one of the reasons that actors were seen as suspicious and anti-social was that they were free men -- didn't belong to a court nor, I believe, a guild; no one was responsible for them -- and also that sometimes they'd slip out of the theater and into the taverns in costume, and so would be impersonating the nobility, wearing their colors and fabrics.

Terry, the ABT dancer was referring to coloring in the sense that you are, I think -- simply that pale faces and hair do not register well on stage. (One of the problems with Amanda McKerrow, I think. She is so pale that she fades and disappears.)

#8 Juliet

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Posted 03 April 2001 - 05:42 PM

Then why did M. Belosertkovsky decide to go golden? As contrast to Dvorovenko?

Her registers fine on stage with me....

#9 Alexandra

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Posted 03 April 2001 - 06:04 PM

I think this is getting into personal preferences of the artist, perhaps, rather than the dark/fair question. I didn't mean to suggest that DeValois thought Shearer "too light in every way" for Swan Lake (partly because of hair color) was because she preferred dark hair, but that there was something buried deep in the cosmic past that matched hair color, bone structure, etc., with different personality types.

I'd love to know how cultures outside of Europe deal with "types." There are, of course, heroes and villains everywhere. I saw an Okinawan folk dance troupe last year that depicted two women of "low class" by showing them with extremely awkward hand movements -- that was "bad dancing" to them, and people laughed at them. I don't know if their masks were different -- they weren't to my eye, but it's not an educated eye in this instance.

#10 Helena

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Posted 04 April 2001 - 03:02 AM

The dark-haired, dark-eyed ballerina is certainly the one that looks "right" to me, and I think it is because, in Europe at least, our image of the ideal ballerina comes down the Pavlova/Markova/Fonteyn route - all dark. And of course dark colouring does show up best on the stage, especially with the "white tutu" roles.

There have always been fair-haired dancers, though - Riabouchinska, Pamela May, Antoinette Sibley, Makarova, Sarah Wildor all come to mind, and of course the red-haired Moira Shearer - beautiful dancers all. To me, their fairness is noticeable, something to be commented on, whereas I would never say "Tamara Rojo has black hair", because that is the "norm".

Ashton used the different colourings of Fonteyn (dark), May (blonde), and Shearer (red) as part of the visual impact of the original production of Symphonic Variations, and I also feel that the contrast in colouring was an important visual element in the Fonteyn/Nureyev and Seymour/Gable partnerships. In both cases the man was fair and the woman dark, which I suppose is the precise opposite of the common fairytale image of golden-haired princess and dark, handsome prince.

This dark-haired, dark-eyed ideal doesn't seem to apply to men. I never felt surprised by the fair-haired male dancer - Erik Bruhn, Nureyev, Christopher Gable. (Bruhn/Fracci - there's another blond/dark partnership.)

Concerning the colour of costumes, I didn't know that blue was the colour of heroism, and have always thought that Giselle's blue dress was a symbol of her innocence and purity - the Virgin Mary is usually portrayed dressed in blue. When I saw the Bolshoi production of Giselle two or three years ago, I was very surprised to see Giselle dressed in yellow with a dark red bodice. One has to keep an open mind on these things, though, and I'm almost used to blonde ballerinas now!

[This message has been edited by Helena (edited April 04, 2001).]

#11 Helena

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Posted 04 April 2001 - 06:51 AM

I realise that I've diverged a bit on the above post from Alexandra's original intention. Sorry. I tend to expect female dancers to be dark whatever role they are dancing.

There is a wonderful mediaeval English poem called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where the Green Knight is a powerful fertility figure. I'm not sure if it's been made into a ballet, but there is a fairly recent opera by Harrison Birtwistle. Pubs in England are quite often called The Green Man.


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