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Dancing with props: which ballets make the best (or worst) use

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A musical theater experience yesterday that involved a tuxedo'd gentlemen manipulating a long red feathered boa as he sang set me thinking to the matter of props that are part of actual dancing sequences in ballets.

Clara's (or Marie's) exploding shoe in Nutcracker plays a memorable role in advancing the plot, but it doesn't seem to be a part of or accessory to the girl's dancing -- at least in the productions I've seen. Same holds true (I THINK) of Solor's water pipe, the Wilis' fly-off veils at the start of Giselle, Act II. and the Sylphide's removable wings.

I guess I'm thinking more about props that are handled and manipulated by dancers while they are dancing. Props as dance partners, if you will. (But -- of course -- please feel free to mention any kind of prop you want. :wink: )

What are the most important and/or memorable ballet props, in this sense? Which work best or worst?

Personal favorite prop: the tambourine in numerous Tarantellas, gypsy dances, etc. (Don Quijote, Napoli, etc.). I THINK this qualifies as a prop (as well as a percussion instrument), largely because it extends the line of the arms and participates in all sorts of wonderful movement. I especially love tambourines that actually make noise as the dancers strike them. Those that have had the noisy parts removed seem to me to be letdowns.

Lamest prop, IMO: my vote goes to the cross bows that the Prince carries and waves around ineffectually in Swan Lake Act II. You need the crossbow to make sense of his first meeting with the swans. But many of these bows don't even have a string. Show me a good cross-bower and you're on your way to a convincing Siegfried.

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The rose, of course, comes immediately to mind in the Sleeping Beauty.

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And of course, the "toilet paper" in the Shades scene of Bayadere....

But Ashton seems to be the propmeister of record. The ribbon in Fille, as well as other hand props in that show, and all the self-propelled vehicles in "Enigma Variations". Didn't he do at least one ballet including a working automobile?

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How about the pocketbook and eyeglasses used by the ballerina in that parody number Le Grande Pas de Deux?(or whatever it is called)

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Le Corsaire and La Bayadère immediately come to mind as being absolutely stuffed with props. In the case of Bayadère, we have scarves attached to ankles, fans, parrots, garlands, parrots ON garlands, Nikiya's water jug, the Manou water jug, &c. Le Corsaire's 'Jardin Animé' features so many garlands and flowers you need a weed whacker, little parterre hedges with topiaries dragged onstage for the dancers to jump over, a watering can, and an enormous Easter basket at the end.

And I love it all. :wink:

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The rose, of course, comes immediately to mind in the Sleeping Beauty.

And also in Sleeping Beauty, the spindle.

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The "Garland Dance" garlands in "The Sleeping Beauty".

The hoops in the "Candy Cane" section of Balanchine's "The Nutcracker".

The costume and ribbons in "Chinese Tiger" section of Kent Stowell's "The Nutcracker".

Fans, fans, fans in "Don Quixote".

The sewing form in Olivier Wevers' "X stasis".

Tambourines in "Neopolitan" dances in "Swan Lake", "Tarantella", etc. as well as in gypsy dances like "Esmeralda", etc.

The Noguchi lyre in "Orpheus" and another small one in another Balanchine ballet, where I think it was a soloist who danced with a little lyre overhead.

The baton in the "Corcoran Cadets" Regiment in "Stars and Stripes".

The semaphore flags in the finale of "Union Jack". Pearly Queen's flask in the same ballet might be marginal.

The Love Plant in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" makes a brief appearance during Puck's jetes in Balanchine's version.

Is it "Pavanne" in which the dancer whooshes around a big scarf?

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An easy choice for 'most gruesome' - Bintley's Edward ll dancing with the severed head of his lover (in a bag, fortunately)

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Fans, fans, fans in "Don Quixote".
Indeed. :)
The sewing form in Olivier Wevers' "X stasis".
Aren't there sewing forms (which I'm guessing means headless dummies) rolling around in one of Kylian's ballets?

Helene, all those Balanchine props you have recalled could be the basis of an article in DanceView or Ballet Review! Not ALL Balanchine works are stripped down leotard ballets.

Is it "Pavanne" in which the dancer whooshes around a big scarf?
Yep. I remember this from the Ravel Festival. That scarf got a work out and deserved co-principal billing. One of Balanchine's few forgettable works for a ballerina, but an UNforgettable role for a garment.
An easy choice for 'most gruesome' - Bintley's Edward ll dancing with the severed head of his lover (in a bag, fortunately)
:FIREdevil: Jane, I suspect you are right; that WOULD be hard to beat. Borrowed from Salome? The bag sounds like a good idea, since John the Baptist's head always looks phony in productions of the opera.

The Birmingham Royal Ballet website has a photo (top right) that looks like the king holding the bag itself.

http://www.brb.org.uk/3868.html

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What about the broom in Act 1 in Cinderella, I'm thinking about Ashton's version, the key in Coppelia,( one of Swanhilda's friends finds it) , it opens the door to Dr. Coppelius's workshop. I don't know if this is a prop, but in the prologue scene in Sleeping Beauty,you have a doll to represent the infant Aurora, during the christening scene. One company that I worked for ( which will remain nameless ) used an enormous empty gin bottle (for Aurora) during rehearsals.

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The bows from Sylvia's friends-(Ashton's)- and also in some renditions of Diane&Acteon PDD.

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The tambourine of Esmeralda.

Personally I love the scarf that connects Solor and Nikya in La Bayadere.

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Oh, and what about that maypole in Act I of Mckenzie's Swan Lake...? :FIREdevil:

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One company that I worked for ( which will remain nameless ) used an enormous empty gin bottle (for Aurora) during rehearsals.
:FIREdevil: Who emptied it, I wonder? Was there a fresh bottle -- newly opened and emptied -- for each performance? No WONDER Carabosse was upset not to be invited to the christening.

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One company that I worked for ( which will remain nameless ) used an enormous empty gin bottle (for Aurora) during rehearsals.

:FIREdevil:

Did the supers and fairies try to "kiss" it during performances?

Fans, fans, fans in "Don Quixote".
Indeed. :)
The sewing form in Olivier Wevers' "X stasis".
Aren't there sewing forms (which I'm guessing means headless dummies) rolling around in one of Kylian's ballets?

Yes!!!! -- in "Petite Mort" Kylian gives the men swords -- another whole genre of prop, although here the men and couples dance with them instead of fight -- and the women what look like the infrastructure of dresses with paniers on wheels. (You'd think I would have remembered this, having seen it this season at PNB...)

Thank you for the link to the "Edward II" photo: I never would have known he was carrying a severed head in that case. Or maybe it was a gin bottle?

Don't the Marzipan Shepherdesses carry pan pipe flutes, or do they just mime them?

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Then there is the EXTREMELY SOPHISTICATED use of props...which aren't there, as in "Parade". And if the choreographer has been paying close attention to the meanings of the words, the shepherdesses in Nutcracker shouldn't be playing panpipes. "Mirliton" means "kazoo". Ever wonder about the oddly buzzing bass line in the second period of the dance?

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Then there is the EXTREMELY SOPHISTICATED use of props...which aren't there, as in "Parade". And if the choreographer has been paying close attention to the meanings of the words, the shepherdesses in Nutcracker shouldn't be playing panpipes. "Mirliton" means "kazoo". Ever wonder about the oddly buzzing bass line in the second period of the dance?

What a coincidence--I just read about this in the Tchai. biography by Wiley. If we're thinking about the same sound effect, it's from a flute-playing technique called frullato (sounds delicious), an Italian term for flutter-tonguing (sounds salacious).

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Nope, the frulato marking is on the entrée of Clara/Marie and the Nutcracker Prince in the shell-boat on the river of attar-of-roses, the second number in Act II.

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Best: The Sleepwalker's candle in La Sonnambula, both in her hand and it's ascent at the end.

The gate The Prodigal Son jumps over in defiance at the beginning and crawls through with help from his sisters at the end.

Worst: Mother Ginger's face powder in NYCB's Nutcracker. I alway feel sorry for the dancer having to navigate on stilts while breathing in all that powder.

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Well, a severed head pretty much takes the cake in the “icky” category, though I think the whip in Eifman’s Hamlet would come in high on the list (my first thought on seeing it was “Kitten With a Whip”)

Agree about the poor archery technique among many Swan Lakes. I’m always glad that, no matter how many crossbows there are, they hardly ever have any arrows.

The Marzipan Shepherdesses in the Lew Christensen Nut had prop flutes -- in rehearsal the girls used to work with ballet slippers.

And my favorite use of a prop is probably the ribbon in Fille -- I love the cat’s cradle trickiness of the whole thing, and the “X”s for kisses at the end makes me tear up just writing about it!

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How about Jerome Robbins' The Concert? Lots of props there: chairs, hats, scarves, eye glasses, newspaper, knife (for stabbing an annoying wife), umbrellas, even the piano could be considered a prop once The Ballerina attaches herself to it.

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The chair and table in Le Jeune Homme et la Mort come to mind and the rope, natch.

Suzanne Farrell says in her book that she and Paul Mejia had a private joke about Bejart's choreography: "Have chair, will travel."

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The Noguchi lyre in "Orpheus" and another small one in another Balanchine ballet, where I think it was a soloist who danced with a little lyre overhead.

Is it "Pavanne" in which the dancer whooshes around a big scarf?

I think the small lyre you refer to is the one used by Terpsichore in APOLLO. The other muses use a scroll and a mask.

The scarf is indeed used in Pavane. Balanchine seemed to love B-I-I-I-G pieces of cloth: think of the "Door" in VARIATIONS POUR UNE PORTE ET UN SOUPIR (I hope my French is correct there) -- a skirt as big as the stage. He also used a large skirt in L'ERRANTE in 1933. But I guess technically, those are not props, but part of costumes -- like the hats in WESTERN SYMPHONY, especially the one that gets used as a guitar.

The PRODIGAL SON also uses flagons, horn-like multi-purpose containers, and jewels (torn off the Prodigal). Come to think of it, that stupendous long cape in PRODIGAL, worn by the Siren, is somewhat related to the aforementioned skirts.

I would think that there are props in HARLEQUINADE and LE BOURGEOIS GENTILLHOMME (which he re-choreographed several times, the last time for City Opera in 1979 and City Ballet in 1980).

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"Mirliton" means "kazoo". Ever wonder about the oddly buzzing bass line in the second period of the dance?
I am in a constant state of awe about how much stuff I learn on Ballet Talk. The Mirlitons will never be the same for me. I always thought they were some kind of pan pipe or flute.

Your post, Mel, led me to Wikipedia where I found that mirlitons and kazoos are examples of a category of musical instruments called "singing membranophones." (Drums are NON-singing membranophones, apparently.) Now all I need is to find a conversation into which I can drop this wonderful new piece of information.

ViolinConcerto:

I would think that there are props in HARLEQUINADE and LE BOURGEOIS GENTILHOMME
Photos of Villella show him dancing with what appears to be a type of mandolin. According to Repertory in Review: "There is a droll number with five drunken drunken dragoons, tottering and uncertain but somehow on tempo. A fatuous lute player [Lendre] gets stuck on one note." Suki Schorer reports: "At one point, when [Pierrot] tries to get into the house, I come running out with the broom and hit him with it."

Perky:

Best: The Sleepwalker's candle in La Sonnambula, both in her hand and it's ascent at the end.
Good one. It raises a question: when the Sleepwalker carries the dead poet in her arms as she leaves the stage, you might conclude that HE has been transformed into a kind of prop. The same might apply to Juliet in the tomb. In the Russian version -- I can't remember if this is also the case in MacMillan's -- Romeo, who thinks Juliet is dead, manipulates her body (kissing her, lifting her, almost dancing with her) as if trying to bring her back to life.. A question for the philosophers or theologians: can a HUMAN BODY become a prop under certain conditions?

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A question for the philosophers or theologians: can a HUMAN BODY become a prop under certain conditions?

Well, there's Roland Petit's Coppelia, where the doll is literally a doll, attached to Dr C at the wrists and feet so that he waltzes with her in perfect synchrony!

and considering how some Romeos really drag the dead Juliet around, you could make a case for combat pay, not just prop status.

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