Paul Parish

WHO first said that Sleeping Beauty epitomized the classical ballet?

19 posts in this topic

Do you know? Was it one of Diaghilev's program-note writers? Bakst? Benois? Or Lopukhov? Vaganova? Levinson?

The idea has certaihnly taken root, and few would contest it -- but who was the first to articulate it?

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Good question! I just assumed everyone, simultaneously :) My guess would be someone in England (Cyril W. Beaumont, Ninette de Valois) because a Russian would KNOW it was classical style and wouldn't have to point it out. But that is just a guess. I hope someone knows!

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Good question, indeed. I don't know the answer, but I suspect we are right to look for it at a time and place fairly distant from the original performances of the ballet.

The idea that a work of art "epitomizes" a style -- like the concept of a "Golden Age" -- is something that takes time and perhaps even geographical distance to develop. You need the chance to observe subsequent works, and to come to feel that things are in decline, before you can identify a high point in the past.

In the case of Russia, the Soviet Revolution increased the sense of distance by smashing the cultural milieu out of which Sleeping Beauty was created.

This is probably off topic, but Paul's question led me to look back at a couple or books on the shelf -- Wiley's Tchaikovsky's Ballets; Homans' Apollo's Angels, Scholl's Sleeping Beauty: a Legend in Progress -- to get an idea of reactions to the 1890 premiere. What makes Sleeping Beauty great .. and the epitome of classical? Critical responses at the premiere seem to have been mixed.

Homans:

Today we like to think of The Sleeping Beauty as an elevated artistic landmark, but at the time of its premiere in 1890 many critics and observers saw it as a sellout to low popular taste.

Observers seemed to have difficulty in seeing the forest for the trees, perhaps overwhelmed by the mass of artistic contributions to the complete work -- not only choreography and dance technique, but costumes, decor, music, story, and themes. Much of this was innovative, but it took time for this to be recognized.

Context seems to have added to the confusion -- especially the popularity of elaborate dance spectacles, ballets feeries, Itallian innovations in bravura technique, etc.

Tim Scholls:

Ironically, given that Sleeping Beauty came to be regarded as the quintessence of late nineteenth-century Russian ballet, a number of the ballet's first critics were certain that SB marked the decline of the art form .... Many of the ballet's original critics were not certain that SB was a ballet at all.

Homans has a point of view about this:

Yet The Sleeping Beauty was itself a ballet-feerie -- not a "sellout" but an astute artistic counterattack designed to beat the Italians at their own game while at the same time affirming the aristocratic heritage of the Russian ballet. It marked a sharp departure from the exotic and Romantic ballets of the past and had none of the charming village boys or ghostly, spirit-like ballerinas coveted on the St. Petersburg ballet stage. Nor was Beauty a slavish reprise of Perrault's fairy tale, .... Petipa took seriously the seventeenth-century setting ... He read about old court dances and pored over Perrault's works, carefully cutting out and saving illustrations. ... [T] ballet absorbed more than a quarter of the 1890 annual production budget for the Imperial Theaters.

A key component is Tchaikovsky's music, which

... set the tone, and its sophisticated, graceful classicism and eloquent Russian sweep presented Petipa with unprecedented choreographic challenges. Many critics found the music too operatic, and the dancers complained bitterly that it was difficult to move to. Accustomed to the predictable rhythms and simple, programmatic structure of Pugni and Minkus, Petipa pressed himself -- and his dancers -- to find newly suitable movements. Ironically, when searching for material he drew precisely on the Italian techniques he had so lamented. ...

Petipa, however, did more than just repeat the tricks he learned from these Italians. He had a concrete, technical mind-- he was interested in the mechanics of the steps and readily grasped the Italian innovations, particularly in pointe work -- but he also had a deep appreciation of the architecture and physics of ballet, and he knew or learned, how to refine and discipline their bombast and enthusiasm to give them depth and dimension they lacked hitherto.

... No acting was necessary: Beauty had very little "he said, she said,," pantomime, and the mime and dance sequences were not musically distinct or set apart, as they had been customarily. The gestures and the dances flowed together seamlessly.

As to Paul's question, probably a number of the people mentioned so far recognized SB's significance. But I suspect that Diaghelev (or someone who influenced him) had the key role. Diaghelev was the actually who of actually put a version of this work on stage for a Western European audiences. Once audiences can actually see something on stage, you have a focus around which critical opinions from many individuals will coalesce and solidify.

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Interesting article by Beth Genné in Dance Research Journal (sorry I don't have the issue, but it's post 1997 and can be found on JSTOR) "Creating a canon, Creating the "Classics" in 20th-c. British Ballet" discusses in detail esp. Ninette de Valois's role in establishing Swan and Beauty as "classics"

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It was most likely Alexandre Benois, at the very beginning. In "Petersburg: A Cultural History", Solomon Volkov says this about Benois' rediscovery of ballet through "Sleeping Beauty":

In those days, few people had a serious interest in ballet, In educated Petersburg circles ballet was despised, an echo of the nihilist ideas of the 1860‘s. Benois, who had loved ballet in his youth, was beginning to cool toward it when his fierce passion for "The Sleeping Beauty" turned him into a passionate balletomane once more.

So Benois the eternal proselytizer, infected all his friends with his fanatical enthusiasm for "The Sleeping Beauty," first among them Diaghilev, who moved to Petersburg a year and a half after the ballet’s premiere.

Benois in his "Reflections on the Ballet" says that he began to recognize "Sleeping Beauty" as a complete work of art, a Gesamtkunstwerk. He credits its success to Ivan Vsevolonzhsky, as the head of the production - and not so much Petipa, that nice old man.

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It was most likely Alexandre Benois, at the very beginning. In "Petersburg: A Cultural History", Solomon Volkov says this about Benois' rediscovery of ballet through "Sleeping Beauty":

In those days, few people had a serious interest in ballet, In educated Petersburg circles ballet was despised, an echo of the nihilist ideas of the 1860‘s. Benois, who had loved ballet in his youth, was beginning to cool toward it when his fierce passion for "The Sleeping Beauty" turned him into a passionate balletomane once more.

So Benois the eternal proselytizer, infected all his friends with his fanatical enthusiasm for "The Sleeping Beauty," first among them Diaghilev, who moved to Petersburg a year and a half after the ballet’s premiere.

Benois in his "Reflections on the Ballet" says that he began to recognize "Sleeping Beauty" as a complete work of art, a Gesamtkunstwerk. He credits its success to Ivan Vsevolonzhsky, as the head of the production - and not so much Petipa, that nice old man.

Homans also discusses the gesamkunstwerk attribution, though not Benois. Benois would be a relatively early source for this kind of thinking. I think we can find quite a few references to the artistic unity/quality/value of Sleeping Beauty. But Paul's question relates specifically to the idea that SB "epitomizes classical ballet." This raises questions about what constitutes classical -- a concept far from identical with gesamkunstwerk. Was Benois, or others of that generation in Russia, aware that some sort of pinnacle in "classical" art had been achieved by Petipa et al. in SB? Did they use that kind of language?

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Bart, you're right about bringing it back to what constitutes classical, though there may be overlapping characteristics with complete-work. Scholl in Petipa to Balanchine says "The revival of classical aesthetics in Russian modernism is Sleeping Beauty's legacy". The whole ballet may be a metaphor for the revival of classicism after the 100 year sleep of the court - Benois was was impressed by the "special poetical charm' of this bridge. But who said it - or did it sort of say itself - or only become apparent in retrospect?

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I recommend you read the article I posted about as she addresses all these questions.

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I recommend you read the article I posted about as she addresses all these questions.

Alas, the price on jstor is $22.00 (U.S.) for a PDF file.

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Thanks for the reference, kbarber. Our library has access to Jstor and so I’ll cite a small section of Beth Genné’s extensive reasearch in which she traces the “canonization of a classic” to a very humble start.

The Board of Governors of Sadler’s Wells had decided that the first performance of de Valois’ and Sergueyev’s final production of Imperial Ballet repertory – the Sleeping Princess would be given as a benefit for a charity called The Housing Centre dedicated to slum clearance and to creating affordable housing for the poor.

The preliminary notice sent to potential contributors included in an essay by Arnold Haskell and a brief order form informing patrons that The Sleeping Princess is the greatest of all the classics ... this revival will prove a sensation and must be considered a major event in the Ballet History."

The essay affirmed the Sleeping Princess’s status in no uncertain terms and implied that a canon of classics indeed existed. ... [Haskell wrote], “The association with Tchaikovsky, greatest of all the composers for ballet, gave Petipa, the choreographer, already a veteran, a new lease of life, and the work turned the attention of many who had thought ballet frivolous to a new appreciation of its value as an artistic medium. It was a landmark."

However I would tend to go with Benois on the first wave of its history, though less specific than Haskell, for having the eye for Sleeping Beauty’s importance.

Also there still is some difference between classical and “the classics.” Baudelaire is not classical, yet he is included on lists of the classics (Genné begins her essay with a reference to Bloom’s canon of the classics).

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Here are a couple of threads discussing "What is classicism?," from the early days of Ballet Talk (now Ballet Alert). When I first joined the forum I found them very helpful in giving definition and form to something I knew I liked but didn't understand.

http://balletalert.i...tions-and-uses/

http://balletalert.i...tions-and-uses/

Just one example of the complexity of this concept, and why we have to be careful when using it to praise or condemn -- from a post by Marc Haegeman:

When is a ballet truly "classical art"? I always felt inclined to answer "When it's based on certain well-defined rules and thus respects tradition (academic dance) even by enriching its vocabulary, and when it has a permanent value for people, a sort of universal meaning." All that Petipa created was "classical" in the way that he used a choreographic vocabulary which is based on classical elements (academic dance, itself based on order, clear structures, harmony etc), yet not all he did gained the status of a "classic."

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I recommend you read the article I posted about as she addresses all these questions.

Alas, the price on jstor is $22.00 (U.S.) for a PDF file.

You might check to see if your local library has databases that you can access on their computers for full text articles. Many libraries have subscriptions. Of course, you might not care enough to do this. Just wanted to throw an idea out if you did really, really want to access it.

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Thanks for the links to discussions past, Bart. I liked this contrast that Alexandra gave:

Or [the use] could be descriptive, to denote that she was a classical rather than a romantic ballerina. The classical ballerina's arabesque implies a circle; the romantic ballerina's an oval. This has to do with body proportions, and also with the fact that classical shoulders are squared, romantic shoulders droop.

I thought I'd add Beth Genné's critique of Haskell's claim. It seemed that in order for the de Valois company establish its place history (since it wasn't to be a modernist group), it was important for establish the "Sleeping Beauty" as a landmark for its own basis of legitimacy.

Although Haskell’s essay acknowledged that this landmark was created in 1890, his use of the term ‘classic’ to describe the Sleeping Beauty, has, over time, obscured the fact that it was much more recent than generally now perceived in the public imagination. The Sleeping Beauty is contemporaneous with early modernist efforts in the other arts – with Cezanne and Gauguin. In the world of dance, Sleeping Beauty preceded Isadora’s major creations by only a decade. De Valois was born only eight years after its premiere. Yet it is, I believe, because of the label ‘classic’ that Sleeping Beauty gradually begins to be thought of as belonging to a timeless, almost mythical past – an ur-text for classical dance, while Isadora Duncan and the other artists who are roughly contemporary with its creation entered the public imagination as revolutionaries of the modern era.

Haskell’s claiming of ‘classic’ status for Sleeping Beauty also, to some extent, distorts history, for Haskell, like de Valois, was acting on very little direct knowledge of the bulk of previous ballet.

So it's interesting that Russian classicism and modernism developed almost simultaneously.

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I recommend you read the article I posted about as she addresses all these questions.

Alas, the price on jstor is $22.00 (U.S.) for a PDF file.

You might check to see if your local library has databases that you can access on their computers for full text articles. Many libraries have subscriptions. Of course, you might not care enough to do this. Just wanted to throw an idea out if you did really, really want to access it.

Yes, Birdsall, great suggestion. That's how I access it, through Toronto Public Library. It's fantastic to have this free resource to in-depth scholarly discussions.

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I recommend you read the article I posted about as she addresses all these questions.

Alas, the price on jstor is $22.00 (U.S.) for a PDF file.

You might check to see if your local library has databases that you can access on their computers for full text articles. Many libraries have subscriptions. Of course, you might not care enough to do this. Just wanted to throw an idea out if you did really, really want to access it.

Yes, Birdsall, great suggestion. That's how I access it, through Toronto Public Library. It's fantastic to have this free resource to in-depth scholarly discussions.

People forget about libraries and think they are dying, but they are busier than ever! And, yes, one of the great things is access to databases with full text articles to journals past and present.

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Will be checking our excellent and relatively well-funded county library system today- Thanks for the suggestion, Birdsall.

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Will be checking our excellent and relatively well-funded county library system today- Thanks for the suggestion, Birdsall.

You may also be eligible log into your alma mater's library system with alumni privileges.

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I recommend you read the article I posted about as she addresses all these questions.

Alas, the price on jstor is $22.00 (U.S.) for a PDF file.

You might check to see if your local library has databases that you can access on their computers for full text articles. Many libraries have subscriptions. Of course, you might not care enough to do this. Just wanted to throw an idea out if you did really, really want to access it.

Yes, Birdsall, great suggestion. That's how I access it, through Toronto Public Library. It's fantastic to have this free resource to in-depth scholarly discussions.

People forget about libraries and think they are dying, but they are busier than ever! And, yes, one of the great things is access to databases with full text articles to journals past and present.

online

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Thanks for the links to discussions past, Bart. I liked this contrast that Alexandra gave:

Or [the use] could be descriptive, to denote that she was a classical rather than a romantic ballerina. The classical ballerina's arabesque implies a circle; the romantic ballerina's an oval. This has to do with body proportions, and also with the fact that classical shoulders are squared, romantic shoulders droop.

I watched "Balanchine Essay: Arabesque" yesterday, which featured Suki Shorer and Merrill Ashley. They seemed to imply that an arabesque formed a V, which seemed to me to be the counterpart of the Willis arms. I think of when a director uses a clipboard and clips it, in a cutting action, to mark the scene. The effect of this is emphasized in the sissone. Although, the arabesque in "4 Ts" (I think) sometimes looks like doors or gates being pushed to swing open.

Suki and Merrill also emphasized standing straight on the supporting hip, vertically, with the other hip open. Does this differ from classical arabesque? I thought the hips were square, facing front, even with the chest pushed forward in a classical pose.

In the extra scenes to "Sylphide", Aurelie Dupont talks about being coached to lean forward in her Romantic arabesque, which was different from her normal training.

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