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Treefrog

various random thoughts

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Having seen both Swan Lake and La Bayadere in the space of two days, I have all kinds of random reflections on my mind. Responses to any and all are welcome.

1) It occurred to me how central a good demi-plié is to ballet. (This won't come as news to anyone who has actually danced, I'm sure.) I spent all last evening watching the men land their jumps. That demi-plié is the key to the "strong-yet-light" phenomenon -- the ability to jump big and land lightly and in perfect control.

2) When, where and why did the classical tutu originate? Was it created for a particular role? How did it fit in with then-current dress and modesty standards? Of what were tutus -- and ballet wear in general -- made before the invention of synthetic fabrics?

3) How come we have book titles like "When Bad Things Happen to Good People", and in the 19th century Good people became Bad when bad things happened to them? It certainly isn't Solor's fault that political and social circumstances required him to marry Gamzatti when he really loved Nikiya. I suppose a truly virtuous hunter would fall on his own sword first? And Siegfried was tricked -- or, as Grigorovich would have it, controlled by the Evil Genius. How was he to know that Odile wasn't, in fact, Odette?

4) Are dream sequences in 19th century ballets merely a convenient plot device for injecting miscellania that can't be readily explained otherwise? Or did dreams have some special significance? After all, Freud's work was contemporaneous.

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Some very quick answers -- I hope other will fill in.

1. Yes! Plié and demi-plié is the key to all. At least, that's one theory, and it's the strength of the Russian, as well as the Danish school. It does give the soft landings, but it also gives weight -- and people without a good plie often look spindly and stiff in the knees.

2. The classical tutu descended from Renaissance costume -- Juliet can go into more detail, I'm sure.

3. I think the classical ballets looked back to antiquity for their morals. I remember endless discussions in Latin class about how it wasn't really Aeneid's fault that he dumped Dido; it was his destiny. If more people had really looked at the ballets and wondered where their stories came from, perhaps we'd have fewer "let's make this make sense" renditions of them! Both Solor and Siegfried were acting out their destinies -- but "fault" wasn't a concern of the gods. They were quite happy to trick people into misbehaving (and carrying out the ends of the gods) and then whacking them for it. Such is life.

4. There were dream sequences as early as the 1850s, and possibly the 1840s. Bournonville writes in "My Theatre Life" about a "clever device" he'd just heard about, and uses a dream in "Folk Tale" for, as you say, story telling -- it's a flash back (take that, Martha Graham!) Petipa uses it for Raymonda's dream. 20th century messers-around-with-Petipa often used it because they didn't try to make sense of a supernatural story. Don't believe in ghosts? It's only a dream. Just like "Dallas," if you remember that one :)

Great questions! And remember, before giving yourself a big headache asking questions about the 19th century based on these productions, remember they bear little resemblance in step, costume, style, atmosphere, or philosophical underpinnings, to the original. Only the music and the vague outlines are the same.

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A couple of observations on points 1) and 2):

1) The demi-plié is, it is generally acknowledged, a critical technical ability to be cultivated. Many Russian dancers (not all, they don't all do it) have the ability to use the demi-plié to best advantage. The Danes are probably the most consistently excellent on this quality, and are followed closely by the French School, but this is only logical, as they are linked in deep ballet history.

2) The tutu, before the advent of synthetic fabrics, used to be made of silk tulle and cotton tarlatan, which Karsavina recalls in her memoirs, calling the shorter dancing dress a "tarlatan" after its construction material. This must have made for a lot of starching in the wardrobe department! The length of the tutu had been creeping upward since Eugene Lami introduced the long bell-shaped Romantic tutu of the Sylphide era. I think its most dramatic shortening came with Pavlova and specifically with her Swan costume. After that, tutus became ever more flat and stand-out, until they resembled the farthingale assembly or panniers found in Elizabethan and Enlightenment women's clothes, respectively.

I have to think more about points 3) and 4), it's still a bit early in the morning to consider those issues!;)

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I don't know about Siegfried being fated to fall for Odile—I've never sensed any supernatural sources at work in Swan Lake, unless you count Von Rothbart. I've always thought of Siegfried as being something of a weakling, what with his imperious mother and fussy tutor, and always thought him pretty dumb to mistake Odile for Odette, when the choreography usually makes it crystal clear that this is a Bad Girl and the ballerina usually goes out of her way to live up to the image.

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I'm with you Ari! :) Very funny, though I'm sure Alexandra is right blaming it all on Destiny - seems it's always a handy way out of, or into, life's little ups and downs. ;)

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Well, in this production (the Bolshoi) Von Rothbart is called the Evil Genius instead of Von Rothbart, and he very much controls Siegfried. His choreography either anticipates Siegfried's or shadows it.

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Vagansmom, I can't recall if that's in Theatre Street or one of the articles published later by the old British dance magazine Dance and Dancers or the still-current Dancing Times, I just remember it was Karsavina, and she was differentiating between types of dresses worn by dancers in her time at the Imperial theaters.

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Dream sequences are common in mid-century American Musical Theater as well. I'm thinking Roger & Hammerstein here.

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I second Ari and BW. I always thought Siegfried was just a big doofus, myself. As for "I must follow my destiny" -- it sounds like the distant ancestor of all those I-gotta-be-hitting-the-road-now-babe songs from a much later era, IMO. :)

Dream sequences are also a useful way of getting in some tricky dancing without having to provide a naturalistic plot justification for it.

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Have you ever read the Greek tragedies? The Odyssey? The Aeneid? I mean destiny within that construct; that is what the entire classical tradition is based on, including Petipa's ballets, and including Swan Lake and Bayadere. Not Grigorovich's versions perhaps, which are derivative of derivative of derivative. but then we get into the old "what is the work?" question. What is "Swan Lake?" the original, or whatever it is we saw last week. (It's both, in one way, and in another.....)

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Oh yes, Alexandra, I knew what you meant and I know what that kind of destiny is about...and the three Fates, the Oracle of Delphi and all that. I love mythology! The gods always come in handy for explaining the confusion of life. :) That being said, Odysseus was a much better hero than Siegfried, in my opinion... And what about that cad Albrecht? And what is the name of the fellow who falls in love with that sylph right before he's supposed to get married somewhere in Scotland? ;)

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James and Albrecht are Romantic heroes. Classical precepts do not apply :)

Seriously, since we all grew up, presumably, in a different religion -- whatever it is, it isn't Hellenic paganism -- the stories may seem silly (and we've certainly had some good "silly" threads), but if we want to understand the ballets, then I think we have to look at them in the context in which they were created. One class I had in dance history -- that was absolutely awful; they hated all of it. The class time conflicted with Oprah, and that was where their heads were -- thought the entire idea of "Romeo and Juliet" -- play or ballet -- was "dumb" because "like, if it happened today, Romeo would have had a pager." (This was before cell phones.)

I think Grigorovich was trying to redo Siegfried in a more modern image -- the thoughtful, instrospective man although still buffeted by fate (in our programs he was called Von Rothbart, the Evil Genius). Literally buffeted -- pulled to and fro, so the audience would "get it" and not have to imagine. I think, too, Siegfired, through performance history, has become a hybrid character, half Romantic, half-Classical hero. And then, in the 20th century, he became an anti-hero. Lots of baggage for one poor little Prince. Perhaps reparenting therapy is in order :)

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Oh, man!

Whatever happened to liking the old-fashioned story ballets "because they are so easy to understand compared to those modern dances"?

Thank you, Alexandra, for the refresher course on mythology. And for the reminder that things have to be viewed through the lens of their creation.

As for misunderstanding Romeo and Juliet -- long ago, I took a date to see the film of Romeo and Juliet. At the end, he turned to me and said, "Wow! I never expected it to end like that!" That was pretty much it for him.:)

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What was the second date? :)

I think there are dozens of ways of looking at ballets -- some people look for the story, some for the dancing, some for the music, some for the scenery and costumes, some for a mix of all of those, etc, etc. I brought up the Greeks only as a reminder that sometimes when things seem odd, there was a reason for them.

There's also the question of which context do we use? What Tchanikovsky intended when he wrote the score? Petipa and Ivanov's (some day I promise I'll put up the article we printed in DanceView that argues there's a good possibility that Petipa choreographed all of "Swan Lake") intentions? Can Grigorovich, or anyone else, simply take the score and use it (well, of course they can, and they do :) ) I'd be more sympathetic to the latter case if there weren't bits of the earlier carcass left about!

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Alexandra's question "There's also the question of which context do we use?" is a good one. Wouldn't it be helpful if the notes in the ballet programs were a bit more insightful in giving the audience more of this sort of background? Fortunately, I know there are some very good books around that can aid those of us who really don't know much, but would like to...

Treefrog, great first date story!

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Point taken, Alexandra, and I should have answered more carefully, but Dido and Aeneas aside, as a practical theatrical matter it's always seemed to me that the whole Black Swan thing usually makes Siegfried look like a goofball.

Interesting date, Treefrog. There's a story I always liked that the playwright John Osborne told on his mother. She went to see him play Hamlet in provincial rep, and midway through the first act loudly informed her neighbor, "Oh, I've seen this before. He dies in the end."

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Dirac, I see your point as well -- and I think that if we, as audience members, have such thoughts, it's the fault of a production. If it's done well, and everyone onstage (and behind the scenes) understands what the production means, and the dancers are given enough information to put it over, then we'll enter into that magic world of suspension of belief, and we won't ask questions like that.

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