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Leigh Witchel

Silliness: So what do people DO in those ballet villages?

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From Alexandra's comments in the recent performances forum on Washington Ballet:

the dancers were Ballet Spaniards, with nothing to do all day but swish their skirts, stamp their feet, and flare their nostrils

As everyone here knows, Ballet Alert is passionately interested in economics, especially the economics of local ballet villages? So how do these happy denizens survive anyway? What do they do all day? Everyone in Giselle's village seems to pick. . .something or other that they harvest (some productions will show us a grape or two.) In Coppelia, it's wheat. With plenty of time out to do mazurkas and czardases, which is what most peasants that I know do when harvesting wheat. Lord knows what they do in Don Quixote. Something involving windmills and a few of them sell flowers. The ballet village that I can think of with a diverse economy is in Napoli, where macaroni and lemonade sellers abound.

So, being very current events oriented, let's discuss the local economies. How do those nobles and peasants in our favorite ballets eat anyway?

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The old (David Blair) production of "Giselle" for ABT had a truly harrowing passage where the men, lined up on either side of the stage, clasping buckets of grapes to their bosoms, jumped across, then back again. I have a dim memory that they threw the grape baskets at each other and slapped hands in a high-five when they met mid-stage, but I think that probably really didn't happen smile.gif

In the Bolshoi production that I saw about a decade ago, it still had a pre-glasnost aroma. Hilarion was overdressed and looked as though he earned his keep by squealing on poachers. There, the Duke of Courland spent his days going from village to village, enjoying the free wine tastings and ravaging maidens.

In the Danes' production of Coppelila, there's an old woman who vigorously sweeps the stage with a broom. Swanilda is too young to work -- but Franz? He should have a job. We all know what Coppelius does biggrin.gif (I have a theory that Coppelius is James grown old, who wandered through Europe and ended up in Hungary where nobody knew him, and has tried to realize his passion for fantasy ladies in a more concrete form.) There's real money in this village, though. The Mayor pays off Coppelius with a bushel of gold at the end.

In Don Q there is a tavern scene, complete with Tavern Wenches. And a flotilla of Toreadors -- I guess that's a job.

James hunts and owns a farm.

Gennaro (Napoli) is a fisherman, with a real catch which he's selling. There are other characters with definable occupations -- backstage lore has it that Giovanna, the Flirt who goes after Gennaro, is the cook for a rich man's house. And then there's the priest, always on the lookout for the odd donation. The dancers in the ballabile, though, look as though they have nothing to do except dance ballabiles and tease Peppo. (There are tourists and townspeople along the side of the stage, eating and drinking at outdoor cafes.)

Sleeping Beauty -- the peasants are just brought in to dance and entertain. We can imagine that they spend sun up to sun down toiling in the fields, but it's better not to. Ditto for Swan Lake -- are they invited to Siegfried's birthday party, or do they sneak in? It doesn't seem as though they're there to clean up.

Nice topic, Leigh. More socioeconomic observations?

[ November 02, 2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]

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Maybe all those Don Q girls are rolling tobacco intheir spare time like in Carmen.

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Don't you see, this is why in most of the ballet villages there are so many more young ladies than gentlemen. All of the boys leave at a young age to go off and work in a coal mine or whatever, and send money back to keep their mothers, wives and girlfreinds in the lap of indolent luxury. ;-)All except for those lazy layabouts like Franz, of course.

Then, of course, the people left at the village have to dance all of the time, to keep their figures for when the menfolk come back for a visit. Riiight. . .

S.

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Ah, a good thought, but it isn't just the coal mines and whatever that the men go to work in! Bear in mind that a great number of these ballet villages seem to be in or adjoining the Holy Roman Empire somewhere, so there's always a war on someplace. There are so few men in town because they've mostly been drafted!

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Yes, Mel! And we mustn't forget that Jean de Brienne is off on the Cr*s*d*s smile.gif

(Another, related query: why is the population of ballet peasant villages 98% in the 17-24 year age bracket? Or, where are the children and adults of both genders?)

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I don't have an answer as to why village demographics are so narrow - but would counter with another query: why are all the Witches old? Does it take that long to learn the techniques for poisoning scarves and casting spells?

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Good point, Sonora! Perhaps because the witch characters were often (though not always) danced by men: job security for middle-aged dancers smile.gif

One of the greatest of the Danish Madges, though, Sorella Englund, danced her first Madge at 29, and was a young witch. There's a Danish theory (to which I do not subscribe) that Madge and the Sylph are sisters, and Englund's youth was used by some to make that point.

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Another practical point of witchery - the popular image is reinforced by the identification with earth-worship religions with great antiquity. Madge is definitely a creature of the Real World of Time and Space. The Sylph is a creature who inhabits the air but defies commonplace considerations with which the rest of us have to fumble.

Also, it's difficult to ask a possibly attractive senior woman dancer to "ugly herself up" to play a character part of great age. Most men are halfway there already and make pretty homely women before they even start! wink.gif

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Perhaps Coppelius is classical ballet's version of a mad scientist. wink.gif

One way to explain the presence of peasants in royal courts [swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, et al] is to think about the palace at Versailles, which among other things provided a place for the noblemen and women to do peasant things like milking cows for entertainment rather than employment. Slumming, if you will.

[ November 03, 2001: Message edited by: BalletNut ]

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BalletNut -- I think you're absolutely right. Coppelius IS ballet's version of a mad scientist. The ballet was at the very end of the Romantic era (or a few decades past the end, depending on how you count.) Croce wrote a very interesting piece about this, seeing the ballet as a battle between -- I'm paraphrasing -- the male world of things and the female world of...hmm .....humanity? I forget.

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Also, why is Giselle's mother always at least 60! If Giselle is in her teens and woman married and bore children young, wouldn't it be possible for her mother to be 35-40?

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More likely 28 to 32!! (There is a down side to keeping aging stars on to do mime roles, or having The House Character Dancer always at the ready. smile.gif )

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As for working, the peasants in La Fille Mal Gardee certainly spend some time scything, though they spend a lot of their lunch hour dancing and drinking heaps of wine. I suspect they take long afternoon naps.

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I've often thought those happy harvesters in Fille were a bit underpriviledged. Only the two bottles provided by Colas and he's already taken a swig of one.

In Alicia Alonso's production of Giselle for the Paris Opera, Giselle's mother ran some kind of a dressmaking establishment. And to judge by the number of girls who went into her cottage and the size of the building, it was clearly a sweatshop!

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Asks Alexandra:

"Another, related query: why is the population of ballet peasant villages 98% in the 17-24 year age bracket?"

Because that is the age of the actual dancers?

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Well, yes, of course it's the age of the actual dancers, but in these productions that try so hard to look realistic, it is rather silly.

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All those merry peasants are continually celebrating harvests of some kind or other (especially in the Rhineland villages where many of them seem to live). So, the harvest never fails? And why is it that we never see them sowing what they will reap? The hardships of winter don't seem to strike them (they would probably have to wear too many clothes - challenge for the designer, to make them look well wrapped up, but still able to move! N.B. Les Patineurs). Winter in ballet-land is full of snow fairies. (But has anyone seen The Seasons - music by Glazunov? I guess this is more abstract, especially in the Cranko choreography, so it doesn't really count as peasant Ballet-land).

A point about Coppelia, set in a village in Eastern Europe - it includes a Call to Arms for the men in Act 3 (during the Festival of the Bell). The premiere was in Paris on 25th May 1870. On 15th July 1870 the Franco-Prussian War began, which led to revolution in Paris, the end of the Second Empire, and the proclamation of the 3rd Republic....

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Anybody who's ever farmed even a little farm will know the answer to the first question: Why are they always harvesting? If you've timed your crops correctly, you should be harvesting all the way from June (early peas and asparagus), to November (late wheat). And harvesting takes a LOT of people. Sowing seed or setting plants takes only one or two for every thousand square feet or so. Harvesting takes a crowd!

Re: the Glazunov Seasons- I've seen photos (only a couple) from the original production, and it looked to me like Petipa had returned to the ballets of his youth, or even of his teacher's day, with much allegory going on, but in nice academically correct fashion.

And also a big yes to the Call to Arms in Coppélia. The Franco-Prussian War led to the Siege of Paris and the demise of many of the original personnel from the original production of the ballet. I've often wondered if some of the disjointedness in the Act III divertissement wasn't at least partially attributable to that fact.

(ps. Radishes come in both early and late, so you can start and end the garden with them. Just avoid hot weather - makes 'em bolt to seed too fast, and the radishes are too sharp to eat if it's too hot!)

[ November 10, 2001: Message edited by: Mel Johnson ]

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I would like to know how, in the days before telephones, these peasant women manage to coordinate their outfits. Peasant girls seem to meet their friends in the village square quite by chance - and they are wearing the same dress! Fashion faux-pas, or a simple lack of pattern variety at the village dressmakers?

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Well, if you go to Southern Germany or to Austria a lot of women wear dirndles. There seems to be only a couple of patterns for them - and even that may depend on the locale. Of course they make them up in lots of different material patterns and different bodice colors. I have seen productions where the girls each had a slightly different shade - say, 3 shades of green, 3 of brown, 3 of rusty orange, 3 yellows, etc. I guess my vote is that the village dressmakers don't have much imagination, a great variety of materials and only 1 pattern. It's always a shock to view a village where the dressmakers have been allowed to let their imaginations run wild. eek.gif

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Fashion is one thing - but what are they talking about???

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I'm rather fond of the wandering Hungarians who pop up out of nowhere in Kermesse in Bruges to dance a feisty mazurka, perhaps in exchange for directions to the Danube. Even in a ballet set in Belgium, gotta have that mazurka!

Obviously itinerant mazurka-dancer is a venerable profession in ballet-dom.

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