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Tom47

The Stories Behind Six Ballets:

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There are now nine ballets.

What I will write here is based on my readings of the original stories or poems sometimes in translation and from the ballets I have seen. Except where noted I have read the complete original stories or poems. I have not seen many different productions of ballets with the exception of the Nutcracker. If you feel I got something incorrect kindly let me know. Some may already be aware of much of what is to follow.

Spoiler warning: I write somewhat about the original stories. I assume readers in this forum are familiar with the stories of the ballets.

Tom,

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The earliest version of The Sleeping Beauty story that I know of is Giambattista Basile's "Sole, Luna e Talia" ("Sun, Moon and Talia") 1634. In this story Talia is the sleeping beauty and Sun and Moon are her children, a girl and a boy. Without going into detail, the children were born to Talia while she was asleep and they were the cause of her awakening. There was no Prince Desire, but instead a King who was already married. His wife the Queen tried to take revenge, but at the last moment was foiled. Further there was no curse, but instead a prophecy. There were two fairs who cared for the children while their mother was in a deep, death like sleep. In the end the story turns out well for Talia and her children, as well as the King and a cook. Giambattista Basile was born c. 1575 just north of Naples, Italy.

Next is Charles Perrault's "La belle au bois dormant" 1697 ("The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood," or "The Beauty at the Woods Sleeping"). In this story we have eight fairies much as in the ballet. Six of them give gifts of beauty, wit, grace, dance, singing and music, while the old fairy curses the young Sleeping Beauty and the last fairy modifies the curse. It pretty much then continues as the ballet until the prince, having kept his marriage to Sleeping Beauty a secret from his royal parents reveals he has a wife and two children, a daughter named Morning and a younger son named Day. The remainder of the story, which is not in the ballet, is similar to "Sun, Moon and Talia" except that instead of having difficulties with a wife, Sleeping Beauty have major Mother-in-Law problems. However, there is a happy ending for everyone, except for the Mother-in Law. Charles Perrault was born in Paris, France in 1628.

In 1812 Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the brothers Grimm, published a tale of The Sleeping Beauty called "Little Brier-Rose." This is a shorter than and not as gruesome as the earlier two stories in that it ends at the marriage between Brier-Rose (the sleeping beauty) and the prince. In that way it is closer to the ballet than the other two. It appears that the Grimm brothers learned the story of Brier-Rose from their close friend Marie Hassenpflug. The Grimm brothers were born in Germany in 1785 and 1786 in what is now Germany. Marie Hassenpflug was born in 1788.

I have not found the name Lilac Fairy in any of the versions I have read so that may have originated with the ballet. Aurora is Latin for dawn and was the name of the Roman goddess of the dawn so it is possible that the name of the sleeping beauty in the ballet is from the daughter in the Charles Perrault's tale who was named morning. It is also possible that in the original French version this daughter was named Aurora.

Tom,

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The 1892 ballet "The Nutcracker" was patterned after the 1816 story "Nusskvacker und Masuekonig" (Nutcracker and Mouse King) written by Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (E. T. A Hoffmann). A difference between the book and many if not all ballet productions is the name of the young girl who befriends and seeks to care for the Nutcracker. In the book her name is Marie while in many ballets it is Clara. It is possible that the name Clara, for the ballet, came from Marie's (in the book) new doll Madame Clarette. Major differences between Hoffmann's story and the ballet is that the story in the book takes place over a period of time of more than one night, that Marie becomes injured leading to an extended recovery where she is confined to bed and that Godfather Drosselmeier tells a rather long story with the story called the "Tale of the Hard Nut" of Princess Pirlipat, Frau Mouserink, her son the Mouse King, Christian Elias Drosselmeier and his Nephew.

Hoffmann was born in 1776 in what was then Prussia, but is now in Russia. He was famous and another of this stories inspired the ballet "Coppelia." An Operetta by Jacques Offenbach, called "The Tales of Hoffmann" (1881) follows a fictional Hoffmann through a number of adventures based on some of the stories written by the actual Hoffmann.

The original "Nusskvacker und Masuekonig" was written in German, but the French author Alexamdre Dumas wrote a French version called "L'historie d' un casse-noistte" ("The tale of the Nutcracker") in 1845. I read English translations of both Hoffmann's and Dumas' versions and with the exception of an introduction in the French version I did not see much difference. As far as I remember there was no actual character named Sugar Plum Fairy, but there were similar such characters.

Tom,

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The ballet "Le Corsaire" was inspired by George Gordon Noel Byron's (Lord Byron's) 1814 poem "The Corsair." This is a poem in three Cantos and the word corsair refers to a pirate operating in the Mediterranean Sea. My knowledge of the ballet is from two versions, the 1989 Kirov Ballet production and the 1999 American Ballet Theatre production. The story of the poem is different than the story of those ballet, but with four of the same characters - Conrad, Medora, Gulnare and Seyc Pacha (Seid Pasha) - and some of the same events. The ending is very different. From my understanding of both the poem and the ballet Conrad is more principled in the poem than in the ballet. It is also possible that the story of the ballet was different when it premiered n 1856.

Medora is a Greek name and Pacha or Pasha refers to a Turkish official of high rank. What is interesting to me is that the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) broke out seven years after the poem was published. This as well as the name Medora and the title Pacha raises the possibly, in my mind, that the poem and the perhaps to a greater extent the story of the ballet is an analogy of the Greek desire to be free of that empire. The name Conrad means a brave counsel, while in the tales of the Arabian Nights Gulnare is an undersea princess who when she left the kingdom of her father was abducted and made into a slave.

Lord Byron was born in England in 1788. The poem "The Corsair" was written in English.

Tom,

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The inspiration behind the ballet "L'apres-midi d'un faune" (The Afternoon of a Faun) choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky and premiered on May 19, 1912, at the Chatelet Theater in Paris goes back, at least, to the 1876 poem of the same name written by Stephane Mallarme. Mallarme, who was born in 1842 in Paris was a follower of the Symbolist Movement. The members of this movement moved away from naturalism and realism and toward dreams, visions and imagination. Claude Debussy, the French composer, was a friend of Mallarme and was inspired by the poem to write the 1894 work "Le Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune" (The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun). The term "prelude" suggests that this piece was planed to be only the first of a longer piece. While that may have been the case Debussy never completed any sequels. This work was then used as the music for the ballet. It is my understanding that all three works - the poem, the music and the ballet, were considered avant-garde for their time.

Tom,

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It was interesting to read about the 'earliest' Sleeping Beauty story--I don't think I ever knew about that one. Thank you.

You will find that some of these ballets have topics and multiple threads devoted to them in the encompassing forum "Ballets and Choreographers." There is material there about different productions, versions of the stories etc.

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The literary work "El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha" (The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha" or "The Adventures of Don Quixote) by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, is a long work, comprising of two volumes and a total 126 chapters. I have not read it all however, I have read the three chapters (19 to 21 of volume 2) which supply the major part of the story of the ballet "Don Quixote."

In the book the two lovers are named Quiteria and Basilio, while in the ballet the name of Quteria is given as Kitri. Also, Gamache from the ballet is called Camacho in the book. Further, in the book, Don Quixote and Sancho arrive the day before the wedding between Quiteria (Kitri) and Camacho (Gamache) is to occur. It is the next day, just before the planned wedding is to be finalized that Basilio attempts his fake suicide in a much more graphic way than in the ballet. As he lay "dying" Basilio refuses to confess his sins unless he and Quiteria (Kitri) are married and since Camacho and most everyone believes that Basilio will soon die Camacho agrees. The moment the lovers are married, Basilio reveals his trickery and as he is loved by Quiteria (Kitri) she states that even if the wedding is found to be invalid she would willingly marry Basilio again. Camacho (Gramache) gracefully agrees as he now believes that Quiteria (Kitri) will always love Basilio.

Not having read the full work I do no know where the scene with the Gypsies and the puppets come from. the windmill scene I from volume 1, chapter 8. As a prelude to the wedding there is a dance performance ". . . composed of eight nymphs in two files, with the god Cupid leading one and Interest the other . . ." This may have suggested Don Quixote's dream sequence in the ballet.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was born in Spain in 1547. This two volumes regarding Don Quixote were both published in Spanish with volume one being published in 1605 and volume two in 1615.

Tom,

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William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" was probably first performed sometime shortly before 1598, maybe as early as 1590. It has a complex plot, particularly for a comedy. There are four interweaving stories: that of the Fairies, in particular Titania, Puck and Oberon; that of the four lovers; that of the mechanics and that of Theseus and Hippolyta.

In 1827 at age 17 Felix Mendelssohn composed and "Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream." Sixteen years later he composed an additional 14 musical works for a production of the comedy. These included a scherzo, a nocturne, a lullaby with chorus and a Wedding March. This music along with some other music by Mendelssohn was eventual used for the ballet.

Midsummer Day or Night is connected with the Summer Solstice which in our modern calendar generally occurs on June 20th or 21st although, possibly because of the difference between the Julian and Gregorian Calendars Midsummer Day can be considered to be June 24th. The Summer Solstice is the day, north of the tropic of Cancer, with the longest daylight period and the shortest night. It is also the time when the sun is at its highest in that part of the world. The name Midsummer suggests that the day occurs in the middle of summer and it may have been considered to in the past, but now the Summer Solstice is considered the start of summer.

Of the six ballets covered in this topic it seems to me that, with the possible exception of "L'apres-midi d'un faune," this ballet is closest to its original story. Considering the complexity of the story I don't know if that is a good thing. William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in England. Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was born in 1809 in what is now Germany.

Tom,

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Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was born in 1890 in what is now Germany.

I suppose you meant 1809 on Mendelssohn...but when you say you don't know if it's a good thing if the ballet stays close to its source material, which ballet version(s) of Midsummer Night's Dream are you thinking of?

I have seen three (Balanchine, Ashton, Neumeier) -- there are more -- and never had any trouble sorting the story out. (Am I a bad example? The Balanchine version is a huge and consistent hit with New York City Ballet audiences. I don't think it would be if they found it confusing.)

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Drew thank you for replying and for the information. Going even further back there may be a similarity between The Sleeping Beauty story and Germanic Mythology. It is my understanding that after Brunnhilde, the leader of the Valkyries, incurs the wrath of Wotan he decides to punish her by putting her into a deep sleep on top of a mountain peak. Brunnhilde is most afraid that she would marry a man who is not a hero, so Wotan places fire around the sleeping Brunnhilde so that only the bravest man would come to wake her.

Tom,

PS, yes I did mean 1809, thank you. I only knew of the Balanchine production. I would be interested in the others. Let me think about it some before I comment on why I feel it may not be a good thing, for me, that the ballet stays close to the play.

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I really enjoyed reading all these. Thank you for taking the time to write them up.

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[...] Going even further back there may be a similarity between The Sleeping Beauty story and Germanic Mythology. It is my understanding that after Brunnhilde, the leader of the Valkyries, incurs the wrath of Wotan he decides to punish her by putting her into a deep sleep on top of a mountain peak. Brunnhilde is most afraid that she would marry a man who is not a hero, so Wotan places fire around the sleeping Brunnhilde so that only the bravest man would come to wake her.

That was Wagner's understanding too :wink: .

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I think Balanchine's setting of the overture us the most concise and direct example if storytelling in ballets we see today, even if this is a low bar in our mime-deprived four score, since Vagabond did an are job on mime in classical ballets at the Kirov.

Balanchine and Ashton created a very different emotional landscape. The beautiful adagio is for Oberon and Titanic in the Ashton. Balanchine's is far less optimistic, and that exquisite music is for Titanic and Bottom. When you raise the Brunnhilde comparison, which is so central to The Ring, both interpretations are apt: Titanic and Oberon's bliss is temporary, like Brunnhilde's and Siegfried's, and, an enchanted ass is Brunnhilde's fate.

I'm always reminded of Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night" when I see either version.

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Drew, while I tend to like there to be somewhat of a story or a theme in a ballet, I do not care for the story to be complex and I like there to be many dance performances which do not further the story as I feel trying to further the story can tend to interfere with the dance. I've seen three visions of the Balanchine production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The first I liked, I would like almost any ballet, but I did not like it that much. I put it down to there being too much story telling for me, at least in the first act. A second version I saw on YouTube I liked better. However, I recently saw a live performance that I enjoyed a great deal. I am not sure of the difference. I feel that someone who knows the story would not be confused about the ballet, but I am not sure about a person who does not know the story very much. But, that is not the reason I wrote what I did. So, basically when I wrote "Considering the complexity of the story I don't know if that is a good thing" to follow the original story that much I was thinking of too much story telling. Also, while at one time I considered "A Midsummer Night's Dream" my favorite Shakespearian play I no longer do as over time I have grown to dislike the Oberon character more and more and I would like to have seen him downplayed in the ballet. But that is my opinion and I can understand others feeling differently.

Tom,

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Helene, thank you for your information comparing Balanchine and Ashion. I am now very interested in seeing the Ashton production. You also seem to know more about Wagner's "The Ring Cycle" than I do. My knowledge of that work is limited to a half hour Operavox animated version of "Das Rhinegold" in English and what I have read about the other parts. I am not sure of what you meant by ". . . even if this is a low bar in our mime-deprived four score, since Vagabond did an are job on mime in classical ballets at the Kirov." I looked up "Smiles of a Summer Night" and from what I read I could see how the ballet could remind you of the film.

Tom,

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Here is a Russian Fairytale having to do with a seventh ballet:

Alexandr Nikolaievich Afanasiev, who was in a way the Grimm Brothers of Russia, was born in 1826, During his life he collected and had published more than 600 stories. English translations of five of these stories are contained in the book "Russian Fairy Tales." One of the stories is called Tsarevich Ivan, The Firebird and the Grey Wolf. As in the ballet "L'oiseau de feu" (The Firebird), the story begins with the Firebird stealing golden apples, but the tree producing the apples are in the garden of Tsar Vyslav. The Tsar's son Tsarevich Ivan attempts to capture the thief, but only succeeds in getting one of her feathers. He is then sent out to find the Firebird and in the process, also finds a horse with a golden mane and the Tsarevna Helen the Beautiful. The Tsarevich and the Tsarevna fall in love and eventually marry. All this is done with the help of a wise, talking grey wolf. The Firebird is rather passive in this story and is more a prize then the heroine. The character Kastchei is not in this story.

Kastchei (the name is spelled differently in different places) the Immortal or Deathless is an evil character in a number of Russian folktales. He cannot be killed by attacking him directly as his soul (his death as it is sometimes called) is not in his body, but somewhere else generally in an egg. He can be killed by the hero breaking the egg as in the ballet.

Tom,

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Helene, I haven't read all of the Harry Potter books and haven't read any in a long time, so I had to look up horcruxes. Based on what I read I guess it is possible. Does anyone else have an idea on this.

Tom,

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Number Eight, La Sylphide:

First, what is the meaning of Sylphide? Sylphide means a little or young Sylph, possibly with the suffix "ide" referring to a "daughter of." Then what does Sylph mean? Sylph comes for two words, the Latin "Sylva" referring to forest as in Pennsylvania or Transylvania and the Greek "Nymph." The "Syl" in Sylph comes from Sylva and the "ph" comes from Nymph. So, basically Sylphide means a young forest Nymph. La Sylphide would then refer to young, female forest Nymph. (Correction: while the origin of the word Sylph is as stated here The Random House College Dictionary defines Sylph as "one of a race of dainty, imaginary beings supposed to inhabit the air." So, Sylphide means a young imaginary being of the air.)

The origin of the ballet "La Sylphide" is from Charles Nodier's 1822 French short story "Trilby ou Le Lutin d'Argail. Nouvelle Ecossoise" (Trilby or The Elf of Argyle. A Scottish Tale). I read an English translation of this story with the title "Trilby, The Fairy of Argyle." A major difference between the book and the ballet is that in the book Trilby (the elf or fairy) is male, while his love interest Jeanie (the human) is female, while in the ballet the Sylphide is female and her love interest James is male. The story by Nodier is set in Scotland and when it begins, Jeanie is married to a fisherman named Dougal and Trilby lives in their house. There are many differences between the book and the ballet, although the general emotions expressed are similar, but with the book getting into the "darker" feelings much quicker than the ballet and with the emotions expressed in the book being more intense than in the ballet.

Charles Nodier was born in 1780 in France. It is possible that he was inspired to write "Trilby" by a preexisting Scottish folktale, but I have not been able to find any information on that. The ballet premiered in 1832, but in 1836 was redone to some degree by August Bournonville. A ballet called "Trilby" also based on the Charles Nodier story premiered in 1870.

Tom,

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Number nine, the ballet Carmen:

The original story for both the ballet and the opera "Carmen" is Prosper Merimee's short 1845 story of the same name. I recently saw a youtube video of a Bolshoi production of "Carmen" with Svetlana Zakharova. It is my understanding that there are two major versions of this ballet, the 1949 one by Roland Petit and the one from the 1960s by Alberto Alonso. I believe that the version I saw was the one by Alonso.

Merimee's story is in four chapters and the ballet is from the third and longest chapter, although even there much is left out. While Carmen is the title character in this book the story is about Don Jose, Carmen's lover, as it is Don Jose who tells the narrator the story. As the story is really from the point-of view of the man, it is interesting to me how it would differ if Carmen would have told it. The first two chapters are an introduction to the main story and the last chapter stereotypes Roma people as it is written as if all of them are the same.

Carmen is presented as a very strong and dominating character, although there is an indication in the story that Don Jose was not all that innocent before he met Carmen. This is what I found to be an interesting description, in the book, of Carmen's dress: "She was wearing a very short skirt, below which her white silk stocking - with more than one hole in them - and her dainty red morocco shoes, fastened with flame-coloured ribbons, were clearly seen."

The ballet is not a literal telling of the book, but is an impression of the story which I think is all to the good. I enjoyed the ballet more than I thought I would. Both characters in the ballet - Carmen and Don Jose - are presented as being more sensitive than they are shown to be in the book. Prosper Merimee was born in France in 1803. Georges Bizet composed the opera "Carmen" that premiered in 1875. I am not sure how much of the music from the opera is used in the ballet that I saw.

Tom,

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Re "La Sylphide," it's usually translated as "a fairy of the air." During the Romantic Era there were dozens of ballets about different fairies -- dryads, naiads, etc. Yes, there were two different versions. The French version (in which Marie Taglioni danced the title role; the ballet was created by her father) was enormously popular but didn't last. Some speculate that was because the audience had trouble accepting another ballerina as the Sylph (although Fanny Elssler, Taglioni's polar opposite, had great success with it in New York and other stops on her North American tour). In the late 20th century, Pierre Lacotte revived "La Sylphide," but it's quite updated.

Bournonville's ballet uses nearly the same story (there are a few very minor changes), but had to commission a different score, and wrote that the choreography was all his. His ballet ("Sylfiden" in Danish) is still in repertory.

Ballet came a bit late to Romanticism, but people in that era were fascinated by fairytales and supernatural beings, as well as exotic places (and what could be more exotic to Paris than Scotland?) In the Danish version, Madge, the troublemaking witch, is very much a major character and there have been several major stars who gave unforgettable performances in the role (Sorella Englund and Niels Bjorn Larsen, for two). And in Denmark, James is THE great male role, and (as was usual in Bournonville's ballets) the equal to the ballerina.

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Thank you Alexandra for your post - yes, you are right, the definition of "Sylph" (The Random House College Dictionary) is "one of a race of dainty, imaginary beings supposed to inhabit the air" (a fairy of the air) and a Sylphid is " a little or young Sylph," so you are correct.

Also thank you for your information on the development of the ballet. I often wonder how the version of a particular ballet that I may have seen differs from the one at the ballet's original premiere.

Tom,

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Tom, the first year I saw ballet performances, I saw ABT's "Swan Lake" and then, about two months later, The Royal Ballet's version. They were very different, and it made me ask the same question you did -- how is this version of a ballet different from the one at the ballet's original premiere? There are some who say that a ballet is different after its first performance, but definitely, when we look at older ballets, there are differences and often we don't realize it. (How could we?)

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Alexandra and anyone else who might be able to help:

There are two ballets for which I am particularly interested in knowing how the original differed from what we generally see now. First what were all of the dances originally in the second act of "The Nutcracker." Generally there is Spanish Chocolate, Chinese Tea, Russian Trepak, Arabian Coffee and sometimes Mother Ginger, as well as the Waltz of the Flowers and the other well known dances which come after that. However, I recently saw a Rochester (NY) City Ballet production which included English Toffee, French Mints and Italian Ice. I seem to remember that Italian Ice was danced to music from "The Sleeping Beauty." Also is Mother Ginger considered to be French?

Next, I've noticed there are different endings to "Swan Lake," basically one being tragic and the other happy although not for Rothbart. While I like the happy ending better I feel that the tragic one is more "authentic." Does anyone know what the original ending was? My guess is the tragic ending.

Tom,

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