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Madge's Lament

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I wrote this piece several years ago, inspired by ABT's presenting Act 2 only of La Sylphide. It was published in the print version of Ballet Alert! in 1998, and since nearly everyone here has joined the site since then and won't have read it, especially our Danish readers, I wanted to post it.


Madge's Lament
by Alexandra Tomalonis
Ballet Alert! Number 4, June 1998

An old friend flew in the window last week, spitting toads and kicking cats. A bossy, toothless hag of an old friend, actually, known to her devoted public as Madge the Witch. Although she's never been what one would call a fashion plate, Madge's disheveled hair and torn clothing hinted that she was unusually distressed, and we waited anxiously to hear why. How can they do this? she screeched, throwing her ABT subscription brochure on the table and jabbing at it with her left thumbs. What about my contract!

We took a wild guess. Could she possibly be referring to the fact that American Ballet Theatre would not dance the complete version of August Bournonville's La Sylphide this season, but had instead scheduled Act II as a curtain raiser or sandwich stuffer on several programs? What do they think this is, Nutcracker? We're not talking about a party piece, or some fake fairytale here, Madge continued, as she unpacked a fascinating array of squirming, squealing creatures and started to throw together one of her brews. La Sylphide is one of the great tragedies of ballet. Cut the first act and what's left? A bunch of women in white lollygagging about and a couple of solos. If that's all they want, why don't they just do Les Sylphides and speed up the tempi? People have mixed those two ballets up since Diaghilev. The only way they can tell them apart is that Les was one act, and La was two. Now what will they do?

Now, Madge is a talker, and we've found from past experience that when she's in a mood, it's best to turn the kitchen over to her, sit as far away as possible, and take good notes. As she hacked and pummeled her ingredients into sludge, her anguish continued unabated. It's not just that they've cut my fortune telling scene, she wailed, anxious not to be misunderstood. This is bigger than me. What about the audience? (A populist Madge was a new notion; we were intrigued.) How are they supposed to know what's going on? They won't have met Effie and Gurn. What are they going to think when the wedding procession comes on? And they won't understand about the curse. They'll think Madge is just being vindictive for fun. They won't understand that James got what was coming to him. Do you think this needs more pepper? We have found it best never to interfere with Madge's cooking, and encouraged her to trust her own, impeccable taste.

As whatever-it-was simmered to perfection, Madge broke out a six-pack and settled in for a nice long chat about art. She talked about the exquisite construction of a Bournonville ballet, his unequaled clarity of dramatic exposition, the need for retaining the balance between mime and bravura dancing--Lopping off the first act of La Sylphide is like cutting off a man's leg--and she talked about the End of Ballet As We Know It and the Erosion of Standards, a multi-site serial melodrama Madge has been observing from her singular, broomstick vantagepoint for years now. She reminded us, as though we had forgotten, that it was acceptable to perform Swan Lake Act II on its own, but only because it is a discrete musical entity.

Finally, she raged against what she saw as an insult to an old friend. Do you think Bournonville would have agreed to this, no matter how big the royalties were? Hell no. When he wanted to throw a few steps together to show off the dancers, he did it. When he wanted to make a little divertissement to start off a show and let the audience settle in, he did it. But when he made a ballet, by God, the man made a ballet, and if they can't put over the first act, they should bury the thing until they can do it properly.

While we would never have dreamed of using such strong language ourselves, we took the point. We asked, feigning a casual interest, if Madge intended to attend the performances herself, and were disappointed to learn that a conflict with her yearly time share in the Devil's Island condo would prevent her from doing so. But, Madge assured us, she'll be thinking of them. It's a plot, I tell you, a plot. And I won't have it, she shrieked. And, giving a look that would turn rosin into tar, she packed up her caldron and flew off into the night.--Alexandra Tomalonis

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