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Roland John Wiley: A Century of Russian Ballet

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I've just ordered my copy of Roland John Wiley's "A Century of Russian Ballet" (long out-of-print in harcover), thankfully now available in paperback.


Synopsis (from Amazon)

"A Century of Russian Ballet" brings its readers as close as written records can to the realities of being a student, dancer, choreographer or critic in Russia, from the period 1810 to 1910.It is built on a framework of famous ballets (translations of the printed libretti of which are included) by such celebrated choreographers as Charles Didelot, Filippo Taglioni, Jules Perrot, Arthur Saint-Leon, Marius Petipa, and Mikhail Fokine. On to this framework are placed eyewitness accounts and criticisms, including biographies of choreographers, accounts of life in the Imperial Theatres' school, reminiscences of important artists, and reviews of first performances. Each of the ten chapters of the book is introduced with further commentary which draws on press accounts and literature of the time.

For those who don't own (or haven't read) Mr. Wiley's book on Tchaikovsky's ballets, I suggest you get a copy while you can. It's absolutetly invaluable in terms of musical insight and historical background. I cannot wait to get this one.

Now, Mr. Wiley (or anyone else), can we PLEASE have a good new book on the ballets of Leo Delibes? Or (dare I suggest) those of Minkus? (Still much underresearched, undervalued and underrated!)

Jack Murray


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I wasn't able to order it via the Amazon link, so I went directly to Dance Books. The cheapest way was surface, estimated 6 weeks, which, since I wasn't in a hurry, I used. It came in 3 days! I don't get mail from across the street that quickly. It is a wonderful collection, so thanks so much for alerting me. Mary

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This turns out to be an even more fascinating book than I expected. It's subtitled, "Documents and Eyewitness Accounts, 1810-1910," and some of the commentaries are engaging, informative, and even rather wicked. My assumption is that few of them (if any) have been easily available in English before this. Wiley's translations make every piece I've read so far jump to life.)

I was, for instance, amazed by how passionate, and familiar, some of the judgments and criticisms sound.

Are you one of those on Ballet Talk who get upset about the trend nowadays towards acrobatics and hyper-extensions in ballet? Then you have to read Sergei Nikolaevich Khudekov on the excesses of "today's (c. 1896) Italian ballerinas who live by the motto, 'the more difficult the better'.'

Members of the contemporary Italian school are insipid because they lack aesthetics, plastique, and elegance. The whole focus of this new school, which comprises a confused nihilism in choreography, is directed not at the development of elegance and a sense of beauty in dances, but at tricks of the legs and all manner of idiosyncracy, which belongs in feeries or the balagany at the edge of town, but not an a self-respecting stage.
Plus ca change ... ?

And, for those who idolize Petipa and assume that everyone in his day felt the same, here's Ekaterina Ottovna Vazem, a mainly anti-Petipa ballerina, recallling the Petersburg ballet scene of 1867-884. I've selected just a few of the highlights ...

"He tried in ever possible way to ingratiate himself with the balletomanes, among whom a numerous party had formed around him. It was also the party that worshipped his wife [.]

... In the epoch being described Petipa's principal concern was to give ballets a grand spectacle with an engaging, at times absorbing drdamatic story and brilliant mise-en-scene. For the latter he deftly managed to wheedle very sizeable sums of money from the manaagement

... Petipa knew classical dance far more superficially than St. Leon ... [Petipa] did not feel music, its rhythm; therefore dances he composed very often turned out to be extremely awkward for the performer, and soloists had either to request that he change them or to remount their number themselves 'on the sly,' since Petipa could not remember everything he had done in the course of a long ballet

... [M]ost of [Petipa's] ballets were teeming with blunder and absurdities. In this respect, however, the public was very undemanding, to the point that if the performances were effective the rest made no difference to it ...

OUCH ! :wub:

Vazem's account of her clashes with Petipa during the preparation of Bayadere are a real hoot. The ballerina speaks in the voice of reason, sanity, and art. Petipa -- whom we are allowed to see speaking in a comic foreign accent -- appears slightly clueless. On one key dispute, howver, she proves him wrong, and Petipa acknowledges her surpremacy with generosity: "Madame, forgive, I -- am a fool ... "

For those interested in reconstructing 19th-century story ballets, Wiley has translated libretti for

-- Charles Didelot's Raoul de Crequi, or The Return from the Crusades, and The Captive of the Caucasus, or The Bride's Shade;

-- Filippo Taglioni: La Fille du Danube;

-- Jules Perrot: Esmeralda;

-- Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Maraius Petipa, The Pharaoh's Daugther;

-- Arthur Saint-Leon: The Little Humpbacked Horse, or The Tsar Maiden;

-- Marius Petipa and Sergei Nikolaevich Khudekov, La Bayadere;

-- Sergei Nikolaevich Khudekov, The Vestal;

-- Ivan Alexandrovich Vsevolozhsky, The Sleeping Beauty;

-- Lydia Alexandrova Pashkova, Raymonda;

-- Marius Petipa, The Magic Mirror; and

-- Alexandre Benois, Le Pavillon d'Armide.

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Must have been something in the zeitgeist in those years. Similar stories exist about Lillian Russell, Weber and Fields, David Belasco; Gilbert, Sullivan and the long-suffering Richard d'Oyly Carte. Edwin Booth complained of the vulgarity of acting in his time, and still the complaints go on, from an elder generation of show people, claiming that the younger generation "hasn't got it here!" (hand over heart) To which the younger generation says, "No, but we're close!" (hand over stomach) :wub:

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