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Harlequin & Commedia dell'Arte in ballet

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Didn't think my notes belonged added in on the thread about all of the Guggenheim 2015 Works and Process lectures... but thought I'd share what little I remembered from this lovely evening. I was there on Sunday, perhaps some others could add in and/or correct... ​please do correct, i've probably got half of it down wrong.

From the announcement

Balanchine’s Harlequinade: Commedia dell’arte Explored Sun and Mon, Sept 20 and 21, 7 pm
New York City Ballet dancers perform excerpts from George Balanchine’s Harlequinade, a masterful two-act ballet in the commedia dell’arte style, prior to the New York City Ballet’s full presentation in October. Following the performance, Pacific Northwest Ballet Education Programs Manager and dance scholar Doug Fullington will moderate a discussion exploring Balanchine’s Harlequinade, which was choreographed in the spirit of Marius Petipa, in whose Les Millions d’Harlequinade he danced as a student.

It was recorded on video, so at least it exists in the archive somewhere. Even if they couldn't allow the Balanchine performances available over the internet, it would be wonderful to get the lecture and the Petipa performances.

Cameron Grant played for the demonstrations, which was a great pleasure for the audience.

PNB corps de ballet dancers Angelica Generosa and Kyle Davis did a very nice job bringing the Petipa to life. (there was much commentary afterwards murmured about among the audience at the reception that PNB must have riches to have such dancers only in the corps)

There is something about these bones of lost performances of an earlier era... the imagination comes into play... one almost sees a vision of what might have been and perhaps reality could never have congealed in such a way... but this is maybe the attraction of legends... how might Nijinsky have floated... how lightly would the original Harlequin have managed those steps?

The lecture was kindly underwritten by Stuart Coleman and Meryl Rosofsky.

On the screen was a photo of Alexander Shiryaev as Harlequin, although it was György Kyaksht in the original (whether there is a photo anywhere of Kyaksht... ?) One looks at the choreography and imagines how it might have suited Kyaksht... he must have been buoyant ;) with an easy ballon for these steps to look capering... I have been hunting youtube all evening for a version of assemblé to a deep demi plié or grand plié... I feel I have seen this step done so, and wonder if it were for Harlequin or something else... but youtube can be like the ocean and it's tides... sometimes like flotsam amazing clips come to view, but when you go back months later to find them, ... well... good luck. And so, for all I know, the assembly to deep deep plié was for some entirely different number/era.

Doug Fullington gave an interesting brief history of Commedia della' Arte... how it started with stock characters of two old men and their two male servants... improvised outdoors... and that Harlequin inherited his trickster character from a devil character in medieval theater... Gradually more characters were added, included female characters, (played by women!)... it died out in Italy but was preserved in France where more characters (including some of those we think of as standard characters where added... I think he was saying Pierrot)

Eventually the words gave way and it became a pantomime or dance form... (one can see how this might have suited traveling players... one wouldn't have to make the jokes work in all languages?). Pierrot went from the stupid servant (how did those long sleeves work for a servant?), to a romantic character always mooning about, in the service of love...

The Harlequin & Columbine in the Ivanov/Petipa Nutcracker were originally a he-devil & she-devil in the libretto but by the time of the premiere they had been replaced with the commedia characters... however the ominous tone in the music remained (it seems it was originally done to the music usually used for mechanical soldier doll)... [hey, is Satinella a she-devil?]

Fullington mentioned that Commedia della'Arte was unscripted and improvised... had it been scripted it would have been Commedia Erudita... [if I quite heard that right]

Petipa (or the libretto?) has a fairy give Harlequin a slapstick magic wand with which he will be able to get what he wants (Columbine... who evolved from a soubrette to an "idealized woman" character... while Pierette was created and filled the soubrette niche)... later on this fairy is disguised as a notary public and marries Harlequin & Columbine. (I promptly missed the next few sentences as I tried to imagine a fairy disguised as a notary public)...

The older Harlequin variation had tours a la seconde in the old style where the supporting foot sort of stays flat on the floor in plié and "hops" (without any elevation... I think of these as "chugs" except they are turning not traveling).. instead of sailing around in relevé

The Stepanov notation often just notated the feet, nothing [or little] above the waist... i'm guessing it was intended as a memory cue, not as something to give a stager, who had never seen it, the choreography. The music speeds up in the tours a la seconde... in the Balanchine version, so do the tours speed up... it is so clear in the music, that even if it were not notated, one felt it should happen in the Petipa... (even before having seen the Balanchine... ) (or was this because it was played by someone familiar with the Balanchine version? Is it written in the score? My memory of what it sounded like doesn't serve to let me say if it were the interpretation or the score ).

However, the Columbine variation was notated by a student, Alexandra (and Fullington said the full name, mentioning that she signed the notation), who noted everything including the arms (? and epaulement? I'm not sure now exactly).... (I became distracted wondering if she did so because she wanted to remember exactly how it went herself... I was not clear if she were a student of the ballet or a student of notation... a ballet student might easily want to learn a variation just to try it themself!).

Angelica gave us the Columbine variation... very beautiful... one sees the dance through it's ghost... sparkling flittering fingers, the torso epaulement is not the contemporary alignment and the dancers mentioned not having the muscle memory for the coordination for it to feel natural.. saying something like somehow it works, but it is not the familiar coordination... I think the charm is tricky... the more subtle the charm, the more difficult to reproduce...like an accent from an unfamiliar era... one looks at the early films and though recognizable steps are discernable, the way the old dancers carried themselves is very different, different inclinations of the head, shoulders... a principal of that era would have known just how to evince charm in slight a lilt of the torso. The final position of the variation, perhaps fourth with the chest a little forward and the arms up ? (memory not quite serving), but I remember thinking at the moment that I bet it displayed the original tutu beautifully... those tutus were almost like a prop, I think.. with some steps entirely designed to make it flounce or tip the skirt at an angle to show it off....

Balanchine's variation to the same music is exquisite... so fairy like... made me think of that pas de deux in Midsummers with it's light touch...the variation was light and bourrée-ing... with lots of epaulement... and indeed the Midsummer's pas de deux was mentioned in the lecture and I believe Fullington said they were not made so very far apart in time. Tiler Peck did a lovely job of it. She seems to be good at confections. Perhaps too she is the right type for these Italian Ballerina virtuoso roles in 19th Century Russian Classical Ballet parts.... I would like to see her in more of them to see if the theory holds out.... I loved the way Balanchine had the speed of the bourrées change... a little bourrée turn that begins to turn faster... Also that partnered turn where Harlequin gets her turning and then steps away... a little as if he has just spun a top... Also enjoyed where she begins her fouetté independently and then Harlequin joins her to partner them further until he can capture her waist and hold her posed.

I'm guessing that in the pas de deux where they are both looking out & about, it is because it is a clandestine pairing? Her father does not want her to go to Harlequin who has no money. By the way, why is it called the Millions of Harlequin? Is it the colors of his costume, or the fortune he does not have?

Watching the Balanchine, I kept seeing Villella in the steps... it takes a particular personality to bring the right glint of the eye into the movement... I wonder what contemporary principal has the right spark to bring the part out... it needs a devilish grin, a light step... equal parts ballon and élancé perhaps...

And that... I am afraid... is all I remember.

However, one can find the Baryshnikov/McBride performance of Balanchine's Harlequinade at the White House in the Era of President Carter. It has the chorus of little child Harlequins & Columbines with slapsticks that Fullington also mentioned. (There! See? I remember one more thing!).


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oh... and one other thing... the Drigo music probably made me think of it... and, I think the Balanchine had these arms that maybe referenced this (though I suppose more than one variation made use of them)... at 1:27 if it doesn't cue properly (https://youtu.be/CK2Cf-4va6g?t=1m27s) and the fluttering fingers made me think of of Danilova coaching Cindy Drummer in the Pavilion d'Armide variation which seems to begin with little flicks of the wrist...

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Amy, thank you for this wonderful report! Helene, I second that. I dearly wish I could have seen this lecture and demo :( because I dearly love that ballet. I saw it last Spring for the first time and thought it exquisite. I think the main matinee cast was Ashley Bouder, Claire Von Enck as Pierrette and I'm thinking DeLuz (?). I'm not home but I'll check my program when I am.Interestingly, at intermission I met a young woman fairly new to ballet. She greatly enjoyed the other ballet on the program, which I am not remembering right now, but had difficulty relating to Harliquinade.

She expressed that she found it quaint and old-fashioned. I responded that it had a lot of historical significance, mentioned the commedia ell' arte tradition and Petipa, and as a NYCB work, that it was one of many 'faces' and delights, really, of Balanchine's genius. I politely suggested that she might like to read a history or two of ballet. It as a pleasant exchange, but it makes me wonder about young people becoming acquainted with ballet and perhaps dismissing whole traditions because they are foreign to the culture now. Plus, how many young people even know about commedia dell' arte, right? I hope that very nice young woman takes the time to understand what she saw because I think she might change her opinion and consider the event more rich than she realized. Thoughts, anyone?

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Fullington et al offered a lovely and relaxingly-paced analysis of HARLEQUINADE, which has long been one of my favorite ballets. I usually leave the theatre when it ends, so that the usually-differently-styled final work on the bill not spoil the magic of Balanchine & Drigo for me. [With due respect to Jerry Robbins' THE CONCERT or NY EXPORT or anything else that usually follows HARLEQUINADE at NYCB.]

My only qualm about the Guggenheim event is that Fullington did not have the time to compare the Petipa & Balanchine "full" versions with the one-act standard-Soviet version by Peter Gusev...or the USSR hodgepodge known as the "Harlequinade Pas de Deux"! The one-act Gusev version was presented at the Maly (Mikhailovsky) Theatre of Leningrad/StP from the 50s until recently; also, Gelsey Kirkland's academy presented the Gusev edition in 2013. It's an OK version...but...any stager who (1) adds vocals to the serenade and (2) eliminates Columbine's heavenly "Berceuse" solo from this ballet should be "shot"! :)

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Plus, how many young people even know about commedia dell' arte, right?

This crosses my mind when I write -- as a critic for a general readership publication, I'm always looking for familiar analogs that will help people link their own knowledge to the work I'm discussing. So far I haven't had any complaints about commedia references, but I'm waiting to see when they start to show up.

My more current difficulty is finding an analogy for the variety show, where a collection of individual acts are organized/introduced by a host. For a long time I used the Ed Sullivan Show, since it was still familiar to most readers (even the ones who only knew it by reference), but I have a feeling that's getting too old.

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This crosses my mind when I write.. XFor a long time I used the Ed Sullivan Show, since it was still familiar to most readers (even the ones who only knew it by reference), but I have a feeling that's getting too old.

Until very recently, we had "Sabado Gigante" on Univision. Then Don Francisco retired...

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Neil Patrick Harris has a new variety show, but I'm not sure it will stick and, if it does, whether younger audiences will watch. From the review of it on NPR, it seems to have more games and audience participation.

Classic Arts Showcase was like a non-hosted variety show.

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Until very recently, we had "Sabado Gigante" on Univision. Then Don Francisco retired...

I know -- That was one of those moments when you realize how old you really are...

Neil Patrick Harris has a new variety show, but I'm not sure it will stick and, if it does, whether younger audiences will watch. From the review of it on NPR, it seems to have more games and audience participation.

Classic Arts Showcase was like a non-hosted variety show.

I haven't watched Harris' new show all the way from beginning to end, but so far it seems to me to be more like a game show than the kind of variety show I'm thinking of (audience participation mostly limited to watching/listening)

"Non-hosted" -- a good description. I always think of it as the arts television version of the shuffle function on an iPod.

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I suppose a school talent show is like a variety show? But really that depends on how involved the MC is if you are talking about the host role?

Fullington talked about the Harlequin reference in Nutcracker. He might have spoken about the Harlequin in La Sonambula as well... but perhaps it would be getting out of hand. This was a well organized presentation.

Here is the late Johan Renvall as Harlequin in La Sonambula: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=mEwx7VUqkuI

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Thanks so much for the link to Renvall!

When you think about it, the Harlequin/Columbine (or Pierrot/Pierette) image shows up all over the place in ballet, either as a direct connection or a suggestion. Most "Italian" variations have elements from that tradition (think of the Neopolitan dance in Swan Lake, almost anyone's version), whether they come directly from that material, or from an interpretation (descendants of Napoli).

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Fullington said something about there being a strong English tradition in Commedia (one of the places it thrived after interest in Italy had died out)... and something about this being where "Harlequinade" came from... but I can't recall hearing much about the British tradition... What should I be reading? (or watching?)

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England: Just think Punch and Judy. PUNCH magazine.

Doug Fullington would need a week to delve into all known commedia-based ballets. PULCINELLA. PIERROT LUNAIRE. Goleizovsky's COLUMBINE's TOMB. Even Bournonville created a commedia-ish number for his LIFEGUARDS ballet: "King Carnival and the two Follies" pas de trois in the last scene.

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Commedia is part of a tradition of stock characters that began with the Greeks and continued to the current sit-com. It's only been relatively recently that dramatists have thought they could write specific, unique characters. The Italian comedy does come before the English version -- Punch and Judy is an early example, but probably even better known today are the stock Pantomime shows.

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I would have liked to have seen it in its Waldorf nd Statler stage... When it was just two old men and their two servants...usually the servant is portrayed as much smarter than his master but apparently this was not the case with Pierrot...whose sleeves must have rendered him further useless... How he evolved to moonstruck romantic must have been an entertaining skit..l

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Also it's been noted that Balanchine's Melancholic is a Harlequin/Pierrot derived figure.

Stravinsky, Picasso, Massine and Diaghilev made a trip to Naples in 1917 to see one of the true remaining commedia dell'arte / folk dancing troupes. They were noisy, obscene in their clowning, with a down-and-dirty physicality, according to John Richardson.

Massine bought a black mask from one of the actors, a copy of which he wore in Pulcinella - one side laughing, one side crying. It had originally belonged to an 18th c actor, Antonio Petito. Massine said he came to identify with Pulcinella as much as Picasso did with Harlequin (/Mercury).

Balanchine must have been exposed to some of the Ballets Russes fascination with commedia dell'arte, if only slightly secondhand. (And Balanchine would have seen Meyerhold's adaptations of the same traditions before he left Russia.)

I also wonder if Villella had seen some of this type of earthy street theater in his childhood in New York - helping him hone his Harlequin role.

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Ratmansky's performance in Balanchine's "Tarantella" looks Harlequin-ish to me --

It's the only interpretation of the role that can stand next to Villella's immortal one. Of course they both do the commedia gestures, the palms up "who knew" gestures.... but Ratmansky makes it much more of a "class act" -- there's a premier danseur elegance in his bearing, whereas Villella's appeal was very earthy.

Of course, Villella had McBride to dance with, and they managed to keep up a real flirtation throughout that superseded the steps completely. Ratmansky's partner isn't interested in him; she's just flirting with us. Ratmansky is on another plane, flirting with the entire tradition. Heavenly wit.

Edited to add -- THANK YOU ASHTON FAN! What a lot of fascinating information. And it sounds like you were there, this is a real report. I do wish I'd seen the scene in the kitchen.

Edited by Helene
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The Harlequinade in near original form enabled John Rich to build the first Covent Garden theatre. Rich was both theatre manager and a famous Harlequin.Rich's Harlequin performed magic and used the advances in stage technology to produce transformation scenes and so on.Over the centuries other aspects of the entertainment came to dominate the action and by the twentieth century very few theatres bothered with the Harlequinade at all. I believe that it was still an afterpiece of the pantomime at Drury Lane as late as the 1920's and even later than that there was at least one manager/performer Ronald Fletcher who retained the Harlequinade in his shows. I saw quite a few pantomimes as a child but none of them included a Harlequinade.

In England some of the Commedia characters developed a life of their own.Both Pulcinella and the Clown escaped their allotted roles. Pulcinella became totally independent as Mr Punch while the Clown, in the form of Joseph Grimaldi had by the beginning of the nineteenth century become the central feature of the Harlequinade.Even today anyone producing a traditional pantomime should include one of the standard comedy routines which are a part of the tradition introduced by Grimaldi. In Cinderella the broker's men routine, which involves a series of doors and a chase through them and round the set in most other pantos either a kitchen scene or a scene in which a room is decorated both of which descend into mayhem and mess.

The Punch and Judy show was once a staple of seaside entertainment. In the late fifties and early sixties there were still some excellent "professors" about with well worn puppets who performed the Punch scenario with vigour and didn't stint on the violence of the basic plotline. Mr Punch is a wife beater and child killer. Left in charge of the baby by his wife, Judy, Punch loses his temper with the baby who won't stop crying. He kills the child then he kills Judy and attempts to dispose of the bodies by turning them into sausages.He is terrorised by a crocodile who comes after Mr Punch and the sausages. Punch manages to fends the crocodile off with his slapstick. Sentenced to death Mr. Punch outwits Jack Ketch the hangman by asking Ketch to show him what he needs to do in order to be executed; he has difficulty understanding whereabouts on the gallows he should place himself.Ketch exasperated by Punch's incompetence as a condemned man obligingly gives Punch a demonstration and is strung up.Today Punch and Judy shows are far from common and seem to be performed by nice middle class men who don't seem to have mastered the art of using the swazzle and perform a much watered down version with pristine puppets.As you can see the traditional Punch show is far from politically correct but without the violence and the traditional routines Punch and Judy is nothing.

As you can see what remained of the Commedia tradition in England was popular and vigorous rather than refined and far removed from its balletic depictions.Laurel and Hardy rather than Fokine.

I am not a theatre historian so I don't know if there are recent books on the English Harlequinade but a book on the Pantomime such as "Oh, Yes It Is" by Gerald Frow would be a good starting place as there are copies available on the internet.

A swazzle is a piece of metal which the puppeteer has in his mouth and uses to produce Punch's voice.They used ti be made out of Half a Crown coins. I have no idea what they are made from now.Inevitably they get swallowed and it was said that no one could be a "professor" unless he had swallowed his swazzle a couple of times.

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It's hte only interpretation of the role that can stand next to Villella's immortal one. Of course they both do the commedia gestures, the palms up "who knew" gestures.... but Ratmansky makes it much more of a "class act" -- there's a premier danseur elegance in his bearing, whereas Villella's appeal was very arthy.

Of course, Villella had McBride to dance with, and they managed to keep up a real flirtation throughout that superseded the steps completely. Ratmansky's partner isn't interested in him; she's just flirting with us. Ratmansky is flirting with the entire traditin. Heavenly wit.

Courtesy of RAI Scuola, you can find a (very poor quality) video of McBride and Villella's interpretation here.

I suppose it is heretical to say so -- and it is ludicrous to make judgements based on videos alone in any event -- but I think I prefer Ratmansky. He is indeed very witty, and rather sexy, too. (Villella? Hmmm ... not so much ...)

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My favorite Tarantella guy will always be Baryshnikov for his giddy energy, as well as execution of steps. Somebody please find that clip from the 1979 "In Performance at the White House" to see what I mean. Not that Villella & Ratmansky didn't also delight. MB was just so looney-giddy that it made me want to jump along.

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