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The above image is the set design for the “Ballet of the Nuns” from the five act opera “Robert le Diable'', which premiered at the Paris Opera on November 21, 1831.  It is considered to be the first Ballet Blanc and the first Romantic Ballet, however it is also the most difficult to find information on. (Mashinka, I did read your thread on this ballet and your reference to “Shaun of the Dead.”)  The original choreography, by Filippo Taglioni has been lost, but recently, notes on the choreography made by the Danish choreographer August Bournonville, in 1841 and 1847 have been discovered.  In their book “Robert Le Diable, The Ballet of the Nuns” authors Ann Hutchinson Guest and Knud Arne Jurgensen have provided this information.  I don't know if others have read this book, but for those who have not the following is provided.  Let me know if you have read it.  

Based on this book the finale of Act 3, which takes place in the ruins of the convent of St. Rosalie in Sicily, starts when Bertram summons the deceased nuns from their tombs.  These are nuns who during their lives were unfaithful to their vows.  At this point “The tombs open. The Nuns emerge from them, covered with their shrouds and silently move forward in a procession to the front of the stage.”  (Page 24.)  At some point in this finale “They [the nuns] retire into the wings, in an instance removing their habits, and appear in simple muslin skirts and bodices, their legs and arms covered with skin coloured flashings and their hair disheveled and loose.” (Page 27.)  My guess is this happens just after the procession of the nuns and just before the beginning of the Bacchanale (the beginning of the ballet proper).  The above indicates that the nuns at first may be dressed in either shrouds or habits.  In Production Notes (page 28) it is noted that “The effect of a cloister needs to be established by appropriate drops and backcloth.  The tombs can be open at the back if the effect of the nuns rising from these tombs needs to be established.  This is the case if meas. 1 - 148 with the so-called Procession des Nonnes is performed as a prologue to the actual ballet.”  

The information in the above paragraph appears to be for the original Paris premiere, except for the Production Notes which are suggestions for a contemporary performance.  The following information is from the “Study and Performance Notes” (pages 31 to 53),  There are five sections to the ballet described there.  First The Bacchanale (112 measures), next the Allegro Vivace (55 measures), followed by the First Air de Ballet - Seduction par l’ivresse (drunkenness, 56 measures), then Second Air de Ballet - Seduction de jeu (game, 67 measures) and finally Third Air de Ballet - Séduction de l’amour - Pas seul d’Helena (55 measures). 

The Bacchanale begins as though answering a call 16 dancers enter the stage (8 from each side) with swift, light running steps.  (In the Paris premiere there were more than 30 in the ballet de corps.)  Soon comes a mime sequence, expressing the thoughts of the nuns.  They mime “here and here” and then touch their wrist pulse, their temples, their heart as they breathe in and out and nod their heads saying “yes” indicating that they are remembering that they once had a pulse, a mind and a heart.  After some additional dancing there is another mime section with some of the nuns expressing the thoughts “We - There - Slept” and following this the other nuns expressing the thoughts “From these graves we arose.”  Then all mime “We, here and here, these graves renounce (defy).”  Finally they all mime “Here we will dance.”  Afterwards they dance the remainder of this section. 

With the start of the Allegro Vivace Abbess Helena enters swiftly from upstage right (danced by Maria Taglioni in the original Paris premiere and possibly entering from a tomb in that premiere).  She dances before miming to the others ordering them to dance themselves.  This leads to Helena’s Solo afterwhich Robert enters.  The Abbess greets him and leads him in.  Robert does not dance and by the end of this section is sitting on a tomb.

The purpose of the nuns is to seduce Robert into taking a talisman, a green branch, which will lead to his damnation, from the tomb of St. Rosalie.  In the First Air de Ballet - Seduction par l’ivresse, they try to seduce him with drunkenness and offer him goblets to drink from.  Helena leads Robert to the tomb of the saint, but when he comes close he recoils with horror thinking that he sees his mother’s face in the effigy.  Next the nuns try to seduce Robert with games, gambling and greed in the Second Air de Ballet - Séduction par jeu. The greed of the nuns repulsed him. 

As the Third Air de Ballet - Seduction par l’amour starts the music changes to an adagio-like 4/4.  Much of the dancing is done by Helena as she looks at Robert.  Near the end she “blows him a kiss” and points toward the branch.  Robert returns her kisses at the end “‘runs’ slowly past her to St. Rosalie's tomb and picks the branch [talisman] from it.”  He turns and triumphantly waves the branch above his head as the curtain falls. 

This is the end of the ballet as given in Study And Performance Notes.  Elsewhere in the book (page 25) it is noted “At the moment when Robert plucks the branch, thunder breaks out, the Nuns change into spectres, and demons rise from the depths of the earth, all forming themselves into a group around him, dancing in a disorderly chain.  He makes his way through these spectres, brandishing his branch.  The chorus sings. . .”

Here is a 26 minute long video of the music for the finale of the third act of the opera.  Listed here, as far as I can determine, are the time points various parts of this finale:


0.50 Bertrain summons the nuns from their graves.

3:40 The procession of the nuns

7:30 Bertrain commands the nuns to seduce Robert into taking the green branch, the talisman.

8:40 This begins the ballet proper with the beginning of the Bacchanale.  Toward the end of this section the Abbess Helena enters and after she dances for a time Robert enters.

13:00 Robert sings of the horror of the place and his terror.

15:10 The start of the seductions of Robert

24:20 Robert snatchs the branch and the spectres and demons celebrate.

25:50 End

I do not understand the lyrics and know little of music so if I am in error kindly let me know and forgive me.


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Degas did two paintings of the ballet that give the feeling of seeing it from a forward orchestra seat at the Paris Opera.  Of the earlier painting, the Metropolitan Museum notes:


When Degas made this picture in 1871, Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera Robert le Diable was forty years old and feeling its age—as reflected by the man at center, indifferent to the action and directing his binoculars at the audience. But Degas was fond of the opera, and particularly of the scene depicted here, from the third act, in which nuns arise from the dead and dance seductively amid the ruins of a moonlit monastery.

Degas made some changes for the second version – the man in the binoculars moves to the left side and Viscount Lepic (whom Degas had painted with his two daughters in the iconic Place de la Concorde) appears in his place. The ballet also has more of the gray, flannel like quality that Degas had noted he originally wanted. Though painted very freely, there are nice details of the ballet in both paintings if you zoom into the central portions.





Courbet's Robert, 1857:


Vicomte Ludovic Napoléon Lepic:



Thomas Fulton avec l' orchesthe et choeurs de l'Opera de Paris Rockwell Blake - Samuel Ramey - Walter Donati - June Anderson - Michéle Lagrange:


Edited by Quiggin
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Quiggin, thank you for the link regarding the Ballet of the Nuns.  I appreciate any information on this ballet.  Degas’ paintings show a wild, energetic dance by nuns who still may be dressed in their white habits.  In the video of the opera you linked to the Ballet of the Nuns starts a little after 53 minutes.  However, it is not what is described in the book by Ann Hutchinson Guest and Knud Arne Jureensen.  During much of it “nuns” torment a young woman dressed in white.  I put  “nuns” in quotes because they seem, both in the way they look and in the way they lift and toss the young woman, to be male dancers in habits, plus they don’t remove their habits.  It seems to me that if anyone would be tormented it would be Robert.  Some of the other dancers, female dancers, do remove their habits.  Also on the second level of the stage there are women who may be nude or dressed in full body tights to appear nude.

To All, I noticed that some of the nuns in the image I posted are entering through trapdoors and there are many nuns in the courtyard.  Given that the nuns have just entered, the male figure would be Bertram.  The reconstruction of the ballet given in the book is a compromise between showing the choreography of the ballet as a work in its own right and showing the ballet’s role as part of the opera, so Robert is present, but does not sing.  `  

I was initially surprised by the music for the ballet of the nuns (beginning just after Bertrain commands the nuns to seduce Robert), as it seems light and happy instead of being gothic, dark and slow as I expected, but then I thought the nuns are happy and celebrate being out of their tombs.  It is called a Bacchanale.  Also, I don’t see the nuns as being evil.  They just want to have fun.  The opera is set during the early eleventh century, a time, as I understand, when younger children of the aristocracy would have to choose between poverty and a religious order.

The star of Ballet Blanc is the corp de ballet, women dressed all or mostly in white.  This I feel is the essence of a Ballet Blanc  These scenes are generally shown in a mysterious setting in nature or in a ruined structure which nature is beginning to reclaim.  To add to the mystery they tend to be set at night and the dancers in the corp de ballet portray mythic beings, such as deceased Nuns, Sylphides, Wilis, Shades, Swan maidens and Snowflake fairies.  Many times there is a male participant who is portrayed as flawed in some way, as well as a main female protagonist.  I see the corp de ballet in these white ballets as a sisterhood.  

Kindly comment with information on this mysterious Ballet of the Nuns.  Thank you.


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The Ballet of the Nuns led directly, less than four months later, to the Paris Opera’s March 12, 1832 premiere of La Sylphide.  The Sylphide was danced by Marie Taglioni, who first danced the role of the Abbess Helena, the ballet was choreographed by her father Filippo Taglioni and the Libretto was by Adolphe Nourrit who portrayed Robert in the earlier opera.  Further, August Bournonville choreographed a somewhat different version with different music which premiered on November 28, 1836 in Copenhagen.  This is the version that is generally performed nowadays. 

A good source for the libretti of a number of 19th century ballets is The Evolution of the Romantic Ballet.  The Libretti and Enchanter Characters of Selected Romantic Ballets From the 1830s Through the 1890s” by Tamara Lee Gebelt, see here:  https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=7011&context=gradschool_disstheses.  In it the author writes “La Sylphide’s libretto by Charles (often called Adolphe) Nourrit, as adapted for the Danish stage in 1836 by August Bournonville, appears in Appendix A of this study.”  The libretto in Appendix A starters on page 145.  It is dated 1832.

This libretto provides interesting information which I did not realize when I first saw the ballet.

At one point in the first act the Sylphide tells James “she loves him and has ever since the first moment she saw him. Her fate is joined to his, but now he is about to marry another. The hearth, she reveals, is her favorite place of refuge. Further, she tells him she is always with him, whether or not he can see her; she even sends him gentle dreams at night.”  Further it is noted that “Despite his love for Effy, he [James] is enraptured by the Sylphide and does not understand what magic is controlling him.”  Then comes the following: “But James cannot stand the thought of leaving Effy, and manages to spurn the beautiful creature. When the Sylphide wraps herself in Effy's plaid, however, James softens. Unable to resist anymore, James presses her to his heart and enthusiastically kisses her.”  Just before the end of this act when the ceremony begins “James is melancholy and stands apart from the others with the betrothal ring in his hand. Suddenly, the Sylphide emerges from the fireplace, snatches the ring from him, and gives him a look of utter despair that she must die if he marries Effy.”  It is at this point that James runs after the Sylphide.

During act two “The fog disperses and the sunrise bathes the landscape in cheerful light as the Sylphide leads James down from a steep mountain path.”  It is noticed that “He is enraptured with the Sylphide, but is frustrated because everytime he tries to ardently embrace her, she eludes him and flits away. He follows her in easy flight, though, and they dance together in harmony.”  

“But James remembers his Effy and the injustice he has inflicted upon her. When he becomes melancholy and drained, the Sylphide calls her sister Sylphides to come and cheer her beloved.”  Here we see the entry of all the Sylphides.  Toward the end of this act: “James returns without the Sylphide. Filled with guilt and regret, he realizes he is not strong enough to tear himself loose from her. . . . The despairing young man tells the hag [Old Madge] everything and offers her all his possessions if she can help him capture the Sylphide.”  This is when he receives the tragic scarf.  

Originally I saw the sylphide as impulsively falling in love with James on what happened to be the young man’s wedding day.  Thus, I saw the sylphide as maybe not really caring too much for James, but the liberotto shows that she is always with him and that she sends him dreams.  This 2 minute video explaining a mime scene in the first act supports this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=728TQeVyIJk.  Based on this video the sylphide has loved James and cared for him since he was a boy.  Also, as she has been protecting him since he was five.  It is a touching scene and is another reason why I do not like the ending.

Further, James’ actions appear to be impulsive and irrational at least to the others.  He runs out of the home, is gone overnight and he attacks an old woman who was trying to warm herself.  It is possible that he chased the Sylphide only because she took his ring, but the libretto shows him beginning to fall in love with or at least become infatuated with the Sylphide, despite that being his wedding day.  Another thing is that this ballet is an exception to most Ballet Blanc as the white act takes place during the day, at dawn and not at night.

An article at this link http://www.theballetbag.com/2010/02/10/la-sylphide/ reveals some variation between the original Paris premiere and the Danish one.  Bournonville danced the role of James in the Danish premiere and “. . . he wanted to take some emphasis out of the ballerina and put her on equal footing with the male dancer.”  Also in that later production “. . . the witch Madge is a more important figure.”  As what I like most about this ballet is the white scene I feel I would prefer the original Paris version.  What I don’t like about either version is the ending.

Here is a 30 minute long video for the most parts showing most of the Ballet Blanc from La Sylphide: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30ePH3mkbf4. (This may be from a reconstruction of the original Paris premiere.)  What I particularly like about this, other than it being primarily a white act, is that Sylphides come “flying” across the stage starting 30 seconds into the video.  The Sylphides in this scene dance happily as I imagine the nuns do in the Ballet of the Nuns.  I can imagine them being friends, a community and a sisterhood.

The 1822 story Trilby, ou le Lutin d'Argail (Tillby, or the Imp of Argail) by Charles Nodier, was one of the inspirations for this ballet, however, in the story it is a male Imp that falls in love with a human woman.  It also was set in Scotland, but as I remember it was darker than the ballet.

Do people think that James is a flawed character?


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In reading Tamara Lee Gebelt’s “The Libretti and Enchanter Characters of Selected Romantic Ballets From the 1830s Through the 1890s,’ I came across the following comment: “So successful was La Sylphide, that a sequel, ‘Fille du Danube’ and other revivals followed. . .”  This sparked my interest.  Information on ‘Fille du Danube’ can be found at The Marius Petipa society website here: https://petipasociety.com/la-fille-du-danube/.  The world premiere for this ballet was at the Paris Opera on September 21, 1836.  In reality it was not a sequel, but was choreographed by Filippo Taglioni and starred his daughter Marie Taglioni as Fleur des Champs (Wildflower).  It is also another example, one that may not be that well known, of a Ballet Blanc.  In the story Fleur des Champs was, as a baby, discovered on the banks of the river and was raised by humans, but in reality she is a water nymph, the daughter of the Danube.  So, in La Sylphide Marie portrayed a being of the air - a Sylphide - while in this ballet she portrayed a being of the water - a undine.  Eventually the water nymph and a human - Rudolph - fall in love, but a Baron tries to force Fleur des Champs to marry him.  In order to avoid this forced marriage the nymph jumps into the Danube to return to her father’s kingdom beneath the water.  Believing her to have killed herself Rudolph goes mad with grief, however, Fleur des Champs appears to him in spirit form and the young man jumps into the river after her. It is here that, according to Petipe website, the white act occurs, when Rudolph is tested by the water nymphs.  Thus this is another ballet that can be considered to be a Ballet Blanc.  The ballet was not that successful when it premiered in Paris, but was more successful when it premiered in Saint Petersburg in O.S. 1837 and there was a revival in Russia in 1880.  

About the same time that this ballet premiered in Russia, Hans Christan Andersen’s story The Little Mermaid (1837) was published.  The Little Mermaid is a being of the water and thus could be considered a water nymph or an undine.  While not having the happy ending that the Disney movie has, Andersen’s story is not as tragic as some people might believe, as at the end the little mermaid becomes a “Daughter of the Air” that is a Sylphide, so this story combines a water elemental and an air elemental.  If you are interested he is a link to the Little Mermaid story, it is not very long.  The ending of the story is a great description of a Sylphide.  See here: http://hca.gilead.org.il/li_merma.html.

Also, I highly recommend Tamara Lee Gebelt’s thesis for anyone interested in the history of 19th century ballets.  See here: https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=7011&context=gradschool_disstheses,


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The saddest moment in ballet, at least for me, is the mad scene at the end of the First Act in Giselle.  After this comes the act which contains the ballets Ballet Blanc.  The part of this act that I prefer is the approximately 18 minutes long section between the time that Hilarion first leaves the stage and when Albrecht first enters.  I consider this section to be a “pure” Ballet Blanc, without either male dancer, where the Wilis happily dance and welcome Giselle into their group.  It's not that I dislike male dancing.  I enjoy the dances of the Bluebird in The Sleeping Beauty, Ali’s dance in Le Corsaire and dance of the Rose in Le Sprectre de la rose for example.  But to me Ballet Blanc is primarily about the corp de ballet and in this case the male dancers distract me.  Furthermore, I strongly dislike the character of Albrecht.  What was he thinking?  Did he really plan to marry Giselle?  It is his actions and his deceit that lead to the death of the young woman.

This link goes to a 15 minute long video that shows most of what I referred to as the “pure” Ballet Blanc.  It starts as Myrtha rises out of a grave, through a trap door, dances across the stage and then appears to fly back the other way.  The Wilis have wings.  Soon the other Wiis enter and dance, but it ends before Giselle enters.  See here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhSbSRVzDZM.  

A second video (2 minutes) shows Giselle also rising from a grave.  See here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_luX9icoT5w.

And here is a “spooky” Giselle in the forest (2 minutes). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8DP_9t96h8o.

Tamara Lee Gebelt has included the original libretto in her thesis in appendix B, page 153.  It’s dated to 1841 and described as having been translated from the French by ballet historian and scholar, Cyril W. Beaumont.  The ballet is set as “Dawn is breaking on a pleasant village in Germany, a rural community flanked by the Thuringion Hills.”  The Thuringian slate mountains (spelled with an “a” instead of an “o” near the end) is located in the central area of the current country of Germany, to the south of the city of Erfurt.  At the end of the First Act, according to this libretto when Giselle learns of Albrecht’s (Lors’) deceit “Giselle is horrified, and as her brain reels, delirium seizes her.  She grabs the sword and begins to draw a desperate cabalistic circle on the ground around her.  In her anguish, she pierces herself with the sword.  She then imagines she hears the love theme melody, and tries to dance again, but her strength is failing.  She falls to the ground in death.”  Did she pierce herself on purpose or was it a result of her delirium?

For the second act the setting is described as “. . . .a dark forest late at night.  A moonlit lake is just beyond.”  The Wilis, which appear after the striking of the midnight hour, are said to be “will-o’-the-wisps, or ghosts of women who have been rejected by their suitors.”  This last part is not in Heine’s inspiration for the ballet, as shown below and thus appears to have been added by the men who wrote the ballet.  The reference to “will-o’-the-wisps” seems to be the reason why in some versions small lights seen in the forest herald the coming of the Wilis.  This act ends with Albrecht surviving the night and with Wilfrid, the prince and Bathinda entering.  “As Giselle begins to sink into her grave, she tells Albrecht to go to Bathinda and love her, for she can no longer love in the human world.  She gestures farewell, and vanishes into the ground.”  Notability there is no mention of her being free of the power of the Wilis here. 

One of the inspirations for this ballet and the inspiration for the Wiles was a short comment in Heinrich Heine’s 1835 De l’Allemagne (Of Germany).  Two versions of this translation can be found here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40837168?seq=1 and here: https://petipasociety.com/giselle/.  According to these translations the Wilis are young women who were engaged to be married (affianced/brides to be) but “who died before their wedding day” and they “. . . cannot rest peacefully in their graves” as they still have a (passion/love) for dancing that they could not satisfy during their lives.  This is the reason given as to why they come out of their graves to gather together and dance.  In neither of the translations are they described as being vengeful toward young men and there is no indication that they were rejected by their suitors.  Men who meet up with the Wilies “must dance” or are “forced to dance” until he “drops dead” or “falls dead.”  But remember there is no indication that the Wilis are vengeful toward young men and no indication as to why they would want young men to die.  The death of the young men may only be a side effect of the Wilis being “irresistible.”  What is clearlest is that the Wilis come out of their graves to satisfy their desire to dance that was unfulfilled when they were alive.  That is, the Wilis are poor young creatures who cannot rest peacefully in their graves, because of their desire to dance and come out at night to satisfy that desire and have fun with their sisters.  Thus the Wilis could be minding their own business when a young man may come across them and due to their irresistibility he joins them and dances until he dies.  This is the interpretation that I prefer.

Also, there is an interesting image at the Petipa site labeled “Lithograph of Act 2 - Giselle appears to Albrecht (1841),” which shows Giselle flying.  Also, it may be that Wilis is pronounced with a “V” sound instead of a “W.”


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Ballet Blanc moved from Paris to Russia on February 4 (O.S. January 23) 1877 when “La Bayadere” premiered at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre, in Saint Petersburg.  An English libretto for this ballet, described as a translation of the 1877 libretto, can be found at the Petipa website: https://petipasociety.com/la-bayadere-libretto/.  It shows “The stage represents a consecrated forest, branches of bananas, amras, madhavis, and other Indian trees are intertwined.  At the left is a pond designated for ablutions.  In the distance, the peaks of the Hmalayans.”  Solar is presented as a wealthy and famous warrior.  Later Nikiya says “I am a bayadere!  I must keep order in the pagoda.  I was destined for this calling since childhood.”  She also describes Solor as “courageous.”  Solor says they could run away and Nikiya agrees, but wants him to “swear to me before this temple that your heart will never belong to anyone else but me, and that you will love me your whole life.”  He does and with the dawn they part.  

In the second act things begin to change when Solor is summoned before the rajah who tells the warrior that he must soon marry Gamzatti, the rajah’s daughter.  (Originally her name was Hamsatti.)  Solor weakly objects saying he is not yet prepared and that he cannot fulfill the rajah’s desire.  But when the rajah demands he go through with the marriage Solor says no more and soon leaves.  While the rajah plots to kill Nikiya, Solor, unaware of the plot, goes ahead with the marriage to Gamzatti.   

While dancing during the celebration in honor of Badrinata Nikiya is bitten by a poisonous snake that was hidden in a basket.  She appeals to Solor for help and he embraces her.  To the warrior she says “Do not forget your vow, you are sworn to me . . . I am dying . . . Farewell!”  She refuses the antidote offered by the Brahmin and saying “Farewell Solor! . . . I love you! . . . I die innocent!” she dies.  Then something interesting happens, something that I have not noticed in this ballet.  “As through a mist a shade is seen, behind which follow will-o’-the-wisps.  It grows pale and vanishes among the icecaps of the Himalayas.”

The version of La Bayadere that I am most familiar with and was the one that I saw first is the 1992 Paris production by Nureyev, where there is no destruction of the temple. In that production, after the death of Nikiya, Solar goes to his room to smoke opium to deal with his grief and perhaps his guilt and dreams of meeting with the Bayadere in the Kingdom of the Shades.  They are happy in this dream, possibly indicating that Nikiya forgives him.  But this Nikiya is not real, she is just a figment of Solor’s dream.  For me this is a disappointing ending.   

I feel the libretto is better.  After the shade and the will-o’-the-wisp disappear into the Himalayas the scene moves to Solor’s room.  Gamzatti enters the room and “. . . sits down next to him [Solor], caresses him and tries in every way to attract his attention.  Solor at last revives, and takes her hand.  At this moment the melancholy strains of the bayadere’s song are heard.  The shade of the weeping Nikiya appears on the wall. Solor trembles.”  He says “Oh! Now my misfortunes will begin.  I forgot my vow! Remorse will pursue me my whole life.”  Eventually Solor falls asleep and dreams he is in a beautiful enchanted place.  Originally, in 1877, this “. . . scene was set in an illuminated castle in the sky and contained a huge corps de ballet of sixty-four dancers.”  For the 1900 revival it was changed “. . . to a dark and rocky set on the starlit peaks of the Himalayas.”   

When Solor awakens it is time for the wedding.  During this Nikiya appears to Solor and even to Gamzatti without being seen by others.  Despite this Solor continues with the wedding and “At the very moment when the Brahmin takes the hands of Solor and Hamsatti [Gamzatti] to join them, there is a fearful thunderclap followed by an earthquake.  Lightning strikes the hall, which collapses and covers in its ruins the rajah, his daughter, the Great Brahmin and Solor.”  

During the Apotheosis the action is as follows:  “Through the rain the peaks of the Himalayas are visible.  Nikiya’s shade glides through the air, she is triumphant, and tenderly looks at her beloved Solor, who is at her feet.”

The various showings of Nikiya as a shade, along with the apotheosis indicate that within the story the shades are “real” in the sense that the deceased nuns, the Sylphides and the Wilis are real in their stories.  

By far my favorite part of the ballet is the entrance of the Shades.  The music is somewhat somber and mysterious.  In general the rest of the ballet’s music is pleasant, but for me it does not rise to the level of this dance and when I first saw it I was a little disappointed in the music that followed.  The actual entrance of the Shades, with them descending the ramp, is approximately 4 minutes, but the music that accompanies that action continues for another 3 minutes more.  It is approximately 2.5 minutes more before Solor enters and the ballet de corps leaves the stage.  This 9.5 minute section is what I consider to be the pure Ballet Blanc.  It can be seen in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnXXxgQaZ84.  As with the other white acts I feel this imparts a feeling of sisterhood among the shades.  I can imagine them caring for each other and welcoming the bayadere as a valued new member of their group.  The flowing of the scarves worn by the shades gives a nice effect and I like the blue tint to the scene.  It is noted in the Petita website that what is now “The Scarf Duet” was originally a solo, the “Variation of Nikiya with the Scarf.”  In this, “Nikiya entered the stage holding one end of a long tulle scarf, while the other end was attached to a wire in the rafters above the stage.  When Nikiya released the scarf, it flew away across the stage and disappeared into the rafters, as if it was ‘supernaturally guided’.”  Also in that website is an image labeled “Illustration for Paradiso by Gustave Dore, the inspiration for the Kingdom of the Shades,” as well as an image showing “The Kingdom of the Shades in the 1900 revival” and at the end “The Destruction of the Temple (1877).”  See here: https://petipasociety.com/la-bayadere/.

The best that could be said for Solor is that he is all talk and no action.  He is a wealthy warrior and at first plans to elope with the Bayadere, but once the rajah orders him to marry Gamzatti, he seems to forget about that and goes ahead with the marriage to the other woman.  He is only stoped from marring her, the person who had the Bayadere murdered, when the gods destroyed the temple.  Compare this to Nikiya who first stands up to the Brahmin and then to Gamzatti who offers her wealth, both powerful people.  Nikiya even tries to kill the rajah’s daughter.

According to the Petipa website “Petipa’s inspiration for La Bayadere was likely to have been the Prince of Wales's visit to India in 1875, which was covered by every European newspaper and magazine.”


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Not quite a month after La Bayadere premiered in Saint Petersburg, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake had its world premier at the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on March 4 (O.S. February 20) 1877.  My favorite production of Swan Lake is the one by the Kirov Ballet, c. 1991, with Yulia Makhalina and Igor Zelensky.  It has the happy ending, which I understand was first introduced in the Soviet Union during the 1950s.  I remember  being surprised upon first seeing this ending in a live performance and liked it (I cheered at the end), but in reflecting on it it does not seem authentic, with Siegfried suddenly going from being deceived to being able to physically defeat a powerful sorcerer.  The ending I first saw and which I believed at the time to be the only ending was where Siegfried died and Odette remained a swan (the tragic ending).

Swan Lake has two white acts, two Ballet Blancs, the second act (the first act by the lake) and the fourth act.  In the Kirov Ballet production the first Ballet Blanc, from the entry of the ballet de corps to the end of that act lasts 25 minutes, while the second which comprises most of the last act is 21 minutes.

I feel that Swan Lake in general, not just this production, is the most dramatic of ballets.  This is in large part due to Tchaikovsky’s music.  The dancing and the music is energetic and exciting starting from when the ballet de corps first come on to the stage until they fly away at the end of the act.  Starting with the four little swans It gets even better.  As with the other ballets with white acts there is a feeling of sisterhood.  In the second act the swan maidens join together to dance and have fun, then just before dawn they get ready to take off.  The music and the dancing that it accompanies give a real feeling of swans taking flight.  It makes me realize how great a composer Tchaikovsky was.  In the last act there is a real feeling for the concern the swans have for each other.  One thing I’ve wondered about is what do the black swans in that act signify.  Does anyone know?

The story of this ballet has been revived a number of times, particularly its ending, since this world premier.  According to Tamara Lee Gebelt “The original libretto was co-authored by Vladimir Petrovich Begichev and Vasily Fedorovich Geltsr, a paraphrased summary of their original scentario, taken from Teatral’naya gazeta, c. dated October 19, 1876, appears in Appendix E [page 171] of this study.”  See here: https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=7011&context=gradschool_disstheses.   

The first act of this scenario is much like that of the modern performances.  However, in the second act Odette explains to Siegfried and Benno that “Her mother, a good fairy, fell in love with and married a noble knight against her father’s will. The knight destroyed her, though, and remarried a witch who, as her wicked stepmother, hated and nearly killed her.  Odette’s grandfather came to the rescue of the girl, taking her in.  His tears over the death of her mother formed the present lake.  The grandfather took Odette to live in the deepest part of the lake.  Long concealed from people, Odette recently persuaded the old man to give her a little freedom to make merry.  By day, she and her friends transform themselves into swans and fly, soaring nearly to Heaven.  At night, they assume human form, playing and dancing near the dear old man.  She ends, saying regretfully even now her stepmother gives them little peace.”  So, Odette and her friends are good fairies who can transform themselves into swans and humans and are not cursed to be swans during the day.  Further, Odette is protected from her stepmother by a crown given her by her grandfather and that when she marries the stepmother will lose the ability to harm her, but she must wear the crown for protection until then.  After this the other swans, now also women, along with children run in rows out of the ruins.  They then all dance and make merry.  Afterwards Siegfried says he loves her and will not forget her the next night.

Act 3 goes along similar to the modern versions and with act 4 we are back at the lake.  Odette rushes onto the stage, her hair is tousled and down around her shoulders.  She sill wears her crown, but she is crying.  The other group around her questioningly as she laments that her Siegfried neither kept his vow nor passed the test.”  When Siegfried arrives Odette says “it is not in her power to forgive him.”  Siegfried responds by saying that even if she is unwilling, she will always remain with him.”  He then throws the crown in the lake.  “The horrified Odette questions his actions, saying he has destroyed them both.  She falls dying into his arms. . .” and they both are engulfed by the waves.  

I prefer the idea that Odette and her friends are good fairies that can transform themselves into swans and humans and I like that there are children with them.  In most of the modern versions I see Siegfried, while having flaws is not purposely bad.  However, with this ending he is selfish and uncaring toward Odette.  He accomplishes what the evil stepmother was trying to do.  In essence it is a murder/suicide and I dislike it.  After reading the original libretto, it seems to me that the primary inspiration for Swan Lake is the German fairytale the Stolen Veil, see here for an explanation: https://balletalert.invisionzone.com/topic/45977-the-stolen-veil/.

The plan for the next post is to go on to 1895.


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According to the Petipa website “The libretto for the original 1877 production is very different from that of the 1895 production.”  See here: https://petipasociety.com/swan-lake/The libretto given at that website is basically a shorter version of the one given in a previous post.  In it Odette is described as the daughter of a good fairy and a knight and she and her friends are swan maidens who can transform themselves into swans or humans.  Further, the evil stepmother wants to kill Odette, who is protected by a magic crown and if Odette marries the stepmother will be thwarted.  Siegfried vows to marry Odette, but as before is tricked into vowing to marry Odile.  Again Odette is powerless to forgive him and he, determined for them never to be parted, throws her crown into the lake.  With this Odette dies then they are both engulfed by the lake.

The synopsis at the Tchaikovsky research website is somewhat confusing.  See here: https://en.tchaikovsky-research.net/pages/Swan_Lake.  Odette explains that she is “. . . the unwanted stepdaughter of an evil sorceress who is trying to kill her.  She is protected by her crown, which was given to her by her grandfather.”  So far that is the same.  It then goes on “Only the marriage vow can break the spell, which holds her and the other girls bound as swans by the day and humans by night.”  So this is combining two problems, the stepmother trying to kill Odette and the curse making them swans during the day.  However, the curse is not mentioned again, but the ending has the murder/suricide as in the two earlier scenarios.

A Libretto of the 1895 production, as translated by Prof. Roland John Wiley, is provided at the Petipa website here: https://petipasociety.com/swan-lake-libretto/.  The first act, scene 1, is basically as before.  In scene 2, Odette explains “. . . that she, Princess Odette, and the young girls subject to her are the unhappy victims of a wicked genie who bewitched them.  By day they are condemned to take the form of swans and only at night, near these ruins, can they regain their human form.”  Also, the “. . . spell will continue until somebody falls truly in love with her, for life.”

During the last act Odette tells her friends that Siegfried failed them, all is lost and that her only alternative is death.  When Siegfried arrives he vows to die with her.  “In terror the evil genie disappears.  Death out of love for Odette is his destruction.  The unhappy girl, having embraced Siegfried for the last time, runs to the cliff to throw herself from its height.  The evil genie in the form of an owl hovers over her in order to change her into a swan.  Siegrfried rushes to Odette's assistance and together with her throws himself into the lake.  The owl falls, dead.”  There is then an Apotheosis where the lovers are seen together in the afterlife.  So, in the 1895 libretto, the evil stepmother is done away with, Odette and her friends go from being fairies who can happily, voluntarily transform themselves into swans or humans to being unfortunate women who are cursed into being being swans during the day and the murder/suicide at the end becomes a double suicide that distroys the evil genie.

So, we have four endings.  The happy ending, which I like, but feel is not authentic and has too much of the “damsel in distress” to it.  Then there is the tragic ending, which I don’t like, because it’s tragic.  I also dislike the original 1877 murder/sucide ending, even without this ending Siegfired is flawed, but this shows him to be selfish and not to truly love Odette.  This leaves us with the 1895 double sucide which resulted in the destruction of Rothbart, as having some possibility.  A reconstruction can be found at the Petipa site here:  https://petipasociety.com/swan-lake-ratmansky-reconstruction/.  Of particular interest is the last video, 11 minutes.  Near the end of this clip after the two lovers jump off the cliff into the lake Rothbart returns and starts to weaken.  Then and this is the part I like, the swans seem to attack him and he dies.  This made me think. What if there is no suicide, but when Rothbart is attacking the lovers, the swans finally feel he has gone too far and in anger attack him.  They then are the ones who destroy him saving the lovers and also freeing themselves from the curse.  I see the ballet de corps as being the star of the ballet blanc and in this case the star could be the one who defeats the villain.  This could also work with the swans being fairies that could transform themselves into swans or humans.  It wouldn’t be that Rothbart cursed them, but has been tormenting and harassing them.  Thus the swans are also magical beings and more equal to the evil genie and while they cannot defeat him individually they can do so together.  As to why the swan maidens would not have risen against Rothbart before, in history people need to be pushed to the edge before they undertake the dangerous actions needed to overthrow a tyrant.   

On the other hand I’d just as soon do away with Rothbart.  The ballet would be a series of related occurrences.  Siegfried, a young man who is unsure of what he wants, meets up with some swan maidens who are happy being able to willingly transform into swans or maidens.  He and Odette fall in love, but the next night the prince meets Odile, who looks like Odette.  They dance until Siegfried realizes Odile is not Odette and runs to the lake.  At the lake Odette forgives Siegfried, because after all he is only human and they decide to live together at the lake with the other swan maidens.  But all is not lost for Odile as in actuality she prefers Benno.


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The next ballet blanc, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, premiered in 1892 in Saint Petersburg, differs in certain ways from the earlier ones (with the possible exception of “Fille du Danube”).  Situated in the first act, the “Waltz of the Snowflakes,” is only seven minutes long or so and is the shortest of all the White Acts.  According to the Petipa website the Waltz of Snowflakes has a little bit of a history.  The idea for this waltz came from “The “Daughter of the Snows” a ballet that premiered in 1879, which had a dance called the “Dance of the Snowflakes.”  Further, in both Hoffmann's and Dumas’ versions the Nutcracker and Marie/Clara pass through “Christmas Forest,” which could be the inspiration for the forest where the waltz takes place.  Originally, in 1892 the waltz was solely a dance for a huge corps de ballet, of over fifty dancers.  Although “In some modern productions, the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” features soloist roles, such as Snow Fairies, winds, Snow Kings and Snow Queens and features dancing for Clara and the Nutcracker-Prince.”  The Royal Ballet also includes Drosselmeyer, something I don’t like, although winds would be interesting.  Also, in the books Marie and the Nutcracker come across shepherds and shepherdesses, which could have been the inspiration for the Dance of the Reed Flutes (Mirlitons), as the dancers are sometimes shown as shepherds and shepherdesses.

The music for the Waltz of the Snowflakes impart a magical feeling to the scene, particularly the vocalizing.  Even by itself, without the dancing, this is one of my favorite pieces of music.  I like to think of the Snowflakes in this waltz as not being just representations of snowflakes, but in this Ballet-feerie, as being alive, as Snowflake Fairies.  This reminds me of an episode in the 1940 Disney film Fantasia.  The four minute long scene is to the music from the Waltz of the Flowers.  At first there are “Autumn Fairies” causing leaves to change colors, then “Frost Fairies” and lastly Snowflake “Fairies.”  See here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uss3NHf0l6U.   

Another way that this ballet differs from the earlier ones is that neither of the two male protagonists in the Nutcracker - the Nutcracker or Godfather Drosselmeyer - have what could be called flawed characters.  In four of the previous ballets, actions or inactions of the male protagonist lead to the death of the female protagonist, at least in the earlier versions.  Even in some of the later versions of Swan Lake (the tragic endings) while Odette doesn’t die, she is left a swan because of Siegfried’s impulsive, emotional actions and in Ballet of the Nuns Robert is a weak character who is easily pressured into doing something that he is terrified of.  But the Nutcracker, sometimes with the help of Clara/Maria, is a hero.  This is not only the case in the ballet, but also in the books.


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We have now come to “Les Sylphides” or “Chopiniana.”  Originally this ballet premiered under the latter name at the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg, at an examination performance in 1908 and under the name Les Sylphides at Paris’ Theater Du Chatelet, by the Ballets Russe in 1909.  It is a short ballet, somewhere around 30 minutes in length and while it is not completely abstract, it does not have a true plot.  It has been referred to as a ballet of mood.  As Chopiniana, it seems to have been a series of episodes based on Chopin’s life, but now is performed as the meeting of an unnamed poet and a group of sylphides in a forest glade at nighttime.  In addition to the corps de ballet there are three female soloists and a male who dances the role of the poet.  I find it to be a pleasant ballet with pleasant music and like the idea that there is no serious plot, nobody dies and no one is disappointed in love.

The name Sylphides comes from Paracelsus’ 16th century thesis “Liber de Nymphis, Sylphis, Pygmaseis et Salamandris et de cateris spiritibus theophrasti hohenheimensis.  Basically the writing is about four groups of elementals one for each of the four ancient elements.  Nymphs or undina (undines) are the elementals for water, sylphs or sylestres are for air, pygmies or gnomi (gnomes) are for earth and salamanders or vulcani are for fire.  Sylphide refers to a young Sylph.  My understanding is that being the elemental of air does not necessarily mean that Sylphides have wings (although in ballet they are presented as having wings) nor that they can fly.  Basically, after reading the theise, it seems to mean that sylphides can move through air and breathe air, while undines can move through water and breathe water, gnomes can move through earth and breathe earth and vulcani can move through fire and breathe fire.  Currently the word Sylph has come to mean a slender graceful young woman.

In this ballet the Sylphides form a sisterhood of friends and gather together at midnight to dance.  The Poet seems to be a nice guy and does not cause, due to his actions or inactions, any problems.  Below is an image labeled “Set design of a sylvan grove with the ruins of a monastery by Alexandre Benois, for the 1909 ballet Les Sylphides.”


Researching this I started to think about an all male ballet blanc, that is with an all male corps de ballet.  Is that possible?  What about Bourne’s “Swan Lake?”  Has anyone seen it or danced in it?  What do people think of it?


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