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Historical plots for a ballet?

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We've talked before about books that would be suitable (and unsuitable) for adaptation to the ballet. I don't remember a thread, however, on historical figures or incidents that could or should be depicted in dance. I've always wondered, for example, why no one has done a Mary Queen of Scots ballet (although there may be one out there I don't know about, apart from Martha Graham's section of "Episodes"). Not that I necessarily want to see one, but that's a nice fat part for a ballerina, or two if you find a way to get Elizabeth I in as well, although the two ladies never met. Or, to stay with the Brits for a moment, Henry VIII. Six potential ballerina roles there, or two if you focus on, say, the Katharine of Aragon/Anne Boleyn imbroglio. (Of course, the Tudor-era costumes might present a problem; the men wore tights, but the women wore those enormous heavy skirts....) Well, you get the idea. Any thoughts?

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I've often wondered why there weren't more historical ballets. I think we took a turn away from them in the 19th century. The 18th century loved them -- gods, heroes, war. Bournonville made several historical ballets, several of which stayed in repertory until 1929 before being flushed.

It's odd. We love realism -- two hobos fighting in a city dump might make a ballet. But two kings, or presidents, or secretaries of state -- it can't be done. I think it would look awkward to us to see, say, John and Robert Kennedy dancing classical variations while mulling over whether to nuke Cuba (until somebody does it so that it doesn't look awkward, of course).

But why not go back a bit? How about William Wallace? Courage, rape, murder, betrayal -- all by men wearing kilts. (I didn't see Braveheart; my Wallace is Jane Porter's "The Scottish Chiefs.")

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Hardly anybody writes Grand Opera any more. By the same token, hardly anybody does Grand Ballets today. Let me explain a little bit about the terminology "Grand". It doesn't mean "grand style" or "grand scale", but instead means "nationalistically themed"! During the 19th century, there were many Grand-themed arts in opera (William Tell comes to mind), ballet (Marco Spada), or plays (L'Aiglon). The thrust now is not toward the "Great Men" school of historicity, but rather the more revealing examination of the characters and lives of the less-extraordinary people engaged in any given time, when a story is used at all. Perhaps the last gasp of the "Grand Ballet" is the Chinese nationalist spectaculars like The East is Red or The White-Haired Girl and such like.

[ February 15, 2002: Message edited by: Mel Johnson ]

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Peter Darrell did choreograph a full evening Mary Queen of Scots ballet for Scottish Ballet, of which he was artistic director. I didn't see it myself, but I have the impression it lasted several seasons. Now, sad to say, all Darrell's ballets seem to have been abandoned, and they were certainly not without merit.

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dirac writes

Not that I necessarily want to see one, but that's a nice fat part for a ballerina, or two if you find a way to get Elizabeth I in as well, although the two ladies never met.

One could follow the example of Donizetti and Giuseppe Bardini, his librettist in Maria Stuarda. They simply had the two of them cross paths in the courtyard of a castle. Mary, Queen of Scots, is treated with contempt and disdain by Elizabeth; Mary calls her a "vil bastarda" and a stain on the honor of England. Elizabeth summons the guards and swears to be avenged.

Works beautifully in the opera, would probably do as well on the ballet stage. That it didn't happen can be overlooked if it is effective theater.

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I think it's been mentioned before, but I see a grand, three-act production of Lewis and Clark. Imagine the possibilities! I see Sacajawea symbolically blazing a trail across the Rockies with a series of brilliant fouettes, say, 32 of them, and a happy, Bournonvillish dance for the happy explorers as they set off on their adventure. Not to mention the obvious character dances....

A Pearl Harbor ballet is best left to the imagination.

[ February 15, 2002: Message edited by: Manhattnik ]

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I think Pocohontas was one of many historical and legendary characters who were supposed to be in Balanchine's "Birds of America," Kirstein's proposed "Great American Ballet." It was discussed for forty years but never came to fruition. I quote from Bernard Taper's biography of Balanchine: "It was to be a heroic, three-act spectacle with the naturalist John James Audubon posited as the lost son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, as its emblematic central figure. Somehow or other the Audubon-Dauphin character was also to be Johnny Appleseed as well as Buffalo Bill, and any number of American themes, settings, and legends were to be figured forth... Karinska had sketched some of the costumes. Rouben Ter-Arutunian had designed sets. Balanchine had speculated on dance possibilities and whom he might cast. His first choice for Pocohontas, naturally, had been Maria Tallchief."

Years after Tallchief's retirement, the ballet was still being talked about. In fact, during Mr. B's final illness, Morton Gould visited him in the hospital and brought a tape of some of the music he'd composed for "The Birds of America." Taper reports, "Balanchine listened and said it was nice. They talked about the ballet a little. Then Balanchine, who was under sedation, fell asleep."

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I bet Mr. B was just using the sedation as an excuse.

An obstacle to ballets with historical themes may be that dance, by its nature, tends to make things personal. It's generally agreed that MacMillan's "Mayerling" is successful, but its success lies in its choreographer's vivid dance realization of Rudolf and Vetsera's fatal sex/death equation. The political dimension of Rudolf's problems, not to mention the complex domestic politics of Austria-Hungary, are shortchanged, not because of any lack of skill or comprehension on MacMillan's part, but because these matters are not danceable.

I would imagine that Darrell's Queen of Scots ballet probably emphasized the personal rivalry of Mary and Elizabeth and the failure of Mary's two Scottish marriages, because how would you convey in dance the equivocal positions of, for example, Darnley and Bothwell vis-a-vis the rest of the Scottish nobles? (You could show that Darnley is unpopular and dissolute, yes, and you could show that Bothwell is arrogant. But not much more than that.)

Irrelevant note: Edward II makes an appearance in Braveheart. Gibson shows him and Piers Gaveston making eyes at each other during Edward's marriage ceremony. But have no fear, Macho Mel will come to the aid of the English succession.

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