Apollo’s Angels, part III

On we go…

From chapter 6: Italian Heresy: Pantomime, Virtuosity, and Italian Ballet
“By rights, classical ballet should have been Italian.” This is the first line of the chapter. So in telling the history of ballet in 19th century Italy, Homans is also trying to show why it is not the case that ballet is Italian. The way I understand it, some of it has to do with ballet being tied to pantomime and hence the lower classes, so the fruitful (if fortuitous) connection ballet and court etiquette did not form the way it did in France of Louis XIV. Some of it involves the success of opera as the dominant form entertainment and artistic expression.
Pantomime is nothing to be sneered at, though. It had classical roots, and Homans retells Lucian of Samosata’s story “of a pantomime challenged by the cynic Demetrius, who claimed that the performance had been all fancy costumes and musical effect. The pantomime responded by repeating his performance without music or song. In awe Demetirus relented: “Man, this is not seeing, but hearing and seeing, both: ’tis as if your hands were tongues!”” p. 219
Some of opera’s success over ballet (again, as I understand it) had to do simply with the men who made and ran opera in Italy at the time were better than their ballet counterparts. “Italian ballet masters stubbornly – and inexplicably – persisted in writing their own scenarios. French Romantic ballet benefited immensely when poets and professionals took this important job away from ballet masters, who had never been noted for their imaginative writing or literary skills. Italian ballet masters, however, paid little heed to this important Parisian development and persisted in producing weighty, witless librettos. Opera composers, however, had always depended on the talents of librettists. Verdi was particularly adamant on the subject and took great pains to seek out (and perfect) a good libretto: “A libretto, just give me a libretto – and the opera is written!”” p. 239, 240.
But like with Danish ballet, Italian ballet is not just a side story. If the librettos were poor, the technique they developed would later influence ballet in Russia.

From chapter 7: Tsars of Dance: Imperial Russian Classicism
Ballet in Russia had a dual origin. On the one hand there was Peter and Katherine the Great’s opening to the West and imitating western mores. On the other, there were the “serf theaters,” which were run on country estates of the Russian aristocracy. “The extravagance of these country estates is hard to grasp today. By the late 1780s, Count Nikolai P. Sheremetev, one of the wealthiest men in Russia, owned as many as one million serfs. He had eight serf theaters. His modest estate at Fountain House, for example, had 340 servants, and almost everything in the manor – food, clothing, art, furniture – was imported from western Europe  at staggering cost. Paintings by Raphael, Van Dyck, Correggio, Veronese, Rembrandt, and other decorated the galleries and there was a library of some twenty thousand books, mostly in French. At his estate at Kuskovo (similarly outfitted) there were two theaters, one indoor and another for fresh-air entertainments, along with a large lake on which sea battles could be staged for the pleasure of his guests, who sometimes numbered up to fifty thousand.” p. 252
However, if the conditions for ballet were good in Russia, it was still a foreign import. And as Russia’s relationship to the West went back and forth between friendly and envious on the one hand, and regressive and antagonistic on the other, so did its relationship with ballet. So it took a foreigner, Marius Petipa to bring more stability to the establishment of ballet in Russia through his long reign as ballet master, from 1847 until 1910. And even he was only successful because he not only worked with great Russians – Ivan Vsevolozhsky (1835-1909), Tchaikovsky, and basing stories on Pushkin – but also because he had decades long collaborations with them. Still when Petipa arrived in Russia, ballet could have gone either way. By the time he died, ballet as an art was as Russian as it had been French until that point. It was at this time that some of the great ballets that are still performed today were created. First there was Sleeping Beauty (“the first truly Russian ballet” p. 277), then The Nutcracker (which although set in France was a “fond depiction of Christmas à la Russe” p. 279), and, of course, Swan Lake (“perhaps the most imperfect but powerful of all Russian ballets” p. 281). The version of this last one that we know today is what Tchaikovsky was working on when he died, but derives from 1870s ballet with only a “passing resemblance.” “Swan Lake had no successor: it stood alone in the repertory, not only for what it was but for where it came from. I twas a product of Moscow and St. Petersburg, of the  1870s and the 1890s. Its fractured history and truncated, rearranged text, choreographed in fits and starts by Ivanov and Petipa after Tchaikovsky’s death, captures something of the competing forces and extraordinary invention shaping ballet at the time.” p. 286

From chapter 8: East Goes West: Russian Modernism and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes
Imperial  Ballet went the way of Imperial Russia, only a little sooner. And although Sergei Diaghilev ran the Ballets Russes from 1909 to his death in 1929, the revolution happened in the few years between 1909 and 1913. “The tsar […] granted permission to borrow dancers from the Imperial Theaters for his hastily assembled company, and in the spring of 1909 Fokine, Pavlova, karsavina, Nijinsky, Benois, and Bakst led the way to Paris. […] The Ballets Russes was officially born.” p. 300 Along with a young composer, Igor Stravinsky, the Ballets Russes started their assault upon the world with The Firebird. They followed that up with Schéhérazade in 1910 with a Rimsky-Korsakov score, then Petrouchka in 1911, again with Stravinsky, and then of course the Rite of Spring in 1913.
Better than retell the story of the Ballets Russes I prefer to give you two side notes in this portion of the story of ballet. One is Homans’ footnote on page 311. “Eurythmics was a system of movement and music education pioneered by the Swiss musician Émile Jaques-Dalcroze that emphasized physical rhythms as a fundamental basis of music. Dalcroze directed a preparatory school for the arts in the “garden city” of Hellerau from 1910 to 1914: by 1914 the school had five hundred students and branches in St. Petersburg, Prague, Moscow, Vienna, Frankfurt, Breslau, Nürnberg, Warsaw, London and Kiev. Diaghilev and Nijinsky visited the school together and were much taken with its teachings and ideas.” Huh. Who knew Annie Lennox had such renowned background?
The other “tidbit” is about Vaslav Nijinsky. His life just begs to be told in a Hollywood movie. We are not sure exactly when he was born (around 1889),  he was made fun of by kids in Poland for his slanting eyes, he grew up to be five foot four, slept with men but was possibly straight if not bisexual, and supremely talented. “He concealed his growing strength in split-second timing: no matter how closely Bronislava [his sister] looked (and she had a trained eye), she could not see his preparation for a pirouette, even when he gathered enough force to unleash a dozen turns at a time.” p. 307, 308. And he went mad. “In 1919, in the first stages of the madness that would overtake him, he performed a final solo dance in St. Moritz. It was the last dance he would ever perform: he was subsequently institutionalized and died in 1950.” p. 320 He danced his last dance at about 30, and then lived for another 30 years?! The dance he performed he began with the words “Now I will dance the war…the war which you did not prevent and are responsible for.” p. 320.

to be continued…


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