Fun Fact: Ballet Class Isn’t What it Used to Be…Thank Goodness!

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. I need an ice pack just thinking about this…

A ballet barre from the 1820s:

“48 pliés followed by 128 grand battement, 96 petit battement glissé, 128 ronds de jambes sur terre and 128 en l’air, and ending finally with 128 petit battement sur le cou-de-pied. One inevitable consequence of this extreme training was a sharp rise in injuries.”

– Jennifer Homans, Apollo’s Angels, 2010, p. 129-130

Oh, and all of this was repeated in center. Yikes. Do not try at home.

Extreme Ballet Training Image Clara's Coffee Break
Created with Wikimedia Commons Public Domain Image – Not a Painting of an 1820s Ballet Class, in Case You’re Wondering 😉

Ballerinas with Wings: Swan Roles

Anna Pavlova Edit 1
Created with Wikimedia Commons Pubic Domain Image of Anna Pavlova in “The Dying Swan.”

From the irresistible pull of swan arms to the allure of feathered tutus, swan-inspired characters outrank other bird roles in the realm of ballet. Here’s a throwback to three of the most famous swan roles as interpreted by past generations…

White Swan

Distilled through black and white, foregoing scenery, and emphasizing movement as the medium of storytelling, this 1970s Kirov film brings the emotional core of Swan Lake‘s pas de deux into focus with sophisticated simplicity. Odette’s enigmatic, love-him-or-love-him-not relationship with Siegfried is told through the power of musical motion with little aid or accent of acting–flowing through reserve, release, tension, ease, energy projecting outward, and drawing inward…

Black Swan

Odile actually didn’t acquire her avian identity until the 1940s…Before then she was simply a femme fatale who could be costumed in a variety of colors including red and green. But, safe to say, the little black dress makeover certainly stuck. It’s hard not to imagine that this was her signature look all along. Here’s a clip, also from the 70s, of Kirov soloist Elena Yeteyeva performing the variation and coda fouettés.

Dying Swan

“Often imitated, never duplicated”… For something seemingly simple in design–mostly bourrées and upper body movements–Mikhail Fokine’s The Dying Swan, created for Anna Pavlova, has eluded so many of its subsequent performers. Pavlova’s watermark on the work, as seen in this 1925 film, is the translucent abandon and leaf-in-the-wind quality of her arms and upper body: ballerina grace, but with a sense of unsettled drifting.

Let it Snow!

Created with Wikimedia Commons Public Domain Image.

Are you dreaming of a white Christmas? Well, that probably depends on where you live…

But, weather aside, who doesn’t love an indoor blizzard in the theater?

The Nutcracker‘s snow scene has been a hit since the ballet’s beginning.

That very first Nutcracker actually got off to a sticky start when it debuted during a St. Petersburg December in 1892. Critics had mixed feelings about many aspects of the production from its large cast of children to the overall structure of the ballet. But the frosty fantasy of the snow scene was warmly recieved.

Choreographer Marius Petipa wrote the following outline for the original Waltz of Snowflakes:

“28 Snow begins to fall. Suddenly a snow-
storm occurs. Light white snowflakes
blow about (60 dancers.)
They circle everlastingly to a ¾ valse.
The form snowballs, a snowdrift, but at
a strong gust of wind, the drift breaks up
and becomes a circle of dancers.

The End

The snowflakes fall, larger and larger and
are lit by electric light.


For No. 28 and encircling Valse: during
the ¾ valse a strong gust of wind breaks
the dancers into a circle.”

(The Nutcracker Ballet, Jack Anderson, p. 36)

Petipa, however, was not able to bring the Waltz of the Snowflakes from page to stage. Illness forced him to withdraw from the creation of The Nutcracker soon after rehearsals began. His assistant Lev Ivanov was left with the task of creating the balletic snowstorm. He ended up taking a different approach to the scene. Jennifer Homans explains:

“[…] Ivanov’s extant sketches for this windblown dance open a small window onto his often forgotten talent. Dancers were flung together in complicated formations that then fractured and dissolved into new and equally intricate designs: stars and Russian round dances, zigzags, and a large rotating Orthodox cross with a smaller circle, like a bejeweled ornament, around its center and rotating in the opposite direction. This dance was not like Petipa at all: the symmetries were there, but the formations were more tenuous and airy, less formal and ceremonial. They had an impressionistic urgency and spontaneity that never would have flowed from the French ballet’s master.” (Apollo’s Angels, Jennifer Homans, p. 280)

Impressionism or ceremonial order, Ivanov and Petipa both imagined glorious winter wonderlands for The Nutcracker.

Here’s a clip from a Staatsballett Berlin production that used the original 1892 costume and set designs as inspiration as well as surviving choreographic records. However, this production isn’t a “reconstruction” since those historic choreographic records are patchy and incomplete. Nonetheless, this scene is a little wintry blast from the past that provides a glimpse of what the first Waltz of the Snowflakes might have resembled…

Check out those headdresses! (See the original costumes here.)

Taglioni Tuesday

“Contemporary lithographs and portraits often show Taglioni poised in a low arabesque; she balances on an exquisitely arched foot, with her other leg stretched out behind and an arm reaching poignantly forward. It is an emblematic moment: we feel her body pulled in two directions. She wants to go, but her leg and her arm counteract each other, and instead she balances perfectly on one foot, caught between fleeting desires. The impulse is to fly, but the symmetry of the position will not allow it. The boundaries of classical technique are clear, which made it all the more interesting when she strained to escape them.”

– Jennifer Homans, “Steps, Steps, Steps“, New Republic, February 17, 2002

Wikimedia Commons Public Domain Image.


Fun Fact: What is “Gisellitis”?

Gisellitis Clara's Coffee Break 3
Created with Wikimedia Commons Public Domain Image.

What does George Balanchine’s term “Gisellitis” mean?

Robert Greskovic writes:

“Some observers choose to apply the word soft to ballet from the Romantic era. It’s not an inappropriate distinction, but it can be a trap, leading in the extreme (of both expectation and execution) to a limpness and/or droopiness that borders on the absurd. (Balanchine scoffed at a certain lugubriousness around the Old World ballet, and even created the term Gisellitis to describe the “disease”).”

Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet, p. 301

The Ballet Scene in the Original Nutcracker Story

Yes, the original E.T.A. Hoffman story Nutcracker and Mouse King (1816) does indeed contain a ballet scene! The French adaptation by Alexandre Dumas, The Tale of the Nutcracker (1845), which the first Nutcracker ballet was based on, does as well. However, the scene is given a humorous/satirical treatment in both versions. It’s not exactly a fluffy divertissement, though it does take place in the realm of sweets, the Act II equivalent in the Nutcracker ballet…

Here’s Hoffman’s version:

“Nutcracker clapped his little hands, and along came a few small shepherds and shepherdesses, hunters and huntswomen, who were so white and tender that you could have believed them to be pure sugar, that Marie had not yet noticed, even though they had been strolling in the woods. They brought over a favorite gold armchair, placed a white cushion of licorice upon it, and very courteously invited Marie to settle down. No sooner had she done so than shepherds and shepherdesses came and danced a very pretty ballet, whereby the hunters blew their instruments quite decently. But then they all vanished in the bushes.

“Forgive me,” said Nutcracker, “forgive me, dearest Demoiselle Stahlbaum, for doing such a miserable dance. You see, the dancers all came from our marionette ballet, which is controlled by wires, and which can only do the same things over and over again. There are also good reasons why the hunters were so drowsy and feeble in their blowing. The sugar basket does hang at nose level on the Christmas tree, but it’s still too high. Well, why don’t we stroll a bit more?”

–  (E. T. A. Hoffmann, Alexandre Dumas, Nutcracker and Mouse King and the Tale of the Nutcracker, Translated by Joachim Neugroschel, Introduction by Jack Zipes, (United States of America: Penguin Classics, 2007), p. 49)

The Dumas version, however, doesn’t offer the marionette explanation…

“No sooner was she [Marie] sitting than, as is customary in operas, the shepherds and shepherdesses, the huntsmen and huntswomen took their positions. They began to dance a delightful ballet accompanied by horns. The huntsmen blew the horns in a very masculine way that colored their faces so that they looked as if they had made preserves of roses. When the performance was done, they vanished in the bushes.

“Please forgive me, my dear Mademoiselle Silberhaus,” said Nutcracker, giving Marie his hand. “Forgive me for offering you such a dreadful ballet. These rascals can only keep reiterating the same choreography that they’ve performed a hundred times. As for the huntsmen, they blew their horns like good-for-nothings. I assure you that I’ll be dealing with them all. Let’s leave these nobodies and let’s continue our promenade, if you please.”

– (E. T. A. Hoffmann, Alexandre Dumas, Nutcracker and Mouse King and the Tale of the Nutcracker, Translated by Joachim Neugroschel, Introduction by Jack Zipes, (United States of America: Penguin Classics, 2007), p. 142)

Jack Zipes, in his introduction to the Penguin Classics volume of the Hoffman and Dumas Nutcracker stories, writes that “Dumas had no facility with the German language, and it is unclear whether he translated “Nutcracker and Mouse King” or whether he had the tale translated for him to adapt.” (p.xxvi)

I don’t know if Dumas’ poor understanding of German played a role in the differences between his ballet scene and Hoffman’s, but, it also seems possible that Dumas could have been using this passage to critique the theater of his day, implying that the choreography in ballets was repetitive and unoriginal…What do you think? Leave your thoughts and insights in the comments! 🙂

Kingdom of Sweets dance
Created with Wikimedia Commons Public Domain Image.

My Favorite Part of Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations”

Photo by Rachel Hellwig.

“Oh, I Believe in Yesterday…”

George Balanchine wrote that his Theme and Variations, created in 1947, was meant “to evoke that great period in classical dancing when Russian ballet flourished.”

That it does.

One part, however, conjures something more primal amid the imperial splendor.

This brief passage in the video below (ending just before the female principal’s solo at 10:12) is set to the 7th and 8th variations in the 4th movement of Tchaikovsky’s Suite No.3 for Orchestra

Tchaikovsky’s Homegrown Sound

I’m not a musicologist.

But, to me, the 7th and 8th variations–especially the 8th–sound like they slip into a not-so-Western vein reminiscent of the music of the Russian nationalist composers known collectively as “The Mighty Five”: Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky, Mily Balakirev, and Cesar Cui.

In his Lecture on Russian Musical History, Michael Parloff explains that Tchaikovsky was influenced by “The Mighty Five” during one part of his career when Balakirev offered him feedback on the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture during the composition process.

He likewise notes that some of Tchaikovsky’s works feature nationalistic inspiration– Ukrainian folk melodies in Symphony No. 2 and a Russian hymn in the 1812 Overture.

Tchaikovsky departed from overt nationalism in his music after the 1812 Overture composed in 1880, according to Parloff (Suite No. 3 for Orchestra came along later in 1884).

Nonetheless, Parloff points out:

“Although [Tchaikovsky] moved away from using folk music as the model, his music does have this indigenously Russian quality, which was noted by no less an authority than Igor Stravinsky.”

Painting of Russian dancers by Andrei Ryabushkin (1902). Wikimedia Commons Public Domain Image.

Dance Across Time

As for Balanchine, his choreography for Theme and Variations reaches further back in time than the Imperial era and further back in dance history than the advent of classical ballet.

When the burgundy-clad corps join hands and wind in circles and under each others’ arms they are drawing directly upon traditional Russian dance. This folk-inspired motif is a Balanchine signature that’s come to be termed a “daisy chain.”

However, Anna Kisselgoff–here analyzing Concerto Barocco, another piece which uses this imagery–writes:

“[He] incorporate[s] the khorovods, or chain dancers, of his Russian background, although Americans have seen these patterns as daisy chains.”

So, what exactly is a khorovod anyway?

According to the book Ballet in Western Culture: A History of Its Origins and Evolution, it is the “most ancient Russian line dance performed by peasant women; translates as “lines and circles which move continuously.'”

Full Circle

In Theme and Variations, the khorovod combined with the “indigenously Russian quality” of Tchaikovsky’s music creates a regal, balletic take on folk dance, but one whose earthy roots gleam through the jewels and crowns.

Despite the beauty and virtuosity of the rest of the piece, this haunting little minute and a half remains most vibrant in my imagination afterwards.

It is, by far, my favorite part of Theme and Variations.