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

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.

Sugar Plum Lilac Fairy?

Created with Wikimedia Commons Public Domain Image.

The Sugar Plum Fairy’s iconic variation music once was borrowed for another famous ballet character…

“The same tinkling celesta was interpolated for the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Princess, the 1921 Ballet Russes version of The Sleeping Beauty.”

Nutcracker Nation by Jennifer Fisher  p. 20