“It might be a good idea to call all ballets Swan Lake. That way, people will come!” – George Balanchine
For a good portion of the mid to late 20th century, the neoclassical and plotless ballets, typified by the works of George Balanchine, were the favor of choreographers. Music and technique-driven ballets such as Serenade (1934), Concerto Barocco (1941), Symphony in C (1947), Agon (1957) and Jewels (1967) were the leading-edge with critics and audiences alike.
But much like the ABCs of opera (Aida, La Bohème, Carmen) the great story ballets will always be the heart of the classical dance repertoire. Companies around the world often have several of the popular-with-the-people story ballets in their repertoire, making one or two the centerpiece of each season … bringing these emotionally wrought, character-rich tales to life, complete with fanciful costumes, glorious sets and soaring scores.
“The most popular story ballets, like Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Romeo and Juliet, focus on the timeless theme of love,” says Next Generation Ballet® (NGB) Artistic Director Philip Neal. “The music from these classics is ingrained in our hearts and minds; the choreography features a vocabulary that has been the foundation of every ballet that has subsequently followed. Often these classics can be revised to reflect a new perspective while maintaining the integrity of their initial vision. And dancers particularly enjoy the challenge of taking on the characters in these ballets, resourcing their acting talents along with the technical dance demands.”
On May 8 and 9, the Straz Center’s NGB presents the epitome of all story ballets, Swan Lake. Delayed by more than a year due the COVID-19 pandemic, this creation is set to Tchaikovsky’s brilliant music and based on the original choreography of story ballet savant Marius Petipa, with staging and additional choreography by Neal, Ivonne Lemus and several other NGB staffers.
In celebration of NGB’s Swan Lake, Caught in the Act has decided to take a deep swan dive into a few of the great story ballets, revealing some interesting tidbits along the way.
Set to a delightful score by Adolphe Adam, the ballet tells the spellbinding and romantic tale of a peasant girl who goes mad and dies of heartbreak. It explores timeless themes of naive love, devastating disloyalty and the ultimate power of forgiveness.
With the substantive plotline essentially finished by the end of Act I, the bulk of the dancing happens in Act II and centers on Queen Myrta and the Wilis – characters from German writer Heinrich Heine’s book “Deutschland” (1835), described as young women who died before their wedding day, rose from the grave at midnight, and drove men to dance themselves to death. The Act II dancing is a showcase for any company’s female corps de ballet.
The role of Giselle has been danced by countless ballerinas including American Ballet Theatre’s Julie Kent and Virginia Johnson in the stunning Creole Giselle for Dance Theatre of Harlem. Perhaps most famously, the role was danced (dare we say “owned”) by Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s Alicia Alonso, who, despite failing eyesight danced the role into her 60s (!).
La Fille mal gardée
A rare comic ballet, La Fille mal gardée (translated as The Poorly Guarded Girl or The Girl Who Needed Watching) tells the story of Lise, the only daughter of the Widow Simone. Lise is in love with the young farmer Colas – but her mother has far more elaborate designs, and is resolute that Lise marry Alain, the son of a wealthy landowner. Hilarity ensues!
Inspired by Pierre-Antoine Baudouin’s 1765 painting “La réprimande/Une jeune fille querellée par sa mèr (The Ballet of Straw, or There is Only One Step from Bad to Good),” La Fille mal gardée, which premiered in 1789 in Bordeaux, France, was originally set to a score of 55 popular French airs and choreographed by Jean Dauberval. Over its long history, the ballet has been set to no fewer than six different scores.
Modern audiences are probably most familiar with the Royal Ballet’s 1960 version staged by Sir Frederick Ashton and set to the 1828 score by Ferdinand Hérold, which famously includes the unforgettable Clog Dance, led by Widow Simone, played by a male dancer.
Perhaps more famous than the ballet in its entirety, La Bayadère’s Act III “Kingdom of Shades” reigns as a touchstone of technique among the great companies of the world. The choreography by Petipa puts a spotlight on the women of the corps de ballet. In a 2013 feature story about the Houston Ballet’s impending performances of La Bayadère, The Houston Chronicle’s former dance writer and critic Molly Glentzer perfectly sums it up:
“Few ballet scenes are more pure than the “Kingdom of the Shades” in Act III of La Bayadère.
It is a moment – nine minutes and 15 seconds, actually – in which the essence of the art form is distilled into a relatively simple adage: The ballerinas, in white tutus, take two steps into an arabesque in plié, hold it for a second or two, round their torsos forward in a closed port de bras, then arch back and extend a leg in tendu, their arms opening like tulips springing into bloom.
What makes it spectacular is not so much the phrase itself, or its slowness, but the effect of seeing 24 ballerinas perform it in single file, emerging one at a time from the wings as they descend a ramp to Ludwig Minkus’ lush, repetitive score.”
The ballet revolves around the journey of Prince Ivan into the magical realm of the evil sorcerer Koschei the Immortal where he hunts and captures the Firebird – but Ivan spares her life. As a token of gratitude, she gives him an enchanted feather that he can use to summon her should he be in dire need. And, well, you can imagine how the ballet ends … broken spells, the downfall of the realm and the freedom of the captive. All rejoice!
With choreography by the incomparable Michel Fokine, the June 1910 premiere of The Firebird at the Palais Garnier by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, sent composer Igor Stravinsky into the stratosphere of fame.
Did you know that excerpts from the score were used in Walt Disney’s Fantasia? Or that Stravinsky was a huge influence on Frank Zappa? Or that a Amazon-set version of the ballet staged by John Tares and designed by Geoffrey Holder in 1982 was a staple of the repertoire during the Arthur Mitchell-led years of Dance Theatre of Harlem?
With its fanciful characters and simple plot, the lighthearted and entertaining Coppélia, like The Nutcracker, is an excellent way to introduce children to the wonders of ballet.
Premiering in 1870 at Théâtre Impérial de l’Opéra in Paris, the ballet was first choreographed by Arthur Sant-Leon to the music of Léo Delibes and centers on the romantic escapades of villagers Franz and Swanhilda and on a lifelike and life-size dancing doll named Coppélia created by the lonely old alchemist Dr. Coppelius. Of course, love triumphs over all in this comedy of mistaken identity ending with a joyous wedding celebration.
More, more, more …
With too many wonderous story ballets to recount here, let us not forget Le Corsaire, Don Quixote (those 32 iconic fouettés), Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet (with at least 5 versions still regularly being performed around the world), The Sleeping Beauty (with its unforgettable “Rose Adagio”), La Sylphide and of course, The Nutcracker (the holiday favorite and company cash cow).