Monday, March 2, 2009

Classical Ballet II

Age of Petipa (Classical Ballet)

Classical Petipa ballets.

Marius Petipa is credited with choreographing about sixty ballets, a number of which became the mainstay of the classical ballet repertory, down to this day. The word classical refers here, as it did in the case of Giselle, to works of the highest quality. However, unlike Giselle, these works were also classical, rather than Romantic, in spirit and style. Classical works are created according to formal rules, in contrast to the inventive freedom in Romantic works. An emphasis on technical virtuosity, rather than on emotional depth, is another characteristic of classical style.
Petipa's ballets were conceived in the grand manner. The typical Romantic ballet image was a wispy sylph, floating above a moonlit forest, pursued feverishly through the shadows by a love-sick youth. In contrast, the typical classical ballet image was a procession of elaborately dressed, jewelled noblemen, surrounding a reigning monarch, along with fanciful characters assembled for their entertainment, in a ballroom whose sparkling chandeliers were as bright as the sun. Classical Petipa ballets harkened back to dazzling, colorful Renaissance spectacle and to the impressive ceremonious Baroque grandeur that surrounded Louis XIV. It is no accident that Petipa's productions glittered in St. Petersburg, the home of the Russian tsar's imperial court, just as ballet under the direction of Lully and Beauchamp had graced the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King. There was a great resemblance between the French Baroque and Russian tsarist courts in the power of their absolute rulers as well as the life enjoyed by their privileged aristocracies who gave frequent sumptuous parties and attended ballet and opera evenings in expensive, jewelled clothing.
It is not surprising that ballets made under such conditions expressed devotion to the supreme monarch. When King Louis was on the throne, all was right with the world. So it was under the tsar. Tribute to royalty was paid in Petipa's ballets when he featured royal characters as heroes and heroines. Their action was often set in palaces and followed orderly procedures, like court ceremonies. We saw earlier that at the court of Louis XIV, impressive spectacles were more likely to contain complicated, carefully engineered scenic effects than much interesting dancing. At the tsar's court there were also elaborate stage settings, but this time there was more attention paid to the actual dancing, which was very skillful. The object was the same at both royal courts: to produce dazzling visual entertainment for the upper classes. Therefore the resulting spirit was the same and the many differences between Petipa's productions and those during the reign of Louis XIV arose from two hundred years of developments in the performance of ballets.
By Petipa's time, dance technique had reached a high point, demanding years of devoted study for its mastery. By necessity, the ballet world was thoroughly professional, no longer the plaything of amateurs. True, a tsar might fancy a particular dancer, as did the young Nicholas before he became tsar in 1894, when he fell in love with ballerina Mathilde Kschessinka. But this action took place backstage and not in performance! Similarly, the Russian nobility might wish to show themselves at the ballet, but they had to confine their exhibitionism to the boxes in the audience, and not display themselves from the stage the way Louis XIV and his courtiers had done. Sexual roles had also reversed themselves. In the time of Louis XIV, not only were the males the central figures strutting in noble attire, ladies seldom appeared at all. Women's and girls' parts were taken by males in female costumes. Then gradually, women took their place on the stage, side by side with men until the romantic era, when females rose above the males to dominate the scene. Petipa's ballets continued in this line. His choreography always featured the ballerina, and left the male either to carry her around, or at least to stand slightly behind her, showing off her poses.
Along with the strides made in virtuoso technique and the emphasis on the female, many traditions had grown up in the ballet-music world with the passage of time, and were drawn upon by each new generation of producers. In short, the art of choreography had matured considerably since Louis's day. Petipa worked out a formula derived from elements already familiar to the ballet public. However, in a few works these elements were combined in such a skillful manner that they continue to be effective today, at least when they are refinished according to modern fashion. As always, we must keep in mind that when we see a production of The Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake, we are not really watching a genuine nineteenth-century ballet, staged by a twentieth-century company. We are seeing a twentieth-century version of a nineteenth-century ballet. This is not necessarily because the original work has been forgotten. Detailed records were kept of the important Russian productions by ballet master Nicholas Sergeyev, and after the revolution he restaged these in Paris and London, where they have been handed down from dancer to dancer.
However, styles change. Even when a work from an earlier period has a fine reputation as a classic, and a ballet director decides to show it to the modern public, he usually doesn't want it to look old-fashioned. He wants the audience of his day, and the critics, to enjoy it as a ballet, rather than as a museum relic. Therefore he gives it an up-to-date appearance. Then too, the dancers themselves have a different look from previous generations and their own ways of dancing ballets. By the way, this happens in any performing art: drama, music, or dance. It doesn't happen with painting, sculpture, or novels because they don't require anyone to give them life. A Rembrandt painting remains as it was in the 1600s; a statue by Rodin doesn't change; when you read a novel by Charles Dickens, it is the way he wrote it. However, when you hear a Bach concerto, it is not played exactly as it was in Bach's time. There are bigger alterations in drama. The words in a present-day production of Hamlet are Shakespeare's, but the actors and director interpret the play according to modern ideas of psychology and behavior. As for dance, since the very medium of this art form is human action—or behavior—ballets are presented quite differently as time goes
Again, we are faced with seeming contradictions. How can we speak about great classic works that live beyond their time, and also say that ballets change all the time? Perhaps an example will clarify the situation. Let's look at Petipa's ballet The Sleeping Beauty, and we will see how the overall spirit, the music, the theme, and the plot outline remain the same, while interpretations and details vary in successive productions. Just as the nondancing writer Gautier and the director of the Paris Opera Louis Veron had a lot to do with launching the Romantic ballet, so another nondancer whose name began with V, Vsevolojsky, had an important role in the Petipa era.

Here are the main ingredients for Petipa’s formula for choreography:

1. This marks a return to the French court ballet, where such entertainments continued for many hours. It was a complete evening's entertainment which was based on a dramatic plot and alternated mime episodes with dancing. This formula is regarded as ballet in the grand classical style.

2. Spectacle. Elaborate stage designs usually including a dazzling palace hall and large casts in colorful elaborate costumes that together fill the stage.
3. Virtuosity. Talented dancers trained to a high level of skill execute brilliant, tricky steps and poses.

4. Choreographic variety. Each act contains mimed action and ballet pieces for soloists, couples, small groups, and large ensembles. There are also character dance bits that include folk and national steps which are arranged in geometric groupings. All kinds of comedy parts are included, such as impersonations of animals, clowns, sailors, and bossy old people, all presented with bold, obvious gestures. There are one or more stately processions.

5. Grand pas de deux. Often at the conclusion, but sometimes earlier, the leading ballerina is joined by an important male dancer in an elegant duet with a fixed form. This bit begins with a supported adagio, in which the female does difficult pirouettes and complicated poses with her partner's support. Here the male's function is to show off the ballerina by displaying her high in the air and helping her to balance in ways that she could not achieve alone. Next, the male exhibits his own high jumps, leaps, and fancy turns. Then the ballerina does a solo in which her movements are small and dainty, but precise and brilliant. Finally, the two together do their flashy specialties in technique, ending with the ballerina diving into her partner's arms in a daring position.

6. Finale. The ballet closes with the whole cast onstage, the important characters in the front, all in lively motion that ends with everyone posed, framing the stars of the performance.

7. Classic style. Body shapes are clear and elegant. Groups are designed in straight lines, circles, squares, and triangles, usually in perfectly symmetrical arrangements. Soloists are always placed in the middle or above the ensemble. The total expressive manner is noble and orderly. Formal beauty is the keynote.

In all, the Frenchman Petipa spent fifty-six years in Russia, where he created forty-six original ballets and made new productions of seventeen ballets by other choreographers, not to mention thirty-five dances that he put together for operas. Petipa's best known works after the Tchaikovsky trio The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker are La Bayadere, Don Quixote, Bluebeard, Cinderella, Raymonda, (whose music composer was Glazunov) Harlequinade, and Le Corsair. You may have seen some of these in versions by the Russian Kirov Ballet, Balanchine's New York City Ballet,
or a number of other companies. However, The Sleeping Beauty remains the queen of the Petipa repertory.
While these works differed from one another, certain elements are considered characteristic of Petipa; for example, the pantomime that was like sign language rather than expressive acting. Swan Queen Odette fears that Prince Siegfried will shoot her, so she says "You" (points to him with her right hand) "me" (places fingertips to her breasts) "shoot" (mimes aiming an arrow in a crossbow) "not?" (negative gesture). Then there are the arrangements of classical dance sections. These are simple, symmetrical formations with emphasis on technical display, and a clear development, usually A-B-A (fast-slow-fast or slow-fast-slow).
Two other ballets, TJie Nutcracker and Swan Lake, together with Tlie Sleeping Beauty are all very much alive today. Mark the Age of Petipa as a great one. Yet in that annoying way of the past to refuse to fit neatly into the student's notebook, Petipa cannot be given full credit for either of these two ballets. Although he didn't want to, he must share the honors of Swan Lake with Lev Ivanov, and leave them almost completely to Ivanov for The Nutcracker.

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