Sunday, April 25, 2010

Fairies and ballet

Fairy tales are interwoven into the history of ballet. In the beginning, only men were ballet dancers, until the 1680s when women started dancing as well. They danced in heeled shoes then, and large dresses. As time went on, skirts got higher and higher and evolved into the modern tutu. Marie Taglioni is credited with being the first dancer to dance on pointe-on the very tips of the toes. As difficult as this is today with specialized pointe shoes, the first pointe dancers just stuffed the toes with cotton or fabric.
Marie Taglioni is most famous for her role in La Sylphide, in which she debuted this new style of dancing. David Barber's summary of the ballet: "La Sylphide tells the story of a young Scotsman named James who's about to get married to a woman he's not sure he loves. (She's his cousin and her name's Effie, neither of which may have helped.) The night before their wedding, he falls asleep and dreams of a beautiful winged fairy, a sylphid or sylph, who flies down and tries to lure him away. He follows her into the forest, but thanks to an evil spell by the neighborhood wicked witch, her wings fall off and she dies. At the end of the ballet, some of her sister sylphs fly down to carry her away, leaving James alone in the woods while Effie goes off to marry someone else entirely. Bummer." (Taken from Barber's Tutus, Tights, and Tiptoes: Ballet History as it Ought to be Taught-apparantly really cheap on Amazon).

Marie Taglioni dancing the role of the Sylphide. The new technique of dancing on pointe helped convey the otherworldiness of the fairies, as they seemingly floated across the stage.
Since then, fairy tales have popped up as sources for most of the famous ballets. Giselle features a group of Wilis, spirits of dead women who dance men to death. Above picture of the American Ballet Theater. Chopin's Les Sylphides, Stravinsky's The Firebird, and Prokofiev's Cinderella are all examples of standard ballet repertoire that features a fairy tale and/or fairy characters.

Picture by Don McMurdo, Australian ballet, Swan Lake

But the most famous ballets are the three Tchaikovskys- Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker. The combination of plot, music, costumes and scenery together with dance make all of the above instant classics. It's so unfortunate that both fairy tales and ballet have become culturally associated with little girls, and become something that every girl is interested in and then "grows out of." Ballet is a beautiful and incredibly difficult art form- in fact, few professions (if any...) require the amount of discipline and commitment demanded from a professional ballet dancer.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kristin, I am so happy I found your blog, I love it. I agree that fairy tales shouldn't only be associated with little girls.