Sunday, July 21, 2013

Fairy Tales in the Russian Ballet

Interwoven through the history of Russian Ballet are ballets based on fairy tales and folklore. Early on, Russian folk tales provided the source for plots because it provided a sense of national pride for the audience. Ballets were based on fairy tales that are little known today, such as The Little Hump-Backed Horse, a well-known fairy tale (at the time) by Yershov, premiered in 1864, or The Goldfish, inspired by Pushkin's fairy tale. The former was a success and the latter not, although both tales were altered very much from their original sources (sound familiar?). In ballets, plot is only a part of the formula that makes it successful or not-much is also dependant on the music, the choreography, and the quality of dancers themselves. However, understanding the plot and its source was nonetheless important. The 1867 ballet The Fern's success was credited not to  Sokolov's talents in choreography, which were not outstanding, but the fact that he had a "better understanding of Russian folklore."

Scene from The Goldfish, 1905

In 1877 we come to the ballets which are well-known and loved still by Tchaikovsky, starting with Swan Lake. The element of a swan maiden is a popular theme in many Russian fairy tales, and the creators of the ballet adapted the specific plot to suit their purposes. It is Tchaikovsky's music that is recognized as the most successful element in this production. His "portrayal of the inner spiritual state of the heroes through music was an important discovery destined to turn over a new leaf in the history of ballet music and upset customary ballet cliches."

Later, in 1888, Tchaikovsky was invited to write music for another ballet based on a fairy tale-this time using Perrault's Sleeping Beauty as the source. Ironically, the choreographer, Marius Petipa, didn't like using magical elements and fairy tales in his ballets, as he thought they weren't serious enough. However, he was ordered by the Directorate of the Imperial Theaters to use Sleeping Beauty and he transformed it to become something he wanted to work on.
Maria Petipa as The Lilac Fairy in Sleeping Beauty

Again, critics hail Tchaikovsky's music as transforming the history of ballet. Academician Boris Asafiev claimed that Sleeping Beauty was "a new form of musical-choreographic action." Asafiev claims that through the progression of the music, you can even trace the princess' maturing and growing up. As a musician I wish Roslavleva went into more detail on this one...

In 1892 production started on The Nutcracker*, with a detailed program provided by Petipa, but due to illness, the project was taken over by Lev Ivanov. Tchaikovsky's music suggested "much broader vistas and a greater range of human feelings." Ivanov used the music as his primary inspiration, portraying, in Asafiev's words, "the ripening soul of a little girl, at first playing with dolls, and then arriving at the dawn of love through dreams of a brave and manly hero-in other words the process of the 'education of sentiments'".

Scene from The Nutcracker, Mariinsky Theatre, 1892

It seems that the combination of fairy tales and music created a new direction for ballets. No longer just pretty entertainment, ballet could be a deeper exploration of humanity. Fairy tale scholars would later see the tales as exploring the human subconscious, revealing universal stages of human development. Afasiev's descriptions of the music indicate that this process was already beginning in Russian ballet.

Also unrelated to fairy tales, but I find it fascinating to see how far ballet technique has come in the past couple hundred years. Even in the late nineteenth century, double pirouettes en pointe were considered a great rarity, whereas they're now considered standard for any ballet student. That partly has to do with the development of specialized pointe shoes, but ballet is so different now than it was then.

*No, the Nutcracker is not technically a fairy tale, but I really really like it
**All information taken from Natalia Roslavleva's book, Era of the Russian Ballet: 1770-1965

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