Out of the Shadows

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Beyond Authenticity (2)

Continuing my theme of developing authenticity in performance there are two further areas about which I've been thinking.

The first is dance!

When Adolph Adam's Giselle was premièred in Paris in 1841, Paris was the centre of the ballet world. Dancers were tall and willowy, dresses were long, below the knee.





Carlotta Grisi as Giselle in 1841


The traditional look of a modern Giselle stagings reflects this, with the ballerinas wearing long tulle dresses rather than tutus. In fact the modern ballerina silhouette is probably moderately close to their Parisian counterparts.

Later in the 19th century the centre of ballet performance passed from Paris to Milan. There the dancers where shorter, chunkier, so dresses were shortened. The tutu was developed so that it flattered a short ballerina with chunky legs.

It was the Italian ballet school which fed the 19th century Russian one. Until Matilde Kchessinskaya (the Tsar's mistress) performed the famous 32 fouette turns in Swan Lake, the Prima Ballerina of the Russian Imperial court was Italian.

This means that Petipa's patterns, such as the "putting out the washing" arm movements which he uses a lot, would be more vigorous, more robust in original form with shorter, chunkier ballerinas. Whereas today's willowy ones produce something more langorous.

This size issue continue into the 20th century. When Diaghilev's company put on La Chatte (music by Sauget, choreography by Massine and designs by Pavel Tchelichev) it was the first time a whole corps de ballet had been put into body stockings. Richard Buckle in his biography of Diaghilev points out that the dancers would have had chunkier, less svelte bodies than their modern counter parts.

So next time you see Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty just think what it would have looked like on the original dancers!

I'll consider the issue of castrato voices in the final part of my article.

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