Friday 15 December 2017

Classical: How Louis XIV got us all dancing to a different tune

Bolshoi’s Ekaterina Shipulina in Swan Lake
Bolshoi’s Ekaterina Shipulina in Swan Lake

George Hamilton

If opera is, as Dr Samuel Johnson described it, an exotic and irrational entertainment, then how are we to define ballet? Exotic it certainly is, and pretty irrational too - all that pirouetting about on pointed toes - but there can be no denying its aesthetic appeal. It never ceases to amaze me how a story can be told completely without words, the narrative entirely reliant on body language and music. It is all about the dance, but the music is an essential accessory.

Ballet is a French invention, formalised under the Sun King, Louis XIV, who founded the Académie Royale de Danse in 1661. By the way, he got his nickname from ballet. As a teenager, he'd danced as the sun god Apollo, fully costumed to look the part.

The original ballets were courtly entertainments. Constrained by the same social circumstances that gave us male castrati to sing female roles on stage, the only actors were men. But that would change.

Marie Sallé was an 18th century dancer from Paris who choreographed the ballets in which she appeared. One of them was Jean-Philippe Rameau's Les Indes Galantes from 1735, which wasn't so much a ballet as an opera-ballet, for ballet on stage began as an integral part of the operatic entertainment.

Even today, France's principal company is the Paris Opera Ballet, which is based in one of the French capital's two opera houses, the magnificent Palais Garnier.

Ballet found its own feet, so to speak in Italy, and spread across the cultural venues of Europe during the following century. In tandem, a tradition had developed in Russia, where dance was being promoted at the Bolshoi in Moscow and the Mariinsky in St Petersburg.

In the early 1900s Russian ballet was given international exposure when Sergey Diaghilev, an impresario based in St Petersburg, brought a company known as the Ballets Russes to Paris, showcasing works like Stravinsky's Firebird and Rite of Spring. They also featured the Polovtsian Dances ballet from Borodin's opera Prince Igor. The connection between ballet and opera continued.

Where the music fits into all of this is well illustrated by one particular piece that dates from 1789 and has been a staple of the repertoire since - La Fille Mal Gardée (loosely translated as "the wayward daughter"). It's a comic tale of country folk - a young girl whose widowed mother is trying to make a match for her with the son of a rich landowner nearby while she fancies the local farmhand. The twists and turns are worthy of a Christmas pantomime.

Now, normally, you'd attribute a musical entertainment to the composer, but in ballet, it's the choreographer's name that goes up in lights. The music matches the dance, not the other way round.

Over the years there have been several scores for La Fille Mal Gardéé, which was originally conceived by a Frenchman, Jean Dauberval. First, it was French traditional music, then Ferdinand Hérold, who wrote comic operas, adapted the score.

A German version got a brand new accompaniment by Peter Ludwig Hertel. And so it went on. In 1960, the London Royal Ballet's music director John Lanchbery created a further arrangement for a production choreographed by Frederick Ashton.

The Clog Dance is most likely the piece of music you'll recognise from La Fille Mal Gardée. You'll find it, and most of the other ballet music you'll know well (without maybe realising it came from a ballet, like the Waltz of the Flowers and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker), on a 3-CD set with the simple title Ballet Favourites (Major Classics, M3CD308).

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