"Ballet is a form of theatrical entertainment that tells a story, develops a theme, or suggests an atmosphere through the orchestration of a group of costumed dances according to strict rules and guided in tempo and spirit by the music, against a decorative background; music, movement, and decoration being parallel in thought."
--- Arnold Haskell
G.K. Chesterson once described how he evoked the emotions of a holiday by calling a cab, loading it with luggage, and being driven to the station. Then, having had his sensation, he drove home again. In like fashion the balletomane can recapture something of the exquisite beauty of Les Sylphides by hearing an orchestrated version of Chopin's music. The link is natural. Ballet has rightly been termed the ectoplasm of music. In varying degree of sensitivity each is dependent upon the other. In turn, both are linked with further art-forms. Ballet is a fusion of four art-forms... dancing, music, drama and decor. This fourfold division is frequently overlooked by the general public who regard ballet as beauty in isolation. The tendency is understandable. There is about ballet a grace of movement that calls for no effort of appreciation on the part of the onlooker. Viewed objectively, ballet might be described as one of man's outstanding emotional achievements. Yet such generalized evaluation is foreign to real appreciation which can only be reached by analysing its component parts. In practice it is impossible to isolate one of the four art-forms. Ballet in essence is dependent upon a unity of design. Where that is harmoniously achieved the hem of perfection is touched. But intelligent understanding of what is seen can only come when every aspect is subjected to thoughtful analysis. Ballet is not an easy subject to dissect. There is so much that defies definition. At the outset it is therefore appropriate to quote the definition worded by Arnold Haskell: "Ballet is a form of theatrical entertainment that tells a story, develops a theme, or suggests an atmosphere through the orchestration of a group of costumed dances according to strict rules and guided in tempo and spirit by the music, against a decorative background; music, movement, and decoration being parallel in thought."
A great teacher and theorist of romantic ballet, Blasis was director of the Imperial Regia Accademia from 1838 to 1851. Under him studied the leading stars of the first half of the nineteenth century: from Carlotta Grisi to Fanny Cerrito and from Lucile Grahn to Amelia Boschetti. Many of his Scala pupils, such as Caterina Beretta and Virginia Zucchi, later contended for the favours of audiences across Europe and Russia, where a group of prime ballerine originally from the Scala went and contributed to the birth of late-romantic or classical ballet. Carlotta Brianza was the first to dance Sleeping Beauty by Tchaikovsky/Petipa (1890), and Pierina Legnani was the first Odette/Odile in Tchaikowsky/Petipa’s Swan Lake (1895), to which ballet is indebted for the technical feat of the 32 fouettés of the Black Swan. Carlotta Zambelli was the last representative of the nineteenth-century school of Milanese ballet, led by Enrico Cecchetti, who directed the Scala school from 1926 until his death in 1928. Among the greatest teachers in the history of theatrical dance of all time, Cecchetti projected the Italian teaching of academic technique into the world.
--- Marie Taglioni (April 23, 1804 – April 24, 1884) was a famous Italian ballerina of the Romantic ballet era, a central figure in the history of European dance. She rose to fame as a dancer when her Italian father (and teacher) Filippo Taglioni created the ballet La Sylphide (1832) for her. She was the most celebrated Ballerina of the romantic ballet, which was cultivated primarily at Her Majesty's Theatre in London, and at the Théâtre de l'Académie Royale de Musique in Paris.
The words are heavy but true. Elsewhere I have visualized them in motion in the vastness of Covent Garden... that wonderful moment enriching every Season when the lights are lowered... the Overture begins... and a white wraith of grace floats across the enormous stage. The audience is usually uncritically appreciative. Applause is generous without considering how the performance should be judged... by the dancing, by the music, by the dramatic tension, or by the visual effect?
Let us take music aside and treat it apart. Sir Henry Hadow once described music as poetry expressed through tunes instead of words. He maintained that the highest praise of sound that can be given to a language is that it is musical; that it approximates to a standard which music itself has set. No one can deny the truth of his assertion. Alongside the opening of the Fifth Symphony or Schubert's A minor Quartet the genius of such verbal masters as Virgil or Racine seem rough and cumbersome. There is no limit to the bounds of musical prosody. Every metre is within its compass. In that sense music has a distinct advantage over what are known as the representative arts. The sculptor, poet and painter are circumscribed largely by the impact of life and nature. When they break away from these limitations the result, particularly in art, often ranges from absurdity to monstrosity. Music on the other hand is not necessarily bound by temporal matter. The artist clothes his creation by representation. The musician is not so dependent. The poet is inspired by sense-perception. The medium of his expression is designed for the world of observation. Music is "an inarticulate unfathomable speech which leads to the edge of the infinite and lets us for moments gaze into that".
It is at this point that ballet becomes a visual conception of a musical emotion. Music for the ballet is a thing apart. In practice it is impossible to separate the four art-forms, but viewed solely from the musical viewpoint, certain qualities are essential if a good ballet is to result. There must be a skilful blending of virile treatment, incisive orchestration, dramatic colouring and conscious awareness of the theatre. There are, of course, exceptions to this broad generalization. Giselle is an obvious example. This graceful ballet, which has captivated audiences for over a hundred years and been the ambition of every potential ballerina, would not stand an elementary test on the score of musical inspiration. There is only one verdict. It is inferior. And yet, such is the degree of co-ordination that exists between the four art-forms that this weakness has been overcome. The criterion of the concert hall cannot be applied to the music of ballet.
Closer examination of ballet music reveals its mixed parentage. Occasionally there is the direct composition specifically meant for ballet. In this connection the names of Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Arthur Bliss come to mind. But there are numerous other instances where the music was never intended for ballet. The translation has fallen to other hands. Three instances suffice..a piano fantasia by Schubert The Wanderer which Liszt orchestrated; the Dante Sonata by Liszt, a piano sonata transformed into a concerto; and a classic example in Walton's Facade. Another example of music without merit applied to ballet is Les Patineurs.
Paul Talgioni's ballet Les Plaisirs de l'hiver, ou Les Patineurs, first presented on July 5, 1848 at Her Majesty's Theatre, London.
Even the most biased admirers of Meyerbeer's work would have to admit that on a musical evaluation his composition leaves a little to be desired. But through the medium of ballet much that might be condemned is overlooked. Its virtues or faults are not judged in isolation. Music as such is a partner of the dance, an equal partner, a conscious role from the moment of its joint inception.
Dancing is thus the visual interpretation of what we hear. The tradition can claim historic precedent as far back as the human race can be traced. The most primitive of tribes have combined ritualistic dancing with crude forms of music. The Greeks were the first to elevate dancing to the point where the human body could execute movements that were aesthetically pleasing to the eye. From time to time attempts have been made to revive the Greek form of dancing. Success has been modified. Without a knowledge of the music used the result can be but a bastard imitation. The art of dancing in Europe was perfected by Italy to whom goes the credit for introducing toe-dancing by which dancers were able to blossom into creatures of unnatural grace and dignity of motion. The tradition of dancing has been influenced by many outstanding individuals. From the purely individualistic point of view Pavlova reigned supreme as a dancer. Her place today has been taken by the incomparable Margot Fonteyn. But for sheer purity of expression the truly great ballerina in every sense of the word was Karsavina. What is not always appreciated by enthusiastic audiences is that in the classic ballets we are actually watching the identical steps which have been taken by a long line of ballerinas. There is this difference. The interpretation breathed into the part is affected by the dancer's reading of the music. Catholicity of interpretation knows no bounds. If it were not so ballet would be reduced to a soulless sequence of regimented steps.
The part that drama plays in ballet is varied. It ranges from a gentle air of suggestion as in Les Sylphides or Frederick Ashton's ballet to Cesar Franck's Symphonic Variations, which is void of dramatic programme, to the vivid dramatic score of The Miracle in the Gorbals' and the stark drama that runs throughout Hamlet where choreographic dramatic rendering is combined with theatrical mastery. Scenery and costume are likewise integral parts in the completed picture. The fusion of music and dancing, sharpened by the edge of drama, is enhanced and rounded-off by the colouring and atmosphere given by the decor and costume designer. In this connection the name of Diaghileff will for ever be associated. It was through his influence that conventional standard sets were swept away. Picasso's setting of The Three-Cornered Hat is usually quoted as an instance of the marked departure from tradition. From Fokine onwards the designer entered wholeheartedly into the spirit of the hour. Just how far that development has reached is reflected in several recent creations.
Ballet is a visual art. In Sadler's Wells we have the greatest company in the world outside the Soviet Union which presents the great classical ballets in their entirety. Alongside the classical forms there is emerging in this country a more robustious urge to widen the partnership between author, choreographer and composer. We are passing through a phase of choreographic drama being used as a commentary on contemporary life. The purists may condemn the tendency, but it is part of the process by which ballet has become indigenous to these islands. But, whether classical or modern, the setting is perfect for one of the richest moments of the Season.
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