Many of the ballets trace an ancient and balletic theme of the enchanted princess caught in the world of sleep and death. This princess, of course, is Aurora, the Sleeping Beauty, but she is also the enchanted princess in almost any fairy tale; she has been called by many names, among them, Persephone and Eurydice.
The story of The Sleeping Beauty and the myths of Persephone and of Orpheus and Eurydice, explored by Balanchine, all deal with the seeking of a love beyond grasp in forbidden realms. They also concern man's ultimate relationship to Woman, with Orpheus looking upon Persephone/Eurydice as a lover. The Sleeping Beauty is simply another way of telling this old story, of passing it on to others. And that's simply storytelling.
Storytelling. Not a word one generally associates with George Balanchine. But storytelling is a magnificent, genuinely human talent, linked throughout history with music. Stories, after all, were sung for centuries. Orpheus' songs roused trees and rocks. The Iliad and Odyssey were sung long before Homer captured them, long, long before they became paperback classics. But stories and ways of telling stories change over time. Vonnegut certainly doesn't write like Hardy. Technique changes in all the arts, just as we change.
Petipa and Tchaikovsky created the ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, for a particular time, particular dancers, and a particular audience. Their libretto was, in turn, adapted from Perrault's story, which had also been designed for a specific (aristocratic) audience. After Perrault, the Brothers Grimm told a different version of the princess' story. Each generation, and each good storyteller, changes the story as is seen fit. If such changes did not occur, the stories would not be passed on.
We can go back and trace the story of The Sleeping Beauty along several pathways. Along the way, we would encounter a long line of questors who sought her or her forbidden world: Orpheus, Jason, Theseus...it's a lengthy list, and also on that list belong the princes from Swan Lake, Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty, and James from La Sylphide. Their stories are variations on her theme, and they, perhaps, are variations of Orpheus himself. To this list, we could add Balanchine's men who seek and aspire to forbidden worlds.
Early in his career, Balanchine said, he discovered that gestures could be grouped into families. With classical technique firmly in hand, he concerned himself with an immediate audience, an immediate problem, and immediate dancers. Thus, he created a Serenade or a Duo Concertant instead of a full-length Sleeping Beauty. In the process, he raised the value of the classical ballet vocabulary. He insisted his works did not require written libretti; works such as Orpheus or A Midsummer Night's Dream could tell a story through the dance itself. Ballet is that good...but does that mean he discarded the concept of a plot? Or did he, in fact, enlarge upon it?
If steps are like words, then, is it enough to look at Balanchine's repertory as though it were a collection of steps and ways of executing steps? To say he expanded the classical ballet vocabulary is something like saying that Shakespeare knew a lot of words. Of course, it's true. But of course, there's more.
Was Balanchine, after all is said and done, a good storyteller? I suppose it depends on one's definition of story. I think that anyone who can put something together well is, in effect, a storyteller, for within the piece are elements we recognize and relate for ourselves: picture, musical phrases, rhythms, gestures, movement, and in Balanchine's case, we have everything except words—we have what words cannot do.
Balanchine alluded to The Sleeping Beauty in his choreography, not only with movement and in his choice of music but in his overall dance compositions. Chapters of that story appear throughout his ballets. Just one example: a moment in Serenade portrays the dual aspect of Persephone/Eurydice, both her sleeping and her rising. She is there, too, in La Valse, in Agon, in Symphony in C, in the seeking and in the seed of every Balanchine pas de deux. She changes, yet she remains herself. She is even present (in a very droll sense!) in Balanchine's and Danilova's Coppelia.
By giving his trust to dance, dancers, music, and audience, Balanchine presented an ancient story in yet another light. The song of Persephone, of Orpheus, and of The Sleeping Beauty is still with us, in all her modulations of music and image. Balanchine never neglected her, but he kept her alive and in his vision. Now her story is with us, and we will have our own way of telling the tale. To say Balanchine's works were "abstract," or to see only steps, is not to hear or to see the deeper song, a song not only his, but ours, too, to sing.
Quest of the Sleeping Princess
By Mary Sheeran
Publication Date: October 15, 2010
Retail Price: $15.95
Quest of the Sleeping Princess
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