The Peasant-Wedding Ballet (excerpt)
By Sarah Hixon
Dancing has been an integral and important element in social customs for many centuries. It thrived in the courts of Western Europe as entertainment and a sign of an individual’s social stature and heritage. Dance was traditionally performed at major events and celebrations of the court, particularly political victories, weddings, important births, or for visiting dignitaries. The enjoyment of the dance art was, however, not merely restricted to the upper classes. Peasant and folk dances were equally important elements to the lower social ranks, and served the same purpose of celebrating festivities and reinforcing the harmony of the community and its values. Many of the folk dances were, in fact, adapted for the court ballrooms. This fusion of peasant-inspired dancing and the use of dance as a celebration of social convention gave rise to one of the major themes of theatrical ballet: the depiction of peasant marriage customs. While this subject remains a constant staple of ballet libretti, the different ballets themselves reveal a great deal of information about the changing ideas and mores of Western society through the centuries.
One of the first seminal ballets to depict the peasant-wedding theme was Le Ballet de la Paille, ou Il n’est qu’un pas du mal au Bien, known today as Le Fille Mal Gardée. A comic ballet-pantomime created by Jean Dauberval, the ballet was presented on July 1, 1789 in
Bordeaux, days before the tumultuous events that began the French Revolution (Chazin-Bennahum 144).
The ballet was a prime example of the ballet d’action movement of the 18th century, calling for reforms in theatrical dance productions. Especially advocated by the dancing master Jean Georges Noverre, ballet d’action required that the story and theme of a ballet be expressed through the stage action of the dancers and their natural facial expressions, instead of the reliance on symbolic costumes, masks, and singers/actors to portray the plot.
In the 19th century one of the most famous ballets, often attributed as the model for all future “ballet blanc” productions, is La Sylphide. This period saw the dawning of a new movement, not only in art but also in intellectual thought. Romanticism, largely a reaction against the Age of Reason, emphasized human emotions and desires, the importance and depth of the individual, the irrational and supernatural, beauty in the wildness of nature, and the creative spirit. Music and painting saw a rejection of Classicism, and the new Romantic style was largely championed by literary figures. The works of such authors and poets as Scott, Byron, Keats, Goethe, and Heine were highly influential. Theaters in Paris had also lost their royal and aristocratic patronage, and were now commercial ventures, catering to the growing middle class. La Sylphide is clearly a product of these trends.
The libretto for the ballet was written by Adolphe Nourrit, a tenor at the Paris Opéra who had worked with the great ballerina Marie Taglioni in an earlier production. It was based on Trilby, ou le Lutin d’Argail, a novella by Charles Nodier from 1822 (Banes and Carroll, Rethinking 92). Like Fille, the setting is a farm, but now in the exotic and mysterious Scottish highlands. Another marriage looms at the beginning of this ballet. One presumes, however, that this marriage is (or once was) a love match between James and Effie. Yet James is a Romantic, and he falls in love with a Sylph, an ethereal soulless female creature that constantly floats and flies just out of his grasp. Rather than fulfill his obligations to Effie and to the community, he runs after the Sylph into the forest. There, with the aid of a witch, he manages to capture the Sylph, only to watch her die. As a final blow, in the distance James also sees that Effie has chosen to marry one of the other young men in the community, leaving James with nothing.
According to Sally Banes, the ballet can be seen as a cautionary tale. James learns that one never wants what one has, and cannot have what one wants. To possess an ideal inevitably destroys it. Two options are presented to him, one that includes a supported marriage within the community, and a marriage outside of the community (Banes and Carroll, Rethinking 95). The action of the ballet (ironically centered around the decisions of the male character in an era when ballerinas ruled the stage) plays with the differences between acceptable and forbidden courtships (Banes and Carroll, Rethinking 94). James represents a dichotomy in the 19th century male psyche: wanting a socially acceptable wife and mother who will provide a stable home life, or the ideal woman who is sexually alluring and elusive. The Sylph depicts the Romantic fascination with nature, for she lives in the air of the forest. Effie, who is chaste and plainly dressed, remains in the farmhouse and inside the community, “at home” where a wife should be. The Sylph is impossible for James to capture; yet Effie continually runs into people’s embraces. There is no element of mystery or of the “chase” with Effie. Through the use of classical technique, pointe work, and the new effect of flying with the help of wires and pulleys, the Sylph may even represent an aristocratic class that James ought not to aspire to. They are literally “above” him, and perform steps that developed out of the aristocratic and court traditions (Banes and Carroll, Rethinking 95).
Les Noces, choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska for the 1923 Ballets Russes season, is a masterful translation of peasant marriage customs in 19th century Russia. The ballet was the seminal work for the Ballets Russes that season, and proved to be a bridge between their old aesthetic of Russian styled ballets and the new modernist neo-classical look (Fergison 2). The ballet is closely associated with the 1913 Ballets Russes production of Le Sacre du Printemps, as they have strikingly similar styles of movement and subject matter. Of all the ballets depicting peasant-wedding customs, Les Noces is simultaneously the most realistic and the most abstract. According to Nancy van Norman Baer, it is “…a primitive ritual where both bride and groom are trapped by fate and repressive social customs” (Banes,Dancing 108).
The ballet has no strict narrative, but four distinct sections or tableaus. It has no individual characters with names or personalities, only archetypes of the bride and the groom. Nijinksa said, “From my understanding of the peasant wedding, and my interpretation of the feelings of the bride and groom, my choreography was born…To recreate in a ballet the rituals and ceremonies of an actual wedding was, to my mind, the realm of a Theatre other than my own” (Van Norman Baer 34).
Indeed, even in design the ballet has a feel of reductionism or a minimalist approach. After several designs, costume and set designer Nathalia Gontcharova agreed with Nijinska that the colors of the ballet must be monochromatic and simple. Every dancer wears a simple white and brown costume, the colors representing innocence and a connection to the earth. “It must be like working clothes, simple not to hinder their movements and of strong material,” Gontcharova said (Van Norman Baer 33). The fact that every dancer is virtually identical also reiterates the idea that the bride and groom are units in a community, and they will return to the community after the wedding rite has taken place. They become interchangeable with any other possible unit in the community, who has or will go through the same ritual.
The first section “The Braid (At the Bride’s)” is deeply embedded with symbolism in the movement vocabulary and the architecture of the dancers in space. It begins with the bride prostrated on the ground with two columns of young women to either side of her, holding her two long braids. Clearly, the first scene is a lament set up around the braiding of the bride’s hair. The braiding rite is reflected in the use of the pas de bourée en pointe of the young women, who literally “braid” with their feet. It also symbolizes the bride’s loss of virginity, and imitates the violence of the marriage act (Van Norman Baer 34-35). The braiding symbol is repeated in the weaving of the two columns of the young women together in a human pyramid shape, behind which the bride stands. When that pyramid comes apart, it reiterates the tearing of the braid. Symbolically, the death of the maiden will give birth to the union of a new family unit (Banes,Dancing 113-114). The symbol of the braid was part of the peasant Russian tradition. The single braid represented maidenhood; the double braid represented a married state, and was a metaphor of sexual violence. Traditionally, a bride would greet the bridegroom as “a destroyer and ravager.” This fear is seen in the gestures of sorrow and submission made by the bride and her friends. The bride places her fist before her mouth during the lyrics: “She tore my tresses, tore my bright golden hair, She tore my hair that she might plait it in, Two plaits, O Woe is me, O alas, poor me” (Banes Dancing 112-113). Stravinksy noted that “the binding of the bride’s tresses with red and blue ribbons was a religio-sexual custom…The bride weeps in the first scene not necessarily because of real sorrow at her perspective loss of virginity, but because, ritualistically, she must weep” (Fergison 10). Soviet composer and music critic Boris Asafyev said, “the Russian wedding rite is virtually a funeral rite” for the woman (Banes, Dancing 117).
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Banes, Sally, and Noel Carroll. “Marriage and the Inhuman.” Rethinking the Sylph. Ed. Lynn Garafola. Hanover: Wesleyan Univeristy Press, 1997. 91-105.
—, Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage. London: Routledge, 1998.
Chazin-Bennahum, Judith. Dance in the Shadow of the Guillotine. Carbondale: Southern Ilinois University Press, 1988.
Fergison, Drue Alexandra. Les Noces: A microhistory of the Paris 1923 Production. Diss. Duke University, 1995. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1996.