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Pliés and Pirouettes: Some Famous (And Not-So Famous) Ballets

We're executing a perfect grand jeté on this week's show, looking at some famous ballets!

A show certain to keep you on your toes!

This week, we’re limbering up for a show that’s certain to keep you on your toes. That’s right, we’re looking at all ballet music this week, in a show we’re calling “Pliés and Pirouettes.” Here’s our barre-raising playlist:


  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), Swan Lake We must begin with ballet king himself, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky wrote only three ballets—Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker—but they are perhaps the most well-known staples of the ballet repertoire. His first ballet was Swan Lake, all about a princess who turns into a beautiful swan. But Swan Lake wasn’t exactly a success when it premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1877. The work was too complicated for the dancers and the conductor. It wasn’t until its revival in 1895 (two years after Tchaikovsky’s death) that Swan Lake finally earned its place among the great ballets. This subsequent production at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg was choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, with alterations made by composer Riccardo Drigo and Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest. The work is now one of the most frequently performed ballets, behind only The Nutcracker.

 

  • Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687), Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme – Though ballet was invented in Italy during the Renaissance, it quickly spread to France through the court of the Italian aristocrat who became queen of France, Catherine de Medici. Under Catherine, ballet became one of the favored pastimes of the French nobility, and a staple of French national identity. When Jean Baptiste Lully became master of the Royal Opera, his patron Louis the fourteenth was already an avid fan of ballet and himself a dancer. By the Baroque Era, many French nobles were also ballet dancers, participating in performances of comedie-ballets like Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme alongside professional dancers. Louis found that if he kept his courtiers occupied with the arts, it generally distracted them from opposing affairs of the State. Lully himself was also a dancer, and documents related to the premiere of this work show that he danced in the final act. The main character, the Gentilhomme himself, was played by the work’s librettist, Moliere.

 

  • Aaron Copland (1900–1990), Rodeo – Aaron Copland scored a huge hit with the first of his “American” ballets, Billy the Kid, in 1938.  Following that success, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that when choreographer Agnes De Mille had an idea in early 1942 for what she described as “The Taming of the Shrew…cowboy style”, she turned to Copland to write the score. Copland was initially hesitant, writing to De Mille that he wasn’t interested in the project because he’d “Already done one of those!” De Mille must have been pretty persuasive, because soon Copland was hard at work on the score. Rodeo deviates from the typical boy meets girl plot of many classical ballets. The cowgirl (a role that was premiered by De Mille herself) competes against a crowd of local women to gain the attention of the champion roper. In Saturday Night Waltz, the movement we just heard, he finally notices her.

 

  • Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), Petrushka – Igor Stravinsky was one of the most prominent ballet composers from the early 20th century, composing three groundbreaking ballets for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in Paris in the early 1910s. His first ballet was Firebird, followed by Petrushka and the infamous Rite Of Spring. The original choreography of Petrushka was by Michel Fokine, with Vaslav Nijinsky dancing the title role in the premiere. Petrushka is a stock character in traditional Russian puppetry, similar to Punch from the English Punch and Judy puppets, or even Pulcinella from Italian commedia dell’arte and Neapolitan puppetry. Stravinsky must have loved this character, because not only was he the subject of his 1911 ballet Petrushka, he was also the title character in his ballet Pulcinella nine years later. In the 1911 ballet, the trickster puppet Petrushka comes to life, only to be rejected by a ballerina and then killed by his romantic rival.

 

  • Adolphe Adam (1803–1856), Giselle –  Picture the ballet: you’re probably imagining ballerinas, wearing tutus, up on their tiptoes. Many of those quintessential ballet characteristics can be traced back to the 1841 ballet Giselle by composer Adolphe Adam. Adam was a pioneer, and taught the next generation of ballet composers like Léo Delibes. His ballet Giselle was choreographed by Jule Perrot, an early master of the romantic ballet and himself a pioneer in developing the pointework that became the norm on ballet stage. The libretto for Giselle was based on the legend of the “wilis,” female spirits who dance for all eternity and lure men to their death. The wilis in Giselle wore tutus and tights, a look which became the de facto outfit for all ballerinas henceforth. Giselle also featured the prima ballerina Carlotta Grisi in the title role. Ballets had always been considered a male-dominated art… that is, until Giselle, when female ballerinas began to take center stage.

 

  • Léon Minkus (1826–1917), La Bayadére – Léon Minkus remains to this day one of the most important contributors to the ballet canon. He was born in Austria (which is why he’s often referred to as “Ludwig” Minkus), although he spent most of his adult life in Russia. Minkus was the official Composer of Ballet Music to the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre in Russia, and also served as a conductor and violinist at the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre. Minkus worked with two of the most prominent ballet masters of the 19th century: Arthur Saint-Léon and Marius Petipa. He worked with Petipa for well over 20 years, collaborating on such ballets as Don Quixote and this ballet, La Bayadere. La Bayadere is an exotic ballet about a young Hindu dancer who is bitten by a venomous snake. In the second half of the ballet, her shadow spirit continues to haunt the other dancers.

 

  • John Adams (b. 1947), Nixon In China: The Red Detachment of Women – The opera Nixon In China retells the real-life story of President Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 trip to China, meeting with the Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai and Chairman Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. As one of the most important operas of the late 20th century, it highlights the superficiality of the occasion with inconsequential declarations of ideology from both Nixonand Chairman Mao. In three acts, the opera weaves in and out of real historic events from the trip, combining them with beautiful arias and dances that focus on the inner conflicts of the characters. We just listened to Adam’s re-interpretation of a propagandic ballet that was performed for the Nixons. The ballet The Red Detachment of Women was written by Chairman Mao’s wife to promote the ideology of the Cultural Revolution. It depicts the demise of a cruel land agent at the hands of a group of revolutionary women workers.

 

  • Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Oklahoma! “Dream Ballet” – The “dream ballet” has become a fairly common convention in theatre and film—you’ve probably seen it without realizing it had a name. It first dream ballet emerged in the Rodgers and Hammerstein groundbreaking musical Oklahoma! (fun fact: Oklahoma! was originally titled Away We Go! before its premiere on Broadway). In the musical, the character Laurey falls into a dream where she imagines what life would be like with each of her suitors, Jud and Curly. The entire scenario is an 18-minute choreographed pantomime, with original choreography by Agnes de Mille (the same choreographer who worked on Copland’s Rodeo). Rodgers and Hammerstein included dream ballets in a few more musicals like Flower Drum Song and Allegro. And the dream ballet has been imitated (and parodied) countless times since, including in shows like West Side Story and Bye Bye Birdie, and in films like The Great Muppet Caper and The Big Lebowski.

 

Want more pliés and pirouettes? Check out our ballet podcast from last week!

Music Heard On This Episode

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