“Diana was no slut” – Mythology and Ballet

5 Aug

Today an odd series of coincidences happened…first, I went to OSU’s new Thompson Library, which is massive and sparkly with lots of windows and new computers and such, to borrow a book that contained an essay I was looking for (Toeing the Line: In Search of the Gay Male Image in Contemporary Classical Ballet).  I figured I might as well look for other materials, and checked the library catalog and also found Peter Stoneley’s A Queer History of the Ballet.  When I located that book, nearby was this wonderful photography book published by the Royal Opera House, on Sir Frederick Ashton (who is pictured on the back doing a jig as the hedgehog “Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle” from his The Tales of Beatrix Potter ballet.  I have a feeling Sir Ashton and I are going to get along nicely).  When leaving the library, several books in tow I happened upon five (yes FIVE) four leaf clovers and a five leaf clover, all in this little patch that was less than a square foot.  It made me recall that I had a fortune cookie just two days ago that said “an unexpected event will bring you riches.”  Maybe the cookie meant the Ashton book, or maybe it meant the clovers…but I hope my luck continues. (and finds me a JOB or a position with Americorps!)

Part of me thinks the fortune cookie should have said "He who has all the luck in the world will never find job."  Maybe there is something to what that Siamese cat in Disney's Aristocats said..."Shanghai, Hong Kong, Egg fu yung, fortune cookie always wrong."

Part of me thinks the fortune cookie should have said "He who has all the luck in the world will never find job." Maybe there is something to what that Siamese cat in Disney's Aristocats said..."Shanghai, Hong Kong, Egg fu yung, fortune cookie always wrong."

Oh, and if you’re wondering “why the queer ballet reading?” That’s independent research for a SEKRET project that’s going to take light years to finish, but know that I fully intend to make it known to the world.

Back to Ashton, I had been meaning to get more into his work because I’m mostly intrigued by his ballet Ondine.  I became enamored with the myth of Undine thanks to a positively divine flute sonata by the German composer Carl Reinecke (although some might argue The Little Mermaid was my first exposure to an Undine-influenced story, but with a Disney-fied ending since Prince Eric doesn’t die).  The second movement of the sonata is this tornado of sixteenth notes in a key with 2 sharps, and a swarm of additional sharps, double sharps and naturals.  It also has a nice little key change to FIVE sharps and is a complete nightmare to read.  I do fancy fast music, but ironically it’s the slow melody in this Intermezzo that captivates me the most; in fact, it’s probably my favorite melody ever written for the flute.  I actually wish Reinecke’s Undine was turned into a short ballet of some kind…Hans Werner Henze’s score for Ondine is a’ight, but Reinecke’s sonata will always be my first love.  Plus, his sonata is romantic era so it’s a little more conducive to storytelling (although Reinecke didn’t have a Margot Fonteyn).  Oh, and if you’re wondering why I’m switching between Undine/Ondine, Ondine is the anglicized version of Undine…so blame the Germans and Brits if you must, not me.  Anyway, I have a request for the world…someone out there, for the love of Billy Elliot, PLEASE choreograph a ballet to Reinecke’s Undine!  Just listen to virtuoso Emanuel Pahud play it (the aforementioned favorite melody begins at the 1:50 mark…le sigh.  The other 3 movements are also available from the same user.  It listens to the first movement too):

For whatever reason, I’m in a “myth-based ballet” phase these days.  Hence, my interest in Ashton’s Sylvia too, which I didn’t even know was based on a myth until flipping through the book quickly just today.  I’ve also been watching a lot of Diana and Acteon on YT, and I dig the coda.  It’s a catchy little number (well, I guess they all are…but I’m ranking it no.2 in my favorite codas list) and I finally located an mp3 of it to listen to while vacuuming (you’d be surprised how much more fun average chores are when you listen to ballet codas on your ipod as you do them.  I’m serious).  Although it’s conducted by Richard Bonynge, who I’m thinking hasn’t conducted this ballet live because he takes the Diana variation at light speed, and I can’t even imagine some poor ballerina trying to dance at his tempo, and he has a history of this because his Le Corsaire recording is monstrously fast too.  Terrence Kern did a recording of Le Corsaire too, and his was worse if you can believe it.

Anyway, Diana and Acteon is kind of like the leftover sesame chicken of the ballet world.  It’s well known, but doesn’t stand alone because it’s 12 minutes of leftovers from Petipa’s Le Roi Candaule, and Vaganova-ized (microwaved) for consumption today.  I continue this metaphor by pointing out that sesame chicken isn’t even authentic Chinese food (and before I get angry e-mails from Jews up in arms, nobody orders sesame chicken more than I do, this isn’t an insult), and likewise Diana and Acteon the ballet doesn’t follow the myth at all.  First of all, according to wikipedia, in Le Roi Candaule Petipa originally had it as Diana and Endymion, which doesn’t make a lot of sense because Endymion is associated with Selene, although sometimes Selene and Diana were mixed up so I suppose it’s a reasonable mistake.  However, when Vaganova herself changed the character to Acteon, any argument for authenticity flies out the window because the myth between Diana and Acteon doesn’t have a happy ending.  It goes that Acteon, a strapping young hunter sees her bathing in the nude.  Now Diana was no slut…she was mad as a hornet and forbade him to speak of that indecency, and if he did he would turn into stag.  Long story short, he calls out to his hunting party, turns into a stag, and is killed and eaten by his own hunting dogs.  Somehow, I think a flirtatious exchange with Acteon was the last thing on iron-chaste Diana’s mind.

But we all know the point of ballet isn’t to stick to the story…although there is that one little reference to the stag when at the very end the male dancer does a stag leap offstage while Diana is doing an arabesque onstage (shooting an arrow at him?).  Besides, Diana is the one who is supposed to be nekkid and yet it’s always the male dancer in this variation that’s showing a lot more skin (we’re talkin dance belt + loincloth.  A large loincloth if they’re lucky).  I’m perfectly fine with adaptations of stories and artistic liberties for the purposes of ballet movement (I have to be for the SEKRET project).  Plus Diana and Acteon is fun to watch because it includes a lot of witchy goodies that requires hefty technique.  My favorite Acteon (and this should come as no surprise) is Carlos Acosta.  He just has that “hunter machismo” which can especially be seen in Alicia Alonso’s version (after Petipa) because it includes this gargantuan lift where he sets down the ballerina just using one arm.  She also gave the ballerina even more fouettes to do, doing them on a diagonal with a flourish of the arms in a double pirouette, changing the spot later on mid-fouette to be en face and the whole shebang ends with a partner assisted pirouette where the guy then just lets go and she’s supposed to keep going.  Crazy and amazing (henceforth “cramazing?”) is the only way to describe it.

Now the following video features Carlos and Viengsay Valdes, and it’s neither of their best performances.  This performance is known though because Viengsay was sick and the poor thing is practically dying by the end.  But the show must go on, and I also include it for this inhuman leap Carlos does, which I’m not sure exactly what it is…it could be called a cabriole of some kind or a grand jeté battu…whatever it is, it’s a mystical leap that will take your breath away, and you’ll know it when you see it (not to mention he also does a revoltade, or as I like to call it, “the deathwish”):

And just to show that Viengsay is a more than capable and wonderful dancer; check out her Diana coda here:

This was a better performance for Carlos too:

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One Response to ““Diana was no slut” – Mythology and Ballet”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. What are YOU doing here? « You Dance Funny, So Does Me - December 29, 2009

    […] NYCB) as well as Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un faune (Afternoon of a Faun) and Vaganova’s Diana and Acteon.  Of the other works listed the one I want to see the most is Graeme Murphy’s Daphnis and Chloe, […]

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