The white ballets are the staples of major ballet companies’ repertoires. Despite many new dance forms, creative choreography, and eclectic terpsichorean endeavors, these blanc ballets endure amidst it all. They exemplify both the beginning, and the zenith of the art.
They devastate us with their tragedy. Their terrifying beauty wrings emotion to the depths of our being. They embrace spirituality, and offer values and standards of a bygone era – the 19th century.
The stereotype of the young girl dying from a broken heart is a well-known meme; the shade clad in romantic tutu to lure/save her lover from death provides great drama. It is what brings audiences back year after subscription year to see the greats perform the greats. After all, everyone loves Swan Lake, Giselle, La Sylphide, Les Sylphides, and the Kingdom of the Shades from La Bayadere, don’t they?
In our age of the ‘new’ woman though, is all of this content still relevant?
Ballet is not the only arena where questions have been raised concerning the stereotypical behavior of young female characters. Take the musical, Carousel, for example. Julie Jordan stays with her abusive husband, instead of promptly exiting the situation. “Stand by Your Man” was her motto, although sung in decade-appropriate lyrics, as, “What’s the Use of Wondering if He’s Good or if He’s Bad?’” In this age of feminism, audiences today have a difficult time accepting Julie’s selfless decision, and criticism has stemmed from it. “It is possible, dear… for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all,” Julie Jordan tells her daughter in the musical.
The same questions arise today for the white ballets. As pretty as they are, their storyline opposes some of the modern female narrative. One exception is The Nutcracker, with its ballet blanc scene that brings not tears, but joy, However, one could argue that the narrative of the ballet blanc tragedies stood for thousands of years before the ballets were even created, and their values carried along with them. Patricia Alvarez writes that,“…musicals and comedies always favoured a conservative view of gender roles.” (5) Looking, however, at the ballets with twenty-first century eyes, forces the public to not only think critically about theses memes, but also to make a decision.
Do we agree with this storyline? If we don’t, will we pay big money for orchestra seats to see the performance despite our objections? Does the beauty of the white costumes negate the oppositional narrative? Does the music, and the spectacular dancing of the major ballet stars, along with the sets and lighting draw us in, defying our own modern beliefs? And, is it only a minority that feels this way, or is the public really more old-fashioned than we thought?
One could also say that the public, whether in agreement or not, suspends belief for a two or three hour stretch to see how the other half lived. Therefore, is it historical morality that is being imposed on the public consciousness, or is it a hidden belief system the majority believes – one should fall in love and stand by her man forever, regardless of his behavior? It is a good thing to be faithful. And, there is little abuse in the white ballets, as in Carousel. There is, however, betrayal and treachery in the ballets that break an innocent’s heart, causing her to expire like so many characters in Victorian novels. In the 19th century, it was the prevailing view and standard of the time, and much of this transcended into our personal lives, despite the modern feminist movement.
We all want a romantic love, and one that will last forever. If we find it, though will that person betray us in the end? We, as audience live these moments that we view onstage, and all of the everyday questions or doubts in our present day souls buy right into the fictional story line. We root for the heroine not to expire, hope for a happy ending, and cry, when it doesn’t come.
So, are the white ballets relevant today?
Indeed they are.
“Beautifully written, tender without being mawkish, it affects me deeply every time I see it performed,” Richard Rodgers wrote of his musical, Carousel (Rodgers 243). Carousel, after all had a ballet too.
Even in our modern day, people have frailties, and anyone can fall prey to a broken heart. Men, as well as women get depressed over relationships, may not take care of themselves, and get sick, both physically and emotionally.
Women, however, rarely die of consumption anymore.
Most of them break up, get a good lawyer, get therapy, eat chocolate, and move on. All humor aside, in earlier centuries, there were few options for women besides marriage. The importance of a lifelong partner
was even more crucial, and to lose that chance more life changing. Combined with teenage hormones where almost everything is a crisis, societal pressures and breach of promise were more difficult to bear then.
So, whether the romantic hero abused, betrayed, or dropped the poor, romantic heroine onstage like a hot potato for a wealthier bride, these ballets and story lines take us away to the emotional, the fantasy… to step (as Harper Lee once put it) into someone else’s shoes and walk around in them for a little while. This happens with all of the performing arts.
Like Richard Rodgers, I find that Swan Lake “affects me deeply every time I see it performed.” These ballets are the secret place in our heart of hearts, where we suspend belief, and enjoy the elite performance, whether we believe the narrative or not.
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Álvarez-Caldas P. (2012) Universidad de Santiago de Compostela. What’s the Use of Wondering if He’s Good or Bad?: Carousel and the Presentation of Domestic Violence in Musicals.
Carousel. 1956. (motion picture) 20th century Fox.
Harper, L. (1960; 1988) To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Harper Perennial.
Rodgers, R. as quoted in Lorenz, N. (2007). The Multiplicity of Feminine Virtue in Traditional Musicals of Americana: Oklahoma, Carousel and The Music Man. (Master’s Thesis.)
Rodgers, R. (1997) Musical Stages: An Autobiography. New York: Da Capo Press
Giselle (Wikimedia Commons) Public Domain.
By WhiteAct (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.