You Gotta Know These Ballets: Part II

  1. Gayane (1942) by Aram Khachaturian. Gayane tells the story of the title heroine, who lives on a cooperative farm (kolkhoz) in Khachaturian’s native Armenia with her husband Giko and her father Ovanes, who heads the collective. Giko, a lazy alcoholic, repeatedly beats and abuses the hardworking Gayane. However, Gayane escapes the marriage when she reveals Giko to be an anti-Soviet spy, leading to his arrest; Gayane then marries the soldier Kazakov. The most famous excerpt from Gayane is the frenetic “Sabre Dance,” originally part of a group of dances in the final act meant to represent the various Soviet republics. Other notable music from the ballet includes an adagio movement, meant to represent carpet weavers, that was used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  2. La Péri (The Peri) (1912) by Paul Dukas. La Péri, the last major work by Paul Dukas, tells the story of Iksender (Alexander the Great), who is searching Iran for the Flower of Immortality. He finally finds it at the Ends of the Earth, where it is in the hands of a sleeping Péri (a mythical fairy-like creature from Persian folklore). When Iksender tries to steal the flower, he awakens the Péri, who needs the flower to commune with Ormuzd (the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda). The Péri seduces Iksender, who realizes that he doesn’t deserve the flower. He surrenders it to the spirit, who ascends to Paradise, leaving him to die alone on Earth. The opening fanfare is often performed independently of the rest of the suite.
  3. Petrushka (1911, revised 1947) by Igor Stravinsky. Petrushka has a framing story with opening and closing scenes at a Shrovetide fair. The main story is about three puppets: Petrushka, the Ballerina, and the Moor, who are brought to life by the Magician (in some translations, the Charlatan). Petrushka falls in love with the Ballerina, who is smitten with the Moor. The love triangle ends with the Moor killing Petrushka with an axe after the “Dance of the Wet-Nurses” and the “Dance of the Peasant and Bear.” The Magician claims that no harm was done, since Petrushka is only a puppet, but at the ballet’s end Petrushka’s ghost appears and haunts the Magician. Musically, it is most famous for its “Petrushka chord,” a dissonant combination of C major and F sharp major triads played by the clarinets.
  4. Pulcinella (1920) by Igor Stravinsky. Pulcinella is usually regarded as the first work of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period. Choreographed by Léonide Massine, it was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev. Diaghilev wanted to update a commedia dell’arte play attributed at the time to Giovanni Pergolesi (that attribution has recently been challenged). The one-act ballet tells the story of Pulcinella, a stock character of commedia dell’arte, and his lover Pimpinella, as well as two girls, Prudenza and Rosetta, and their suitors, Florindo and Cloviello. Pulcinella kisses Rosetta after she dances for him, enraging Pimpinella as well as the two suitors, who, jealous of Pulcinella, beat him up and appear to kill him. However, the “body” of Pulcinella is actually his friend Furbo, who impersonated Pulcinella and played dead. Pulcinella, disguised as a magician, appears, reveals himself, and marries Pimpinella, who forgives him.
  5. The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps or Vesna svyashchennaya) (1913) by Igor Stravinsky. The Rite of Spring, subtitled “Pictures of Pagan Russia,” was written for the Ballets Russes, and choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky. Inspired by Russian folklorist Nicholas Roerich, who designed the original sets, it is in two parts, “The Adoration of the Earth” and “The Sacrifice.” It opens with a high-pitched bassoon solo based on a Lithuanian folk song, which is followed by the dissonant “Augurs of Spring” (sometimes called “Dances of the Young Girls”), which features E-major and E-flat-major chords superimposed on each other and played with seemingly random accents. The piece ends with a girl forced to dance herself to death. Changes of meter are frequent, sometimes changing measure to measure. The original instrumentation featured several unusual percussion instruments, including a gong, tambourines, antique cymbals, and the guiro. Most infamously, a riot broke out at its Paris premiere, although contemporary reports give differing accounts on the Rite’s role.
  6. Rodeo (1942) by Aaron Copland. Agnes DeMille choreographed Rodeo and danced the lead role at its premiere. It tells the story of a tomboy Cowgirl in the American West (the characters are not given specific names). She falls in love with the Head Wrangler, who prefers the more feminine Rancher’s Daughter. The Cowgirl winds up dancing and eventually kissing the Champion Roper, who earlier competed for the Rancher’s Daughter’s hand. Rodeo is split into five sections: “Buckaroo Holiday,” which introduces the characters; “Corral Nocturne,” in which the oboe and bassoon depict the Cowgirl’s loneliness; “Ranch House Party,” which was omitted from the orchestral version; “Saturday Night Waltz” and “Hoe-down,” which is based on the folk song “Bonaparte’s Retreat.” “Hoe-down” was famously used in the “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” ad campaign in the 1990s.
  7. Romeo and Juliet (1938) by Sergei Prokofiev. Prokofiev composed Romeo and Juliet for the Bolshoi Ballet. Prokofiev originally intended to substitute a happier ending for Shakespeare’s tragic one — stating “dead people cannot dance” — but conductor Yuri Fayer talked him out of it (in significant part for political reasons). The “Dance of the Knights” (also called “Montagues and Capulets”) is an often-excerpted portion of the ballet noted for its pulsating, driving rhythm, while the Gavotte, or “Departure of the Guests,” reuses a theme from Prokofiev’s First Symphony (the “Classical”). The score, which calls for such nonstandard instruments as a tenor saxophone, maracas, tambourine, and celesta, was later transformed into three orchestral suites, as well as a set of ten works for solo piano. (The score underwent further revisions — not by Prokofiev himself — in 1940; choreographer Mark Morris has performed Prokofiev’s original version with the “happier” ending.)
  8. Sleeping Beauty (Spyashchaya krasavitsa) (1890) by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. Choreographed by Marius Petipa, Sleeping Beauty (also called The Sleeping Beauty) is based on the fairy tale of the same name, though other fairy tale figures, including Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella, appear. Split into four sections (“The Christening,” “The Spell,” “The Vision,” and “The Wedding”), Sleeping Beauty relates the story of Princess Aurora, the daughter of King Florestan XXIV. He invites a group of fairies to Aurora’s christening, but the evil spirit Carabosse, furious at not being invited, appears and curses Aurora to die on her 16th birthday by pricking her finger with a spindle. However, the powerful Lilac Fairy weakens the curse, so that Aurora will sleep for a hundred years instead. On her 16th birthday, the townspeople perform the “Garland Waltz” and four suitors and Aurora perform the challenging “Rose Adagio.” A mysterious figure (Carabosse in disguise) appears and gives Aurora a spindle, on which Aurora pricks herself and falls asleep; the Lilac Fairy then expands the spell over the entire kingdom. A century later, Prince Desire is hunting in the forest when the Lilac Fairy approaches him and leads him to the castle. He wakes Aurora with a kiss and wins her hand in marriage.
  9. Swan Lake (Lebedinoye ozero) (1867) by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. Many modern performances of Swan Lake are based on a revised version of Tchaikovsky’s score prepared after Tchaikovsky’s death by Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, and Riccardo Drigo. The ballet opens at Prince Siegfried’s 21st birthday party, where Siegfried’s mother scolds him for not finding a wife; she plans for him to choose a spouse at a ball the following evening. After the “Dance of the Goblets,” Siegfried, his tutor Wolfgang, and his friend Benno go hunting. They are about to shoot a swan when it turns into the beautiful Odette. Odette reveals she was cursed by the sorcerer von Rothbart to turn into a swan during the daytime. The curse can only be broken if one who has never loved before declares his love for her. Odette and the other victims of von Rothbart’s curse live on the title lake, which was created by Odette’s mother’s tears. Their presence is usually signified by one of the ballet’s recurring musical themes, a B-minor motif for oboe and harp. Odette and Siegfried begin to fall in love, but morning breaks and Odette returns to her swan form. At the palace, the ball begins with nationalistic dances, including Neapolitan and Hungarian dances and a mazurka. Von Rothbart arrives with his daughter Odile, disguised to look like Odette. (Odette and Odile are normally played by the same ballerina, who wears white as Odette and black as Odile.) They successfully trick Siegfried into declaring his love for Odile, dooming Odette to live as a swan forever. He hurries back to the lake, where he and Odette drown themselves, killing von Rothbart in the process. The exact ending varies from production to production, with some happier than others.
  10. The Three-Cornered Hat (El sombrero de tres picos) (1919) by Manuel de Falla. Sergei Diaghilev commissioned this ballet based on a novella by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón; the costumes were designed by Pablo Picasso. The title headgear is worn by the ballet’s main villain, a magistrate (corregidor), who attempts to seduce the main female character, a miller’s wife. The miller and his wife then trick the magistrate: the miller’s wife flirtatiously offers the magistrate some grapes, but then leads him on a chase past the miller, hiding in a bush, who beats the magistrate. That night, the magistrate sends a deputy to arrest the miller on falsified charges; after the arrest, the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony plays to signify the “knocking of fate.” The magistrate goes to the miller’s home, but falls into a river, causing the miller’s wife to flee. The magistrate then undresses and gets into the miller’s bed; the miller, having escaped from prison, decides to seduce the magistrate’s wife and secretly switches clothes with him. The magistrate, dressed in the miller’s clothes, is then arrested by his deputy. The miller and his wife arrive and toss the magistrate up and down in a blanket.

This article was contributed by NAQT writer Robert Chu.

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