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Ballet: Incarnation of Allegory

Author(s): Marie-Franoise Christout and Fernando Bassan

Source: Dance Chronicle, Vol. 18, No. 3 (1995), pp. 427-435
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
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Accessed: 06-08-2017 19:51 UTC

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Dance Chronicle

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Ballet: Incarnation of Allegory

Marie-Franfoise Christout

Allegory offers to the artist the way to reveal a meaning hidden by

the literal sense of the work. Poetry and the plastic arts have used it
to a great extent. So many fictions, metaphors, images the allegory
has engendered! With so many tales and myths it has thronged crea-
tive imagination! However, nothing could respond to its solicitations
better than dance. Under its diverse forms dance has succeeded in
translating its numerous facets in manners both original and alw
renewed, thus instituting a tradition in constant mutation.
In fact, by definition dance appears to be essentially allegor
cal. Through the linear diagram of the steps of the figured passa
appears, in a more or less veiled way, a deeper and mysterious tru
Such degage, such arabesque, such manege of jetes en tournant
such mudra, such zapateado assume all of a sudden in a ballet, tha
to the choreographer and to the dancer, a precise meaning: contempt
request, joy, shout, martial exaltation. In fact, the audience attribute
many hidden meanings to the slightest variation, even trying to dis
cover an intellectual dimension where, at times, the choreograph
had only shown the dynamic scale of bodies in motion. All too often
novice spectators, doubting that they understand correctly, build ar
ficially a chimera, more conforming, they think, to the very nature
the show, but in fact created out of their unformulated aspiratio

? 1995 by Marie-Fran9oise Christout


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like Minerva springing helmeted from Jupiter's head. What

are looking for-beyond the libretto, and all the more in t
of a libretto- is the origin of various outlines, the expression
which vaguely haunt them. Thus, for them the richness of
sides in the multiplicity of interpretations it arouses, in the
ness of its allegorical power. However, they must avoid f
an intellectual loss of sensitiveness, even if they choose not
the field of allegory up to the immense one of myth and th
if they limit themselves to the meaning of the word, the spa
invention remains vast.
From its origins, the organizers of the court ballet foresaw
this, the more so because in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
people appreciated particularly the game of allusions and similitudes,
notably between mythology and their own time. Then Western civili-
zation, in turn barbarian and refined, multiplied games of mirrors; in
direct relation with the social and cultural atmosphere was set up a
whole scale of conventional equivalences, a kind of collection of "types"
which from then on thronged the stage in Europe. In fact, the same
personages were also often found on the walls and the ceilings or in
the princes' parks, painted or sculpted, always motionless in a set burst
of drapery, of clouds, of chariots. In fact, as long as the choreographic
vocabulary remained restricted, allegory in ballet was more the business
of the poet and the costumer, even of the stagehand, than of the chor-
eographer. However, there was the case of the Ballet d'Alcide (1610),
which it was claimed used a druids' alphabet, according to which through
their evolutions in cadence twelve dancers drew successively on the
ground characters in both meanings of the word: alphabet and power-
ful love, ambitious desire, immortal fame, pleasant pain, crown of
glory, supreme power.
However, more often it was left to the librettist and the cos-
tume designer to interpret skillfully the hidden intentions of the spon-
sor, prince, or minister. At the time, every court entertainment had
to submit to the vogue of humanistic allegory-in poetry, this turned
every person into an abstraction- which had to be perceived through
a not always justified deciphering effort. In the Ballet de Madame
(1615), for example, which represents a model of the kind, the alle-
gorical sense of some episodes or opening dances escapes us if we do
not refer to the contemporary events which inspired them. This was

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the case for all the works prepared for an occasion, for all
with political implications; the only ballets not referrin
porary events were fancy mascarades. In 1615, a ballet c
glory of the kingdom and of the Regent Marie de Medicis
sion of the marriage of Madame Elisabeth of France (al
with the future king of Spain. Therefore, in it every o
and the number of "parts" or acts and of dancers corres
official and precise purpose. Once the political context was
the interest in the work was obscured: sixty years later the
Menestrier was not able to figure out its secret purpose
However, the case of the Ballet de la Delivrance de
(January 29, 1617) was different. Indeed, by expressly
performance of this work, the young monarch Louis X
assert in advance his absolute power. The theme of the
mide, somewhat ridiculed here, from whom Renaud is s
by two Christian knights, symbolized the fact that the
kingdom were liberated from the tyranny of Marshal d
was assassinated on April 24, 1617, only three months
case it was only after the fact that the allegory contained
itory show became intelligible, enriched by skillful machine
cine, by its changes of scenery "a vue," and by the express
Jacques Mauduit, who, to celebrate the final apotheosis,
ninety-two singers and forty-five musicians hidden on
the stage. We encounter the same political exploitation
gory glorifying the king's victory, his majesty, his triumph
de Tancrede en la foret enchantee (1619), inspired by
Jerusalem Delivered, so famous at the time. In fact, Tas
self easily to such interpretations, which were percept
formed audience. However, in this case, the pleasure of
the show's sake somewhat restricted the political signifi
benefit of the choreographic fiction, the source of maje
gestive scenes.
After all, apart from a few exceptions like the Ballet de la De-
livrance de Renaud, whenever the ballet sponsors insisted on stressing
too much the hidden polemical meaning, they tended to neglect the
purely spectacular attraction and disrupted attention. For example, this
was often the case for most of the great masques ordered by Charles I
of England and his consort, Louis XIII's sister Henriette-Marie of

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France. The royal allegory celebrated the alliance of pow

nanimity, beauty, and virtue -qualities of the British monar
the case with Albion's Triumph and Tempe Restored (16
Britannicum (1634), Britannia Triumphans (1638). In 164
spolia, the last of the great royal celebrations before the re
liament, marked the zenith and also foreshadowed the fall
the Stuart king under the arch of Innocence and Mercy
Inigo Jones). He soon flies up to the top, while the fatal sc
to be brought in under the pressure of the civil wars.
Simultaneously in France, Cardinal Richelieu fell into
peculiarities when he ordered sumptuous works such as Q
archies chreiennes (1635), La Felicite (1639) doing hom
birth of the crown prince, and particularly La Prosperit
de France (1641)- spectacular works methodically arrange
their strength after a while. In this last ballet ordered b
Minister, the mythological fable was associated with recent
facts, like the siege of Casal, in order to glorify the sple
Bourbons and the international fame of France. In spite
sources of the dance, the machinery, and the splendid co
fault-finders among the spectators were more attracted by
nical feats than by the main intention, which was meant to
in their minds in order to influence them subsequently. Pe
bered only the ingenious acrobat Cardelin flying up into
hiding the thread on which he was dancing.
The choreographers had to find in mythology a tal
lated to the times and the intentions of the ambitious prin
isters ordering the ballets, so they resorted to abstractions
by graceful dancers. The costumes these wore had to allow
tification from the outset, but as Pere Menestrier admitted
cult task required intelligence and good sense: ". .. the c
indicate as much as possible the nature or the characteristic
quently, in the middle of the seventeenth century, Gissey a
men, followed by the Berains, worked out a whole repertoi
bols still in use under Louis XVI. Fortune had the eyes c
was dressed in changing colors. Fate, crowned with stars an
blue, would meet Hatred dressed in a fire-colored tunic cov
snakes. The collar for Gaming is a string of dice, its frill i

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board, its hat, cuffs, and belt are cards and goblets. M
Louis XIV represented a fortune-teller who, in a costume
bat wings, was the only one to know and to interpret (in
ings of the word) the future of his subjects. In the B
(1654), the part of the minutes was entrusted to eigh
course, Louis XIV represented many times the allegor
like it the bestower of light, prosperity, and harmon
tending to be a living image of the Century of Gold s
centuries of bronze and iron, incarnated by the best pro
ers of his time.
Through the choice of properties, costumes, and increasingly
complex steps appears a strong will to characterize, an openness of
expression, which was preserved in the eighteenth century with some
loss of character. Noverre, although he was hostile to masks, con-
sidered them necessary against the "winds" whirling about contin-
uously in the contemporary ballets. Nevertheless, little by little alle-
gory lost its esoteric sense and convention wasted away until both were
killed by new styles.
Action and fairylike ballets succeeded allegorical ballet. But
let us not be mistaken: allegory was still alive. It had only changed
its costume and shifted to reflect the fashion of the day. During the
Romantic trend, allegory made out of La Sylphide (1832) the quiver-
ing symbol of an inaccessible universe. The most genial dancer and
choreographer of the nineteenth century, Jules Perrot, working for
four famous ballerinas, did not hestitate to transform them into Ele-
ments (1847); later, in Les Quatre saisons, he turned into Summer
Carlotta Grisi, into bright Fall Carolina Rosati, into Winter adaman-
tine Marie Taglioni, into passionate Spring Fanny Cerrito. Arthur
Saint-Leon introduced in 1870, in the finale of Coppelia, the hours,
the day and the night. For those two last roles, performed in 1884 in
Saint Petersburg by the Russian ballerinas Ekaterina Vazem and Ev-
geniia Sokolova, Marius Petipa added his own invention. The Italian
Luigi Manzotti was the one of the era who used allegory the most gen-
erously, in works revealing the scientific ideology of the end of the
nineteenth century like Excelsior, produced at La Scala in 1881. Here
he brought in, among others, Light, the Spirit of Darkness, Civiliza-
tion guiding the scientists Papin and Volta, Perseverance, Invention,
Harmony, Might, Glory, Science, Agriculture, Industry, Courage,

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and Unity surrounded by miners, telegraphists, and s

over, in Amor (1886), Manzotti represented allegorically
of Love over Chaos, thanks to Liberty. These producti
to big shows than to traditional ballets, yet in spite of th
glitter, they had a real connection with princely entertai
sixteenth century, like the 1581 Ballet comique de la R
Indeed, to keep allegory alive in the twentieth cen
avoiding obsolete conventions, it takes up-to-date gen
et son desir (1921) at the Ballets Suedois required the c
the poet Paul Claudel, the composer Darius Milhaud, a
the choreographer and dancer Jean Borlin, who show
prey to imagination and to illusion, while on different le
hours and bright hours, the moon and its reflection m
Controversial as it was, it managed to retain attention
ingenious apparatus, but it was not repeated. In quite a di
Kurt Jooss, when a just pacified Europe was again fa
rumors, strangely set off war and death winning out ove
smirkings in The Green Table (1932). Enlivened by an i
tion, this work has retained for a half century its str
Soon after, the master of choreographic comedy, Leonide
Massine, discovered in 1933 a new medium for the academic balle
when he staged Les Presages, with bright-colored costumes designe
by Andre Masson. Set to Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, the philo
sophically inspired choreography developed around Man, incarnate
by David Lichine, encountering Action, Temptation, Passion, Des-
tiny, and Frivolity. In Nobilissima Visione (1938), to the score by Paul
Hindemith, Massine as St. Francis of Assisi met Poverty, Charity
and Obedience. After Seventh Symphony to Beethoven (1938), evoking
Creation and the Destruction of Humanity, Shostakovich's symphon
gave birth to Rouge et noir (1939), with scenery by Matisse, in which
Massine depicted the tragic fight between Man, Igor Youskevitch
and the brutal forces, followed by his submission to Fate.
One of the most exemplary works by Serge Lifar, Les Mirages
(1947), used allegory in its secondary meaning: wealth was personi
fied by merchants. Death was incarnated with haughty nobility b
Suzanne Lorcia in Les Animaux modeles (1942), another illustration
of Lifarian allegory, taken from La Fontaine. In Les Mirages i

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assumed the enigmatic appearance of men in black plumed b

like funeral horses, while Man's conscience was personified
inine personage: Yvette Chauvire as The Shadow. In Le Je
et la mort (1946), Roland Petit, advised by Jean Coctea
the face of the beloved woman, destructive and cruel, unde
of a veiled skeleton. Among many other ballets, La Peau
(1960), choreographed by Peter Van Dyk, remained one
examples of narrative allegory. The "peau de chagrin" in
Balzac's eponymous novel symbolized the brevity of the hero
he was slowly devoured by his desires; his magical piec
(which allowed him to get what he wanted) shrank each
tained a wish.
Elliptical by choice, George Balanchine often made uncon-
scious use of allegory by transforming his ballerinas into ideal and
symbolic characters, whether in The Four Temperaments (1946, t
music by Paul Hindemith), or in Palais de Cristal-the original ver-
sion of Symphony in C-where he displayed against the background
of Bizet's symphony rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and diamonds, spark-
ling thanks to the designer Leonor Fini. In Agon (1957), to music by
Stravinsky), Balanchine memorably illustrated with great authority
the notion of rivalry, of the contest.
The son of the French philosopher Gaston Berger, Maurice
Bejart brings to allegory the metaphysical aspect of his profound pre-
occupations. In Symphonie pour un homme seul (1955), he powerfull
stylizes the anguish of existing, the difficulty of communicating with
others, even through love. He makes out of the Oiseau defeu (1970)-
the Phoenix consumed by his own ardor and reviving from his ashes -
the very image of the triumph of human liberty over all oppressions.
In Golestan, the traveler discovers, through the rose garden and th
relation between the most beautiful rose and the light-bearer, a con
crete sign of a superior universe. At last, I Trionfi (1974, after Pet-
rarch) suggests to him a long procession inspired by Florentine fres
coes: chastity accompanied by the mythical unicorn wins over sensual
pleasure, and his chimera succumbs to death, surviving through fame,
erased in its turn through the passage of time, double-faced Janus
whose vast cloak hides day and night, white and black hours, whic
vanish on contact with joyous eternity. The hieratic slowness and the
serene harmony of the evolutions confer on this sumptuous scene the

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only power of suggestion capable of evoking a notion so

human knowledge.
Sometimes the gracefulness of an inspired choreogr
the intuition of his dancers give new wings to allegory.
tion conveys the quivering of life by offering, without yiel
dition, the incarnation of the idea. Thus, John Neumeier
directly to allegory by expressing intense feelings in his cho
notably to Gustav Malher's Third, Fourth, and Sixth sym
1975, 1977, and 1984), Bach's Magnificat (1987), and Mo
quiem (1991). On the other hand, JiHi Kylian instinctivel
lyrical abstraction, which his dancers interpret without
humanity as they incarnate the numerous emotions hauntin
ination and the fluid inspiration of this Czech choreogra
in Field Mass (1980), the dancers represent in unfurlin
heroic sacrifice of patriot fighters. Symphony of Psalm
fers the synthesis of religious aspirations, while Stamp
(1983) exposes the secret connection of man and the ani
deep inside him, and Stepping Stones (1991) celebrates th
triumph of the vital impulse.
As well as classical ballet, modern dance does not r
different to the solicitations of allegory. Its great priest
Graham, kept exploiting, in particular, the symbolic in the
cient myths, like Oedipus in Night Journey or the imag
fear in Errand into the Maze (1947). Certainly more than
Alwin Nikolais excelled in suggesting symbolically the key
tions of the contemporary world, in Imago (1963), Sanc
Schema (1980), and his disciple Carolyn Carlson attemp
reality through the mystery of its evolutions, fluid like wat
moving as under the wind in Sablier prison (1974) or W
sand (1976).
This power to sound the universe's deep nature throug
ment and also matter-sand, steam, earth, even peele
been felt in a different attractive way by the new scho
butoh, notably with Japanese companies like Ariadone
Juku. Concerning the systems of classical dance in Indi
principle of the gesture vocabulary of mudras fully exploit
resources by bringing them closer not only to the concr

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animal world, but also to the enigmatic universe o

where the latter is expressed under the guise of lo
wild rigor, frenzy suddenly mastered through t
Antonio Gades. Thus, various types of choreogra
allegory, which has suddenly regained a new vit

Translated by Fernando B

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