by Alastair Macaulay
Two questions I raised in interviewing the Balanchine Foundation’s three “Apollo” muses are these: What does the ballet’s most famous image - the sunburst triple arabesque - express? And where does Terpsichore’s head face?
Remember that between 1928 (the ballet’s premiere) and 1978 the sunburst arabesque was brilliant but a momentary transition, whereas in 1979 Balanchine, removing the last residues of decor from the ballet, turned this triple arabesque into rhe ballet’s final resolution. But Balanchine tended not to speak of meaning when coaching muses. (He made an exception when coaching Suki Schorer in Calliope’s variation.)
By contrast, Apollo was the one role where he spoke of intention, drama, imagery, in coaching successive male dancers. As Jacques d’Amboise in particular stressed (relating his understanding of what Balanchine had told him over the years, and remembering how little Balanchine ever spoke of story or motive or imagery or meaning in any other ballet), the finale of the uncut “Apollo,” after the young god has heard the call from his father Zeus, is elegiac. Apollo is taking his leave from the muses, his playmates on the slopes of Parnassus, before taking the winged chariot to Olympus sent by his father. The muses hang onto Apollo (1 - see the photo of the Diaghilev production) because they don’t want him to leave them. That makes sense of why Terpsichore, usually if not always, looks downward and away in the sunburst arabesque.
When Balanchine changed the ballet’s ending in 1979, he may have changed the meaning of the triple arabesque. It’s noteworthy that Suzanne Farrell, whom he had first cast as Terpsichore in the 1960s (2) and who returned to it for him in 1980, looked down and away in the earlier version of the ballet but then looked upwards in ecstasy in the later version (4).
But the 1979 version shocked many: it was the most traumatizing of the many changes he made over the decades to his ballets. To Barbara Horgan, Balanchine’s assistant of twenty-six years, he merely said “I was bored with it.” To Farrell, the most renowned of his muse ballerinas, he never answered her question about his change; and in her final staging of “Apollo” she reverted to the earlier version with a staircase designating the mountain.
This “final” 1979 version of “Apollo” made it another of his pure-dance ballets. But it omitted the recessional mood and poignancy of Stravinsky’s ending.
Thursday 13 July
How does Giselle end her Act One variation?
The Theatre of Giselle’s Mind, as Shown in a Single Phrase.
by Alastair Macaulay
Cynthia Harvey as Giselle with Robert La Fosse as Albrecht
How does Giselle end her Act One variation? At the start of July 2023, I watched four American Ballet Theatre Giselles at the New York Metropolitan Opera House, just as in autumn 2021 I watched five Royal Ballet Giselles at Covent Garden. After the hops on point, all nine of them did the same manège of piqué turns en dedans, circling the stage.
Unfortunately, this was never part of traditional “Giselle” choreography. It’s just a showy cliché effect that makes Giselle seem unoriginal, just another ballerina doing a routine wow ending. This bothers me most with the Royal Ballet. The Royal was founded - and achieved worldwide renown - on the principle of being as true as possible to the texts of the nineteenth-century ballets. Although both Ninette de Valois and Frederick Ashton tampered with details of those texts from the 1940s onward, their tinkerings were small and few. In general, the Royal stayed fastidiously true to the traditional texts until the 1980s; its “Coppélia” and “Sleeping Beauty” still show an overall respect for older versions, whereas the incurably and insufferably anti-historical Peter Wright has approved successive changes to “Giselle” and “The Nutcracker” that give one cause for despair, while Kevin O’Hare’s decision to commission the late Liam Scarlett to overhaul “Swan Lake” was a destructive major nail in the coffin of Royal Ballet tradition. (The New York Public Library has complete silent footage of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet - as the Royal used to be - in all four acts of “Swan Lake” between 1949 and 1956, as filmed on its tours of North America.)
During the 1980s and 1990s, more and more Royal Ballet Giselles gave up ending the variation with the diagonal “whirlwind” of turns, even though (or just because) that occurs in no other ballet. In the twentyfirst century, all Royal Giselles, and all American Ballet Theatre Giselles, have performed the cliché manège of piqué turns en dedans, making Giselle look like umpteen other ballerinas.
YouTube helps here to some degree. In 2016, Navarre Brixen posted a useful video “Giselle - 5 Spessivtseva variations, 1930-1960s”: Giselle - 5 Spessivtseva variations 1930-1960s - Spessivtseva, Markova, Alonso, Nerina, Fracci - video This title, admittedly, perpetuates the old mistake that this variation was added for Olga Spessivtseva, whom we can see on a fragmentary 1932 silent film of “Giselle” Act One. It wasn’t (though her partner Anton Dolin was given that wrong impression). Actually, this variation was recorded in the 1903 Stepanov notation for Act One, as danced by Anna Pavlova.
Probably the choreography (including the famous diagonal of hops on point) was made by Petipa in the 1880s; he may have modified it for Pavlova, whom he greatly admired. There are three versions of the ending, one only subtly different from another, but none of them give Giselle a manège circuiting the stage. Instead, they give a diagonal of faster and more intricate turns, often ending in a pas de chat, sometimes arriving in fourth position, sometimes in a kneeling position. Navarre Brixen’s compilation showed Olga Spessivtseva, Alicia Markova, Alicia Alonso, Nadia Nerina, and Carla Fracci. Brixen also observed “All dancers do the diagonal instead of the manège. (In the 70s the diagonal was replaced by the manège in most Western productions; BNC still do the diagonal.) Also, a reminder that dancers from more than half a century ago didn't have such poor technique as some YTbers like to believe... All Giselles here are in their 30s or 40s.”
Six years ago, again on YouTube, “Amy” posted “Giselle - Pas seul ending (Manège or Diagonal?)”, showing Alina Cojocaru, Alicia Markova, Natalia Makarova, Alicia Alonso, Alessandra Ferri, Carla Fraccii: Giselle - five Spessivtseva variations 1930-1960s - video. “Amy” amiably writes: “So which ending is better? Personally, I prefer the diagonal ending; I think it goes better with the music and it's nice to see something different from the common manège of turns that we get in many female variations today. What do you all think?”
My own views are already evident. I wanted, however, to consult someone who knew both versions from experience. I knew that Cynthia Harvey had studied Giselle with Margot Fonteyn, who danced the role from 1936 to 1970. Harvey danced it with both American Ballet Theatre (where her partners were Kevin McKenzie, Robert LaFosse, Guillaume Griffin, Ricardo Bustamante, Julio Bocca, and Wes Chapman) and with the Royal Ballet (partnered by Mark Silver). This week, I wrote to her to ask whether the diagonal was harder and whether she had preferred it. The wording of her reply has greatly impressed me:
“Yes, the diagonal IS harder, especially because it shouldn’t be slowed down getting into the start of it. That first downbeat for orchestra and dancer is a challenge, but a well worth one.
“Once I understood the idea of what Giselle says and thinks there (in the theatre of her mind), I could not go back to a simple manège.”
Harvey is a friend who has consulted my questionnaire “Giselle: Ninety-Four Questions and Ninety-Four Answers” on my www.alastairmacaulay.com website. I’ve now added her words to the answer to question 43. And I also wrote to her to enlarge on “the theatre of Giselle’s mind” with relation to this diagonal. In particular, I asked “Does the whirlwind diagonal of tight turns suggest that the initial exhilaration of that variation has built into something nearer the edge?”
Harvey replied “You’re right- it makes sense to create the momentum that will take the story to its conclusion. Some might argue that piqué turns could have a similar effect, I suppose, by the sheer repetition of them, and I get why people might think that that also could represent a whirlpool (circling the stage) of emotion. But I think a whirlWIND of emotion and the staging going towards her mother who allowed her to dance in the first place, is also significant.
“Here are some thoughts which I hope make some sense.
“Giselle is not just in love. She’s deeply, madly, and blindly in love. To make sense of the mad scene that comes after her solo, there has to be a build up or culmination of emotions as well as events. We know that on that day, she has what one could describe as all her Christmases at once! She comes out of her home, all aflutter, to find this man whom she has met, this man of her dreams. He tells her that he loves her. She, being a superstitious and naive young thing, says, No - we must find out if you REALLY love me with the marguerite. (He loves me, loves me not.) Owing to Albrecht’s deception of pulling out a petal, it seems to Giselle that he really does love her! IT WORKED. She totally believes in this love. It’s verifiable!
“That day she also meets the beautiful aristocratic lady from the castle over yonder, who gives her a stunning piece of jewellery when she hears the great news that she is in love. Later the same day, she is crowned Queen of the harvest - wow! Life is unimaginably good for this peasant girl!
“Giselle is captivated by all the wonderful things happening to her. AND, to top it off, her mother allows her to dance. She loves to dance so much, and she loves Albrecht. She dances for love. What could be more appropriate than her dizzying turns of ecstasy to represent those feelings of love? Anyone who has felt those emotions, or who can imagine them, can understand how one could become all wrapped up in the whirlwind of those feelings. (Think Diana, Princess of Wales).
“Simple piqué turns, in a way, to me, I’d describe as cute - maybe even coy. They’re not difficult. THIS is not a moment to make something look easy. The diagonal of en dedans/en dehors turns is hard. ( I might have done a double en dedans to begin, then the two single dehor piqués and repeated the sequence three times before the ending. I don’t mention that as a way to blow my own horn, but to say that rhythmically, down up, up-down up, down up - requires a good start and it is very active with the feet. The busy nature of the footwork represents the tingling of excitement to me. That diagonal has something on each beat of the music. Like when one is nervous, the energy can make one tremble. Giselle’s heart is beating so fast at this point, she’s all nerves and energy. She is thinking that she is the luckiest girl in the world. I feel, at this moment, there are overwhelming feelings of euphoria. If Giselle does not allow herself to be totally enraptured as it builds to the end of the solo, the madness that follows is diminished in terms of story line.
“I’ve gone on way too long. And I’m not sure if I’ve even answered your question of what is in the theatre of her mind, but probably it would be more appropriate to suggest that it’s what is in her heart that is important. That is what affects her mind.”
I treasure this missive from Harvey. It’s she, by the way, who passed on to me, some years ago, the phrase “a whirlwind of turns” to describe the diagonal. And the phrase was coined by Margot Fonteyn, who danced the role for over thirty years (1936-1970).
Of course, it was the Soviet Russians, with their routine scorn for nineteenth-century choreography and their indulgence of balletomania, who first changed the ending from the diagonal to the manège. Today, if you want to see Giselle dancing the diagonal “whirlwind”, you must watch either the United Ukrainian Ballet (in Alexei Ratmansky’s 2022 production) or Pacific Northwest Ballet (where Peter Boal’s 2011 production has been informed by research from Marian Smith and Doug Fullington). Why do the foremost ballet companies of today have so little interest in preserving the old choreography?
Alastair Macaulay is a critic and historian of the performing arts. In 1994-2007, he was chief theatre critic to the “Financial Times” in London. In 2007-2018, he was chief dance critic to the “New York Times” in New York. He still contributes to both newspapers.