I went to the Tulsa Ballet last weekend and saw Tchaikovsky: The Man behind the Music.
You remember him, right?
He’s the Russian composer who created the music for The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.
Before the actual show, they had an informal question and answer period where the choreographer, Ma Cong, described how this particular ballet came to be. It was fascinating.
Pyotr LLyich Tchaikovsky’s life was complicated, just a quick glimpse on Wikipedia confirms that. And the history written about him is not always accurate. In some accounts, his mother was cold and uncaring while in others, she was devoted to him. What a majority of biographies agreed upon was that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual. This was so unacceptable in 19th century Russia that the Soviets erased or changed a lot of the references of same-sex attraction in their literature. (and you thought the censorship in George Orwell’s 1984 dystopian book was far-fetched)
A team was formed and was responsible for bringing the story to life. A composer, Oliver Peter Graber, chose music from what was mostly Tchaikovsky’s own works, with the goal of matching the theme of each act. Tracy Grant Lord designed peacock-hued shimmering dresses and buttoned jackets with rows of shiny buttons—all reminiscent of the time period. A Russian historian acted as a consultant and the artistic director, Marcello Angelini, developed the concept and brought it to life.
The lead was a male and I realized that I’m used to seeing ballerinas being in the limelight. I learned that we don’t even have a term for a ‘star’ male ballet performer. In Italy, A ballerino is a term used for a male lead but as far as I know, we don’t have a similar title to recognize a male with exceptional talent. This guy deserved a title—he was brilliant.
Have females always dominated ballet? Nope.
In Renaissance times, only men danced. This is not surprising because only men performed as actors too. When women did show up on stage, heavy full skirts impeded their ability to perform some of the dance moves. Men, in their breeches, had more freedom. Jean Balon, a ballet virtuoso, was known for his ability to ascend without effort and land gracefully. The word balloon, meaning springiness, was derived from his name.
It wasn’t until the 1800’s that female dancers started to become more popular. (Coincidentally, that was about the same time that their skirts were shortened.) Women were considered to be more ethereal and ballets such as Giselle and La Sylphide highlighted their dancing styles.
Female dancers have continued to be the focus of a host of popular ballets like Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. But maybe that’s going to change and we will see more male dominated ballets that allow more demonstrations of technical prowess and strength. Times are changing…
So what happens next to this new ballet?
Videos of the production were sent around the world. Representatives from different troupes will watch the same show I did. And then they will decide whether to bring the show to their own troupe. Ma Cong, the choreographer, would go to each city and help cast from their own dancers for each role.
And that’s how a new ballet is born!
image from Tulsaballet.org.