The Ballets Russes and Beyond: Music and Dance in Belle-Epoque Paris

By Vick, Liza | Notes, September 2013 | Go to article overview

The Ballets Russes and Beyond: Music and Dance in Belle-Epoque Paris


Vick, Liza, Notes


The Ballets Russes and Beyond: Music and Dance in Belle-Epoque Paris. By Davinia Caddy. (New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism, 22). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. [xvi, 237 p. ISBN 9781107014404. $99.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.

Davinia Caddy's The Ballets Busses and Beyond is timely. The book was published o just a year before centennial celebrations of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Claude Debussy's feta and on the heels of a recent spate of Ballets Russes literature, exhibitions and revivals: for example, the 2010-11 "Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929" exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the "Beyond Ballets Russes" season at the London Coliseum in March 2012. Yet, although The Ballets Muses and Beyond shares its name with the latter, Caddy's monograph does not partake in the Coliseum's lionization of the Russian troupe. Rethinking a much-told history, this book turns traditional, romanticized assumptions about the Ballets Russes on their heads. Caddy has no qualms about the revisionist bent of her research; she describes her book as an" 'alternative' study" (p. 115), "a recovery effort" (p. 16) and "an awakening" (p. 28). While she is careful to acknowledge the element of truth underlying the myth of the Russian Ballet's "Midas touch" (p. 13), an important objective of her book is "to pull on the reins of the Ballets Russes bandwagon" (p. 14). But Caddy does not lack for enthusiasm. Far from it: her fresh perspective and musical focus throw new light on a company too often obscured by reverence.

Focusing in particular on the period 1909-14 and centered on Paris, The Ballets Russes and Beyond may at first seem restricted in scope. Yet Caddy's interpretative vision is remarkably broad: she deals not only with the Ballets Russes, but also with a variety of other dancers and companies within its orbit, and her interpretative context extends as far as the fields of psychophysiology and germ theory (the latter in relation to the Ballets Russes's metaphorical invasion of the French body politic, on which see below). Unifying themes of gesture and the body ensure that the book's chronologically ordered yet methodologically diverse chapters hold together coherently.

Having carefully positioned her investigation in the introduction, Caddy immediately sidesteps the Ballets Russes in her second chapter, choosing instead to concentrate on the overlooked prewar ballets at the Paris Opera. In particular, she focuses on the complex relationship between the French and Russian companies as perceived in the press following the arrival of the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909. During the nineteenth century, ballet in France had gained a reputation for decadence, excessive virtuosity, and incomprehensibility. The Ballets Russes, on the other hand, was lauded for its simple and expressive style. In response to the call for a revived national ballet in France at the turn of the century, critics suggested that the French could learn a lesson or two from the Russians; soon, the Slavic influence began to infiltrate the productions of the Paris Opera. Yet La Fete chez Therese, choreographed by "Mlle Stichel" (Louise Manzini) with music by Reynaldo Hahn, was a conspicuous anomaly: not only was the ballet out of line with the Opera's other works, but it also seemed immune to the powerful influence of the Ballets Russes. Although the work received its premiere in 1910, plans for the production dated back to 1907, two years prior to the arrival of the Russian troupe in Paris. Caddy's "thick description" (p. 25) of Therese is insightful, despite the lack of choreographic documentation. (She assures us that the Opera's collection of press clippings about Therese originates mostly from the moment of the ballet's premiere, although all but one of her sources are undated.) By demonstrating the work's innovative aesthetic, engagement with national traditions, and resonance with contemporary trends, Caddy reveals that these characteristics usually associated with the Ballets Russes were in fact already ingrained features of French ballet.

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