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Symbolism in Nineteenth-Century Ballet

"Giselle</I>, "Coppélia</I>, "The Sleeping Beauty</I> and "Swan Lake</I>

Margaret Fleming-Markarian

This book investigates allegorical meaning in the ballets Giselle, Coppélia, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, principally by examining their original librettos and costume designs, as well as considering their surviving choreographic legacy. Each ballet is examined scene by scene in order to identify occult symbols secreted within its structure. The names of characters, their costume details (form, colour, pattern and attribute) and the parts they play and dance (mime, choreographic step and staging) are individually searched for symbolic correspondences.
The author argues that the meaning of these symbols reveals a serious subtext embedded within each ballet and shows that these subtexts are all found to fable the spiritual journey of the soul towards a heavenly paradise. The distinctive set of symbols and the method of interpretation differ in each case: Giselle takes on a Swedenborgian slant, Coppélia hinges on Masonry, while The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake are steeped in mysticism.

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Chapter 3 - The Sleeping Beauty 121

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Chapter 3 The Sleeping Beauty The ballet The Sleeping Beauty was first produced at the Maryinsky Theatre in St Petersburg in 1890, with a libretto by Vsevolojsky, music by Tchaikov- sky, and choreography by Petipa.1 Vsevolojsky derived his libretto from the well-known fairy tale of the same name (known to many through the version by Perrault).2 It was in the tradition of ‘féerie’ (fairy tale), which is quintessentially typical of the Symbolist epoch around the last decade of the nineteenth century. For a theatre audience, seeing the ballet for the first time, the reference point would have been the familiar fairy tale which guided them through the ballet – the similarities being greeted like old friends and the dif ferences bringing novelty.3 It is the dif ferences, however, as inserted by Vsevolojsky and Petipa, which lend a more mystical inter- pretation to the ballet, and which, in the following text, are given special consideration with regard to symbolic correspondences. 1 Ivan Alexander Vsevolojsky (1835–1909), Director of the Imperial Theatres 1881–99. Peter Tchaikovsky (1840–93), Russian composer. Marius Petipa (1818–1910), principal dancer, ballet master and choreographer at the Maryinsky Theatre, 1847–1903. 2 Charles Perrault (1628–1703), first published his version of The Sleeping Beauty as La Belle au Bois Dormant in 1697. 3 Tim Scholl, sees the origins of the ballet’s narrative in the thirteenth-century medieval Norse myth The Saga of the Volsungs, which inf luenced Richard Wagner in creating his opera Der Ring des Nibelungen....

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