The Great Ballets 101 -- Part I


When I was a young ballet student, I read “The Complete Book Of Ballets,” by Cyril W. Beaumont many times over. That weighty volume is still on my shelf today, dog-eared and with check marks penned in my girlish hand on the Table of Contents indicating my favorites. If you’re an avid balletomane, you probably know and love those same ballets. But in case you’ve never had the chance to get familiar with the great ballets, except perhaps “The Nutcracker,” here’s the first of my cram sessions about the most important ones in the classical canon. Starting with the earliest productions, I’ll detail three now and come back soon with more installments.

La Fille Mal Gardée, 1789

Roughly translated as “The Wayward Daughter,” this is a comic ballet that was originally choreographed by Jean Dauberval and later revived by several choreographers including the Russian grand master of the Golden Age, Marius Petipa. The music is a pastiche of French airs. La Fille, as we usually refer to it, starred many top ballerinas including Olga Preobajenska and Anna Pavlova. The Russian version featured live chickens on stage. Legend has it that during one performance, Preobajenska’s rival, Kschessinskaya, let all the chickens out of their coops but that Olga kept dancing anyway to thunderous applause. Later versions have replaced the real chickens with a hilarious variation for a rooster and several hens in full body costumes.

Giselle, 1841 

The rest of the title is “Ou les Wilis.” Wilis are the spirits of brides who died before their weddings. Gives you the willies, right? And that, in fact, is where the expression comes from! The ballet was choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot to the music of Adolphe Adam. The libretto, or story line, by the French choreographer and dance critic Theophile Gautier, has to do with a frail peasant girl who is betrayed by a nobleman pretending to be her suitor. The cad is actually engaged to a noblewoman. When Giselle finds out, she goes mad and dances herself to death. This is a chilling scene if all goes well but it involves having the ballerina take her hair down at a crucial moment and that doesn’t always happen on cue. If she is struggling with pulling out bobby pins rather than dashing around the stage with tresses flying, the effect is painfully funny rather than poignant. Thankfully, the curtain on the first act drops right after that. The second act, in which Giselle and her Wili pals are all in white, is wonderfully eerie. Spoiler alert: The Wilis are doomed to dance men to death but Giselle breaks ranks and saves the guy who caused her own demise. Talk about standing by your man! Insider’s note: The most challenging technical sections for the ballerina are the long series of hops on one foot on pointe in Act I and the long series of jumps with beating feet in Act II.

Coppelia, 1870

This one is a comedy even though it’s based on two of E.T.A. Hoffman’s macabre fairy tales. The original choreographer was Arthur Saint-Leon and the music was composed by Léo Delibes. The story is about a girl named Swanhilda who sees a lifesize doll named Coppleia in the second story window of the shop of an eccentric doll maker. Swanhilda thinks Coppelia is a real girl. Suspend disbelief now, please. It gets even sillier. Swanhilda’s boyfriend, Franz, is attracted to the doll and the ensuing love triangle leads to all kinds of shenanigans. Not to worry, though. After the audience is treated a kind of “around the world in dance” sequence in which wind-up dolls perform, the lovers get back together and the whole village joins in the wedding celebration. Most productions include well-rehearsed children in the Waltz of the Hours. That can be a real pleasure to see. The ballerina, by the way, must be well versed in a variety of ethnic or “character” dance styles as well as a terrific actress.

Up next time, “Don Quixote,” “La Bayadere,” and “Le Corsaire.” We’ll get to “Swan Lake” soon enough!

Sondra Forsyth is Co-Editor-in-Chief of and the Founder of Ballet Ambassadors, an arts education company in New York City from 2001 to 2014.


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