I mentioned earlier today about stopping in at our friends Simonetta and Renato’s on Christmas Day. Simonetta works with us at the Embassy but as well as being a colleague has become a close friend. Through her I have become more closely associated with the dance world. She has been both a dance critic and writer on dance for many years and seems to know everyone in the dance world.
And she is the one who got me involved in translating for Ballet2000 – a tri-lingual dance magazine published out of Nice. Its hard work but it has taught me a lot in the past six months – about language and dance. Though I have been going to the ballet since I was five I am developing a deeper understanding of what is perhaps one of the most ephemeral of the arts. And for that I can thank Simonetta.
For that and a charming little book that she left under our tree a day or two before Christmas. The Natural World of the Ballet Girl is a tongue in cheek little tome tracing the life of a Victorian ballet dancer. Not some great Prima Ballerina but a simple girl who dances in the corps de ballet – sometimes as a village girl, or one of the Ballerina’s friends or a lady of the court. Her’s is a life of dusty, drafty stages, demanding ballet masters, the smell of greasepaint mixed with lamp oil, shared digs, small pay packets and often indecent proposals. Despite its slightly wry tone it accurately reflects the almost Dickensian life of a dancer of the period.
Before Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes made dance a form of high art to the English , ballet was seen more often in the Musical Hall than the theatre. The Empire Theatre in Leister Square lead the way with ballets based on French models such as Coppelia as well as their own creations. The themes could vary from fairy tales to mythology to allegories to celebrations of current happenings. Productions were elaborate: settings replete with special effects, waterfalls, transformations, flying dancers, processions, beautiful costumes and scores written by famous composers of the period.
Amongst her many dance related treasures Simonetta has this rather appropriate photograph from 1902 in her collection. Our Crown was an Empire Theatre ballet created to celebrate the coronation of Edward VII. As well as cities and counties of the United Kingdom countries of the Commonwealth joined in this paean to the House of Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha and its new ruler.
And Miss Emille Tree – attired for the bitter winter in fur, adorned with symbols of the Dominion and armed for the hunt – proudly represents Canada. I do wonder how long she would have lasted in those tights in an Ottawa January? Fur leggings would be more useful but then the gentlemen in the stalls would have had nothing to train their opera glasses on! And despite Mr. Smith’s warning to lascivious Gents in The Natural History that was one of the appeals of Victorian ballet.
29 decembre – San Davide