Printer Friendly

Trans-formal translation: plays into ballets, with special reference to Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet.


Translations can be divided into two categories, the intra--and the trans-formal. In the first, we do not exercise ourselves with the relationship between the new version and the original; in the second, where the translation crosses from one form or mode to another, we do. Ballets that process literary texts exemplify the latter kind, and have to find ways of translating words into mimic gestures on the one hand and abstract movements on the other. The article documents some of the strategies that have evolved for this kind of translation, using Kenneth Macmillan's Romeo and Juliet as a point of reference.

Translations can be divided into two categories, the intra- and the trans-formal. In the first, unless we are bilingual, we do not exercise ourselves with the relationship between author's original and the translator's version. Because the latter remains largely transparent, we could compare it with musical transposition, which alters the key but not the form or texture of a work. Such changes remain inaudible to all but those with perfect pitch, and even they would have to know the original to register the difference. In other more blatant kinds of musical adaptation, however, a larger part of the audience, conscious of the changes in question, would begin to draw mental connections between the work in hand and its antecedent version.

Beethoven derived his String Quintet Op. 104 from his Piano Trio in C minor Op. 1 by replacing one of the instruments and adding two, but because the instrumental forces are roughly comparable, the disjunction is not especially marked. The literary analogue would be a conservative translation that yet allowed itself moments of 'illegitimate' freedom, as when, translating Horace, Odes, i. 1. 20, James Michie turns 'solido [...] die' into a 'solid chunk Of afternoon', (1) creating a synaesthetic metaphor instead of the intended meaning, which the Loeb edition gives as 'the day's busy hours'. (2) We could also draw a parallel between the instrumental changes of Beethoven's trio-into-quintet and the 'translations' essayed by regionalist authors. Although Ngugi wa Thiong'o aims at a wider audience through the lingua franca of English, he studs his prose with unassimilated Gikuyu words to hint that his experience resists the effort of transposition: 'He took a jembe and a panga to repeat the daily pattern his life had now fallen into since he left Maguita, his last detention camp.' (3) Because readers will sense an untranslatable residuum of experience here, they acknowledge the gap between their internationalist, and Ngugi's local, culture.

When, however, composers orchestrate a composition, especially those of other composers (as Ravel did Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition), most listeners will make before-and-after comparisons, and to a much greater degree than they would in the case of the Beethoven quintet. The literary analogue for this would be the imitation, those seventeenth- and eighteenth-century translations in which a writer, while faithfully rendering the themes and postures of his source, updates and paraphrases its cultural references. Pope, for example, renders 'Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artis intulit agresti Latio' (4) (Horace, Epistles, II. 1. 156-7) as 'We conquer'd France but felt our captive's charms; Her Arts victorious triumphed o'er our Arms',(5) and so makes a point about neo-Augustan values and assumptions. Then, at the point where intra-formal translation aspires to the freedom of its trans-formal cousin, we can slot in such free adaptations as Stravinsky's of Pergolesi's music in Pulcinella, where the harmony and structure of the originals have been violated or reconstituted, subsumed rather than served by the translator's personality. A literary parallel for these interpretative paraphrases can be found in Homage to Sextus Propertius, where the experience of Pound's text becomes dichotomous--a cross-referential weave between the Latin and the English, even though both authors are poets, engaged in equivalent activities. It is only when the translation crosses from one form or mode to another that trans-formal translation comes into being.

Just as the different gradations of the intra-formal mode can be plotted by the consonance or dissonance of the original and the derivative, so the trans-formal encompasses a range of options, depending on the extent to which the two forms converge or differ. Much more than in the former category, the original haunts the new work as a pentimento haunts a finished painting, superimposing the authorial on the adaptive intention. Take the ekphrasis, for example, which, because it translates a visual into a verbal object, renders something static through process, and turns something tangible into rarefied language. Of all the modes of trans-formal translation, this is the most consistently bifocal because it forces us to monitor ontological change by repeatedly invoking the object in hand. This extreme case draws our attention to the way the etymology of 'translation' implies two discrete spaces and a passage between them, comprising, like 'metaphor', a preposition and a verb of carriage. In metaphor, the prepositional stress ([mu][epsilon][tau][??]='alongside') falls upon the alignment of otherwise resistant spaces, whereas in translation the emphasis centres on the cross-over. Even so, the verbs attached to each in turn--[phi][??][rho][epsilon][iota]v and ferre--are virtual synonyms, and the ferre that creates the 'fer' of 'transfer' conjugates into latum, in which the 'latio' of 'translation' originates. Trans-formal translation therefore has much in common with metaphor, not least this sense of objects' moving across the space that separates them to create new meanings from a forced contiguity. The greater the distance between them, and the more reluctant the materials to join in marriage, the more strenuous the imaginative effort required to force them together. Translations of a vase into a poem, or a play into a ballet, because we remain conscious of the formal differences that have been bridged, recall the dynamic of the Metaphysical conceit, which yokes the 'most heterogeneous ideas [...] by violence together', (6) and which is 'like a spark made by striking two stones together. After the .ash, the stones are just two stones.' (7)

Ballets that process literary texts have something of the collocative daring of The Metaphysical conceit, and something of its instability and intermittence as well. They also invite comparison with ekphrasis, albeit ekphrasis in reverse, as they turn words into unspooling friezes of imagery. Plays translate into operas better than ballets, since operas mediate their meaning partly through words. The libretto of Benjamin Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream incorporates portions of Shakespeare's original, just as Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin cannibalizes segments of the Pushkin poem. The ingestion of the original by the translation elides the space that separates them, so that trans-formal translation almost takes on the transparency of the intra-formal kind. Here the conversion of the text involves a process primarily of excision, for space must be made for the amplifying presence of music. Opera began life as heightened declamation (in homage to ancient tragedy), and only much later did phatic patterns yield to melodic ones before returning again with Wagnerian Sprechgesang, and with the operas of Dargomijsky, who 'aimed at making his music reinforce the dramatic significance of the text, and to this end favoured the style of recitative rather than that of continuous and shapely melody'. (8) Not that there was unanimity among nineteenth-century composers in this regard. Tchaikovsky, a passionate melodist, felt that operas ought to avoid prolixity, and decided against one on The Captain's Daughter because Pushkin's novella was 'too broken up and demanding too many conversations, explanations and actions unsuited to musical treatment'. (9)

But whereas opera could, theoretically at least, embrace 'actions unsuited to musical treatment', ballet, being primarily a visual form, was much less capable of absorbing them. In its earlier history, when it was indistinguishable from the masque, ballet relied on verbal texts to clarify its content. One evolutionary line of dance with verbal reinforcement was the opera-ballet, which survived into the nineteenth century in Auber's Le Dieu et la bayadere and Le Lac des fees. Opera and ballet also intersected in ways less formal. In a production of Gluck's Alceste, the composer despaired of getting the chorus to move with grace and conviction, and the ballet master Noverre 'suggested concealing the singers in the wings while dancers mimed the action--an idea that Diaghilev was to use in his production of Le Coq d'or on the eve of the First World War'. (10) Still more innovative, Auber's La Muette de Portici required its dumb heroine to mime her 'text' to her fellow singers. With Noverre, however, ballet embraced its identity as a non-verbal but dramatic art.

By printing libretti for his ballets, however, Noverre implicitly confessed that it 'is impossible for the dancer happily to dialogue', because he or she cannot 'express all that which is related to cold reasoning. In a ballet there must be a good deal of spectacle and of action to replace speech, much passion and feeling to take the place of discourse, and, even so, the passion must be strongly expressed in order to create great effects'. (11) This incapacity for 'cold reasoning' has haunted ballet, and given rise to a reputation for triviality. Some apologists for the form, failing to grasp the nature of the limitation, have simply confirmed the stigma. Take V. Svetloff's defence of ballet's failure to dramatize the effect of supply and demand on price structures--a defence marred by sophistry:

In course of time, the art of the Ballet came to be branded by the critics as of small account, because it remained devoid of ideas. I myself have met critics who, in order to demonstrate how meaningless the Ballet was, were wont to repeat threadbare conundrums such as: 'How can dancing make clear to the onlooker, for instance, that vegetables have become dearer in consequence of a protracted drought?' And I hardly dared explain to such people that it would be likewise impossible to find in the extraction of the square root a .t topic for lyrical poetry, or to give out in music the penal laws applicable to offences coming under the jurisdiction of the police-courts. (12)

In upholding his old-fashioned tenets of Romantic lyric decorum, Svetlo forgets that La divina commedia had incorporated hard optical data ('Arrange three mirrors so that two shall be | Equally distant, and the third in sight Between the two'), (13) and that Leporello's catalogue aria in Don Giovanni had come close enough to setting the proverbial 'telephone directory' if only because it comprises a list of countries and numbers: 'In Italia seicento e quaranta, in Almagna duecento e trent' una'. (14) The issue of generic decorum ought not to be confused with the different one of generic capacity. Balanchine has pointed out that 'Mime is limited. ... You cannot indicate your mother-in-law and be readily understood.' (15) By 'mime' he means the formulaic silent 'language' that came into being as a result of the ballet d'action. This ad hoc language, quite detailed, and with a recognizable syntax, had been preceded by the unnuanced gestural language that Noverre took over from the history painting of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was simple and immediate, for it had always, in Noverre's own words, to 'paint broadly and use the strongest colours and the boldest strokes because half-tints throw but an obscure and indefinite half light on the nature of this or that person' (The Chevalier Noverre, p. 131)--which list of strictures undercuts the inclusiveness (panto-) that the etymology of 'pantomime' seems to promise.

For just as history paintings centre on clearly delineated and communicative moments, so too, Noverre implies, must the language of the mimic dancer. Although Noverre's painterly metaphors indicate his debt to Nicolas Poussin and Charles Lebrun, the influence sometimes .owed the other way. David's Oath of the Horatii owed something to Noverre:

The manifestly theatrical character of the picture convinces [Edgar Wind] that if David was not directly influenced by [Corneille's] play, he must have been inspired by a theatrical production of the story with a strong visual appeal. This leads him to the Chevalier Noverre, a ballet-master whose ballet-pantomime Les Horaces et les Curiaces was first performed in Paris on 21 January 1777. (16)

And, inspired by a ballet, David would have nourished one in turn if the revolutionary Guillaume Tell had ever reached the stage of the Opera, for a tableau of conspirators, 'which Gardel specifically directed was to reproduce faithfully the attitudes of the characters in David's celebrated painting of the Horatius brothers, was a moment that was no doubt to be frozen in a tableau long enough to make the reference clear'. (17)

However, as plots became increasingly complex, and as Romanticism prompted ballet to abandon such recognized materials as Medea and Jason and Psyche, Noverre's code of emotive gestures ex Lebrun buckled under the combined strain of novelty and involution. Choreographers now began to translate their plots in two supplementary ways. A specialized finger language came into being that had no relation to history painting, though the old broad gestures were still retained wherever necessary, as when dancers held their hands to their foreheads in the very gesture of anguish seen in David's Oath of the Horatii. At the same time, though, they began to 'digitalize' more specific meanings. When, towards the end of the nineteenth century, Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty premiered in St Petersburg, the Evil Fairy told the Queen: 'You [index finger pointing at the interlocutor] my [index finger touching her breast] words [tight circles executed by the hands in front of the mouth], listen [hand cupped to ear].' This solution, however, could address the difficulties of meaning in only a limited way. To many outside the loop, it remained largely unintelligible, as Leigh Hunt testifies in this review of The Romantic Amoureux:

The plots of ballets are seldom painfully clear; the violence of their nods of the head and other explanatory gestures is apt to be lost upon us: we wish extremely to comprehend the old father who tries to thump the mystery into us with his stick, and the youth of his mistress who comes delicately bending to the front of the stage with a sidelong eye and the aforesaid nods, to illustrate all which the father has left obscure; but our endeavours are seldom repaid. We only get a general impression that there is love going on, that the old gentleman does not like it, and that the young people do. (18)

Not only was formulaic mime difficult for the non-specialist to grasp, but it also remained a crude and sometimes ostensive code. Only one or two abstractions got a look-in--'beauty', for example, which was signified by running the back of the hand around the frame of the face. But this beauty is scarcely the Platonic kind projected by the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'; that would have remained inaccessible to mime. A second method of 'verbalizing' the mute medium of dance in the ballet d'action was to poach familiar folk songs or operatic arias, evoking and then applying their words to specific situations. One example of this air parlant or 'talking tune' occurs in the ballet Napoli (1842) when the hero is libelled to the music of 'La calunnia', an aria from Il barbiere di Siviglia. This was the only way the choreographer could render the idea of 'calumny', which cannot otherwise be vectored by finger talk. However, airs parlants represented a comparatively mild instance of trans-formal parasitism. Far more flagrant were operas-into-ballets that devocalized the original scores: London witnessed a wholly danced version of Auber's La Muette de Portici at the King's Theatre in 1829, and a similar redaction of Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable a decade later. The process could also be reversed: two popular operas, Bellini's La sonnambula and Flotow's Martha, both began life as ballets.

The earliest ballet about Romeo and Juliet, which Vincenzo Galeotti staged in Copenhagen in 1811, seems to have 'had Steibelt's opera in mind more than Shakespeare's tragedy', (19) and, although it was not a voice-stripped opera of the King's Theatre kind, we can be fairly sure that the composer, Claus Schall, turned to the earlier score as a source of airs parlants to help the audience follow the action. Bournonville tells us that Galeotti also clarified the action by other means: 'The pantomime, according to Italian form, consisted of a complete dictionary of accepted gestures that had been gathered from Roman and Neapolitan folkways, and also, to lend greater clarity to the whole, of written placards, tablets, banners, and transparencies which, like the Ninevite flame-writing of old, announced fateful occurrences' (My Theatre Life, p. 642). These diligent signposts come close to the practice of Shakespeare's own theatre, which also relied on annunciatory placards and the like. And before we address in detail the trans-formal translation of Romeo and Juliet, we should recall the proto-balletic aspects of the Tudor stage. Some plays, such as James the Fourth, began in dance--'Music playing within, enter ASTER OBERON, King of Fairies; and ANTICS, who dance about a tomb placed conveniently on the stage' (20)--and still more ended in it, as, for example, Much Ado about Nothing--where Shakespeare finally mutes the relentless verbal fencing into images of musical and choreographic concord: 'Strike up, pipers!' (v. 4. 126). These danced proems and epilogues also bear comparison with the Elizabethan dumbshows, which either presented things that could not be conveniently given in dialogue, or alternatively, if it foreshadowed things which would be given in dialogue later, [...] did so emblematically. [...] What is peculiar in Hamlet is that the dumbshow exactly rehearses without dialogue what is then repeated with it. It is easy, however, to exaggerate the singularity of this; it could not have seemed strange to an Elizabethan audience already accustomed by the emblematic shows to see a theme given preliminary treatment in a different form. (21)

Since to mute a verbal text into dumbshow is to balleticize it, trans-formal translation could loom large on the Elizabethan stage. Shakespeare dotted his early comedies with ad libitum cadenzas for the non-verbal prowess of Will Kempe (in contrast to his provision for Robert Armin's 'more melancholy, "philosophical" clowning, characterized by song rather than dance'), (22) and devised choreographic epilogues that depicted a new marital order and the integration of disruptive energies. On other occasions he used visual pattern to stylize and enrich the pageantry of his plays. Indeed, his sense of opsis, the spectacular component of the drama that Aristotle thought 'the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry', (23) sometimes issued in strong coups de theatre. In King Henry the Sixth Part III, for example, he writes a verbal dance for the king's speech on happiness, all anaphoric curtsies and parisonic bows--'So many hours must I tend my flock; |So many hours must I take my rest; So many hours must I contemplate' (II. 5. 31-33)--and then compounds these patterns in tableaux of patterned formality. The shapeless chaos of the Civil War thus resolves into a stark, antimeric design, enriched with the images of the Mater Dolorosa and the Pieta: Enter a Son that hath kill'd his Father, with the body in his arms; Enter a Father that hath kill'd his Son, with the body in his arms. As M. C. Bradbrook observes, 'King Henry is fixed in a pose of Sorrow: the father and the son are "supporters" who uphold the heraldic device.' (24)

The reverse ekphrases that result from these tableaux vivants, translating and adapting cultural images as they do, are paralleled by other ekphrastic elements in the Elizabethan drama. An actor in the role of Oberon could magic-lantern the woods of Athens onto its spare, blank stage simply by describing them, and such events as the death of Ophelia, which otherwise defied a plausible staging, could be relayed to the audience as the messenger had relayed the unplayable in classical drama. And just as, in the classical drama, the function of the messenger could be supplemented with tableaux 'displayed on a wheeled platform' (25)--precursor of the Tudor 'discovery space'--so too Tudor scenic placards paralleled the Athenian periaktoi, 'triangular prisms which could be rotated to indicate symbolically a change of scene by means of a painted tree, a column, or waves' (A Concise History of the Theatre, p. 22). The dumbshow offered another way of converting text into visuals. While Harold Jenkins notes that the one in Hamlet is peculiar in rehearsing 'without dialogue what is then repeated with it', such 'give-aways' are by no means unprecedented on the Tudor stage. Before the nineteenth century (when the complex stories of the Victorian novel challenged the theatre to match their cliff-hangings and involutions), the fable of a play was often something known in advance, allowing playwrights to redirect their focus from the 'what' to the 'how'.

We know that while the 'myths of [Greek] tragedy are the stories of ancient history, and were quite certainly believed in as literally true', the 'tragic poets took considerable liberties with [them]', and were 'probably allowed to do what they liked provided that the details they altered were not generally known'. (26) This also describes Shakespeare's handling of his source materials, and accounts for the fact that in Romeo and Juliet he uses the prologue to blueprint the action, with an effect comparable, avant la lettre, to the way the inane Diabelli valse prepares us for the massive act of construction in Beethoven's 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli Op. 120:</p>

<pre> From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life Whose misadventur'd piteous overthrows Doth with their death bury their parents' strife. (Prologue, ll. 5-8) </pre> <p>The very flatness of this precis, as in the case of the Diabelli valse, helps sensitize the audience to the rich ways in which it will be elaborated. By deflating in advance the oppressive and distracting excitement of 'what happens next?', Shakespeare settles his playgoers, and also enhances the fatality of the plot, giving it something of the tense, unalterable ananke of the Greek myths.

And just as the Attic dramatists repeatedly turned to those myths for their fables, so, with the onset of the Romantic revolution, did choreographers and composers start raiding the plays of Shakespeare as he took his place alongside such writers as Cervantes, Scott, and Goethe. Marguerite and Faust, Don Quixote and Dulcinea, Lucy of Lammermoor and Lord Ravenswood, and Romeo and Juliet (the latter derived as often from Bandello as from Shakespeare) began to edge the Telemaques and Psyches from the lyric stage as the nineteenth century unfolded. The translation of authors outside the neoclassical canon appealed to the new taste for rule-free sublimity, though this sublimity sometimes foundered when cultural borders were crossed. Gounod's Faust went down well enough in France and England, but the Germans, conscious of the work's inadequacy in relation to its source, preferred to call it Marguerite. By the same token, an English opera-goer approaching Ambroise Thomas's Le Songe d'une nuit d'ete would probably have been outraged by its bizarre libretto: 'Queen Elizabeth attempts to reform a drunken Shakespeare, orders Falstaff to take him away and sober him up, and becomes the object of the dramatist's amorous advances'; (27) and when, in 1869, the same composer staged his operatic translation of Hamlet at Covent Garden, he had to rewrite its final bars 'because it was felt that the British might not tolerate a version of the most famous of all tragedies in the English language with a "happy" ending'. (28) The Romantic quest for the sublime in Shakespeare was also compromised by aspects of its musical idiom, for its composers began to infect the international language of classicism with regionalist dialects, and allowed, inter alia, the 'popolaresco' of the Neapolitan street song to access the Italian opera house.

The bathos that sometimes resulted from the confluence of the popular influences with the 'sublime' can be witnessed in Verdi's Macbeth, in which Duncan enters the chamber of death to an unnervingly jaunty march, and Lady Macbeth entertains the thanes with an equally perky brindisi. One imagines that the balletic translations of Shakespeare during the Romantic era were similarly crippled by the quality of their scores. A Macbeth staged at the King's Theatre in 1785, to a score by Locke, was probably as much disfigured by music as by its inept mise en scene:

In its original form, however, it contained several unfortunate passages. Spectres appearing to Macbeth and chanting in an Italian accent, 'Macabet! Macabet!' had been greeted by shouts of laughter, and the effect both of the appearance of Banquo's ghost and of the plotting of Duncan's murder had been spoilt by ill timing. (29)

In this instance, the trans-formal translation came to grief--as Thomas's comic Hamlet might likewise have done--on the audience's thorough knowledge of the original, a knowledge that also made for the hyper-critical reception of Gounod's Faust in Germany. The fastidiously musical members of that audience would also have sensed that Locke's musical gift, whatever it was, could not begin to match the dramatist's text.

Even so, whatever the dangers of assaying a writer as complex and richly verbal as Shakespeare by dancing his plays to paltry music, a handful of his tragedies and comedies had, by the turn of the eighteenth century, acquired a currency in Europe akin to that which the myths of Greece had enjoyed in Athens. Romeo and Juliet, not least because Bandello-based works such as Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi had given it additional popularity, figured in this handful, and it is not surprising that, in the late 1930s, the Soviet choreographer Leonid Lavrovsky decided to choreograph it in preference to all the others. By the time it premiered in 1941, the ballet d'action had undergone many changes. Noverre, when he forged a link between dance and history painting, had 'wanted nothing less than the complete reform of a ballet that had become a mere display of technical virtuosity; "mechanical" dancing was to be replaced by "dramatic" dancing'. (30) But his ballet d'action was not so much a new departure as a recovery of a lost Roman form, for the danced, spoken, and sung components of the drama had, throughout their long history, undergone many fissions and refusions, as, for example, when 'two developments occurred [to the solo or dialogue mime with musical accompaniment of ancient Rome]. The topical, coarse, farcical mime became semi-literary. [...] The second development was a new form of dancing, with scenes in dumb show, and singing by a chorus. This was the "pantomime".' (31)

However, no matter whether it occurred in the classical world or in eighteenth-century France, the conscription of non-signifying dance movement to dramatic action proved to be problematic. Noverre might, by his own admission, have been 'sick to death of passe-pieds and minuets' (A Concise History of Ballet, p. 60), but the fact that these abstract patterns of movement existed at all proved that dance, like music, had an 'absolute' vocabulary that could only occasionally be enlisted to programmatic ends. In musical language, for example, a diminished seventh can be both an image of terror (because it comprises an irresolute pile of minor thirds) and, without any implication of terror at all, a useful tool for modulation, given its ability to resolve in a number of different tonal directions. By the same token an entrechat in ballet (the criss-crossing of the calves in a vertical jump) can convey elation, or it can register ('unsemantically') as a lacing pattern in its own right. There is no stark either/or in such cases, as Noverre's successors were soon forced to admit. For while ballet steps can both 'mean' and 'be'--to adapt Archibald MacLeish's aphorism ('A poem should not mean But be') (32)--they tend to 'be' more often than they mean. Suzanne Langer has observed how

dance that begins in pantomime, as many religious dances do, tends in the course of its subsequent history to become more balletic, not more dramatic. Pantomime, like pure motion patterns, plastic images, and musical forms, is dance material, something that may become a balletic element, but the dance itself is something else. (33)

The ballet d'action resolves into its primary elements of absolute, self-arming significance and occasional 'outward' signification, and throughout the nineteenth century an apartheid obtained between its dramatic and danced episodes, even though Noverre's theory had nominally married them. In the extract below, Anthony Asquith, writing as a director of ballet .lms, takes the Noverrian maxims on trust, but seems to acknowledge their theoretical remove from practice as soon as he separates 'the story' from a vague, generalized lyricism:

Noverre insisted that dance should never be mere display, but should always be the illustration or summing up of the state of mind or mood of the characters concerned. The mime and the dancing variations were intimately related, much as the action and the chorus are related in a Greek play. The mime told us the story and sketched the characters for us, the pas seuls, ensembles, etc., gave us the emotional implications in generalized lyrical terms. (34)

The chorus in Greek tragedy might have generalized, but it always generalized to the point; whereas the solos of the nineteenth-century ballet d'action remained the unregenerate heirs of the passepieds and minuets for which Noverre had expressed his contempt. In the 1895 version of Swan Lake, for example, Odette encountered Siegfriedi at the start of Act ii, and told him through a set of discrete mimic gestures that the lake [swimming movement] by which they were standing [gesture of indication] had been created by tears [fingers drawn down from the lower eyelids down the cheeks], and so on. Then, her finger narrative over, she danced a pas de deux with him, full of 'non-meaning' arabesques and pirouettes that, even so, and every so often, flared into significance (of a purely metaphoric kind) as they evoked the flurry of droplets off a swan's feathers, or the arching line of its neck. Such pirouettes and arabesques were and are the linear heirs of passepieds and minuets, and represent ballet's academic inheritance, based on the deportment and posture of Louis XIV's court.

Some twentieth-century choreographers were content to work with this vocabulary, and its seventeenth-century codification of courtly movement into five positions that forced a stylized parallelism upon the feet. Bronislava Nijinska, sister of the famous Nijinsky, was one:

Caryl Brahms insisted upon the close links Nijinska maintained with academic technique, stressing that the charm of the enchainements lay in her use of conventional classroom steps and exercises to depict a wide range of emotion. As an example, she cites the moment when the princess [in Les Cent Baisers] is finally banished from her palace--'her despair is caught and expressed in a single slow extended rond de jambe tendu--one of the loveliest crystallizations of situation within pas that the ballet can boast'. (35)

In the case of this rond de jambe tendu, an image of human listlessness is extracted From the otherwise 'unmeaning' circle described by the dancer's pointed foot on the ground, though such circles obviously derived from Louis XIV's sense of himself as the fons et origo of order, and could just as readily project regal confidence and ease.

In contrast with Nijinska, however, other choreographers rejected a ballet d'action in which mime was disjoined from classical steps, or only occasionally overlapped with them. Among these was Mikhail Fokine, who, like Noverre, tried to reinvent the narrative dance. He did so by scrapping the apparatus of digital mime with airs parlants and the independent steps of the classroom that went with them, and substituting an expressive plastique that, because it reduced the range of signifiers, returned ballet to the simplified gestural language of history painting. Lavrovsky, assaying a ballet on Romeo and Juliet in 1941, did so as Fokine's heir, and he inherited some of Fokine's failings at the same time. For once the academic dance is diluted, and its patterns compromised, we enter a kinetic no man's land. Avoiding the linear complexity of passepieds and minuets and the absolute dance language that they spawned, Fokine's most typical choreography embraces a broader, blunter kind of movement that ultimately falls within the range of any physically graceful actor. What is important, however, is that Lavrovsky, no matter what the deficiencies of his own plastic language, commissioned a valuable score from Serge Prokofiev, inspiring the composer with the dynamic and purposeful scenario he had derived from the play.

It is easy to see why Lavrovsky's choice fell on Romeo and Juliet, for of all the Shakespearian tragedies, it is the best suited to ballet, not least because of its unstoppable momentum:

The friar coming to this death-scene, comes a moment too late. Juliet wakes from her trance a moment too late. Theirs are the only delays in this drama of fever, in which everybody hurries so that he stumbles. Their delays are atoned of an instant later, his by his too great haste to be gone, she [sic] by her thirst for death. The men of the watch come too late to save her. The parents learn too late that they have been blind. They have to clasp hands over dead bodies, that have missed of life through their hurry to seize it.(36)

A narrative ballet needs this kind of forward motion. A choreographer could conceivably translate an anti-play like Waiting for Godot into dance, but it would likewise issue in an anti-ballet. Dance scenarios predicated on stasis fail for the reasons Fokine's Narcissus and Echo failed:

Generally speaking, the performance of Narcisse proved to be a beautiful and noble spectacle, but it was not a great success. The reason, I think, was that the subject is entirely unsuitable for a ballet. The two characters are the most static in Greek mythology--Echo is imprisoned in her cave and Narcissus is immobilised in the contemplation of his own beauty. I remember how difficult it was for Fokine to get some variety into Narcissus's interminable 'choreographic soliloquy' in front of his own reflection; [...](37)

Romeo and Juliet, by contrast, comprises a run of swift, intelligible incidents, and has the additional advantage of handling its large emotions and precipitate shifts without undue irony (if we leave aside Mercutio's jester-like scherzos). Such a scenario of love, anger, hatred, and sorrow, largely unshaded, is tailor-made for the post-Fokine ballet d'action. No need for finger language and airs parlants when a duel is self-evidently a duel, and when, like Hunt, we 'get a general impression that there is love going on' as passionate embraces unfold to a twentieth-century paraphrase of Tchaikovskian cantilena (Prokofiev half-recalls his predecessor's Fantasy-Overture at this point). For just as the play's evolving conflicts are easily externalized in movement, so too are its moments of rapturous stasis. Take the sonnets that Shakespeare embedded in the blank verse of the Capulet feast, and which dictate the port de bras for any choreographer choosing to develop the palm-to-palm palmer conceit (as Frank Staff did in his version of the ballet). These moments of contemplative amplitude, which balance conceit upon conceit in a delicate, mannered architecture, are none the less passionate for their verbal niceties, and are well served by the broad melodic idiom into which Prokofiev translates them.

Besides these benefits of rapid external action with lyrical pausing points, Romeo and Juliet has the advantage of a 'mythic' plot, known to all. This allowed choreographers additional room to manoeuvre. Lavrovsky, writing for audiences in Leningrad, tried to keep some crucial details of the narrative in focus; Macmillan, presenting his version in London, had licence to cut narrative corners, and assumed much more than Galeotti could when he signposted his Romeo og Giulietta for a Danish audience in 1811. Robert Greskovic has pointed out that although 'Shakespeare's play and Lavrovsky's staging indicate that attempts to inform Romeo of Juliet's feigned death are foiled, MacMillan's staging makes no asides to demonstrate this. We must read in the program notes that Romeo has failed to receive a message from the friar regarding the staged death.' (38) Thus do we come full circle to Noverre's printed libretti.

It is to this Macmillan staging that I shall finally turn to consolidate the general points I have been making in this article. It goes without saying that English-speaking audiences will approach the work as a reversed ekphrasis, a turning-back of words into dynamic images, using the play as a narrative crutch in the absence of words, but also conscious of its presence as a Banquo's ghost at the feast, arraigning the weaknesses of the trans-formal translation or endorsing the success with which patterned verse inspires the patterned movement of the pas de deux. The lovers' elaborate conceits find an analogue in the language of 'academic' ballet, a language both dynamic (like the effort behind a conceit) and static--each apparently dynamic step is a complex of regulated 'freeze frames'--static in a way that recalls the contemplative pauses that conceits impose upon the progress of a play. And just as conceits, in Helen Gardner's account of their mechanism, end up as 'just two stones', so the quivering pirouettes and tentative arabesques of Juliet, having momentarily seemed to mean, resolve into nothing more than the abstract linear moments through which the art of ballet subsists. The 'meaning' of the work is therefore akin to the 'meaning' of a programmatic symphony. Occasionally the choreography will make contact with the play at the level of physical translation--the clash of foils over the fight music; then, at a rudimentary level of abstraction above that, the mimetic anger of Escalus when he imposes his ban on brawls. It is true that he does not shake his fist in the air as he would in the finger language of pre-Fokine ballet, but he does strike 'meaningful' postures in the manner of a history painting on one hand, and of the chromatic 'Gewitter' in Beethoven's 'Pastoral Symphony' on the other. Finally, at the level of analogous signification, Romeo and Juliet, instead of trading rapturous conceits, turn their very bodies into patterns of self-elaboration when they dance their pas de deux.

The footwear in Macmillan's ballet offers a guide to these levels of signification. Only Juliet and her friends have the ability to rise on pointe, and only Romeo and his friends wear the soft slippers necessary for the execution of the 'academic' dance. The rest of the Veronese sport hard-soled, heeled shoes. From its beginnings in the neo-classical milieu of the Academie royale de danse, ballet showed a marked consciousness of decorum, of the different kinds of physique among human beings and their different modes of movement. This led to the sujets' of the Academie royale de musique (which became the powerhouse behind the evolution of ballet) being graded into three genres: the noble, the demi-caractere, and the comique. The same categories apply to Macmillan's Romeo and Juliet two centuries later.

Romeo and Juliet, shod as they are, can command the entire vocabulary of ballet--the abstract patterns of bending, stretching, rising, jumping, darting, gliding, and turning subsumed by its code of plier, etendre, relever, sauter, elancer, glisser et tourner. Their 'nobility'--which is to say, their capacity to dance the 'noble' genre--receives additional endorsement through the silence with which they land after jumping. Contrast the mysteriousness of their satin and soft leather with peasanty clatter that the other Veronese make on the stage. They also walk in a distinctive way that celebrates their otherness by turning out their bodies from the hips. We see this in the scene that introduces Paris to Juliet. Up till now the choreographer has had her leap and skitter about on her pointes to image her youthful abandon. When her parents tell her to embrace a woman's estate, she takes the armof Paris and executes the pas marche, in which the 'dancer walks in a stylised manner, forcing the feet in front, and bringing each foot out to the side as it passes the other: a relic of the days when noblemen wore elaborate high boots, making it dicult to pass the legs close together'. (39)

The different footwear implies different kinds of movement, and Macmillan gives to his hard-shoed dancers the demi-caractere idiom, one that has passed the vocabulary of the folk dance through a balletic filter. This mode, by virtue of its peasant connections, is racier and noisier than the pure academic style, which strove initially for social exaltation, and then, as Romanticism came into being, for spiritual exaltation too. In the nineteenth century, balletic nobility was redefined from 'lady'-hood to sylph-hood, and the demi-caractere became the medium of mortals. A further idiom subtends both these modes in the ballet comique. It is simply the movement of ordinary human beings about their ordinary tasks. At the start of the ballet townswomen are sweeping the piazza with brooms, and do so 'naturally'. But then, as if slowly to acclimatize us to the different layers of dance texture (and therefore of signification), the choreographer fades up little snatches of dance into those prosaic movements effecting a transition from the natural to the stylized.

In this grading of three distinct kinetic textures, Macmillan has been helped by the score, which differentiates its musical textures along similar lines--scribbly, five-finger exercise figurations for the mindless violence of the brawls, and lyrical exaltation for the pas de deux, which is where the trans-formality of the translation comes into its own. However, we make specious claims for Macmillan's achievement if we give him credit for the translative details that any director of the play could devise in the legitimate theatre:

As always with Macmillan there is an under-pinning of psychological understanding that inspires the intense revelations of the choreography; Juliet when she is taking the sleeping draught curls in foetal position on the bed; awakening in the tomb her hand moves across the bier as if searching for Romeo's body in bed. (40)

These are not the 'revelations of the choreography' but rather revelations of the mise en scene, and therefore not peculiar to the medium. And there are several episodes in the ballet in which the formal translation crudifies instead of illuminating the text. Mercutio sends 'hexlike gestures in the direction of both Tybalt and Romeo--making physical Shakespeare's "a plague on both your houses"' (Ballet: A Complete Guide, p. 456). Macmillan has melodramatized the character's gesture of supreme indifference into the mimic language that the post-Fokine ballet d'action, having renounced the finger language of the nineteenth century, borrowed from the evolving silent cinema. Here, as when the Prince of Verona stamps about in silent displeasure, one has an aching sense of the absence of words. But when Romeo and Juliet dance their love in a language of leaps and bounds and postures as unreal and as exquisitely mannered as the conceits that vector their passion in the original text, we make our transformal cross-references and smile our approval, conscious, like the deus artifex, that we have seen that they are good.

(1) Horace, The Odes of Horace, trans. by James Michie (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), p. 17.

(2) Horace, The Odes and Epodes, trans. by C. E. Bennett (London: Heinemann, 1968), p. 3.

(3) Ngugi wa Thiong'o, A Grain of Wheat (London: Heinemann, 1967), p. 3.

(4) Horace, Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica, trans. by H. Rushton Fairclough (London: Heinemann, 1970), p. 408.

(5) Alexander Pope, The Poems of Alexander Pope: A One-Volume Edition of the Twickenham Text with Selected Annotations, ed. by John Butt (London: Methuen, 1963), p. 644.

(6) Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets (1779-81), 2 vols (London: Dent, 1925), i, 11.

(7)Helen Gardner, 'Introduction', in The Penguin Book of Metaphysical Verse, ed. by Helen Gardner (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957), pp. 15-29 (p. 19).

(8) Percy A. Scholes, The Oxford Companion to Music (1938), rev. and ed. by John Owen Ward (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 279.

(9) Quoted in Gerald Abraham, 'Operas and Incidental Music', in Tchaikovsky: A Symposium, ed. by Gerald Abraham (London: Drummond, 1945), p. 128.

(10) Ivor Guest, The Dancer's Heritage: A Short History of Ballet (1960), rev. edn (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), p. 36.

(11) Quoted in Derek Lynham, The ChevalierNoverre: Father of Modern Ballet (London: Dance Books, 1972), p. 131.

(12) V. Svetloff, Anna Pavlova, trans. by A. Grey (1922) (New York: Dover, 1974), p. 35.

(13) Dante, The Divine Comedy, trans. by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds, 3 vols (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1949-62), iii (1962), 66.

(14) W. A. Mozart, Don Giovanni: Dramma giocoso in Zwei Aufzugen. Text von Lorenzo da Ponte, Deutsch von Franz Grandaur. KV 527. Nach dem Autograph revidiert und mit Einfuhrung versehen von Alfred Einstein (Leipzig: Peters, n.d.), pp. 98-99.

(15) Balanchine's Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, ed. by George Balanchine and Francis Mason (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954), p. 550.

(16) Anita Brookner, Jacques-Louis David (London: Chatto and Windus, 1980), p. 72.

(17) Ivor Guest, Ballet under Napoleon (Alton: Dance Books, 2002), p. 28.

(18) Leigh Hunt, Leigh Hunt's Dramatic Criticism, ed. by Lawrence Huston Houtchens and Carolyn Washburn Houtchens (1949) (New York: Octagon Books, 1977), p. 244.

(19) August Bournonville, My Theatre Life, trans. by Patricia N. MacAndrew, intro. by Svend Kragh-Jacobsen (London: Black, 1979), p. 642.

(20) Minor Elizabethan Drama, intro. by Ashley Thorndike, 2 vols (London: Dent, 1958), II, 229.

(21) William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Harold Jenkins (London: Methuen, 1982), p. 501.

(22) Roland Mushat Frye, Shakespeare: The Art of the Dramatist (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982), p. 46.

(23) Aristotle, Aristotle's Poetics, trans. by S. H. Butcher, intro. by Francis Fergusson (New York: Hill and Wang, 1961), p. 64.

(24) M. C. Bradbrook, Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry (1951) (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), p. 115.

(25) Phyllis Hartnoll, A Concise History of the Theatre (London: Thames and Hudson, 1968), p. 22.

(26) Leo Aylen, Greek Tragedy and the Modern World (London: Methuen, 1964), p. 32.

(27) James Harding, booklet for Carnaval! French Coloratura Arias (London: Decca 440 679-2, 1994), p. 4.

(28) Elizabeth Forbes, booklet for Ambroise Thomas, Hamlet (London: EMI CDS 7 54820 2, 1993), p. 26.

(29) Ivor Guest, The Romantic Ballet in England (London: Phoenix, 1954), p. 19.

(30) Ferdinando Reyna, A Concise History of Ballet (London: Thames and Hudson, 1965), p. 61.

(31) Michael Grant, Roman Literature (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954), p. 22.

(32) The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. by Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stall-worthy (New York: Norton, 1996), p. 1271.

(33) Suzanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art Developed from Philosophy in a New Key (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953), p. 173.

(34) Anthony Asquith, 'Ballet and the Film', in Footnotes to the Ballet: A Book for Balletomanes, ed. by Caryl Brahms (London: Peter Davies, 1936), pp. 231-52 (p. 233).

(35) Kathrine Sorley Walker, De Basil's Ballets Russes (London: Hutchinson, 1982), pp. 56-57.

(36) John Masefield, William Shakespeare (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1911), p. 72.

(37) Alexandre Benois, Reminiscences of the Russian Ballet, trans. by Mary Britnieva (London: Putnam, 1941), p. 341.

(38) Robert Greskovic, Ballet: A Complete Guide (London: Hale, 1998), p. 463.

(39) Leo Kersley and Janet Sinclair, A Dictionary of Ballet Terms (London: Black, 1952), p. 85.

(40)Peter Brinson and Clement Crisp, Ballet for All: A Guide to One Hundred Ballets (London: Pan, 1970), p. 183.


University of Cape Town
COPYRIGHT 2006 Modern Humanities Research Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Previous Article:Between heaven and hell: Shakespearian translation, adaptation, and criticism from a historical perspective.
Next Article:Reflections in Shakespeare translation.

Related Articles
`Romeo' through the ages. (Attitudes).
Adieu Amanda.
Ballet West. .
Here's to 20 more!
Romeo and Juliet for NYCB's next generation.
Redoing Romeo: Mark Morris take on the ballet classic, but with his own spin.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |