The Cray Cray History of Ballet

Le roi danse
Le roi danse
Le roi danse

As a result of my triple-threat academic training in choreography, arts administration and dancerly mathematics, a field of study I apparently invented, I am often called upon to lecture on some of the more obscure arcana of dance history. I have given talks on the subject of racial quotas in early American modern dance companies, graphed the quantity of ballerinas set on fire by stage lighting from 1650 to 2000, and given presentations on the dance historical origins of your favorite MTV music videos. (Were you aware that the video for Queen’s hit song, “I Want to Break Free” was inspired by Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faune? Now you know.) Dance history is so genuinely, deeply and pervasively bizarre that I play a game for extra credit with my students called “Spot the One Thing That Sydney Made Up,” wherein they try to discern the single, deliberate fabrication I’ve inserted amidst a litany of 100% true facts. Suffice to say, they’re frequently unable to tell the difference between real dance history and improvised professorial bloviating.

Ballet history is frequently dismissed as a dull area of study, which is odd, given that it starts with Catherine de Medici who was as famous for her rumored baby eating and the murder of more than 6,000 Protestants as she was for being the foremother of the Western dance tradition. During her time in the French court, she hired Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx to elaborate create court dances to celebrate such notable occurrences as when Polish people came to visit (Ballet de Polonais, in 1573) and when her son Henry’s buddy got married (Ballet Comique 
de la Reine Louise, in 1581). These dances, which largely consisted of courtiers walking and posing in shapes of numerological significance (consulted on by none other than Nostradamus) are considered vital precursors to what is contemporarily known as “ballet.”

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As was the custom at the time, French courtiers had a great deal of unprotected sex with each other, eventually culminating in the conception and birth of King Louis XIV. Known for being a distant cousin of Brooke Shields and for his contribution to the invention of the “royally curved scalpel” (which was used to remove his royal anal fistula without anaesthetic), Louis XIV was also an important supporter of the young art of ballet. His hiring of Molière (who died horrifically of a lung hemorrhage while acting the title role of The Imaginary Invalid, cementing himself as the father of what came to be known as “irony”) and Jean-Baptiste Lully (who died horrifically of gangrene after stabbing himself in his own foot with a baton while conducting a piece commemorating Louis XIV’s successful butt surgery) cohered the aesthetics, narrative practices and generally fakakda nature of Western dance history.

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The French court remained a hotbed of balletic activity for decades to come, arguably reaching its apogee under the reign of Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, known for their erectile dysfunction and wigs re-enacting famous naval battles, respectively. Just two weeks before the storming of the Bastille, a former dancer of Antoinette’s named Jean Dauberval choreographed his masterwork, La Fille Mal Gardée (1789), which features an extended divertissement of farm chickens dancing, and is widely understood to be the origin of the Western tradition of the “Chicken Dance.” The ballet catalyzed imitations throughout dance history from such figures as Frederick Ashton, Alicia Alonso and Walt Disney. Commercially, artistically and aesthetically, the “Chicken Dance” (and ensuing generations of zoophilic dances such as Swan Lake) is the Bourbon dynasty’s most lasting gift.

Some 50 years after the danse de poulet d’ancien régime (I’m indebted to xenoarchaeologist and scholar Kevin Clark for this phrasing), we observe the natural transition in the balletic imagination from dancing chickens to sexy vampires. Guided by the fervid hand of Théophile Gautier (author of such short stories as 1836’s “La Morte Amoureuse,” in which a priest falls in love with a sexy lady vampire and which arguably spawned the genre of sexy tween vampire lit) composed a ballet libretto wherein an innocent peasant girl named Giselle falls in love with a dilettante nobleman in peasant drag, but who eventually discovers his secret, goes bat-shit crazy and kills herself. Giselle becomes a “willi” which, per Heinrich Heine, are the spirits of virgin girls who die before they get married, and subsequently enjoy such pastimes as dancing naked and sucking the blood of young men. As you do. But unlike your ordinary, sexually frustrated, bloodsucking, angry, virgin vampire, Giselle is a good girl that doesn’t hate men, and subsequently saves her crush from a dance to the death at the hands of the unreasonably misandrist willis.

Ballet thus has a complicated relationship with women. The most renowned ballet choreographer of the last century (and husband to Tamara Geva, and then to Alexandra Danilova, and then to Vera Zorina, and then to Maria Tallchief and then to Tanaquil LeClercq) was George Balanchine. His work, which drew extensively on French aristocratic tradition, fostered a balletic vocabulary that was at once abstract and gently nudged his dancers to do cocaine. (That Balanchine was the inspiration for Robin Thicke’s music video for “Blurred Lines,” which features scantily clad women holding taxidermied farm animals, is perhaps thematically apropos on multiple levels.) Near the end of his life, it’s said that Balanchine choreographed his own death in one of his last works, Davidsbündlertänze, which is odd, given that the dance ends with a man’s slow walk off stage, and not with a slow death by bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) likely due to faulty Swiss virility enhancement serums derived from bull testicles.

The history of ballet is as nutty as the creators of ballets themselves, which is saying something. Prima Ballerina Assoluta Margot Fonteyn married an arms dealer, was implicated in an attempt to overthrow the government of Panama, and wrote the introduction to a book titled, Wushu! The Chinese Way to Family Health and Fitness. Tchaikovsky fell in love with ballet upon viewing Giselle, crossdressed as his favorite ballerinas alongside his own brother and Camille Saint-Saëns (composer of Le Carnaval des Animaux and most famously, The Swan), complained about his “damned buggeromania” and was inspired to compose Swan Lake after visiting Neuschwanstein (“New Swan Stone”) Castle, which was built by the insane, flamboyantly gay and swan-obsessed Bavarian King Ludwig II. The Russian poet and foot fetishist Alexander Pushkin was so infatuated with the Russian ballerina Avdotia Istomina that he wrote her into Eugene Onegin and doodled pictures of her impossibly tapered feet amidst flying swans.

There is nothing normal about ballet. It is an odd, queer and thoroughly politically incorrect field of study, but arguably no less odd, queer and thoroughly politically incorrect than our present moment in dance history. (Were you aware that Natalie Portman’s née Hershlag and current Artistic Director of the Opéra National de Paris, Benjamin Millepied, named their son Aleph — a prominently featured title in the apocalyptic writings of Nostradamus and kabbalistic numerology? Now you know.) In honor of April Fools Day, let’s all embrace that ballet history is weird, and celebrate that the facts of ballet’s fictions are indistinguishable from fictional balletic facts.