Harlequinade

Saw this ballet for the first time on January 19th of this year at OC’s Segerstrom Center … and was unexpectedly sparked to write about it.

Fashioned on a mock tale of romance, greed, foolishness and mischief, this ballet brings us into the bygone era of comedic theatre accompanied by music and stylised dance.

With the character of a court Jester in the lead, we are invited to travel into the realm of the magical and mystical where all is possible.

The unlikely hero is not only colorful in costume, but reveals the tone of this production, which is painted if not saturated with humor, satire, and whimsicality.

Harlequin costume sketch by Robert Perdziola for American Ballet Theatre’s Harlequinade (2017)
Legendary dancers Anna Pavlova and Mikhail Fokine as attendants of Harlequin and Columbine’s wedding (circa 1900)
Marius Ivanovich Petipa (1818-1910)

The Jester as well as other roles in this ballet are modeled after stage archetypes seen in the beginnings of professional Italian theatre, called Commedia dell’arte, no doubt serving as the palette for the creative genius of Marius Petipa, who originally choreographed the ballet in 1900.

Anna Pavlova as Columbine and the Mikhail Fokine as Harlequin in the "Sérénade" scene choreographed by Marius Petipa to music by Riccardo Drigos in Harlequinade (circa 1902)
Robert Perdziola (circa 1980's)

The costuming is exquisitely executed by uber-talented Robert Perdziola who has been creating costumes and set design for over three decades – and this guy gets around! Case in point, Perdziola designed the sets and costumes for the Finnish National Ballet’s Alice in Wonderland (2016 premiere).

Card Lady costume sketch by Robert Perdziola for American Ballet Theatre’s Harlequinade (2017)
Card Man costume sketch by Robert Perdziola for American Ballet Theatre’s Harlequinade (2017)

But why am I really inspired to write about this ballet?

A Higher Beauty

Apart from the more obvious facets including the remarkable craftsmanship of costuming, set design, storytelling and choreography – the latter having been profoundly described as the art of giving physical form to music – apart from all this, I am astounded by yet another composition showcasing an artform that in itself is an instrument for elevating the consciousness of mankind.

A ballet production integrates in itself the highest artforms, with music and classical dance at its core.

The artform of classical dance (aka, ballet) is by definition an artform of highest integrity, as it requires its practitioner to integrate all the separate parts of the body into one harmonious, working unit, a unit which becomes an instrument capable of channeling and thereby physically expressing higher beauty.

Larks flying in Harlequinade; photo by Marty Sohl (?) for American Ballet Theatre (2018)

Higher beauty, is in turn evoked through the harmony of working parts acting as one unified whole.

young dancers posing in a bow for Harlequinade 2018 premiere; photo by Rosalie O’Connor for ABT

Bringing it back to the performance, what caught my eye most was the children’s numbers in Harlequinade.

It is an exceptional sight to see some-30 youngsters on a stage in an organized, uniform manner, each member holding his or her own, whilst contributing to the beautiful aesthetic exuded by the group.

This was seeing the integrity of ballet on a collective scale and beyond words.

Resurrection

As our in-the-know ballet lecturer Elizabeth Kaye informed us, we were about to see the revival of a classic masterpiece with its face-lift from none other than ABT’s artist-in-residence and today’s IT-boy choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky.

It is no small task to preserve the integrity of the original whilst filling in the holes and gaps lost in time and giving it new life. Thus Ms. Kaye revealed to us before the show that Alexei Ratmansky and his wife devoted a great amount of time to meticulously combing through Petipa’s original notes in an effort to keep the master’s work in tact amidst the restoration process.

the Larks in Harlequinade; photo by Marty Sohl for American Ballet Theatre (2018)

The notably accomplished choreographer, artistic director, former Bolshoi principal dancer and good friend of George Balanchine, Pyotr Andreyevich Gusev teaches at Novosibirsk Theater (circa 1960s—70s)

Ratmansky is not the first to restage this classic work.

Once again our dear ballet friend Anna comes through, sending a commentary by a distinguished ballet figure who shines some light on the subject!

In his article, Preserving Masterpieces of the Past (from the Journal of Soviet Ballet, 1983, №4), the Ballet Master Pyotr Gusev tells us that Harlequinade fell out of the Mariinsky/ Kirov Theatre repertoire in 1923, with its first reconstruction some 38 years later in 1961 for the Novosibirsk Theatre.

The 1963 debut planned at Novosibirsk never took place, and three years later work resumed on the project.

“The restoration of a ballet production or its choreography – is always a collective project,” Gusev emphasizes.

The Ballet Master recounts how in 1961, the oldest surviving performer in the main role of Harlequin, B. Shavrov, headed up a large group of veteran dancers, gathering old performers from every role all the way to the corps de ballet (with the exception of Lèandre, as no living dancers of this role remained).  In 1963, Shavrov finished compiling all the materials, but as mentioned the production did not take place.

In evidence to the complexity of the process, Gusev also mentions that the stage settings or “tableaus”, were only partially recovered and more difficult to restore than the choreography.

In 1975, after further remastery, the ballet was relocated to the Leningrad Maly (Small) Theatre of Opera & Ballet, aka, Mikhailovsky Theatre where it continued its rehab process.

Pyotr Andreyevich Gusev with highly regarded and influential ballet teacher Alisa Vasilevna Nikiforov at Novosibirsk Theatre (circa 1960s—70s)
Harlequinade “commedia characters in miniature form” as the dance writer Gay Morris aptly puts it; photo by Rosalie O’Connor for American Ballet Theatre (2018)

Surviving an arduous transformative journey Harlequinade retains the essence of its identity, delighting audiences anew while connecting past and present as only the thread of timeless art can do.

til next time!

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