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5 - Real Pantomime-Ballets: The Choreographic Conventions of 1890s Music-Hall Ballet

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 June 2021

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Summary

It's a ballet, a real ballet worthy of the Opéra itself and not only a divertissement mixed with dances that the Folies-Bergère has given us yesterday evening, with exquisite music by Varney… . One need not be a particularly clever prophet to predict a great success for this new work, La Princesse Idaea, which will bring all of Paris running to M. Marchand's music hall.

Blavet may have been somewhat carried away in his enthusiasm for the Folies- Bergère's latest première. La Princesse Idaea received mostly lukewarm reviews and merely average box-office earnings. Yet his declaration expressed a larger truth. By the 1890s, music-hall ballets were genuine pantomime-ballets that conveyed intricate narratives through mime, dance, and music. Indeed many of music-hall ballet's formal components recalled the genre's high-art counterpart. The two had the same large-scale structures, and they had similar scene and dance types. Both also relied for theatrical effect on a previous knowledge of dramatic, choreographic, and musical conventions. If one were to study only the conventions of 1890s music-hall pantomime-ballets, one might mistake many of these works for ballets produced by the Paris Opéra in the same years.

A Traditional Structure

The most obvious connection between music-hall and Opéra ballet was their structure. As the term implies, pantomime-ballet was a hybrid genre that combined pantomime and dance to tell a story. All pantomime-ballets staged by the Opéra in the nineteenth century had these two basic components, and while the proportions varied considerably, mime was at least as important as dance. In a study of Romantic ballet, Lisa Arkin and Marian Smith noted that “it is more accurate, in fact, to conceive of these ballets as mimed dramas that called for dancing from time to time.” Their observations may also be applied to pantomime-ballets staged at the Opéra a half-century later. Scores show that whereas dance considerably outweighed mime and action scenes in La Korrigane (1880) and La Maladetta (1893), the reverse was true in La tempête (1889). Les deux pigeons (1886) and L’étoile (1897) had a near balance of the two, with a slight emphasis on mime or action scenes and with most dances taking place in self-enclosed divertissements.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2015

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