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8 - The Stories of Music-Hall Ballet: Romance, Flirtations, and Other Pleasures

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 June 2021

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Summary

The appeal of music-hall ballets relied to a great extent on the stories they told. Although spectacle and glamour played an important role in music-hall ballet's popularity, the genre remained firmly rooted in the tradition of storytelling throughout its history. And the plots were fun. Most were light tales of love set in wondrous far-off lands filled with alluring women, or in glittering paradises both fantastical and Parisian. The genre was intended to be escapist entertainment, one of the intoxicating pleasures of the boulevard that helped fuel the legend of the Belle Époque.

While deeply enmeshed in the mores of fin-de-siècle Paris, music-hall ballets nevertheless remained aloof from social and political affairs. It is striking that during an era plagued by political turmoil, social unrest, and economic recessions, the authors of music-hall ballets pointedly ignored general strikes, bombings, riots, and fears of social decay. Instead they provided a reprieve from the onslaught of daily stress. In the music halls, history was mined only for colorful backdrops and costumes, social and political affairs served as fodder for comedies, and “contemporary” meant trendy places and pastimes and the latest fashions in dress. Music-hall ballets promoted pleasurable distractions, beautiful people and places, and gratified desires.

Story lines for the first pantomime-ballets staged by music halls in the late 1880s and early 1890s closely resembled the divertissements of the preceding two decades. These pantomime-ballets were longer and more complex than divertissements, but the two forms shared numerous stock themes, topics, settings, and character types. In the mid- to late 1890s, however, the range of ballet topics seen on the music-hall stage suddenly broadened. The halls continue to stage love stories, fairy tales, exotic fantasies, and pastoral sketches, but they also began to present lavish spectacles and parodies that drew on mythological and historical subjects. Ballets that made reference to contemporary places, people, and events—a type of ballet specific to the music halls that had been presented sporadically since the 1870s—also increased dramatically in the 1890s. As Hélène Laplace-Claverie observes in her study of French ballet librettos, the proliferation of subjects considered appropriate for choreographic interpretation was one of the most significant developments in ballet writing at the turn of the century.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2015

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