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Divertissements: And now for something completely different...

A look at the balletic trope of breaking narrative for dance showpieces.

By John Snelson (Commissioning Editor (Publications))

21 February 2014 at 11.39am | 1 Comment

There is a point in classical ballets where the story is suspended or just ends, and the focus moves from telling the story to the pleasure of dance for its own sake. Often this happens in the final act, as with The Sleeping Beauty, when fairytale characters come to the wedding of Prince Florimund and Princess Aurora and join in the celebrations. These are the divertissements.

Often divertissements are linked to a common idea. In The Sleeping Beauty, the fairytale theme gives rise to dances for such characters as Puss-in-Boots and the White Cat, Princess Florine and the Bluebird as well as Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. In The Nutcracker (which features some of the most famous of all ballet divertissements) the theme includes delicious treats in the guise of national dances, including Spanish (chocolate), Arabian (coffee) and Chinese (tea). In fact different national styles – at least, as classical ballet interprets them – are one of the most familiar linking ideas for sets of divertissements, and easily identified by their musical styles as well as their distinctive dance steps.

Contrasts of style are the very point of divertissements. The dance for Puss-in-Boots and the White Cat includes all the preening and ear-and-whisker stroking gestures to suggest the cat, while the pas de chat jumps inevitably make their mark. How different that all is from the more fluid and airborne feel of the divertissement for Princess Florine and the Bluebird. And the divertissement for Red Riding Hood has the Wolf stalking her, Red Riding Hood attempting to escape and finally being captured and carried off!

Most 19th-century ballets include divertissements. For example, in Coppélia, there are divertissements that allow the mechanical toys their individual spots, and in the last act the marriage of Swanilda and Franz leads to the expected celebrations in the form of a set of entertaining dance divertissements – ‘Prayer’ is possibly the most well-known of these.

Our expectation today is for a strong sense of continuous drama, and sometimes it can seem odd to us for the story to pause for divertissements. But in the 19th century ballets audiences revelled in those moments when the story gave way to dance as an enjoyment in itself – the dance was the main attraction and divertissements allowed for this.

But there were also practical considerations too with a ballet company that still have their place today. How do you allow all the well-known dancers to have a chance in the spotlight? They can’t all play the leads at every performance. And how do you give developing dancers the chance to raise their performance stakes? You can give them the chance to step out of the corps de ballet and be seen more for themselves in a pas de six, pas de quatre or with a solo of their own in a divertissement and so gain a bit more experience to move up one day to prima ballerina or danseur noble. And at the most basic level – you need to do something to give the principals a chance for a break before their demanding and show-stopping grand pas de deux!

Both practically and aesthetically, the divertissements in classical ballet are part of the whole package. They draw our attention to the brilliance of the dancers’ techniques and their ability to evoke mood through movement alone, not in the service of describing the actions of the story. With such concision, single-minded characterizations and requirement for wonderful technical command, it isn’t surprising that divertissements so often provide some of the most distinctive and memorable moments of classical ballets.

The Sleeping Beauty runs 22 February–9 April. Tickets are still available.

Production sponsored by Coutts; generously supported by Sarah and Lloyd Dorfman, Peter Lloyd and in memory of Ellen Burkhardt; with additional philanthropic support from The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund. Original production (2006) made possible by The Linbury Trust, Sir Simon and Lady Robertson and Marina Hobson OBE.

By John Snelson (Commissioning Editor (Publications))

21 February 2014 at 11.39am

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged by Marius Petipa, by Peter Wright, Coppélia, divertissements, Fairytale, pas de chat, Prayer solo, Production, The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty

This article has 1 comment

  1. I like the 'bois danse de chassures' from the poorly protected girl.

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