Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Remember When . . . The Ballet Was Cutting-Edge?

The cast of ABT's Coppelia, a classical comic ballet
Last weekend, my daughter danced in the final ballet for Appalachian Ballet Theater. After 23 years, the only classical ballet studio in our area decided to shut down...their building is being sold, Beth, the founder, is ready to retire, and Leah, who choreographs all the shows, is expecting baby #2 any day now. This mother-daughter duo built an amazing studio and instilled passion and discipline in a generation of local dancers. It's bittersweet to say farewell to the dance family that has nurtured my daughter since she was 5. 

Our last rehearsal in the studio on Tuesday!

Anyone who's read my Ladies of the Manor Series knows that ballet plays a part in my stories...largely inspired by the classes I took my daughter to twice a week for the last seven years. In The Lost Heiress, Brook has been practicing with Ballet Russe--a group of dancers trained in St. Petersburg at the Imperial school. So I thought I'd take a few minutes to look back at this ground-breaking, iconic ballet group, in honor of ours.

Xoe, left, with friends Saylor, Heaven, Phoebe, and Marina, before their final show

Russian ballet impresario and founder
of the Ballets Russes Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929)
The Ballet Russe was formed in 1909 by Sergei Diaghilev. In 1908 he had presented a season of Russian art, music, and opera in Paris, with great success. The upper class of Europe quickly became enamored with all things Russian, and so Diaghilev was invited back the next year to share more of Russia's culture. He responded with the Ballet Russe (the Russian Ballet), a dance troupe made up entirely of dancers schooled in the finest of Russia's schools. These dancers brought something to Europe that no other ballet had ever offered--passionate, energetic dancing that pushed the boundaries of what had always been accepted. Their dancing was considered avant-garde and contemporary in the extreme.

For 20 years, the Ballet Russe toured the major cities of Europe and even America. I, of course, had fun with this--they were stationed a good while in Monaco, which is how Brook came to know them. And also in Paris, which is where they are when we meet Kira, the injured prima ballerina who plays a vital role in the third book in the series, A Lady Unrivaled. I had so much fun digging deeper into ballet and Russian culture with this character, who had been friends with Brook during her months of practicing with the group.

Bain News Service, publisher. Ballet Russe practicing
[between ca. 1915 and ca. 1920]
As most of you probably know, anything that involved the stage in the early 1900s was considered scandalous--the elite loved to be entertained by them...but it was well known that most women who made their living upon the stage had, er, looser morals than "ladies." Now, obviously, this isn't always true. But it was assumed. Which is why a young woman born to a respectable family would never consider a career upon the stage...which made things interesting for Brook, who was raised by an opera singer. She'd lived the first half of her life in a very different world from where she ended up--an heiress, a baroness, the daughter of an earl.

Today, ballet isn't the edgy stuff--it's the "tame" stuff. We chose classical ballet rather than modern dance because it isn't risque...rather hilarious when one considers that it used to be THE risque dance. But in this world of hip-hop and gyrating moves taught to our primary schoolers, give me ballet's moves any day! Because it isn't just a passion--it's a discipline. One I've loved watching my daughter learn and embrace.

Learning more about the history of ballet and its ground-breaking years during when my books have been set was so much fun. And looking back from our current viewpoint and seeing how it's turned into the classical, respectable institution as opposed to the scandalous one is always interesting. I loved writing about it, with Brook and then with Kira. And I look forward to taking Xoe to a new studio next year and seeing where she goes with this dance from here.

Have you or your kids done any kind of dance?


  1. I remember seeing a presentation of Copielia! Not live but I loved it! The only dance I did was a required spot for gym in highschool. It was modern dance and I remember a rowing scene! Not much else but we told my mother we would be practicing at Debbie’s house. She pierced my ears instead! It was 1966. My sister blew my secret at the dinner table!

  2. I do love the Nutcracker put on by the troupe in the Northwest. It’s on Dvd. Title is The Nutcracker Movie!

  3. When will hip-hop turn into a "classical, respectable institution"?