A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 5 - Winter 2012-13

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Margaret Fleming-Markarian, Symbolism in Nineteenth Century Ballet: Giselle, Coppélia, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake (Berne, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2012); 272 pp. ISBN: 978-3034302678

reviewed by Heather Marcovitch, Red Deer College, Alberta, Canada

As a series of stylized, reified movements, ballet is in essence a symbolic art, and it is no coincidence that many now-famous ballets originated in the late nineteenth century, when Symbolism as an artistic and literary form was popular throughout Europe. In her book Symbolism in Nineteenth-Century Ballet: Giselle, Coppélia, The Sleeping Beauty and SwanLake (Peter Lang, 2012), Margaret Fleming-Markarian traces the symbolism that she argues is present not only in the ballets’ choreography, but in the sets, costumes and libretti as well. The primary research in this book will be of interest to scholars interested in classical ballet, and certainly the argument equating ballet to symbolism makes a lot of sense. As far as academic criticism goes, however, Fleming-Markarian’s book, focusing almost exclusively on categorization and definition, never transcends a narrow formalist reading of both symbolism and the ballets.

Fleming-Markarian runs through each of the ballets methodically, although the repetition of chapter structures, in which she takes us through each ballet from first to final act, summarizing the plot and describing the symbols in costume and setting, becomes tedious by the end of the book. Her argument traces the roots of Symbolism back to Emanuel Swedenborg’s theory of correspondences and through Charles Baudelaire’s interpretation of Swedenborg, where every mundane phenomenon has a corresponding noumenal existence. She then argues that the ballets she analyzes occupy three symbolic settings—the material world, the heavenly world, and the spirit world. Her claim is that careful analysis of the libretti and extant evidence of the original choreography can locate the relationship between these three settings in each ballet.

The problem is not with the basic premise of the book, but with the lack of critical strategies that include addressing the existing critical conversation of these ballets, exploring the history of the ballets, and synthesizing the symbols into some wider theoretical or cultural context. In the chapter on Giselle, Fleming-Markarian gives a fairly perfunctory and incomplete summary of French Romanticism. Madame de Staël is listed as a major influence, for instance, but there is no mention of Rousseau. She quotes letters from Théophile Gautier, the original librettist of Giselle, without acknowledging either his authorship of one of the earliest works of French aestheticism, Mademoiselle de Maupin, and its subsequent influence on Symbolism, or his status as one of the most admired critics of ballet. In addition, the letters from Gautier describing this ballet are full of ironic readings of his own libretto, on which Fleming-Markarian does not pick up or utilize in her discussion.

More troubling are the definitions of some of these symbols. Fleming-Markarian’s footnotes suggest that she drew heavily on two popular symbol dictionaries to ascribe meaning to patterns on costumes. The description “time immemorial” is used early on and that ahistorical sense pervades throughout her definitions. For instance, she insists on the color purple that is present in the costumes symbolizing wisdom. Perhaps, but Fleming-Markarian offers no argument as to why this meaning is used to the exclusion of all other possible readings. Even Barthes in S/Z ascribed up to six different meanings for each of his signs and acknowledged that all meanings are simultaneously present. It is possible that Fleming-Markarian has a specific symbolic tradition in mind, but, with the exception of linking elements in Swan Lake to Russian folk traditions, both her criticism and her sources seem to derive from a generalized Christian symbology, which is curious, given the Symbolist writings contemporary to these ballet which are critiques and parodies of some of these images.

In another instance, she argues in the chapter on Coppélia for a Hasidic influence on the ballet, citing the emergence of the Hasidic movement in Europe around the time the ballet is set. She makes the further suggestion that the ballet, in which Dr. Coppelius creates the female Coppelia, an automaton, is an analogy of the creation of the golem, the legendary animated clay statue of the Prague Jewish community. It might be an interesting theory, but for the lack of evidence suggesting that the ballet’s creators were interested in a growing religious Jewish movement. Moreover, Fleming-Markarian ignores the wide range of discourses on animism in the early nineteenth century, including the ballet’s source material, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman (dismissed unfairly early on as having little in common with the ballet), that have their most popular treatment in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. A reader familiar with these discourses might be left surprised at the lack of attention paid to it in this analysis of the ballet.

Fleming-Markarian’s strength is her analysis of the original choreographies of these ballets. While her textual analysis is often unsatisfying, her discussion of choreographic moves proves to be much more compelling. In particular, her discussion of Christian symbolism in The Sleeping Beauty brings out how certain choreographic patterns trace both the Rosicrucian and the Slavic crosses, an interesting detail that supports her mystical reading of this ballet. Similarly, her description of Giselle’s exuberant dance of resurrection is fascinating in that Fleming-Markarian is able here to explicate dance steps in a way that is meaningful to the reader.

Perhaps the difficulties in this study stem from its overreliance on the libretti at the expense of the language of the dance. Unlike the script of a play, which claims its own textual authority, ballet libretti are subsumed into performance. Most ballet audiences will therefore see a ballet without being privy to the detailed libretto Fleming-Markarian reads exhaustively. From the brief analyses of choreography and execution of the steps in this book, one wishes that there had been more emphasis put onto the performance aspects of the ballet. That indeed is where the symbolism that influenced fin de siècle writers occurs.