About this Recording
NA223112 - ANGUS, D.: Ballet Stories (Unabridged)

David Angus



In one way, ballet is as old as man—because ballet is dance and mankind has been dancing since prehistoric times. But what we know as ballet, and can be seen in theatres and opera houses or on video, started in France in the 16th century. The first ballet is generally reckoned to be Le Ballet Comique de la Reine choreographed by Balthasar de Beaujoyeaux in 1581, a special entertainment with lavish costumes.

But ballet proper established itself in the 17th and 18th centuries, based on ‘the five positions of the feet, pointe work and technique of beats, turns, elevation, and extension.’ Already, what we know as classical ballet had set patterns and movements.

But only gradually did ballet evolve into the form we know now. For example, in the early years, female dancers had to dance in full-length dresses, which must have been very hot and very restricting. In 1734, a French dancer living in London, Marie Salle, presented a ballet called Pygmalion, based on the classical Greek story and appeared just in a muslin tunic. The beauty of her dancing, and naturalness of her grace and line proved very popular, and the theatre was full every night for months. This changed ballet, and other reforms by her were accepted.

Ballet spread through the Western world quite quickly. The first American ballet company was formed in Charleston SC in 1791.

By the 19th century, ballet was an important part of entertainment. The earliest ballet on this recording is Giselle. The music was written for it by the French composer Adolphe Adam (1803–1856) and it was first presented in 1832, choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, starring Carlotta Grisi. It was a huge hit—Adam’s most successful ballet, even though he wrote over fifty others.

Another French composer of ballets was Léo Delibes (1836–1891). In 1870, Delibes wrote the music for Coppélia, his first complete ballet score, based on a story by the German romantic writer and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann. It was choreographed by Arthur Saint-Leon and presented at the Paris Opera, just before the Franco-Prussian war. Delibes also wrote the music for other ballets, including Sylvia, La Source and Le Roi s’amuse.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) wrote three full-length ballets and each one of them proved to be among the most popular ballets ever. The first was Swan Lake, performed at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow in 1877. He had written some of the music a few years before to entertain his three nieces, but expanded it considerably for the first professional performance. The music, with its wonderful themes, is now known all over the world.

His second ballet was The Sleeping Beauty, based on a fairy tale by Charles Perrault, and premiered in the Maryinsky Theatre, St Petersburg in 1890. The choreography was by Marius Petipa, who had made a huge contribution to Russian ballet. The Tsar of Russia went to the dress rehearsal and said he found the work ‘very charming’, but was rather haughty towards Tchaikovsky himself. Soon, however, The Sleeping Beauty came to be recognised as the greatest ballet written in 19th-century Russia.

Perhaps the most charming is really Tchaikovsky’s third and last ballet, The Nutcracker. This was based also on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann and seen first at the Maryinsky Theatre, St Petersburg in 1892. Now it is seen in all capital cities in the world which has a ballet company—at Christmas. The most famous tune is the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, which uses the celeste, a keyboard instrument which was only invented a few years before Tchaikovsky wrote The Nutcracker.

Helped by these three works by Tchaikovsky, Russia became the leading ballet country in the last thirty years of the 19th century. This was partly because ballet in Paris never really recovered after the war between France and Germany in 1870.

In Russia, some important figures helped to develop ballet at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. New ballets were introduced by the famous company the Ballets Russes, run by Sergei Diaghilev, an inspiring director. Many composers wrote exciting new scores for the Ballets Russes, including Igor Stravinsky who composed The Rite of Spring, Firebird and Pulcinella. The most famous dancers with the company were Mikhail Fokine (1880–1942) and Vaslav Nijinsky (1888–1950).

And as the 20th century progressed, new movements and new ideas took dance in some very different directions—away from the traditions of the classical ballets we have here.

But that is another story.

Notes by Nicolas Soames

Jenny Agutter Remembers Her Dancing Years

I have always been fascinated by dancing and the glamorous world of ballet. I liked the stories, with princes and princesses, fairies and witches. And I loved the music.

I lived in Cyprus when I was a child and joined a ballet school there. They put on a production of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. I played the Bird.

When I was nine I went to boarding school in England—it was a well-known ballet school, Elmhurst, in Surrey. Aged eleven, I screen-tested for a part in a film being made in Denmark by Walt Disney, called Ballerina. I was thrilled when I got the part, because it meant I would dance with the Royal Danish Ballet.

I left Elmhurst after making The Railway Children when I was seventeen. I had decided to become an actress, but it was because of ballet that I was able to realise this ambition. I carried on with my dance training for a number of years, only stopping when there was less time available to keep to a good standard.

I still have a great love for ballet, and enormous respect for dancers. Having spent so many early years studying ballet, I know how hard dancers have to work, and how much dedication is required to become a ballerina.

I particularly like modern ballets and modern choreography. But there is something magical about the classical ballets that have been performed since Diaghilev’s time. Again and again I find mysef spellbound by the stories which are told through the extravagant sets and costumes, the music, and the art of the ballet dancers.

Jenny Agutter

The music on this recording is taken from the NAXOS catalogue

ADAM Giselle 8.550755–56
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Mogrelia

DELIBES Coppélia 8.553356–57
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Mogrelia

TCHAKOVSKY Swan Lake 8.550246–47
Czecho-Slovak RSO, Ondrej Lenárd

TCHAKOVSKY The Sleeping Beauty 8.550490–92
Czecho-Slovak RSO, Ondrej Lenárd

TCHAKOVSKY The Nutcracker 8.550324–25
Czecho-Slovak RSO, Ondrej Lenárd

Music programmed by Nicolas Soames

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