Sure, most of our most popular ballets fall into the narrative ballet bracket, in that they tell a story, but is the storyline conveyed through the actual ballet steps? Or is it through the other dramatic devices that go to making up a “Ballet”?
Let’s look at the ballets of Marius Petipa, unquestionably the most successful ballet choreographer since the accepted inception of the dance form, as we know it. His work in the classical idiom is undeniably beautiful; corps de ballet, pas de deux and solo work of such purity that it has managed to survive being handed down through generations in a more intact condition than the work of most choreographers since. This classical ballet technique, does not however tell a story all by itself. The dramatic dynamo behind these narrative ballets was mime – naturalistic gesture which was intended to inform the audience of the story; when it is done with the correct intention and clarity (as it rarely is) it can fulfill it’s brief and advance the plot towards the next piece of choreography. So, rather than a Ballet being a story told through the technique of classical ballet, it was, and is, primarily advanced through mime, with the dance a frequent, ornate diversion (hence the term divertissement).
Some steps from the classical technique are often employed to express a particular emotion; none moreso, or with more versatility, than the classical arabesque. A shape of such simplicity, the arabesque has been used to convey longing (Prince Florimund in his Act 2 soliloquy in Sleeping Beauty), joy (Lise in La Fille Mal Gardeé) and even the tortured purgatory of a scorned woman (the Wilis in Giselle Act 2): but how much of the meaning is pregnant in the step and how much is the acting that accompanies it?
It’s not too often that a step by itself will translate drama to the audience: it’s in the acting too. There’s not a whole lot of drama training at ballet school, but most dancers pick it up along the way, watching, learning and emulating. The steps are the scaffold around which the dramatic facade is draped.
Classical steps can speak by themselves, but it takes a master craftsman to know how and when to employ them. For example, Balanchine managed it in his Apollo: three women performing chassé arabesque while linked to the man’s arm and you have a chariot being pulled by three horses – it’s a simple step and it’s readable. Ashton too has achieved this; the idiosyncratic choreography in Enigma Variations gives an unambiguous account of the characters, without resorting to pantomime.
There are a limited number of steps in the classical repertoire, but the permutations and combinations are endless. Ballet alone can tell a story, convey an emotion and establish a mood; it’s all in the hands of the dance-makers – sometimes the simplest of steps can speak volumes.