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Ballet, Then and Now

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Ballet figures largely in my novels. Bloodroom, a twisted romance set in today’s Charleston, stars a vampire named Julian who’s obsessed with a ballerina. The Bad Death, a vampire novel set in 18th century South Carolina, stars a slave named Anika who’s possessed by the spirit of a modern ballerina. In The Bad Death, Julian is nonplussed (to say the least) when his field hand starts dancing like a prima ballerina and displaying some diva ‘tude. Taking a writerly grand jeté through time required a ballet history lesson.

Under possession by the modern ballerina’s spirit, Anika’s movements look exaggerated to Julian’s 18th century eyes. Today’s “flexerina” had more in common with that century’s acrobatic grotteschi in the lower brow commedia dell’arte, as described in Jennifer Homans’ comprehensive Apollo’s Angels. Compare 18th century prima ballerina La Carmago’s arabesque to the modern version, right.

Anika had to dance demi-pointe (on the balls of her feet) because in The Bad Death’s setting of 1788, pointe shoes weren’t invented yet. Ballerinas wouldn’t dance en pointe until Marie Taglioni perfected the art of dancing on the metatarsals of her toes (like the “neck”, not quite the tip, of the toe). She was aided by extra stitching that stiffened the forward soles of her tight, soft satin slippers. Compare the old style of slippers with today’s pointe shoes, below.

I borrowed the left-side image from a student’s terrific wiki-history of Marie Taglioni’s impact. And see a signed pair of Miss Taglioni’s actual slippers in an image that I was too cheap to pay for here.

Ballet Evolved is a wonderful series of ballet history lessons in dance, featuring ballerinas from London’s Royal Opera House. In this one, Ballet Mistress Ursula Hargeli leads four ballerinas in demonstrating innovations in dance through the centuries. In baroque costume, Ms. Hargeli demonstrates that era’s style of plié, pirouette, and port de bras. It’s amusing to see the ballerinas, each at the top of her game in modern ballet, attempt these deceptively simple steps from the distant past.


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