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BalletMet - 'Belling the Slayer'

A closer look at the Death and the Maidens

by Stephen E. Arnold

February 2004 -- Columbus, OH

"Belling the Slayer", choreographed by Kirk Peterson and premiered by BalletMet of Columbus, Ohio, in April 1989, decants its story from the eponymous and startling series of works created by artist and illustrator Jeffrey Jones. Integrated into a tightly structured lexicon of gestures, "Belling the Slayer" focuses the broad and melancholy subject of life's relation to death. 

In the program, Peterson cites as his inspiration a painting by Henri Fuseli and William Blake's "The Sick Rose," which could serve as a mini libretto for this tale of Death and the Maidens.   Choreographed for eight female and two male dancers, the piece is set to cues from the film score for "Capricorn I" by Jerry Goldsmith, arranged specifically for "Belling the Slayer." The music divides the ballet into nine sections, although the ballet can be sorted into seven: an Introduction for lone Harbinger; Processional for the Slayer and the six Harbingers; Scene (1) for the Young Woman, her Mother and FiancÚ; Scene (2) for Harbingers and Young Woman; Scene (3) for Harbingers, Slayer, and the Young Woman; Scene (4) for the Mother and Young Woman; and Finale/ Recessional for Slayer, Harbingers, and the Young Woman.

"Belling the Slayer" opens on a dark, silent stage with one of the six Harbingers framed in a cone of light. Costumed in a white, sleeveless chiton with wild hair tumbling freely from a flowered band on her head, she looks like a ghostly Bacchante. On pointe and already in motion with a bell pendant stretched between her hands, she is light within light and blends into the mist of sound that attends her, marking a compass of points within her space with repeated gestures that divine the future. Her rounds complete, the future foretold, she vanishes. In a breath, however, she reappears on the now duskily lit stage, frozen with five Harbingers arrayed across the space in the act of "belling the slayer," referencing the Jones' artwork.  They gaze impassively into the audience, but then, like a violent summer storm, the music sounds the Slayer's bellicose theme, followed instantly by the snapping of the light.

Stretching upward to clasp the pendant around the neck of the profiled Slayer, the Harbinger mimics the anonymous young and nude (meaning innocent) female performing the same action in Jones's image. Both the tableau and the artwork illustrate the definition of the term "belling," which is the act of putting a bell on a cat, for example, or cow or horse and sleigh in order to signal its location. On the other hand, the differences between the art and dance work highlight different meanings to the phrase "Belling the Slayer."

Warding off Fate vs. Welcoming Death

The figure of Death pictured in the work by Jones, for example, makes its artificiality plain. The large skeletal figure attended to by the maidens is clearly propped up, and Death's familiar scythe is banded to, rather than held, by its hand. The massive headdress of Great Irish Elk antlers belted to its skull seems to caricature rather than celebrate the traditional depictions of Death as male and Sovereign and the pendant bells that dangle from the figure's crown suggest a talismanic function. Perhaps the bells worn by this effigy are meant to signal Death's approach, thereby allowing the maidens that hung them there to ward off his destructive presence, suggesting a na´ve attempt to control fate.

In contrast, the dance work "Slayer" emphasizes a time-honored underworld and willful characterization of Death. The opening antique frieze-like tableau, for example, catches the imposing, earth-toned, and carrion-fleshed Slayer in mid-stride. The Slayer clearly bears the scythe and crown of Irish elk antlers of the Sovereign and Destroyer; and the pendant bells that hang from his crown seem trophies rather than protective talismans. The innocent maidens of the artwork become the sibylline maidens of the ballet, as innocence gives way to experience, and the Slayer's bells announce Death's imminent arrival, not with salubrious intent but rather selective finality.

Moreover, the dramatic timing of the "Belling the Slayer" -- with the abrupt illumination of the stage and then the music which sets the Slayer in motion -- suggests attraction rather than repulsion. In this uncanny tale of the messengers of a willful Death, the phrase "Belling the Slayer" means to meet the Slayer, with a nightmarishly literal and known outcome.

In the eerie light of the introduction, the nymph-like Harbinger's pattern of turns and reaching gestures foretell the Slayer's course. The A-B-A form of the movie overture Peterson uses for the Processional follows a typical 'main title-love theme-main title' scheme. As the first statement of the Slayer theme closes, the stage darkens obscuring the Processional. New lights, however, illuminate a spot downstage revealing a recumbent female figure in a bed -- a quotation from Henri Fuseli's 1781 painting, "Nightmare." Her upper torso melts backward over its edge and her outstretched arms frame her head. An incubus sits upon her chest and slowly reaches for her throat. The music, evocative of malevolent threat rather than love, underlines the terror of this moment.  Moreover, dramatically, the image of the Fuseli work in the place of the score's 'love theme' structurally reinforces the "naming" of the ballet's Young Woman as the object of the Slayer's desire and the point of the Processional.

Sex, Desire and Death

Given its subject matter and place within the Processional, the Fuseli tableau pictures the situation of Blake's "Rose" into human terms. Peterson highlights the lustful self-awareness and conscious intent behind the lines, "And his dark secret love/Does thy life destroy," amplifying the horror and significance of the poem to the ballet. The sexual relationship implied between the invisible worm and the Rose and the one implied between the nocturnal incubus and the Young Woman indicate an important rhetorical aspect of "Belling the Slayer."

As examples of the Death and the Maiden manifestation or of memento mori (the transience of life), Blake, Fuseli, and Peterson mark points in a constellation of references that trace a course back into the moral universe created by 5th century philosopher, Saint Augustine. Starting from the transgression of Adam and Eve, Augustine reasoned that death, which entered the world concurrently with sex and desire, invests itself within the unseen regions of human nature. Insubstantial and invisible, yet somehow material, death and desire, according to Augustine, drive life -- consuming it and wasting youth, beauty, and human values along the way. Death and desire account for the transience of all things; death and desire equal the "dark secret love" that sickens the Rose and presses the breath out of the young woman. The phrase, "Nightmare Life in Death," spoken by Coleridge's famous Mariner, placed within the context of Augustine's philosophy, describes the worlds of Fuseli's "Nightmare," Blake's "The Sick Rose," and "Belling the Slayer."

The Fuseli reference establishes the "Nightmare" scenario of the ballet but it also situates its events in a psychic region somewhere between wakefulness and sleep. Moreover, it draws attention to the role that conscience plays in the suffering experienced by the subject caught in this fearful realm.

The "Nightmare" image also allows a visual link between the costumes worn by the Slayer, the Harbingers, the Young Woman, her Mother and FiancÚ. The Victorian costumes worn by the Young Woman's Mother and her FiancÚ, for example, offer a visual aphorism for a moral milieu that valued the Augustinian equation of sex and desire with death and evil, whereas the Slayer's crown of antlers testifies to his priapic, as well as his destructive, power and symbolically equates sex with death. The Harbingers serve as Death's veil of Desire, with a pagan look that recalls the wild and unbreakable nymphs who ran like "a howling storm" before the God of Madness, Dionysus, and who would have been anathema to the Christian Augustine. In the Augustinian philosophy that informs the nightmare world of "Belling the Slayer," the youth of the FiancÚ, the beauty of the Young Woman, and continuity of life manifested by the Mother become harbingers of death and decay rather than thresholds to fulfillment.

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Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt

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