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BalletMet- 'Belling the Slayer'

A closer look at the Death and the Maiden

Continued from Page 1

Gestural Significance in Every Step

The 'Slayer theme' returns to dominance with the resumption of the Processional following the Fuseli tableau, with a two measure metrical scheme that aptly describes the blight of death. Although symmetrically divided into a measure of 3/4 followed by a measure of 5/8, the missing sixth beat of the second measure suggests either a waltz that stumbles or a march that limps.

In addition to building turbulence into the ballet's numinous atmosphere, the theme's hard-edged rhythms punctuate the Processional's collage of telegraphic, on-the-beat freeze frame-gestures. Sharp and vigorous, the Harbingers move in mirrored contrapuntal pairs, as individuals, or as one, communicating an array of emotions and actions that tell the story of "Belling the Slayer" through a series of heterogeneous gestures.

The ballet's lexicon of gestures include weighted convulsive-looking moves, weightless intense balletic poses, and recognizable mimetic gestures such as those of alarm, weeping, entreaty, fear, and death. Within these divisions, the plies and bends imply the downward pull of gravity, appropriate to a work about a dance with death, while the angularity of the weighted poses and moves speak of death's burning extravagance of desire. For example, the sharp angled shapes formed by the flexing, bending, and twisting of torso, hips, legs, knees, feet, arms, hands, and head describe the high voltage energy of lightning rather than the cold stillness of the grave.

Recalling Juliet's lines, "Too like lightning, which doth cease to be/Ere one can say 'It lightens,' (Act II, ii (119-120) Romeo and Juliet), the serrated shapes formed by the Harbingers illustrate the transience of life, the suddenness of death, and of death as the source of heat or desire that consumes life.

Furthermore, the stretch or extension of ballet steps such as bourrees in fourth position on pointe, pirouettes, battement jetes, and arabesques with snapping changes of direction evoke volatility rather than effortless buoyancy. And within the ballet's menu of familiar gestures, thematically the most important of these is the "archer" gesture, signifying death by arrow or bolt. In "Belling the Slayer," however, the denotative "archer" gesture adapts and acquires connotative complexity. Arrows, for example, whether fired by Cupid or a figure of Death can either ignite love or snuff life, and in the ballet the hands and arms of the this gesture alter to communicate variously desire and seduction or fear and disgust.

Further, as Chorus and sibyls and bearers of meaning, the Harbingers concisely connect the ideas of 'crimson joy' and 'thy life destroy' with the archer gesture. For example, in the Processional they transform a familiar ballet mime used to describe gracefulness or crimson joy, "expressed," writes Beryl Morina in Mime in Ballet, "by turning to each arm held forward (between the positions of de cote and en avant) the fingertips of the opposite hand softly outline the length of the arm to the wrist" -- into the straight armed flexed hands, head turned away variation of the archer gesture to describe helplessness and fear.

Conversely, however, the Harbingers also display softer qualities. For example, the lead Harbinger's petit rond de jambe a terre followed by a turn in the ballet's Introduction describes the innocence of the Young Woman and anticipates the first moves of her solo in the scene that follows the Processional. Further, in contrast to the jointedness of the music and movement that gives the Slayer Processional a fittingly bony quality, the costume, coiffeur, and the Harbingers themselves speak also of life's voluptuous attraction. In spite of their jagged look in the Processional's riven rhythms, the Harbingers' sensuous qualities and flame-like motions later soften into the care filled rippling moves of the pas de deux for the Young Woman and her Fiancé.

Nevertheless, even as Chorus, the unison motion of the Harbingers visualizes forcefulness of statement rather than the comfort of intimacy or connectedness. Thus, their salutation of the Slayer with a half-reclining rond de jambe and developpe shouts the warning that sexual desire greets death.

Stopped Somewhere in Time

In the silence that opens Scene 1, which follows the Processional, the Young Woman bolts upright in bed wide-eyed and gasping for air. The folk definition for the nightmare that informed Fuseli's painting held that difficulty breathing or a gasp for air upon awakening was evidence of an incubus attack, so her waking gasp makes the connection to the painting fast.

Upon arising, the Young Woman dances a solo that depicts her innocence, featuring open, willowy arms and torso, gentle turns, and arabesques -- all set to a sleepily lyrical theme for strings, harp, and piano. Yet, in spite of the veneer of work-a-day familiarity sustained by the solicitous relationship between Mother, Fiancé, and the Young Woman, the choreography, music, and décor for this scene suggest a world caught in a tiny bell jar of time. The sense of time recycled, which is inherent in the repetition and reference to the movement of the Harbingers in the choreography for the Young Woman, Mother, and Fiancé, deflects the course of time's arrow and its notion of continuity and progress.

The ever-present Slayer theme, the foreboding moods in the music, the diffuse lighting, and the empty -- except for the large bed angled forward at center-stage -- fix the scene in a dissonant moment. The ultimate effect of the brief gentleness of the Young Woman's solo and pas with her Fiancé is to suggest a sweet dream interrupting a running nightmare. In fact, Peterson compacts linear time into a loop with subtle touches such as the Young Woman's costume, identical to that of Harbingers', the whisper-like entrances and exits of the Mother and Fiancé, the Young Woman's sudden distractions, and the return near the close of the scene to a telegraphic form of expression. And the time-choked effect induced by the ballet's interlocking aspects of choreography, music, and décor suggests that "Belling the Slayer" -- a la "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," by Ambrose Bierce, gives witness to the Young Woman's last rather than her waking gasp.

Overcome by a Mysterious Ailment

If this is the case, then what consuming factor brought the Young Woman to her last moment? In contrast to the certainty that a condemned Confederate spy named Peyton Farquhar suffered death by hanging at a bridge that crossed Owl Creek, the material cause for the Young Woman's "belling" of the Slayer remains mysterious. Details within the ballet, however, offer intriguing clues.

The pressure of the incubus upon the Young Woman's chest, the incubus reaching for her throat, the Young Woman's paleness, her Graham-like chest contractions, and the weighted movement quality manifest in her flexible upper body and willowy arms and her frequent collapses from an on-pointe column to a grounded triangle all imply chronic fatigue and difficulty breathing. This, combined with the Victorian trappings, the bedroom/sickroom set, and the very fact of her being female, hints that the Young Woman suffers from a morally-loaded respiratory disease: tuberculosis. As Verdi's Violetta (in "La Traviata") and the art of the Victorian era exemplifies, death by tuberculosis was a common form of moral retribution visited upon women that had slipped the social manacles binding their sexuality.

The moral implications of tuberculosis might also explain the Fiancé's exaggerated or telegraphic expressions of despair, particularly if we view him as a character in a Victorian drama. He seems to believe that his love is seriously ill rather than condemned for transgressive behavior, until he is informed otherwise by the Mother's whispered message, although it should be said that there is no overt evidence in "Belling the Slayer" that the Young Woman engaged in any sexual activity other than the default trauma of puberty.

In any case, whether the Young Woman succumbs to tuberculosis, deadly narcoleptic hallucinations, sorcery, or something else entirely, the response of the Mother and Fiancé to the Young Woman's troubling and perhaps dubious malady promotes an atmosphere of guilt and dread and projects a psychic landscape of ruin and decay.

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Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt

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