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BalletMet- 'Belling the Slayer'

A closer look at the Death and the Maiden

Continued from Page 3

Scene 2 begins as a lone Harbinger streams backwards diagonally across the stage followed immediately by a second whose Puck-ish leap lands her near the first. Weaving like baroque melodies bound in contrapuntal partnership, where each line is interesting on its own yet necessary to the other for harmonic affect, the pair of Harbingers finishes the phrase in a geometrical pose of an upright jagged and grounded triangular shapes.Their sculptured pose evokes both the lightning flash of life and its stone-marked end.

From the opposing diagonal, a second pair of Harbingers enters in canon with and repeating the action of the first. And entering from opposite sides of the stage, a third pair of Harbingers travels directly to the foot of the sleeping Young Woman's bed. In an eddy of turns punctuated with the ecstasy/death posture mirrored on either side of the scene like bookends, collecting beside of the Young Woman's bed, their hands floating just above her body. Their fluttering fingers reflect the rhythms of her beating heart and her body's nervous sensitivities, and whether urged by obligation or imagination, the Harbingers shape the music into a visual hymn of empathy.

Divided into three 'voices,' the upstage Harbingers at the head of the bed cite a variation of the 'ecstasy' cadence from the pas de deux, the middle voices, which act as a pedal point that glues the 'outer' voices together, repeat on successive beats the 'archer' gesture now softened to reflect the seductions of forgetful sleep, as the third voice articulates a self-enfolding gesture of retreat. As the cadence in the music sounds, the Harbingers now in unison and on the floor mimic the ecstasy/death posture to conclude the scene.

The Return of the Slayer

Cacophonies of high register string effects herald Scene 4 and the Slayer's entrance. Back curtains part and there at the top of the bed stands the Slayer, made more monstrous by billowing clouds of smoke and the counter-lighting that casts shadow upward.

His arms stretch to meet the great expanse of his crown and as he is greeted by the Harbingers, he steps away from the crown and stalks like a cat down the length of the bed toward the fleeing Young Woman. The brass section relentlessly hammers the Slayer theme and rhythm as raucous horns sound the chase. On the floor at the foot of the bed, the Slayer clearly master of the material world draws the Young Woman backward traveling to him. Caught and splayed out on the Slayer's arms, the Young Woman and the music end. At the same moment, the Harbingers, in a horizontal line divided by the bed, fall at light's edge into a resting position.

 

Death and the Dying

At the nebulous border of life and death, the Young Woman's pas with the Slayer resonates with the incident depicted in "Death and Woman," by Renaissance artist, Hans Baldung-Grien. About Grien's piece Karl S. Guthke writes that it is, "The most gripping and also best- known pictorial representation of Death and the Maiden,... prior to…Schubert…in the age of Durer," and about the artist, Guthke said that Grien carries, "Death's sensuous brutality and hence the shocking nature of the encounter to the extreme …"

"In Baldung's Death and Woman, death and sexuality are graphically united in the macabre intruder…The picture captures the moment in which sensuous arousal and dying, eros or rather sex and death become one." And in Peterson's vision, like the figure of Death in Grien, the Slayer characteristically makes contact with the Young Woman from behind.

The steady use of traveling steps, including the simple motions of fleeing and pursuing, give the pas a brutal 'game of cat and mouse' quality. Yet while seamless and capped at either end by the Young Woman's restating parts of her Scene 1 solo, the middle sections of the eight part pas demonstrate the Slayer's possession of the Young Woman. The second section, for example, features the Slayer manipulating the limp Young Woman like a rag doll. The third section in contrast seems almost civil as the 'revived' Young Woman obeys the command traditionally given by Death to his newest catch, "Maiden, you will dance with me." The section ends with the pas de deux's signature ecstasy/death posture.

The Dance of Death

With little hesitation and in one continuous motion the Slayer snakes the Young Woman up and around his shoulder and she drops, bride-like, into his arms. He then whirls with such speed that the centrifugal force pulls the Young Woman's upper body and arms out and downward and when he stops instantly, the momentum of the turn lands the Young Woman cross-wise in the small of the stooped Slayer's back.

As a sensational experience meant to awe and seduce, the Slayer, in an atypical face-to-face orientation surrounds the Young Woman with his arms. She slips away. Angry, the Slayer compels her to dance. It is fidgety and mechanical and ends with her ecstasy/death posture. She slips away. He pursues her. Horns sound his charge. Holding her by his power in a cone of intense light and accompanied by the squealing bowing affects on the violins, the Slayer swinishly stimulates her voluptuous feelings. The light snaps to red. She slips away. Crouching, he regards her from across the stage. He moves to her.

At first marked by rigidity and on the beat punctuations with jabbing limbs, the pas suddenly gives way to a rush of turns, lifts, and lifting turns that run the seventh section to its end. The trumpet melody that called the Young Woman to sleep in Scene 1 returns in the final section of the pas as the Young Woman recalls her innocence, while the Slayer's grasp -- always from behind -- of her upper arms marks little more than a faint impression-- a reminder that its time to go. And, the pas ends as it began with the ecstasy/death posture, the Slayer supporting her at the waist, she with one hand braced against his chest while her other arm follows the sweep of her backward stretch.

One of Us

The coda recalls the Harbingers from the shadows and gives witnesses to the Young Woman's absorption into their fold. The two-measure Slayer theme dominates the coda and again, its lack of a sixth beat fits with the brassy obstinacy of its repetitiveness to give audial shape to the Slayer's insatiable will. And the Harbingers' ghostly bodies, driven by the music, write in cursive form the printed gestures of the Processional.

In repeating cycles of gestures, their traveling mixtures of curves and angles, of spins and airy beats, of folding ripples and star-pointed poses, and of puckish leaps that seem to float oblivious to the vortices of the closing, manage speak of the mysterious marriage of flesh to bone -- of passion to a clock work.

The grotesque Slayer, the bone man, the 'rude mechanical' that nevertheless rules the material world directs the tremendous motion of the coda. And within this whirl, the Young Woman in a moment of rare solitude snaps into an arabesque. Bright and bold, its radiance delineates both the boundary and shadow of her independence.

The Young Woman joins the Slayer, or perhaps he joins her, and they move in unison citing together the bent gestures from the Harbingers' lexicon of gestures that seemed to flex or pull at every joint in the body. Soon, compelled by the music's gravity and the inward pulling force of their dizzying motion, all press to center stage. At the peak of the triangular tableau, the Slayer lords behind the standing Young Woman. One arm held straight up as if to give oath, she collapses limp into the Slayer's grasp. Lifted and held horizontally at arms length above his head, the Slayer displays his trophy- the lifeless Young Woman. Their mournful courtesies delivered, the Harbingers vanish as the Slayer rests the Young Woman's body on the bed. The Slayer exits as he entered. The stage darkens.

In the end, the Mother to the Young Woman finds that her daughter has passed. She cradles the Young Woman in arms and slowly rocks her as the stage again darkens. And in the darkness, a deep growl in the lower brass builds in explosive pressure. An upward rushing run of notes breaks the darkness and launches a brace of Harbingers from the wings. Running backwards, the others follow in their wake. A return of the Processional's music brings the scythe-armed antler-crowned Slayer and the Harbingers back to the pose of the opening tableau. And, in satisfaction of the Introduction's prediction, the Young Woman -- standing where the Harbinger first stood -- bells the Slayer. The Recessional retraces the Processional's course and action across the stage, except all move toward the smoke embowered glow visible through the parted crossover curtain. In trail, the Young Woman swept back in ecstasy/death's reaching gesture slowly follows.

As an exemplar of the Death and the Maiden subject, “Belling the Slayer,” reveals the persistence of the “sex equals death” formulae. In fact, the ballet exposes that Augustinian equation to be a Nightmare Life in Death.”


Acknowledgements
I would like to thank Maestro Carmon DeLeone, Music Director of the Cincinnati Ballet, for allowing the me to examine the score for "Belling the Slayer". And, to artist Jeffrey Jones for the "Belling the Slayer" picture included in this essay, I would like to give special thanks.

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Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt

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