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The Valkyrie Reflex and Boston Ballet's 'The Sleeping Beauty'

Thoughts on genealogy and nobility

by S.E. Arnold

May 7, 2005 -- Wang Theatre, Boston

"Tchaikovsky liked, for example, the 'Ride of the Valkyries'” -- R.J. Wiley

“… Lilac, who was more Valkyrie than Fairy…” -- Tim Scholl.

Now transpose, if you will, the spinning fury of sound that embodies Bold Brunnhilde’s Team in Act III, scene one, of Wagner’s "Die Valkure" into the Prologue of "The Sleeping Beauty." Call it: Lilac’s Chorus. (Set to the selections from "Ride of the Valkyries"):

On the ho-jo-to-ho music sing: We are not fairies./ We are the reflex/ the shining reflex- of the/ Valkyries.....)

A tantalizing idea -- that the “true genealogy” of Sleeping Beauty’s Fairy Band is more Valkyrie than Fairy.  Supporting Scholl's claim are Helen Damico’s “The Valkyrie Reflex in Old English Literature” and Leslie A. Donovan’s “The valkyrie reflex in J. R. R. Tolkien’s 'The Lord of the Rings.'"

Valkyries, as Damico notes and Wagner’s familiar and beloved Brunnhilde and her sisters illustrate, have “the peculiar characteristic to be both destructive and benevolent.” In their destructive aspect, the valkyries are“fierce, elemental beings,” and that the word, walcyrge, in Old English and, valkyrja, in Old Norse, means “chooser of the slain.” Additionally, in the age of the Beowulf poem, the poetic use of ‘valkyrie’ typically referred to malevolent, destructive, corrupt beings associated with slaughter. Yet, it is their ability to both choose and to deliver the slain that anoints the valkyries with a kind of divinity. Although they possess the power to fashion human destinies, they weave with thread and fabric already made by others. In this 'in between' capacity, the valkyries function as the impossible middle term in the wistful logic that connects the transient with the eternal world. Moreover, the qualities of foresight and might necessary to shape destinies are the hinge that fastens the malevolent to the benevolent valkyrie.

In the ballet "The Sleeping Beauty," the wrathful fate Carabosse weaves for Aurora fits in the malevolent valkyrie’s characteristic reaction to personal slight. Additionally, her sudden and violent gatecrashing of Aurora’s christening and the helplessness (valkyries had the power to fetter wills) of the humans before her resonates, comically, with the attack by Grendel’s Mother, a malevolent valkyrie of the first order, upon Heorot. And while the thunder and lightening that heralds the entrance of Carabosse has become a clichéd signifier for evil, the elements of fire, wind, and water that comprise that herald nevertheless describe aspects of a malevolent valkyrie’s natural habitat.

Further, the ‘bind-her-save-her-for-later’ sort of fate that Carabosse visits upon Aurora anticipates the spider-like habits of Tolkein’s malevolent valkyrie, Shelob. And while Shelob little resembles Grendel’s Mother, they both bare claws. Missing, alas, from the Boston Ballet production of "The Sleeping Beauty," which is the 1977 revival of De Valois’ 1946 production after Sergeyev’s 1939 production with additional choreography by Sir Fredrick Ashton, is Carabosse clawing great tufts of hair out of the scalp of the hapless Catalabutte. Yet, her bold attack on King Florestan’s Palace and willingness to engage in single combat with superior numbers of benevolent valkyries grants Carabosse a dark heroic majesty. Fortunate, however, for the buck-passing King Florestan, that the Lilac Fairy's bright power deflects the lethal thrust of Aurora’s fate and challenges the willful violence of Carabosse.

In addition to showing the wisdom of her life shaping powers, Lilac’s actions in the Prologue also reflect such benevolent -- or in Damico’s term, courtly -- valkyrie characteristics as nobility, serving an important ceremonial function, the presentation of symbolic gifts, and, given that the ceremony is a christening of a possible future queen, the championing of social continuity. And like Tolkein’s Galadriel, Lilac and her sisters possess extreme beauty and depending on the production of Sleeping Beauty Lilac is associated, if not synonymous, with light.

In addition to the affective projection of light and beauty in the décor and costumes by David Walker and the lighting design by Mikki Kunttu, one hears Lilac’s light in the music Tchaikovosky wrote for her and sees her radiance personified by her ‘attendants.’ One has in mind productions of "Sleeping Beauty" where the final curtain falls like an amen as Lilac with her attendants arrayed around her softly move in place on pointe with gentle, undulating arms.

Such productions underscore the courtly valkyrie’s dominant feature, the radiant light manifest by her benevolent power, and appropriately honors her divinity. In contrast, in the De Valois production, the curtain closes with the stage stuffed full with the King, Queen, Wedding Guests, and Fairy Tale characters; and Lilac poses alone, on the floor and at the feet of Aurora and Prince Florimund. One takes this sort of Finale as a reflex of Nietzsche’s pronouncement, “God is Dead.”

As a critical overlay of "Sleeping Beauty," however, the Valkyrie Reflex makes plain the independence of its primary female character roles, Lilac and Carabosse, in addition to accounting for the otherwise embarrassing, for this viewer, glorification of the cavaliers in the Prologue. If Lilac and her sister Fairies are, for example, reflective of the ferocious battle-maidens depicted by Wagner, then the cavaliers are reflective of the ‘chosen’ warriors they have recently slaughtered. Alternately, the celebration of the chosen cavalier conforms to the commitment made by the bride/benevolent type of valkyrie.

Lilac's sudden appearance in Act II, for instance, startles rather than surprises Florimund and the ease with which he answers her "why are you sad" question suggests a comfort and familiarity appropriate for a godson to his godmother. Moreover, their ready exchange shows Lilac's long time interest in and commitment to Florimund and that she has always meant to guide him to Aurora.  A nd, in some productions aside from this one, she presents him with a sword, instructs him on its use, encourages brave action, and then protects him, a la Brunnhilde to Sigmund, in his combat with and defeat of Carabosse.

Setting the Valkyries aside and whatever crow one has to pick over the conceptual details of this production, the performances of "The Sleeping Beauty" given by the orchestra and dancers of the Boston Ballet on Saturday, May 7, were ever up, bright, and engaging.

But, one must ask, why does Lilac go through all of the trouble to arrange this particular marriage? This question is even more puzzling given the era which in many productions is the late 18th century into which she brings Aurora. One thinks, however, that it may be an act of self- preservation. If Aurora and Florimund survive the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, their offspring will be artists and scholars of the 19th century that free the Valkyries to ride again.

For further reading:

Damico, Helen. "The Valkyrie Reflex in Old English Literature."  New Readings on Women in Old English Literature.  Eds. Helen Damico and Alexandra Olsen.  Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.

Donovan, Leslie.  "The Valkyrie Reflex in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings : Galadriel, Shelob, Eowyn, and Arwen." Tolkien the Medievalist.  Ed. Jane Chance.  New York: Routledge, 2003.

Scholl, Tim.  Sleeping Beauty, A Legend in Progress.  New Haven: Yale UP, 2004.

Wiley, Roland John.  The Life and Ballets of Lev Ivanov: Choreographer of The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.  New York: Oxford UP, 1997.  
  -- .  Tchaikovsky's Ballets, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker. Oxford UP, 1985.

 

Edited by Staff.

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