'The Pharaoh's Daughter'
by Jerry Hochman
July 28, 2005 -- Metropolitan Opera House
It is 1862. While the United States was deep in civil war, European dreamers and visionaries (a.k.a. artists) were fascinated by recent events that illuminated their knowledge of human history and inspired them to wonder what life would have been like in other lands in other times. Indeed, the dream of time travel, of actually living in a grander ancient culture, is not a 20th century phenomenon – in late 19th century Europe, writers, poets, and apparently even choreographers, frequently traveled back to the future.
One particular expression of this fascination with older and alien cultures was the Orientalism that overtook European culture in the latter half of the 19th century. Things Indian or Chinese became wildly popular -- and then there was the intoxication with things Egyptian. Napoleon’s landing in Alexandria, followed half a century later by the construction of the Suez Canal and punctuated with dazzling archaeological discoveries, fueled the fascination. Inspired by this cultural windstorm from the East, or perhaps merely in an effort to take advantage of it, Marius Petipa created a ballet in 1862 that tapped the public’s fascination with the ancient-Egyptian that incorporated a time travel framework as well.
Instead of utilizing the then-thriving Romantic ballet style, Petipa grafted his Egyptian theme (apparently purloined from a contemporary popular work of fiction called "The Pharaoh's Daughter") onto French court dances, emphasizing style and spectacle rather than plot. The result was a four to five hour -- depending on whose account you read -- dance spectacle involving 400 or so dancers, that had little connection to the Egyptian theme except the minimal plotline, sumptuous sets and interludes marked by mime that moved the story, such as it was, forward from one court-dance spectacle to the next. Petipa’s creation apparently was wildly popular, made his reputation, ran for years, and then died, never to be seen in its original form again.
A revival of “The Pharoah’s Daughter” is the final program in the Bolshoi’s current season at the Metropolitan Opera House, but it is difficult to know exactly what it is that the company is presenting. It is supposed to be the reincarnation of Petipa’s 1862 original, but the choreography is attributed in the program to Pierre Lacotte, “based on motifs from the ballet of the same name by Marius Petipa.” So what the audience is seeing is not Petipa, but a re-imagining of Petipa-- not an archaeological dig of a long-lost ballet, but a recreation of a long-lost ballet. But it looks like Petipa. Sort of. With the same basic structure as, say, "Sleeping Beauty," though nowhere near as refined.
Whatever it is, it deserves to be considered as presented. And the simple fact is that it does look a lot like this reviewer's conception of what a ballet created in 1862 by a young Petipa probably might have looked like. And it suffers from the sorts of flaws that a ballet created in 1862 by a young Petipa might have suffered from. Even reduced from Petipa’s original length and size (it is now down to roughly two and a half hours long, and uses only a few score dancers), it is still overblown and de Mille-like (Cecil, not Agnes).
It tells the story of an English archaeologist named Lord Wilson, who explores Egypt accompanied by his faithful servant, Sancho – er, John Bull. He is caught in a storm outside a pyramid, takes shelter in the Pyramid together with some none-too-noble contemporary Egyptians, takes a few opium drags, and dreams of falling in love with the Egyptian pharoah’s daughter who was laid to rest in the pyramid. Here a traditional plot is inserted. Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Girl is promised to another, whom she intensely dislikes. Girl jumps to her apparent death to avoid the arranged marriage, is rescued by a god (in this case the god of the sea), girl convinces father, who just happens to be Pharaoh, to let them marry, the end. And then Lord Wilson wakes up.
The plot is a gimmick to present dances and the dances could just as well be presented independently of the plot. As Lacotte has re-imagined them, they are uneven in quality. Every once in a while the chorography soars – particularly in Act III, in Aspicia’s (the "daughter" of the title) luxurious and lyrical dancing in the underwater grotto, and in the variations representing three of the world's great rivers, which are there for no apparent reason except that they are rivers (predicates for Fairies of the …, perhaps?). But much of the ballet seems formulaic and lacks coherence. The prologue, in which Wilson enters the pyramid and eventually smokes opium, is particularly wooden, with a set that -- to be charitable-- is simply dull. And when the spirit of Aspicia first appears, Lacotte has the other mummy-sarcophagi in the pyramid slowly rise up on from the floor, as if they are a silent chorus for Aspicia’s spirit. The result is so comic that many in the audience openly laughed throughout what I suspect was supposed to have been a tender, revelatory moment.
Act I, in which Wilson, transformed in his dream into a young Egyptian named Ta-Hor, is introduced to Aspicia, is nonstop dance with a hunting, Diana–like theme. But the nonstop dancing is uninspired. The choreography for the corps -- consisting primarily of huntress-like images of women with bows in their hands -- is repetitive and uninteresting, and for Aspicia it is fast, but without purpose. Having only recently seen the reconstruction of Frederick Ashton’s “Sylvia” performed by American Ballet Theatre, the sight of Amazon-like women dancing with bows in their hands in this piece simply looks silly.Act II, in the Pharaoh’s court, had some fast paced, quicksilver movements for Aspicia -- perhaps a little like Petipa’s choreography for Aurora, with a bit of Bournonville thrown in. Act III -- set in the fisherman’s village, in the underwater realm and again in Pharaoh’s court -- provided the best of the work’s choreography: interesting to watch, varied in content, and beautifully executed. The only minor quibbles were that in the grotto scene I kept expecting to see the Little Mermaid and to hear "Under the Sea" (which would have improved the lackluster score by Cesare Pugni), and in the Pharaoh's court a lot of the choreography and characterizations looked like studies for "La Bayadere."
But even in this third act, Lacotte didn’t seem to have decided whether he was recreating Petipa's 1862 ballet, or creating a pastiche of it. Aspicia, who has leaped into the Nile from the fishing village while fleeing the Nubian king and her father, is carried down to the river bed (and later taken up from it) by a crude-looking harness device. The image made many in the audience giggle again -- not because it was funny and out of place, but because it looked like either Lacotte didn’t know how to show it gracefully, or the Bolshoi simply ran out of money to do it convincingly.
And then there’s the poisonous snake in a bowl of flowers in the Pharaoh’s court, which the Pharaoh uses to threaten Ta-Hor, and which Aspicia threatens to let bite her if daddy doesn’t relent. It’s not just a fake snake -- it’s a giant stuffed toy of a snake, sort of an ophidian version of the carnivorous plant Audrey II in “Little Shop of Horrors.” It makes the captured tiger in American Ballet Theatre’s production of "La Bayadere" look real. I don’t think Aspicia’s suicide threat was supposed to be funny, but it was hilarious to watch.
As Aspicia, Svetlana Zakharova, was better than the choreography and at least as good as the myriad costumes that she seemed to change into every five minutes. She is a dazzling, soaring, beautiful dancer to watch, with what appears to me to be a perfect dancer’s body and perfect dancer’s feet. The only criticism I can give of her performance is that she seems to know full well that she is a dazzling, soaring, beautiful dancer to watch.
Her Ta-Hor, Nikolai Tsiskaridze, spent most of his time on stage either partnering Zakharova, which he did deferentially and adequately, or gazing longingly (rather than lustfully) at this dazzling, soaring, beautiful dancer, which he did deferentially and adequately. The few times that he danced on his own he danced well, albeit without any significant excitement. Denis Medvedev did much better as John Bull, and was less constrained by his character than Tsiskaridze. As Aspicia’s Nubian servant, Maria Alexandrova moved competently and sometimes eloquently, but the dark make-up intended to make her and the other Nubian characters (except, oddly enough, the Nubian king) look African made them instead look clownish. Anastasia Yatsenko was excellent as the fisherman’s wife, and all the soloists throughout performed admirably.
Although it is not a landmark ballet, or a landmark reconstruction of a landmark ballet, “The Pharaoh’s Daughter” is a fun spectacle to see once or twice, especially for the quality dancing. But if you want quality Petipa choreography, stick with the original Petipa.
Read related stories in the press and see what others are saying. Click here.