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'The Ballets of Maurice Ravel: Creation and Interpretation'

by Deborah Mawer

reviewed by Leland Windreich

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) composed six works specifically for the dance theatre, and while the original choreography for these creations did not survive, the music for all has become enshrined in the repertoires of the world’s orchestras.  Over the years since their premieres, the scores have continued to inspire new choreographers who recognize the challenge that they present. 

Moreover, the dance elements in many of Ravel’s compositions for instrumental ensembles have tempted dance makers to use them for new works for the theatre.  Perhaps the most ambitious celebration of his music was shown in the  legendary “Homage a Ravel” festival, held in 1975 at the New York City Ballet, in which 12 of his scores, including works for solo piano and song cycles, became the inspiration for new choreographies by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and their colleagues.

Deborah Mawer, a lecturer in early 20th century music at the University of Manchester, offers in this study a survey of Ravel’s theatrical offerings in the context of their times, covering the original concepts and the latter day use of their music by more recently inspired choreographers. 

His most significant work for the ballet genre was his first –“Daphnis and Chloe” – commissioned for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1909, finally achieving its troubled premiere in May 1912.  Considered Ravel’s major orchestral accomplishment, the ballet score is regarded as a landmark work, along with the three masterpieces for Diaghilev composed by Igor Stravinsky. 

Based on the 2nd century pastoral novel by Longus, the ballet was assigned to Michel Fokine, who had contemplated a dance work on the theme as early as 1904 for the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg.  He and Russian designer Leon Bakst were Ravel’s collaborators in a plan to celebrate the ambience of ancient Greece.  But the ballet was doomed from the start, due to conflicts both artistic and economic that arose as the work was being prepared for the stage. 

Fokine and Ravel had different opinions about the relationship of the music to the dance, and both, for individual reasons, were at odds with Diaghilev.  The impresario, obsessed during the Paris season of 1912 with the debut as choreographer of his paramour Vaslav Nijinsky, had allowed the novice to appropriate more than a hundred hours of rehearsal time – this for an eleven-minute creation set to Debussy’s “L’Apres-midi dun faune”. 

As a result, “Daphnis” was given short shrift and was afforded only a pair of performances at the close of the Paris run.  To cut costs, Diaghilev eliminated the chorus planned for Ravel’s score and the inclusion of a wind-machine in its elaborate orchestration.  Fokine resigned from the company in protest, and Ravel’s relationship with the impresario soured.   A later project initiated in 1920 for a work representing an apotheosis of the waltz was shelved when Diaghilev, hearing a piano version of Ravel’s score for “La Valse,” dismissed it as not suitable for a ballet.  Ravel never worked for the Ballets Russes thereafter.

The music for “Daphnis” continues to attract dance makers all over the world, and Mawer points out that perhaps the most successful staging of this magnificent score was realized in 1951 with Frederick Ashton’s staging for The Royal Ballet, set not in antiquity but in a modern rural Greek landscape.  The chorus was restored, and Ashton remained faithful to the original story content, providing what many considered a splendid role for Margot Fonteyn as Chloe.  Since then, many revisionist conceptions reached stages in other cultures.  One updated the ballet to the present time and depicted Chloe’s abductors not as pirates but as members of a motorcycle gang.

“La Valse” finally reached the stage in 1929 with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska for the eccentric Ida Rubinstein, who directed and performed in a company organized to showcase her talents.  For her, Ravel had composed his most popular orchestra work –“Bolero” – the previous year, also choreographed by Nijinska.  The music for both would become mainstays in the offerings of symphony orchestras all over the world. 

As ballets, “La Valse” became a popular favorite in the repertoire of the New York City Ballet with George Balanchine’s 1951 version.  It is performed as well by the many companies that have commissioned Balanchine works for their national or regional American repertoires.  “Bolero” became a popular triumph in the ballet created by Maurice Bejart and has been performed both as a solo and an ensemble piece throughout the world of dance.

Mawer deals with the lesser-known stage pieces with equal attention to their content and  significance.  Her study abounds in musical examples which will be of interest to the musicologist as well as the ballet historian.  This is primarily a work by a scholar for scholars and for readers interested in the cultural history of early 20th century Europe.  Its focus and the price of the book will not encourage a casual readership.

Ashgate, 2006.  314 pp.  Illus.  ISBN: 10: 0-7546-3029-3.  $99.95.

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