writers on dancing


Retrofitting the Mummy

“The Pharaoh’s Daughter”
Ballet in Three Acts
The Bolshoi Ballet
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, N.Y.
July 28, 2005

by Mindy Aloff
copyright ©2005 by Mindy Aloff

A couple of months ago, anticipating the exhibition of the treasures from Tutankhamen’s tomb that is touring the U.S. this summer, Egyptian scientists released pictures of what they thought the king looked like in life, based on study of his mummy. As John Noble Wilford reported in The New York Times, three other independent teams of artists and scholars in several countries also released reconstructed images of the king’s face, based on computer tomography scans. Although each of these four groups accounted for some common features—the pronounced length of the jaw, for instance, in proportion to the width of the cheekbones—the four images differ in fascinating ways that seem to bespeak differences among the cultures of the teams, themselves. And yet, they all resembled the face of King Tut as we’ve come to know it through reproductions of hieroglyphics, of his burial mask, and other artifacts. From the perspective of the project, the fascinating differences are by-products of an attempt to sustain a common focus, using information that everyone involved agrees is pertinent. Nevertheless, if one were asked to choose which of the four was the most likely to be accurate, wouldn’t most of us say the picture put together by the Egyptian scientists, since they had access to the mummy? It’s common sense.

Now, imagine for a moment, the same project attempted by the same teams, with one little change in the situation: there is no mummy to study. There are still the hieroglyphics and images from the coffins; there are literary descriptions by the king and his contemporaries. Perhaps, if the fates have been kind, there are records of archaeologists from two centuries ago who did see the mummy before it disappeared and made some partial measurements of it. However, it must be factored in that their instruments of measurement were small, portable tools, rather than the computers available today, and that they were making notes to aid their memories, which, they expected, would fill in details they didn’t think necessary or possible to record on site. Of course, it goes without saying that the way the king spoke and walked, the nature of his temperament—characteristically sanguinic? Melancholic?—would affect how all the features that instruments can measure actually looked when he was alive. And yet, suppose that the scientists’ assignment was not only to produce images of how the king’s facial features related to one another when he was living but also to reproduce the sense of his presence and personality when those features were in motion.

Impossible, you say? Ah, now you’re beginning to see the challenges of trying to reconstruct, or even to present a facsimile of, a dance that hasn’t been performed in many years. For the past quarter century, when comparatively few truly classical novelties have been produced to refresh the repertories of classical companies, ballet masters, revivalists, and reconstructors have been engaged in very similar attempts to bring back pictures of the past, often with much less “hard” evidence to work on than well-preserved human remains. The most recent example to be seen in New York is the Bolshoi’s production, from 2000, by the French ballet historian, choreographer, and former principal dancer of the Paris Opéra Pierre Lacotte, of some semblance of the 1862 dream-vision extravaganza “The Pharaoh’s Daughter,” one of Marius Petipa’s most successful and long-lived works for the Imperial theater of St. Petersburg and whose starring part of Aspicia, the Daughter, provided a brilliant vehicle for a long line of Maryinsky ballerinas well into the 20th century, among them, Caroline Rosati (for whose valedictory benefit the ballet was devised), Marie Petipa, Ekaterina Vazem, Mathile Kschessinska, and Anna Pavlova, with Petipa making changes along the way to adapt the part to whatever was considered cutting-edge ballerina technique at the moment. Perhaps the most haunting of them all was the Italian ballerina Virginia Zucchi (described vividly by a besotted Alexandre Benois in his memoirs), who, though she lacked the classical technique of the others, seems to have injected a dramatic intensity and a sensuality into the role that blinded enraptured audiences to her technical weaknesses. (It was written accounts of Zucchi, apparently, that inspired the re-imagined version of “Fille du pharaon” by Betteanne Terrell, produced in the early 1980’s by Les Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo.)

Described by one observer as “a colossal success” in 1862, “Pharaoh’s Daughter”—which, legendarily, took Petipa a mere six weeks to make—was revived at the Maryinsky during the choreographer’s lifetime as late as 1898; in 1905, five years before Petipa’s death at the age of 92, Alexander Gorsky revived the work there yet again in a staging “after Petipa.” This production was last performed by the Kirov early in the Soviet era, when Aspicia was danced by the young Marina Semenova (still coaching at the Bolshoi today, at the age of 96!). And that was it: the Pharaoh; his chariot; his Daughter; her lover Ta-Hor; his comic sidekick, Passiphonte; the stage lion that attacks Aspicia and from whose traditionally stagey claws Ta-Hor rescues her; Ramzé or Ramzea, Aspicia’s faithful and sparkling Nubian slave girl who functions as a kind of fairy godmother; the court of the River Nile, where Aspicia lands after she throws herself out a window, rather than give up Ta-Hor, and from which she is miraculously revived; a confluence of dancing rivers from around the world; the two-story-high geyser of water and its invisible elevator behind that achieve the illusion of sending Aspicia back to life from the depths of the sea; the Lord Elgin-like explorer, Lord Wilson, who dreams up the entire action in the Valley of the Kings; his comic sidekick, John Bull; their pith helmets and dusters; the Lord’s opium pipe; and the some 400 figures milling around in the time warp bridging several thousand years over the course of a four-hour+ evening were consigned to the land of lost ballets. Although some of the choreography, in fact, had been notated by Petipa’s lieutenant Nicholas Sergeyev, who spirited the notebook out of Russia, along with his notations for other Petipa ballets, no Western company with which Sergeyev worked ever attempted to reproduce the actual spectacle of this early Petipa extravaganza, with its outsized cast and dauntingly challenging stagecraft. Why not? Could it be that the score by Cesare Pugni was unavailable? In his review of the Bolshoi’s production, John Rockwell notes that only one copy of the complete score now exists, that it is in the archives of the Kirov Theater, and that the Kirov would not permit the Bolshoi to consult it for the recent “Pharaoh’s Daughter” staging, forcing Lacotte to reconstruct a partial and newly reorchestrated score. Rockwell found this intramural conflict between the two theaters amusing. Surely he is trying to make light of something rather grim.

What were the Kirov’s objections? Could they have been that the Bolshoi, where “Pharaoh’s Daughter” was never in the repertory, was going to represent this Petipa spectacle of legend through a radically downsized, two-and-a-half-hour version, with the credit “production and choreography by Pierre Lacotte, based on motifs from the ballet of the same name by Marius Petipa” because, as Lacotte has explained, the Sergeyev notations provided only stageable fragments of the original? Still, Lacotte, a longtime student and protégé of the Petipa ballerina and outstanding teacher Lubov Egorova, has platinum bona fides when it comes to understanding pre=Revolutionary Petipa style. His authority as a stylist could hardly be the problem. Yet there was more to Petipa than his genius as a choreographer. His ballet spectacles affected his audiences as drama. Does Lacotte’s “Daughter” make for good theater? Does it enhance our view of Petipa? Does it reveal aspects of the choreographer, such as his penchant for formulaic construction, that one would rather not know? I pose these questions without regard for their relationship to the box office, since that is not an issue: the Bolshoi’s “Daughter” did very well there during the company’s New York visit, and it seems to have done well internationally—so well that the Bolshoi has made a DVD of the production. The audience response at the performance I attended seemed solidly supportive of the stage events, although with areas of rejection. Was that rejection unique to New York? At certain moments, such as the slow elevation to a standing position of several coffins containing mummies, one could hear people laughing in the balconies, and I’m told that there are other episodes that prompted laughter upstairs, too: elements of the stagecraft did not connect with elements of the audience. I also heard reservations about the style of the choreography. Echoing complaints from some of the Bolshoi’s dancers during their rehearsals with Lacotte, several balletgoers I met (none of them critics) commented during the intermissions that they found the choreography more like that of August Bournonville, Petipa’s Danish contemporary and artistic peer, than anything they expected with Petipa’s name on it. One thought the ballet looked like Bournonville’s “Napoli,” which predated Petipa’s “Daughter” by 20 years. They also objected that the Bolshoi “didn’t look like the Bolshoi” in it—that the men didn’t jump very much and that most of the steps were terre-à-terre, so uncharacteristic of the Bolshoi they had come to know from its touring repertory between the late 1950’s and the 1990’s. On the other hand, the audience gave Lacotte’s work a standing ovation, and most of the standees downstairs, at least, remained in the theater through at least a few of the bows.

click for part two of "Pharoah's Daughter"

Photos, both by Damir Yusupov
First: The Bolshoi Ballet in "Pharoah's Daughter"
Second:  Svetlana Zakharova and Vladimir Neporozhny

Volume 3, No. 30
August 1, 2005

copyright ©2005 Mindy  Aloff



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last updated on July 25, 2005