Let’s Get Started…But First, Some History
Perhaps the ballets you’ve seen are either about dying swans, sleeping beauties, or waltzing snowflakes. But the ballet you’re about to see,
Harlequinade, is a comedy. No kidding—it’s a comic ballet based on the early form of theater called Commedia dell’arte (literal translation: “comedy of art”), which began in Italy in the sixteenth century. These improvisational entertainments were filled with hilarious stock characters who enjoyed using every trick in the comic trade including slapstick, humor, and mimicry.
But can this style translate to ballet? You bet!
Imagine masked performers using pantomime to act out comedic sketches about themes of love, jealousy, and old age. Then, picture four recognizable characters including: Harlequin (a jester), Columbine (his lover), Cassandre (Columbine’s father), and Pierrot (Cassandre’s servant).
Finally, dream up playful costumes and vivid sets and the cartoonish world of make-believe, and it’s a field day for funniness—where pantomime and gesture are easily played out in full choreography.
The truth is the humor of Commedia dell’arte never left the stage. In fact, these stock characters and over-the-top story lines have delighted audiences for centuries—from Shakespeare’s comedies to classic Charlie Chaplin antics—even providing the funny foundation for such modern movies as
Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Dumb and Dumber.
But now, let’s get back to the ballet!
Harlequinade was originally choreographed by Marius Petipa, the “father of classical ballet,” in 1900.
STOP…for an important side note:
Petipa is also credited with many other familiar ballets including
La Bayadère, Don Quixote, The Sleeping Beauty, Raymonda, and The Nutcracker. He’s the “guy” who placed the ballerina center stage in grand spectacles featuring a corps de ballet (or group of dancers) surrounding her.
Interested in Petipa? Learn more:
Again…back to the ballet…
Sadly, the original Petipa
Harlequinade choreography was “lost” (not recorded on film or kept alive through continuous performances) until Alexei Ratmansky, American Ballet Theatre’s Artist-in-Residence, decoded Petipa’s notes to reconstruct much of the original ballet.
Need a sneak preview of all the fun?:
All of the characters in
Harlequinade are archetypes of Commedia dell’arte. You can easily recognize each stock character by his or her distinctive costumes and role in the story:
Harlequin: The comedic male lead. He is a servant who is in love with Columbine. While Harlequin’s questionable behavior often gets him into trouble, his positivity and cleverness always help him to come out on top. Harlequin dons a diamond-checkered ensemble and black masquerade mask.
Columbine: Cassandre’s beautiful daughter and Harlequin’s love interest.
Cassandre: Columbine’s greedy elderly father who tries to keep Harlequin from pursuing his daughter.
Pierrot: Cassandre’s comic servant. Pierrot wears white oversized clothing (including a powdered face) with bright red slippers.
Pierrette: Columbine’s servant and Pierrot’s love interest. Good Fairy: A sprite who spreads good fortune. She saves Harlequin’s relationship with Columbine by gifting him wealth.
Caption: (Columbine) Isabella Boylston and (Harlequin) James Whiteside
Credit: Photo by Alan Alejandro
So, What’s Going On?
Columbine and Harlequin are in love. But Columbine’s father would rather she marry a rich, old suitor, and so, he keeps her locked away in a tower. Cassandre’s servant, Pierrot, also helps thwart Harlequin’s romantic efforts. But when the Good Fairy alters Harlequin’s financial prospects, true love prevails.
Caption: Harlequin (James Whiteside) serenades Columbine (Isabella Boylston) to show his love.
Credit: Photo courtesy of American Ballet Theatre
Caption: The Good Fairy (Claire Davison) grants wealth to Harlequin (James Whiteside).
Credit: Photo courtesy of American Ballet Theatre
The second act is a celebration of Columbine and Harlequin’s wedding. Similar to another Petipa ballet,
The Nutcracker, this act is a series of divertissements (pronounced dee-vehr-tees-MAHN), which are short dances within a ballet that display a dancer’s technical skill without advancing the plot or character development.
Caption: Act II celebrates the love of Harlequin and Columbine with many different dances.
Credit: Photo courtesy of American Ballet Theatre
Check This Out…
You already know a bit about Harlequinade’s costumes representing your typical characters of Commedia dell’arte. Now take a closer look at how the costumes (and masks and makeup) aid in character development.
The Harlequin’s diamond checkered costume resembles a jester because he, too, is a trickster who likes to entertain. Pierrot’s sleeves and pants are too long, causing him to fumble, just like he does in his attempt to stop Harlequin’s quest for Columbine’s love.
Here are some more costume sketches. How do the designs help you better understand the characters?
Caption: Harlequin’s checkered ensemble, distinctive hat, and masquerade mask resemble a court jester in Act I.
Credit: All costume design sketches by Robert Perdziola
Caption: Columbine’s costume in Act I features a demure and youthful tutu with light pink accents and bow details.
Caption: James Whiteside (Harlequin) and Thomas Forster (Pierrot)
Credit: Photos by Andrea Mohin
Notice how the set design in Act I differs from that in Act II. The first act takes place outdoors on the streets of the village. The homes are cartoony, but realistic at the same time (they’re cheerful and Disney-like, but also have depth, dimension, and an air of mystery).
In contrast, Act II takes place in a grand ballroom with high ceilings, great windows, and stunning architecture. Everything is bright, and everyone is together at the celebration. This scenery also illustrates Harlequin’s change in prosperity.
Caption: Set design for Act I.
Credit: All set designs by Robert Perdziola.
Caption: Set design for Act II.
After reviewing Petipa’s notes from the original production of Harlequinade, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky made alterations to the ballet. For example, in the early 1900s when the ballet premiered, ballerinas were not allowed to raise their legs past ninety degrees. Even in pointe shoes, dancers would pirouette on demi-pointe (the ball of their feet) rather than on the tip of their toes.
And shockingly, dancers would not always point their feet at all, but hold them in a semi-relaxed position. Clearly, both social norms and technical ability have greatly evolved over the past century, and Ratmansky has taken that into consideration in this production. In that way, this production of
Harlequinade is a blending of old and new ballet customs.
Caption: Pierina Legnani in another Petipa ballet, Raymonda (1898). Notice her low leg line.
Caption: Note the more advanced technique and virtuosity of modern ballet as shown in this photo of Isabella Boylston (as Columbine).
Credit: Andrea Mohin
The “Sérénade” in Act I (where Harlequin courts Columbine with a song he pantomimes on his mandolin), became a popular repertory song for many instruments including voice. In 1926, noted Italian tenor, Beniamino Gigli, recorded the song and made it a worldwide hit.
Listen to the song (retitled “Notturno d’amour”): VIDEO Petipa often liked to insert a popular song into the score of his ballets. Composer Riccardo Drigo met this request by inserting a French song about the Duke of Marlborough into Act II (a song which we know today as “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”).
Caption: Columbine (Isabella Boylston) in a
pas de deux (dance for two) with Harlequin (James Whiteside). Credit: Photo by Marty Sohl
Good to Know: Take Note!
Petipa wrote down his choreography through a system called Stepanov notation that was
developed in Russia in the 1890s. Note takers sat in the studios, scribbling in real time as dancers
rehearsed. Notation looks like a score written out in an organized system of lines, arrows, X’s,
and O’s. The tedious technique, however, became obsolete after the Russian Revolution. This was due to the exodus of dancers from the country. The art, previously preserved through oral tradition, was passed down from teacher to student less often. Those who did stay in Russia struggled to recall all of the details of the dances. Without photos, drawings, and, of course videos, Petipa’s notation was the only preservation of the choreography.
Ratmansky utilized the historical records (housed at Harvard University) to try and reconstruct a number of Petipa ballets. After much study, he became conversant in Petipa’s choreographic “language”—understanding how one movement would naturally flow into the next.
Harlequinade is Ratmansky’s fourth Petipa reconstruction. This list includes Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and Paquita.
Caption: An example of early 20th century dance notation from Petipa’s
La Bayadère, circa 1900. Credit: Nikolai Sergeev Dance Collection
Find out more at:
FYI: Labanotation, a system first developed by Rudolf Laban in 1928 to analyze human movement, is considered the most common method of dance documentation today. Want to learn more? Check out: www.dancenotation.org/lnbasics/frame0.html
What to Think About…
How do the stock characters and comedic style of Commedia dell’arte remind you of contemporary comedy you see in movies, television, and live theater today? Give three examples.
The dancers use mime, or gestures, to communicate parts of the story. Because ballet doesn’t use language like spoken word in theater, or lyrics in opera, the movement has to tell the whole story. Sometimes dancers act out the meaning using mime. Think about an example where a dancer’s mime or gesture “spoke” to you or told you something you didn’t know.
Think about the complexity of preserving the ethereal art of dance. What is the “best” way to document and carry on ballet—notation, video, photography, oral tradition, or something else? What method would you choose?
Since it’s an open rehearsal, ABT will start and stop the ballet at various times. Watch carefully during these breaks and think about the full elements of a production—from story line to choreography—practice, practice, practice—and finally, performance. Is there something in your life that matches or is similar to this process?
Caption: Masked dancers in a divertissement.
Credit: Photo by Marty Sohl
Take Action: Let’s Have Some Fun
Now that you’re familiar with the characters and general themes of Commedia dell’arte, it’s your turn to take the lead! Write your own script in Commedia dell’arte style. Incorporate slapstick humor, pantomime, and maybe even some moments for the actors to improvise. Remember that a main part of Commedia dell’arte is a connection to everyday life. You can still use the themes of love, revenge, and trickery, but focus on issues that are relatable to you and your peers today.
One of the reasons Commedia dell’arte started to die out was because traveling troupes weren’t able to connect with their audiences either due to language differences (both
actual languages and just style/dialect of speech) or from not changing the material with the changing times. Your challenge is to stay in the world of Commedia dell’arte while making it relevant and exciting for audiences today. Then, share your work with family and friends.
Go even deeper with the
. Harlequinade Extras
Now you’re ready to see ABT’s working rehearsal of
Teacher & Parent Guide
Caption: Columbine (Isabella Boylston) and Harlequin (James Whiteside).
Credit: Photo by Alan Alejandro
Parents and Teachers: We’ve Got You Covered
Hey there, adults. We’re sure you’re already familiar with the concept of ballet, but just in case you’re looking for a refresher or you want to go deeper, here are some thoughts that may be of interest:
Ballet is an art form that had its origins in Europe over 400 years ago.
Dancing was entertainment in the royal courts of Italy and France, and was largely about telling tales of gods and heroes from mythology. But when the French King Louis XIV came along in 1643, he took court dancing to a whole new level. He loved to dance so much that he took lessons every day, starred in many productions, and started a school of ballet. That’s why the steps that ballet students learn have French names.
At the time, all things French were fashionable. Ballet schools based on the French model sprang up all across Europe in the 1700s. Choreographers began exploring ballets that told stories including tales of princes and princesses, foreign countries, and romantic entanglements. Moreover, as ballet dancing became more skilled and complex, costuming changed. Gone were the long, courtly gowns and heeled shoes. Dancers needed shorter skirts to allow them to move better. Soft slippers enabled dancers to jump and turn, ultimately leading to the pointe shoe, a slipper with a stiff box in the toe that we see ballerinas wear today. This specialized shoe allows women to stand up on their toes
en pointe, making them look taller and their legs look that much longer.
Learn more on the pointe shoe with
this student resource on ARTSEDGE.
Peter the Great, who ruled Russia from 1672–1725, appreciated all the latest fads and fashions from Western Europe. He invited dance masters from France and Italy to teach Russian nobility how to “get down,” ballet style, on the dance floor. Marius Petipa, a French dance master, was appointed ballet master at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1871. Many of the famous ballets known today were created by Petipa during his tenure there, including
The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker. Petipa trained Russian-born dancers for his ballets instead of importing talent from foreign countries. His fame as a choreographer and his emphasis on Russian dancers helped establish a strong tradition of ballet in Russia that continues to this day.
Alexei Ratmansky is currently ABT’s Artist-in-Residence. He hails from St. Petersburg, Russia, and he trained at the Bolshoi Ballet School in Moscow. He has performed with the Ukrainian National Ballet, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and the Royal Danish Ballet. Perhaps one of his biggest successes was his appointment as Artistic Director of the Bolshoi Ballet in January 2004. Under Ratmansky's direction, the Bolshoi Ballet was named one of the best foreign ballet companies by The Critics' Circle in 2005 and 2007.
Ratmansky's success continued to grow when he won the Theatre Union of Russia's Golden Mask Award for Best Choreographer for his production of
Jeu de Cartes for the Bolshoi Ballet in 2007. In January 2009, Mr. Ratmansky joined American Ballet Theatre as Artist-in-Residence and has since choreographed more than ten ballets for the Company, including The Nutcracker, Firebird, Shostakovich Trilogy, The Tempest, The Sleeping Beauty, and Songs of Bukovina.
Ratmansky’s choreography challenges dancers because it is very quick and detailed. He puts unexpected movements together that require the dancers to utilize their bodies in new ways.
Want to explore more:
History of Ballet
For a good history of ballet and the rise of the ballerina.
Petipa and Russian Ballet
For more info on Marius Petipa and Russian ballet history.
Ratmansky To learn more about Alexei Ratmansky, visit
the Kennedy Center’s artist page.
For general information on Alexei Ratmansky:
To hear what American Ballet Theatre dancers think of working with Ratmansky:
Want to discuss more:
Connect Commedia dell’arte to contemporary, popular entertainment so that your students understand the historical relevance on the comedy they know and love. The Marx Brothers, Monty Python, and Mr. Bean are all connected to the theatrical history of Commedia dell’arte.
Check this out:
National Theatre/The World of Commedia dell'Arte
VIDEO STANDARDS CONNECTIONS
English Language Arts –
Reading: Literature (RL.3, RL.9)