Friday, 14 November 2014

Reversed gender relations - reversed storytelling patterns? Explorations of the narrative strategies of Jules Perrot's Der Kobold (1838)

Reversed gender relations – reversed storytelling patterns?
Explorations of the narrative strategies of Jules Perrot’s Der Kobold (1838)

International conference “Grounding Moves. Landscapes for Dance” 29th Annual Conference organised by Society of Dance History Scholars, Banff (Canada), June 15th – 18th 2006

copyright Astrid Bernkopf, 2006

Der Kobold, Jules Perrot’s Viennese pixie ballet from 1838, displays an idiosyncratic treatment of Romantic ballet’s narrative features. This ballet does not only show a very long exposition and péripétie without denouement or white act, but it also shifts focus from the traditionally female supernatural being to a male one. With this feature, Perrot goes against predominant narrative and choreographic conventions of nineteenth-century ballet tradition and creates a work of singular importance. This investigation focuses on one of the three layers of narrative analysis designed for the scenario of the ballet fantastique in two acts in my PhD research (Bernkopf, 2005). Whilst a full narrative investigation of this ballet is possible in this case, a focus on the conflict and the characters’ roles in it is followed.

My method of narrative analysis combines literary modes of investigation such as Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (2003) and other narratological treatises with studies of theatre, drama and psychoanalysis. Furthermore, neither audio-visual recordings, nor live performances or notation scores are used in this investigation, but synopses of ballet narratives as found in programme notes. The research materials, from which my theory stems, encompass 100 librettos of two-act ballets dating between 1830 and 1860 and displaying any supernatural beings or marvellous occurrences. For the ones familiar with Propp’s method, I took the ballet equivalent of the Russian magic tale which formed his corpus of research: the ballet fantastique. My entire research, based on analyses of textual sources, treats these as hybrid forms; displaying features of theatre and ballet tradition, while also containing elements of literary texts such as short stories or fairy tales. 

The three layers of my method, entitled Dramaturgy of Desire, show two syntagmatic strands of analysis in form of a theatrical and narrative layer, which each consist of a macro and a microstructure; and, in addition to this, a layer of paradigmatic analysis which centres on the characters and their conflicts. For this exploration of a single case study, I have chosen to omit the first two layers as they do not relate to the characters, but provide a structural outline of the performance and narrative and employ the layer relating to characters and their motivations only. 

Romantic ballet narratives generally display five types of characters. Firstly, there are the Hero, the Unthreatening Woman and the Threatening Woman. These characters are clearly bound to their gender and, usually, a couple is formed by two of them. The Hero is a young man in search of love. He has to prove himself worthy of his lover by undergoing a test. The Unthreatening Woman displays the docile side of femininity and is the one and only correct choice for the Hero. She is a shy and industrious girl, who does not indulge in sensual pleasures. Her counterpart, the Threatening Woman, lives an active and sensual life by hunting men on moonlit forest clearings. Her overindulgence, activity and sexuality almost inevitably lead to her death; or at least to her separation from the Hero. The nineteenth-century ballet narrative does not allow a lasting relationship between the Threatening Woman and the Hero. Hence, Giselle and Albrecht are separated; as are the Sylphide and James. 

In addition to these three characters, there are Parental and Trickster Figures. These are not bound to their gender and, thus, ballet tradition shows fathers and mothers fight against male and female villains. As in life, Parental Figures seek to protect their offspring from harm. Parents and foster parents, whether they be mortals or fairies, side with the lovers in their quest for a relationship. Generally, they cannot prevent their children from harm, but in many cases are responsible for a happy ending. However, the most important characters of a narrative are the Trickster Figures. These mischievous characters are the ones, who, through their evil deeds and intrigues drive the lovers into the catastrophe. Such behaviour can be seen in Giselle (1841) where Hilarion is the most active character in the first act. He spies on Albrecht, he finds out about his rival’s hidden identity, and he denounces Albrecht in front of the entire village. Consequently, without the constant interferences of the Trickster Figures the narrative would lose momentum. 

These characters are stock characters like the masks of Commedia Dell’Arte tradition. In every ballet they are presented in different constellations and receive an individual portrayal within the overall frame of their type. This individual sphere of the character includes all descriptive elements and features such as emotional states, desires and interests. In the outline of my dramaturgy, these individual characterisations are referred to as the characters’ microstructures. One essential feature of the ballet narrative is that the spheres of the Parental and Trickster Figures can be distributed over several characters. Hence, it is similar to what Vladimir Propp observed for the magic tale. When one villain is undone, another can assume this role and continue with spread mischief. In La Filleule des Fees from 1849, such distribution of the actions is discernable. Here, a wicked fairy plans the evil deeds, but another character is the one to carry them out. Furthermore, in some cases, the Threatening Woman assumes the role of the Trickster. A similar split can be observed in relation to Parental Figures

In Romantic ballet tradition, the narrative usually focuses on the female character. However, the question of the main character is a tricky one – especially in an ambiguous area such as ballet. Focalization is defined by Porter Abbott (2004) as the lens through which the audience or reader experiences a narrative in stating that: 

“Focalization is an awkward coinage, but it serves a useful purpose that the vaguer and more disputed term point of view cannot. It refers specifically to the lens through which we see characters and events in the narrative.” (Abbott, 2004, p. 66)

Although a ballet scenario gives a third person account of events, there are textual clues as to which character’s eyes see the events. 

In Der Kobold, the basic set-up of the dramatis personae appears as follows:

• Follet: half human pixie in love with Iola
• Astoroth: King of pixies and Follet’s father
• Iola: peasant girl, betrothed to Rutland
• Martha: Iola’s grandmother
• Rutland: son of wealthy landowner
• Guardian Angel

From this outline, the reader would assume that the main conflict of the ballet is rivalry between the two male characters over Iola who would be torn between them. Such plot construction is also present in Giselle (1841). This ballet clearly focuses on Giselle and puts her in the position of the main character. Also in narratology, the notion of main character is an agonising one, and many treatises prefer to overlook this aspect. Dutch lecturer Mieke Bal (2004), however, provides distinct points in relation to this figure. To avoid confusion between two similar terms, the concept of hero should be read as main character from now onwards. 

According to Bal, it is necessary to receive detailed information about the main character. The libretto states that Follet, the pixie, is the son of a mortal woman and the king of pixies. He is given the task to go to earth and resist the temptation of human love. In case of failure, Follet would have to remain among mortals and would lose his immortality. By joking about this task, Follet’s character is described as careless. On earth, the pixie uses an everlasting flower to illustrate his immortality to Iola, and, in addition, to point out that because of this he has not right to physical beauty. From this dialogue, it also becomes obvious that Follet has a heart and feelings. Here is the first instance where the pixie is afraid of his emotions and hides from the girl. More information is given at the end of the first act, where Follet swears that he will hinder the wedding between Iola and Rutland. At the beginning of Act II, he is torn between fleeing and returning to the girl. Again, he appears to the girl and flees only to return another time. 

The other characters of the narrative are not well-defined. Of Iola, we know that she is a peasant girl, who lives with her grandmother and eventually falls in love with the pixie. She is betrothed to Rutland against her will, but gives in to her fate. Her grandmother supports the marriage and is a practical woman spinning while Iola reads out a book to her. The information about Rutland is even scarcer. He appears to be wealthy as he brings Iola presents. Furthermore, he is afraid when a monster – probably Follet in disguise – attacks him in the forest. As far as this point of Bal’s chart below is concerned, the narrative clearly focuses on the pixie instead of the other characters. 

• Qualifications: comprehensive information about appearance, psychology, motivation and past
• Distribution: the hero occurs often in the story, his/her presence is felt at important moments in the fabula
• Independence: the hero can occur alone or hold monologues
(Bal, 2004, p. 132)

The scene changes follow the pixie in all but one instances. At all important points, the pixie is present. Be it to tease Iola when reading, let Iola’s fiancé vanish and take his place, or to dance alone on the waves of a river. The last point ties in with the third notion of the chart. Follet appears alone and contemplates his emotions for Iola. As said before he is torn between his task and his feelings. The following quotation shows Follet’s emotional life and clearly indicates the dilemma through the use of the words rival and love. The libretto displays more of these instances with similar terms. 

"Follet appears dancing on the waves. … Starting again his airy wanderings, he finally descends to the ground and stops standing in contemplation in front of the hut [Iola’s]. Bells ring and announce the approaching wedding of Iola with another – his rival.
This thought is unbearable for him; only he has to renounce from earthly love; only flight can help; but no, impossible! He cannot flee – once again he wants to see his love."
(Der Kobold, Act II scene 1, 1838, no page)

Another noteworthy point is sentence structure in this example. Follet is torn between fleeing and staying. The sentences jump from one though to the other. Sentence structure subconsciously echoes the inner emotions and offers a glimpse of the choreography which could pick up on this by visualising this particular turmoil. 

In regard to functions, I personally do not agree with Bal who continues her bullet points with:

• Function: certain actions are those of the hero alone: he/she makes agreements, vanquishes opponents, unmasks traitors etc.
• Relations: he/she maintains relations with the largest number of characters.
(Bal, 2004, p. 132)

My research shows that functions or key actions can be executed by any character. In this sense, I agree with Propp’s study which proposes the same for the magic tale. Therefore, although in this ballet the majority of key actions is carried out by the pixie, I do not connect this notion with the definition of focalisation or the main character. As the pixie is the one to love and tease the other characters, it is quite clear that he is the one who has relations with most of the others. Therefore, it can be said that in this narrative most of the information relates to the pixie through whose eyes the reader perceives it. This focalisation is fostered by the choice of words such as rival and love to indicate to other characters by drawing upon the emotive content of the words. 

As can be seen, the conflict of this ballet is not as initially expected a rivalry between two male characters, but the inner struggle of one. The pixie’s task is to resist human love, which appears to him in form of Iola the Unthreatening Woman. The conflict shows one of the storytelling strategies Barbara Fuchs (2004) has identified for romance literature. “These strategies [of romance tradition] consist of the complication or delay of a linear quest; first, by the successive deployment of obstacles to progress, where eros can function either as an impediment to the quest or as its very goal (Fuchs, 2004, p. 36). Fuchs adds that in some cases the relationship and sexual pleasures are the goal of the quest, whereas in others these pleasures bring about the downfall of the hero. Romantic ballet displays these features as the examples of La Sylphide and Giselle show. In both cases, the Hero, James and Albrecht respectively, face sensual temptations by the Threatening Woman, the Sylphide and Giselle. Their sexual appetite results in them failing. In Der Kobold, Follet, however, falls for the Unthreatening Woman. A paradox is that although she brings about his death, he has made the one and only correct choice. Only a union between the Hero and the Unthreatening Woman is rewarded in nineteenth-century ballet. 

The testing of the main character or characters is a typical feature of the magic tale investigated by Propp. He labels this narrative episode Difficult Task and states that in this situation the hero has to prove his abilities. Only after successful completion of the task may the fairy tale hero receive his reward, the princess. These tasks may take on various forms in fairy tales, but ballet narratives display a very limited scope in this regard. The most commonly used Difficult Task requires the main characters to remain loyal to each other. This usually happens by introducing a Threatening Woman to the story who tempts the Hero. La Sylphide may serve an ideal illustration of this. But by focusing on an inner turmoil, Der Kobold breaks with this convention of externalisation of conflicts. The conflict does not come to live through dances, but is rather found in the content of the monologues, dialogues and actions of the pixie. What is clear is that Follet fails to accomplish his task. He falls in love with Iola and dies. 

In most nineteenth-century ballet narratives this would constitute the end of both narrative and performance. Albeit not in Der Kobold. The ballet continues by showing Follet’s father try to take possession of his son’s body. However, a guardian angel blocks his way and indicates that he has no right over it. The final scene of the ballet shows the wedding procession of Follet and Iola. Thanks to the spirit’s intervention, the lovers are happily united. With this change, the ballet breaks again the stereotypical narrative set up. A deus-ex machina ensures the happy ending, which according to the narrative and its conflict should not have happened.

In conclusion, it can be said that the narrative of Der Kobold presents a male supernatural being as its focal point. This reverses the traditional gender pattern of nineteenth-century ballet narratives to a certain point. It is the pixie who has to undergo a test and fails. Furthermore, the role of the female character is diminished. Especially, Iola leads a passive existence besides the ever-active pixie. She only receives two possibilities for solo variations: firstly, at the beginning of the second scene and, secondly, in the fourth. Her fiancé does not have many significant actions either. Not even the Parental Figures are as active as they are in other ballets. The pixie assuming a double role of Hero and Trickster is the centre of attention. The range of actions and importance of all other characters is diminished, which lays emphasis on Follet and his completion of the task. Many other ballet narratives show this pattern, but do not usually grant a failed hero his reward. However, in spite of these idiosyncrasies, Der Kobold does not break with general storytelling strategies of Romantic ballet. It presents a love story with the usual range of actions and a trial. The character set up reflects the gender change by omitting the traditional Trickster. Consequently, in spite of following the traditional storylines of Romantic ballet, Der Kobold can be seen as holding a special position in the Romantic repertoire. 

Select Bibliography:

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Bal, Mieke. Narratology. Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Second Edition. Toronto/Buffalo/London: University of Toronto Press, 1997 reprinted 2004.
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Belsey, Catherine. Desire. Love Stories in Western Culture. Oxford/Cambridge: Blackwell, 1994.
Bernkopf, Astrid. Narrative Variants and Theatrical Constants: Towards a Dramaturgy of Romantic Ballet. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Surrey, 2005.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. London: Fontana Press, 1993.
Clément, Catherine. Opera, or the Undoing of Women. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.
Cobley, Paul. Narrative. The New Critical Idiom Series. London/New York: Routledge, 2004.
Foster, Susan Leigh. Choreography and Narrative. Ballet’s staging of Story and Desire. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.
Fuchs, Barbara. Romance. The New Critical Idiom Series. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Garafola, Lynn. (ed.). Rethinking the Sylph. New Perspectives on the Romantic Ballet. Hanover/London: Wesleyan University Press, 1997.
Guest, Ivor. The Romantic Ballet in Paris. London: The Pitman Press, 1966.
______. Jules Perrot. Master of the Romantic ballet. London: Dance Books, 1984.
Propp, Vladimir. Morphology of the Folktale. Translated by Laurence Scott, second revised edition. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.
Zipes, Jack. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion. The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of civilization. London: Heinemann, 1983.

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