Synopsis – Regency Fair

Hello everyone,

It’s been a ‘well occupied’ few weeks here in spite of Victoria’s Covid lockdown over June and July. The Australian Ballet has had me busily researching a program note for Alexei Ratmansky’s Harlequinade, which we all hope will finally make it to the stage this coming September. The commedia dell’arte is not a theatrical genre I’ve brushed up against before now, and I found researching it absolutely fascinating – but also fascinatingly complex! I’m so pleased the Australian Ballet gave me the chance to do the research because it has helped plug a significant gap in my understanding of early theatre history.

Work on my book has also been temporarily halted to make way for revisiting an incomplete journal article on ballet at Astley’s Amphitheatre. But today’s posting is about something entirely different – and perhaps something a little unusual. You see, I don’t just focus on researching the history of ballet; I also turn my hand from time to time to writing original stories for the stage.

Until now, I must confess I’ve been reluctant to disclose to many people that I do this. Why? Well, the first is out of shyness. I mean, it’s hard enough to promote myself as a scholarly researcher without trying to suggest that I’m a scenarist or libretto writer as well. And who, WHO on earth writes stories specifically for dance in this day and age!? Go on. Name one person!

Actually, as I know perfectly well from my work, there are precedents for libretto writing with the particular requirements of ballet in mind. Perhaps the most successful scenarist of all time is the celebrated French critic and author Theophile Gautier. The beloved ballet Giselle is usually discussed as the vision of its original choreographer Jules Perrot. But it was Gautier who took a fleeting reference to wilis in Heinrich Heine’s De l’Allemagne and delivered it up to Perrot as a workable story for the stage. To Giselle add two other revered classics, Swan Lake and La fille mal gardee. The story of Swan Lake is somewhat more derivative of pre-existing bird-maiden tales. However, the scenario for La fille mal gardee was entirely original (albeit thematically well-worn) when the ballet was created in 1789, choreographer Jean Dauberval having taken inspiration from a print depicting the rustic scene of a young girl being scolded by an old woman.

Of course, there are many other examples when you start to look for them, especially if we turn to one-act ballets like Fokine’s Petrouchka. Yet today we are so familiar (obsessed even!) with adapting well-known literary classics for ballet that no one seems ever to stop and think about the consequences – good and, certainly in some respects, bad – of relying on pre-existing works of literature as the basis for dance productions. For one thing, the reliance on literary adaptions is a reason ballet often struggles to be taken seriously as a truly ‘artistically innovative’ art form by non-ballet folks. I’d suggest that one of the reasons why Giselle and Swan Lake tend to epitomise ‘ballet’ in the cultural mainstream is not just because they are visually striking or great works (though, actually, I don’t think Swan Lake is a ‘great’ work), but because they are stories specific to ballet. In other words, they don’t have to compete in people’s minds with other tellings of the same story by other mediums. Compare this, say, to Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, which is one of THE all-time great ballet masterworks. Romeo and Juliet? Say the name and immediately the brain queries: ‘Romeo and Juliet, yeah! Um, the play? The music? The movie?’

All of which is a long-winded precursor (indulge me!) to posting the link to the PDF of Regency Fair.

Regency Fair was the second scenario/synopsis/libretto (would someone like to comment on which word they think is more appropriate?) that I completed. I wrote it quite a few years back now, but I still like it. It was inspired by a combination of elements: firstly, by my own work in the field of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century cultural studies, and by my great affection for the satirical prints produced throughout the period (I mean, if anyone wants to buy me a birthday or Christmas present, just buy me a Rowlandson, Gillray, Darly or Cruikshank or a print by any of their contemporaries!).

The other source of inspiration, though, was the career of Steven Heathcote, former principal dancer with the Australian Ballet. In saying that, let me make clear before you jump to conclusions, I did not have Steven in mind for my ‘vision’ of Mr Knatchbull. Mr Knatchbull is both his own person and whoever might conceivably bring him to life. But Steven was the dancer who, through my admiration for his stagecraft, alerted me to the issue of having repertoire for mature artists, who can’t necessarily comfortably perform all the triple-twisty-tours-en-whatitis of their earlier careers, but can (as in Steven’s case) ooze a fair whack of charm and charisma merely by walking to the front of the stage and raising an eyebrow.

There is an argument both for creating Mr Knatchbull as a fairly traditionally athletic male role, and for encouraging any prospective choreographer to ease back on the technical demands to allow the role to be useful to mature male artists – especially when there’s a notable shortage of good full-length repertoire for older dancers in general. My original intention was that the role of Benedict could be choreographed to provide the necessary kid-whizz fireworks. I still think the idea holds water.

What I have also had very clearly in mind from the outset was a set design evocative of the satirical print art of the Regency period – the scrawling lines and sparely-coloured visions of Cruikshank, Rowlandson and Gillray. In this, Regency Fair makes a clear nod to Osbert Lancaster’s wonderful, gently comic designs for Frederick Ashton’s La fille mal gardee. Regency Fair, in my mind, should be a little like watching a graphic satire come to life, with more muted background tones (the set) permitting the stronger hues of the foreground figures (the dancers) to pop in a theatrically merry, but not grossly exaggerated, manner.

I dreamed up Regency Fair because I adore ballet, but I’m bored by the endless literary adaptions and rehashes of classics. The scenario has been seen by a couple of choreographers: David Bintley (a big shout-out to David, for reasons which I may go into on a future post) and the late Liam Scarlett. But for now, it is posted here purely to be read and imagined.

I hope you enjoy it.

PDF of Regency Fair – Scenario for a Ballet

(Oh, and, ah… [polite cough] If you enjoy it, Kofi below … )


Illustration: Print by Theodore Lane, Honi. soit. qui. mal. y. pense. Published George Humphrey, 1821. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

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