- The Language of Classical Ballet by Flavia Pappacena
For the list price alone, Flavia Pappacena’s The Language of Classical Ballet would be a treasure for collectors of ballet imagery. Although my early version of the book did not have numbered images, I counted roughly 409, with nearly half of them in color. This kind of book exceeds the quantity of images in Clarke and Crisp’s Ballet: An Illustrated History (1973), which was published with only black and white images. Pappacena reintroduces several French scenographic gems previously known only from James Laver’s Costume in the Theatre (1964).
The author’s perspective—an analysis of ballet’s iconography in order to define ballet as a medium—is interesting. Her basic thesis uses imagery related to scenic and costume design renderings, publicity documents, and choreographic transcriptions as a means of reconstructing how dance technique may have developed into “classical ballet.” To my knowledge, there is no other ballet book that takes this premise so far.
Such an ambitious method of reconstruction requires a strong timeline, but Pappacena veers from the familiar chronology that is often applied to ballet history. Though she cites le Ballet Comique (1582) as an important first step toward the development of ballet, she does not include any of its related visual imagery, nor any imagery related to dance until the court of Louis XIV. Her endpoint for source materials stops with late nineteenth century French, Italian, and Russian works. The absence of dance imagery from the Court of Louis XIII, as seen in Margaret McGowan’s excellent The Court Ballet of Louis XIII (1990) and the Ballets Russes’ treatment of classical ballet in the early twentieth century, would have strengthened her arguments about the continuation of iconic forms in ballet. The total absence of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries seems to refute her contention that classical ballet has continued to develop beyond the nineteenth century.
This all seems largely linked to a “lost in translation” situation: the unfortunate choice of The Language of Classical Ballet for the book’s English title in place of Pappacena’s original Il linguaggio della danza classica. The translation of danza classica to “classical ballet” is problematic, since “classical ballet” has become a kind of catch-all term in English for Petipa’s ballet innovations in late nineteenth-century Russia. Although she mentions Petipa, choosing to highlight only The Sleeping Beauty (itself a throwback to seventeenth-century court ballet before the establishment of classical dance technique) while ignoring other “classical” works such as Swan Lake and the Nutcracker further confuses the boundaries of this terminology. Ultimately, the author and/or translator’s insistence on “classical” in the book’s title derails the excellent points that Pappacena attempts to make.
As such, it is difficult to place this book within a reader’s demographic, since it is a strange hybrid of a picture book and a treatise attempting to create a methodology to define the history of “classical” ballet. Imbued with little of the gravitas of Kant’s The Cambridge Companion to Ballet (2007) or Lee’s Ballet in Western Culture (2002), The Language of Classical Ballet does not use academic citation or a specified bibliography, and would not be a great tool for guiding university students through the wider trans-historical definitions of ballet as a genre. As related to dance scholarship, the book has none of the concentrated specificity of works such as Michael Burden and Jennifer Thorp’s Ballet de la Nuit (2009), which presents the entire scope of scenographic images from an individual ballet production. And although I previously raved about the book’s quantity of images, in the version that I read, the basic attribution of many of the images was incomplete, making them fairly useless for academics. (The Italian publishing house seems strangely immune to the copyright laws that make including such an expansive collection of unattributed images impossible for American publishers.) In short, although Pappacena’s attempt to use ballet iconography...