- Figaro Dances, Opera Dances: Response to Rebecca Schneider
In her reading of the loop form of Yinka Shonibare’s Un ballo in maschera, Rebecca Schneider meditates on what she calls a “living loop,” something that returns, but never quite as it was. I want to respond to Schneider’s essay by picking up on this dynamic and teasing out its implications for thinking about the engagement between dance and opera. I will do it by following a looped trajectory of my own, one that begins with an eighteenth-century opera and circles through an indecent dance, three gendarmes, and an office party before ending where it started . . . but not quite.
Unsettling and strangely compelling, Shonibare’s Un ballo also invites laughter, at times at its own expense. Just as the king’s mannered performance in front of his courtiers presents itself as performance, so the film itself winks knowingly, its lavish detail and virtuosic choreography never far from playful irony and self-mockery. Critical to this negotiation between serious experiment and ludicrous overkill, I want to suggest, is the absence of music or, rather, the staging of music’s absence: when a lutenist performs mutely for the king, his silence is foregrounded (literally and figuratively) by his mannered gestures and visual prominence (he occupies the foreground of a long static shot). Just as finely balanced is the musicless dance. Is it an experimental gesture, an invitation to laugh, or both? It might call to mind a rich tradition in avant-garde dance, from Martha Graham’s silent Project in Movement for a Divine Comedy (1930) to the profusion of musicless performance in contemporary choreography and physical theater. But the mannered theatricality of King Gustav’s choreographed court courts ridicule with its superstylized gestures and self-mockingly artsy bearing.
My own inclination to laugh stems from an association I haven’t been able to avoid since I first saw the video. Confronted with sounds of dancers’ feet and breathing undisguised by music, I recall another scene set in lavish eighteenth-century surroundings. Miloš Forman’s 1984 film adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus features dance without music, presented to wonderfully comic moment effect. In Shaffer’s plot, Mozart’s avowed enemy Antonio Salieri engineers a conspiracy to have dance music removed from Le nozze di Figaro on the basis of an imperial ban [End Page 170] on dance in opera. In protest, Mozart rehearses the dance without music. The Emperor Joseph II unexpectedly attends rehearsal and is greeted with the spectacle of this musicless dance. “Is it modern?” he asks, puzzled. [As Janice Ross reminded me, it is “modern”: the creative tension between historical and contemporary practices in Shonibare’s Un ballo are equally evident in Twyla Tharp’s choreography of the dance and opera scenes in Amadeus.] The scene continues; dancers celebrate Figaro’s wedding to the accompaniment of thudding, shuffling feet. “Well, look at them!” the emperor declares, his exasperation rendered with great comic effect by actor Jeffrey Jones. “No, no,” he concludes, “this is nonsense, ” and on an imperial command, the music is restored.
In Amadeus the missing music is the wedding march. Textual traces of the genesis and first performances of the opera, however, reveal a different history, or histories. The problem number in Figaro wasn’t the march but the dance that closely follows it. A rediscovered manuscript copy of the score used in Vienna bears witness to missing pages that would have contained a fandango, in which the courtly dancing of the wedding guests would form a backdrop to Count Almaviva’s own attempt to choreograph an encounter with Susanna. The missing pages—the gap where dance would have been—offer, in their absence, a sign of an agon between opera and dance. In his memoirs Lorenzo Da Ponte fueled the idea of a conspiracy against Mozart, suggesting that the inclusion of a dance in Figaro—something that shouldn’t have happened in an imperial theater—offered the composer’s rivals a convenient opportunity to draw attention to the infringement and to sabotage Figaro. Da Ponte recalled having the corresponding pages of his libretto ripped out in front of him by theater...