You’ve probably noticed: there is a royal wedding coming up. Picture it: a white wedding, guests hushed with expectation, William waiting for Kate to make her entrance and then – cue music – there she’ll be, in diaphanous white, soft-focused against white bridesmaids who will pool into a kind of human spotlight so that she is illuminated for us.
There are strong overtones of classical ballet there, right down to bridesmaids as a kind of corps de ballet. Weddings are, indeed, very theatrical events. Everything is set and costumed and cued. Roles are played, directions followed. Never mind who the actual couple are – William, Kate, whatever – on a wedding stage, as in the theatre, they become something else, something more like an idea: the Bride and Groom. And at this particular wedding, they become something else too: the Prince and Princess.
If the royal wedding has a lot in common with classical ballet, then classical ballet has a lot in common with a royal wedding. Not, I think, in its material, but certainly in its iconography. The Sleeping Beauty is the most obvious example – it ends, after all, with a royal wedding. A Princess is awakened from obscurity by the kiss of a Prince, and they get married, to much jubilation and public attention. As in any wedding, the principal couple – Princess Aurora, Prince Florimund – are not just characters, but archetypes: the Ballerina and Her Consort. These are common – no, integral – roles in classical ballet, not only embedded in its stories but embodied in its techniques of partnering and presentation. They also mirror, pretty straightforwardly, the roles of Bride and Groom. What are those roles? He may be crucial to the story, but she is key to the show. Costume, corps and choreography all frame the ballerina/bride as the centre of attention; the limelight is hers. The consort/groom plays her ardent admirer, whether complementing her lines in the pas de deux or complimenting her looks on the aisle.
This limelight is an ambivalent place, for a ballerina as for a bride. On the one hand, it’s clearly a focus and locus of influence. In it, the ballerina is the most powerful figure on the stage. As a performer, she carries the show, commands our attention, fills our imaginations. Her partner is an accessory – a strong arm and a long leg – to help her achieve this. But on the other hand, as a character in the story, she is curiously vacant. She glows not because she desires the prince, but because he desires her (Florimund’s alternative name – Prince Désiré – is a total misnomer here). His love is her limelight. Symbolically, this is a conservative, very traditional division of labour/love, and a rigidly defined division of roles – sexualities, even – but there’s white weddings for you.
The central ballet couple can embody archetypes – Ballerina/Princess, Consort/Prince – because they are rather featureless as characters. Instead of character, they articulate “classicism”, a kind of beatific sense of geometry and proportion. Lower-status “character” roles throw them into relief, highlighting what the central classical roles are not. In Sleeping Beauty, for example, a series of couples perform at the wedding, all of them characterised in some way, in contrast with the pure (classical) romance of the Prince and Princess: Puss in Boots and the White Cat – flirty; Red Riding Hood and the Wolf – feral; the Bluebirds – flighty. Aurora and Florimund are, by contrast, no one in particular – not flirty, not feral, not flighty – but rather a classical “characterless”) ideal. Similarly, the opening of Act 3 of Ashton’s Cinderella features a brief parade, one fiery, one quarrelsome, one cold, and so on, each couple offsetting the unsullied classicism of the central pair (or perhaps offering up various sullied visions of their future life together).
As with royal weddings, balletic archetypes of love and marriage go together (like a horse and carriage) with others, principally those of race and class. But that’s for another article. Suffice to say here that the link between classical ballet and white royal weddings is much more than skin deep. They both embody values about an idealised couple, and their focus is the woman. Still, only one princess bride has actually attained iconic status: Princess Di. Young, pale, slender, a bit not-quite-there, she was a figure onto which we, the public, could project our collective princessy, white-swannish fantasies – as if she were, in fact, a Ballerina.