Institutional Racism & Swanilda’s Friends

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Another day at the University of London Library [see earlier post on Czerny], this time, to retrieve some dances from Tchaikovsky’s opera Cherevichki which were used in Cranko’s Onegin. I only know that because on a recent trip to Westminster Music Library, where everything that I had found in their online catalogue was missing from the shelves – not on loan, just missing – I came across a vocal score of this opera, which I had never heard of before, and flicking through it found a good deal of Onegin, note for note. You could find this information from a review of Onegin in the Boston Phoenix, but only by typing in The Slippers (the English translation of “Cherevichki”, or Vakula the Smith (an earlier opera on which it is based) or The Caprices of Oksana (the alternative title).

Senate House Library is the opposite of Westminster – it has wonderful things on the shelves that don’t appear in the catalogue, such as all 61+ volumes of Tchaikovsky’s complete works, including every sketch for a song that the great man ever wrote on the back of his bus ticket, and of course, Cherevichki. The catalogue also claims to have very little Moniuszko – however, looking for the collected works of Corelli on some shelves which seemed to have been catalogued according to the qwerty keyboard rather than the alphabet, I tripped over the collected works of Moniuszko, another victim of musical shoplifting (which Delibes admitted): the Friends dance in Coppélia is almost a direct lift of Moniuszko’s song Poleć, pieśni, z miasta.

I’d read about this, and a colleague found a version of the song in 1950s Anglo-Polish songbook – which enabled us to provide more information for the Guidebooks we were writing for the RAD’s Alternative Music for Grades 1-5. However, it was only today that I could finally say I knew that the song came from the Third ‘Home Songbook’ (Śpiewnik domowy) with words by Edmund Wasilewski, and is No. 3 of Trzy Krakowiaki. The only place I’ve found anything else about this is from BalletMet’s page on Coppélia, where it’s claimed the St Léon thought that the piece was a folk song, only later discovering it was by Moniuszko. Delibes’ version is so similar to Moniuszko’s, right down to the melody in thirds, the grace notes, the accompaniment and the little ritardandi at the ends of the phrase, that I’m forced to question how much either St L?on or Delibes could really have believed it was a folk tune.

But so what? Well, Moniuszko is a huge Polish composer, and you can buy his works anywhere in Poland, or from an online bookstore. The first page of the score of Coppélia tells us that the story is set in Galicia, as is his opera Kassya, which contains even more remarkable Polish folk music [For more on this, see The Life of Zygmunt Stojowski]. So why don’t we think of and study Coppélia as a ‘Polish’ ballet, rather than see the Mazurka in Act I as a kind of character divertissement in an otherwise French ballet? (Heaven knows what people make of it if they see Osbert Lancaster’s ghastly designs for the ROH version – thank goodness I grew up with Desmond Heeley’s for Ronald Hynd).

In most articles about the ballet, there are more mentions of Delibes’ use of leitmotiv than his interest in Polish music, even though leitmotiv is by no means the most prominent feature of Coppélia. But then leitmotiv is something convenient to hang music on – it’s a solid, teutonic, musicological term that gives music credibility, and can easily be taught to GCSE students who need a keyword that can be given a straight 2 marks by an examiner, whereas Poland is out of sight and out of mind in academia – too small, too weird (all those accents & consonant clusters), too confusing historically, too inaccessible for monolingual researchers.

The new Europe, the Internet, cheap airfares, Solidarność, the end of the Iron Curtain, dance as an academic subject, globalization – it ought to be so simple to address these little unwritten histories, fill in the gaps, improve our understanding of what such great and popular works like Coppélia are, and where they come from.

What do we get? More and more shallow, dismissive scholarship based on secondary sources in English, or still worse, that complete cop-out, the ‘self-ethnography’. In the middle is that nod to multiculturalism of studying Indian and African dance – which makes me wonder whether this is not much more than 19th century exoticism & colonialism revisited. Why not study the Krakowiak and Obertas, as well as Kathak? What’s the problem – is Poland not exotic enough? Or is it an insidious form of racism – we don’t understand them, so they obviously don’t have any culture?

Biography of Moniuszko (English)
List of Moniuszko’s works (Polish)

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2 thoughts on “Institutional Racism & Swanilda’s Friends

  1. Jo Jewkes

    SO interesting!!! And I can confirm the bias against ‘character dancing ‘ is widespread in Western European ballet companies☹️
    When I wrote about Coppélia for my professorship, I noted that Ronnie’s Swanhilda and friends were given more character style ports de bras than an earlier version I had danced based on RB version (I don’t know how ENB perform it now?)
    This different ‘accent ‘ then gave my Swanhilda a more forthright and incisive personality-she was not a French cupcake

    Reply
    1. Jonathan Still Post author

      Funnily enough, I often think about Ronnie teaching it that way, and finding it interesting and unusual. “Not a French cupcake” would be a good way to describe Delibes, as well: he is respectful of and knowledgeable about the traditions he borrows from, it’s not just the idle use of hackneyed tropes for “foreigners.”

      I was expecting to find myself disagreeing with what I’d written 13 years ago, but little has changed, in some ways. Perhaps I’m a bit more kindly disposed to self-ethnography than I was then, though it would depend a lot on who was doing it and why. I would love to read, for example, a self-ethnography of a Polish dancer reflecting on representing herself and Poland in a ballet like Coppélia! On the other hand, the rise of the far-right, the resurgence of fanatical ethnic nationalism, Brexit, all puts a new filter on this topic.

      Reply

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