“On, Wisconsin!” and La Bayadère

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Leafing through Helena Wulff’s well-known ethnography of the professional ballet world, Ballet Across Borders for references to music, I found this story about a La Bayadère rehearsal at ABT:

At the American Ballet Theatre in a rehearsal of the act “The Kingdom of the Shades” in La Bayadère, one of the coaches asked a woman principal to ‘do “On Wisconsin.”‘ This is a series of soussus, when the woman dances on pointe on the diagonal of the stage, by opening and closing one leg with every step, to a fast, catching rhythm. To my question the the coach explained “we have called it that since school”; but he did not know the origin of the term. He thought that the music was an old folk-song.”

I love these ballet traditions, so I couldn’t let that go without a quick hunt around the web to see if I could trace the connection. Here it is (I think): On, Wisconsin! composed William Purdy in 1909, is now the state song of Wisconsin, but long before that it was the fight-song of the Wisconsin Badgers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and has been sung with various versions of the lyrics by thousands of schools.

On Wisconsin (Source: IMSLP [link to file])

And the bit in La Bayadère that the coach was referring to I think was probably this:

Souce: IMSLP (link to La Bayadère page there)

And if you want to sing along while watching the dance (for a second or two) here’s the step:

It should start at 29:43 automatically, but if it doesn’t, scroll through

I love asides like this, particularly when—as in this case—the reference is so specific to another culture, another company. That was partly the point that Wulff was making in this section of the book, that moments like this are part of what makes for a culture of belonging to a particular company. At ENB, the bit of the Act III pas de deux in Ronnie Hynde’s Coppélia where the viola circles around D C# E D | D C# E D before returning to the theme was known as “Mona Lisa.”

My favourite to date, though, is a bit in the 3rd act pas de deux in Prokofiev’s Cinderella (Christopher Wheeldon’s version). The dancers, who’d been rehearsed by Jackie Barrett, kept referring to a certain part as “Stevie Wonder.” It took me ages to realize that it was because of some tiny curlicue in the middle of a melody which was identical to the tune that goes with the words “isn’t she lovely” in the song of the same name. Rather like Diana Deutsch’s “speech to song illusion” once you’ve heard the allusion in the Prokofiev, you just can’t unhear the Stevie Wonder.

References

Wulff, H. (1998). Ballet across borders: Career and culture in the world of dancers. Berg.
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