I’ve been thinking about fairy tales a lot recently. In December, I read Peter Stoneley’s Queer History of Ballet, a frustratingly incomplete account of queer resonance in and around ballet. It’s disappointing that the author doesn’t explore much of the 20th century, focusing instead on the era when people remained in the closet. His entire text hangs on suggestion; this is one of the least gay books “about” queerness I have ever read.
I’m hoping that richer scholarship will be laid on top of Stoneley’s work, but there are some gems. One highlight is his section on fairies– a point of convergence for ballet and homo culture.
Stoneley offers a brief history of the fairy in lore and art, from the three Greek Fates to a race of enchanted Others unable to join human society. He contrasts the Romantics’ celebration of these nature-beings to the Victorians’ repulsion by their excesses, framing the ballets of these periods in that context. Then, consider:
There have been many points in the fairy’s history where the idea of the fairy might seem to correspond to modern stereotypes of homosexuality. Homosexuals have often been seen as dangerously and excessively sexual. The homosexual could be identified in the same way as the fairy. Much as she moves her hands quickly to hide the fact that her fingers are all joined together, the homosexual too may be over-expressive, as he tries to divert and attract attention at the same time. Homosexuals have their special places; they are supposed to love to dance, and they are preoccupied with ‘glamour’.* They are thought to lament over and to revel in their difference. And so on.
Stoneley doesn’t just present the fairy character as a convenient site of cross-identification for gay men; the ballerina herself, princess or fairy, served this role and has been the subject of male impersonation for at least a century before the Trocks. He indicates that the fairy is also– beautiful and grotesque, pleasure-seeking but lacking conscience– a potential symbol for the “curse” of homosexuality itself at this time. The love that dare not speak its name was confined to whatever joys could be attained in shadowed secrecy, and Stoneley cites Hans Christian Andersen’s** The Ice Maiden (later balletified to The Fairy’s Kiss or Le Baiser de la fee) as a strong contender for this reading of the fairy.
* “Glamour” is the “power that causes one to see the fairies as they wish to be seen.”
**Andersen himself was apparently a lifelong ballet patron and friend of Bournonville.
By coincidence, a friend lent me The Fairy Tales of Herman Hesse while I was still reading Stoneley, then my mother received a collection of Grimm’s stories for Christmas. It started to feel like fairy tales were seeking me out. I’ll post more on these texts later, but for now I’d rather focus on New York City Ballet’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, which opened Wednesday night.
One of the “fairy-est” ballets I can think of, Balanchine’s version tells Shakespeare’s fantasy/comedy from the perspective of the winged creatures; humans are mere interruptions (and opportunities for mischief). Appropriately, it is Puck who narrates the action in the trailer for the current production.
When I first saw the ballet, I was struck by the fairies’ specific movement characterization. Fluttering, twinkling arms fill the stage in the opening scene, setting Midsummer immediately apart from Balanchine’s linear modern works and grand classical tributes. No doubt his intention was to convey magic and flight rather than webbed-fingered outcasts, but he certainly nailed “other.”
Of course, Balanchine’s “other” is spectacularly beautiful, and according to the rules of classicism, the ballet moves from chaos to harmony, enchanted forest to civilized wedding. The central pas de deux of the first act exploits the mismatched adorations of Queen Titania for the donkey and he for a nibble of grass. It’s comic gold, but in the second act this frivolity must be put aside. True love– the kind that inspires lifelong commitment– is the subject of the second act duet, a divertissement danced by an entirely new couple free of any misguided wanderings in the forest. Yet Balanchine (following Shakespeare) slips in a twist at the end: the festivities fade and the stage is transformed again to the darkened wood. We return to the realm of the fairies. King and queen reconcile then exit, but Puck—like a magnet for activity—draws the other fairies to him before rising into the sky. It is, after all, his impish logic that reigns here.