March 5, 2023

Ballet Bloopers – Tristan and Isolde

About the Author: Suzanne Wagner
By Published On: March 5, 2023Categories: Ballet, Blog Daily

Ballet Bloopers – Tristan and Isolde


In the Berlin Ballet, we enjoyed a very modern version of the story of Tristan (a knight) and Isolde (an Irish Princess).

For those unfamiliar with the story, it is about a hero, Tristan who goes upon the request of his uncle the King of Cornwall to Ireland … to ask for the princess, Isolde’s, hand in marriage.

On their way back to the wedding (both of them) mistakenly drink a love potion intended for the king and fall madly in love with each other.
This is a Celtic story and obviously there are many versions out there about this story and even more various endings to the story.

As with many ballets … it is a tragedy that explores forbidden love. There is a love potion intended for the King but there is a either a mix up or some intended deception, and both drink the potion. Even once the potion wears off … they continue their illicit affair.

Endings vary but in the end of this one Tristan dies of grief thinking Isolde had betrayed him and then she dies over his corpse.

If this sounds familiar, it was a popular medieval theme (think … Lancelot and Guinevere or Romeo and Juliet).

In the Berlin Ballet this had a more modern slant, and we were all in white to green colored unitards. The principals had additional garnishes on theirs, but the corps were fairly plain with just various ways that the unitards were colored. Each was slightly different with the shading. And that was because of the intent of the costume ladies that were dying them all … by hand.
In ballet … at that time, we all wore an undergarment that was a smooth as could be made, so (shall I say) certain things did not peak out so obviously. Men always had their dance belt, but the women had this.

But the choreographer of this ballet did not like the lines that showed through the skin-tight unitard. And so … we found ourselves without that extra … covering.

Honestly the women did not think much about it until we were doing the dress rehearsal.

When we suddenly noticed that all the crew guys were out in the audience watching.

Normally that is not where they are, and they usually stay backstage doing what the stage crews do. But in this ballet, they did not have much to do, as this performance was mostly about lighting rather than set changes.

We received wild applause from the guys when we danced and that was also odd.

We all noticed it and wondered … but did not really understand what was going on because we were a bit busy dancing.

Finally, one of the dancers (that was injured) but was out in the audience watching … came backstage to our dressing rooms and told us, “Do you know that with that lighting on stage … those unitards are completely see though? You can see … shall I say, everything … clear as a bell. You might as well be naked!”

I remember the gasp in the room.

Then the flutter of women’s conversations began where they were going between embarrassed and pissed.
We asked if we could use the under panty to cover up the obvious maturity muff.
But the choreographer and designer refused.

Berlin was known for doing some extreme things on stage that added to the Avant Garde quality of the Berlin Theater. They loved to try to add in that very sexual quality into live theater … wherever possible.

When we realized that we did not have an obvious option at our disposal, the conversations returned to what other things we could do.

Some women wanted to put pancake makeup … down there to at least disguise the darker hair problem.

I laughed and said, I was just going to shave it off!

They looked at me stunned!

I said, “Hey! We shave our armpits. Why not that too?”
It’s funny to me that I thought that way. But I knew that the fluffy hair … (down there) … was going to still disturb the line of the unitard so why not make it all smooth?
That is what I did and that allowed me to feel more confident during the show. I know I was not the only one either.

I laugh now at the process that we all went through and how now, there is a much more socially acceptable solution with laser and waxing. But in my generation such things not really done.
Dancers are not really very bashful or self-conscious.  But there is a big difference between being naked with each other in dressing rooms or in costume fittings … and then being naked in front of two thousand people. Which is the seating at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.
There is nothing like live theater and the dramas that unfold that show the very human reality as we tried to become the epitome of a dream.
In live theater, all things are more heightened because of the performance pressure and the fact that we are dealing with artists.
All artists are more emotional and expressive. All artists have this delicate balance between powerful self-control and the intensity of the passions that are like wild animals seeking a way out and into the light.
We live as fully at the edge of this telepathic agreed upon reality. But artists never feel as if they are a part of the “society”. We are always sensing and seeing things that others do not.
We are not able to remain numb for long and it is our ability to express deep emotions in ways that allow others to feel what we feel … that makes people want to go to the theater.
We perform and create permission for others to feel what is deeply buried.

In connecting to an audience, we show them the doorways to their own hidden depths.

It is our gift to them and to ourselves.

Nothing ever feels like live theater once we leave.

But it forever changes us and makes us more aware to the magic and subtlety within all of life.
I hope I inspire some to go to more live performances and decide to give generously to the arts.

What we give to others selflessly … deserves to be honored, protected, and held in a sacred way for all of mankind.

~Suzanne Wagner~

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