Tragic heroines

One lives in Verona, the other in Nagasaki. One is cared for by her nurse, the other by her maid, Suzuki. One is still a girl, the other a mother. But Juliet Capulet and Cio-Cio-San, a geisha known as Madame Butterfly, have much in common. Both are in love with the wrong men, and they both die by their own hand.

The two women belong to the sisterhood of tragic ballet heroines who are betrayed, tricked, or jilted, and often chose death rather than life without their lovers.

This year, with The Australian Ballet presenting Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly and Graeme Murphy’s Romeo & Juliet, the company’s ballerinas have a fresh chance to interpret the naive and vulnerable heroines.

Along with the leading female roles in Giselle, Manon, Onegin and Swan Lake, they represent the Everest of the ballet repertoire. So it’s not surprising that Rachel Rawlins and Madeleine Eastoe, two of the company’s principals who have climbed the heights, can recall the moments that affected them deeply or challenged them most.

Sometimes, despite the concentration and stamina they need to dance the parts, the sheer force of the narrative can take them by surprise.

In Onegin – when Rachel danced the role of Olga, the fiancĂ©e of Lensky who is shot and killed, “I felt so completely overwhelmed about the fact that I had been involved in an emotional story telling moment that I started to cry”.

For Madeleine, “some of the music we perform to is powerful and can take you to that place. With the last pas de deux in Romeo & Juliet, the death scene, it was very easy to get the right emotion simply from the music and what you are trying to tell”.

Prokofiev’s score for Romeo & Juliet is prescriptive and powerful throughout, but reaches a peak with Juliet’s death in the crypt. The final minutes of the ballet are on the same level as the emotionally charged final pas de deux in Manon, in which the heroine, in a state of delirium, struggles vainly to survive.

Ballet’s tragic heroines are all cultural descendants from the romantic age when the ballerinas were depicted as fragile, otherworldly, outcasts or outsiders, none more than Giselle, the village girl betrayed by a man who conceals his status as an aristocrat.

Before she dies, Giselle drags a sword around the stage while Cio-Cio-San plunges a sword into her chest and Juliet ends her life with a dagger. With ballet’s tragediennes, it seems that a dreadful death is the price they pay for love.

This article first appeared in Behind Ballet, the blog of the Australian Ballet.

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Vicki Attard in Madame Butterfly