Political pawn, baby bride, party girl and catalyst for the downfall of the French monarchy: Marie Antoinette was all of those things, or not, depending upon whose history one reads. But whether or not she actually said of starving French peasants "let them eat cake" her story is one of incredible glamour and horrific sadness. And now it is the focus of Artistic Director Stanton Welch's newest full-length ballet, Marie.
"I didn't see the movie," Welch says of the Oscar-winning 2006 Sofia Coppola film Marie Antoinette, starring Kirsten Dunst. "But when it was coming out PBS was doing all these documentaries and they were saying that no one really knew if she was this playgirl or not. So I just went from there."
And the result was a three-act ballet about the iconic but ill-fated queen: a ballet that reflects the turbulence of her time and the reported indiscretions of her life. This is not a ballet for children.
Marie was born in 1755, the 15th child of Marie Th_rse, Empress of Austria, and her husband, the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I. Born into the House of Habsburg, her childhood was one of blessed extravagances and idyllic indulgences, but her fate was predetermined. She was married off to Louis- Auguste, the Dauphin of France, at the age of 15 to solidify relations between France and Austria. By many accounts she suffered a loveless marriage, pursued a life of frivolity and extramarital sexual liaisons, which was chronicled and ridiculed in the tabloids of the time, and finally met her end as the French Revolution swelled and the monarchy was disposed. At the age of 37 she was tried in a mock court and guillotined.
"Was she a victim, or a playgirl?" asks Houston Ballet Music Director Ermanno Florio. "Both, I think, but certainly not a great thinker. She was a pawn between the two most important monarchies at the time. It is a very dramatic story. There was a whole decadent lifestyle and a total disconnect with regular society. But it was like being in a hot house for orchids, it was all she knew. Ultimately it brought down the monarchy and was a turning point for Western civilization."
But her early days as the Dauphine of France and as the young queen must have been lonely, Florio thinks. And that alienation is mirrored in the score, pieced together from various Dmitri Shostakovich works, everything from his piano concertos to symphonies. "There is something in his music, both his Communist period and Marie's life as a foreigner were similar, they were victims of their times, and there's a form of rebellion in the structure of his music that comes out very strongly."
With the storyline and music set, Welch moved on to the choreography, and faced something that was new for him. "The first seven years of her marriage were sexless," he says. "I've never done a piece where the lead and her partner had not had sex."
With such a sweeping story, occurring during a time of European opulence in fashion, Welch knew the ballet needed to be a big costume production, but "the dancers still have to move," he says. No breath constricting corsets, no huge hoop skirts to constrict the dancing. Welch turned to London-based designer Kandis Cook, with whom he's worked before on The Four Seasons.
"My research for Marie began by visiting Versailles to experience the grandeur of the chateau and epic proportions of the surrounding gardens," Cook explains. "This was the world to which Marie Antoinette was taken to marry the future King of France Louis XVI. It was also important to research 18th century Austria, eventually exploring the features of the Hofburg Palace, where Marie and her family frequently lived. Its Baroque weight contrasted that of the Rococo lavishness (with no expense spared) of Versailles and very quickly clarified the difference in temperament between the two people."
Cook designed more than 150 costumes for the ballet created from her research, in particular paintings of the royal family at the time. The French and Austrian powdered wigs and perukes, corsets, panniers, silks, lace, jewels, braided waistcoats and jackets, jabeauxs, the ancient regime of France in strict formal dress, Marie and her world, which was less restricted and more in tune with nature, and finally the rags of the public, are all depicted in the production.
"Marie was raised in a relaxed and loving family environment and found the court life of France strict in comparison," says Cook, who evokes this difference in her designs.
From Vienna to Versailles, Marie's life was one of privilege, political intrigue and passion. Her first child was rumored to be the offspring of an extramarital affair and she was crucified in the tabloids of the time as a spendthrift and vacuous fashionista. Yet, ultimately she refused to flee the peasant uprising to stay with her children and husband, resulting in the sad ending in which she saw her husband executed, her son turned against her at a kangaroo court and finally, walked to the guillotine where she was beheaded.
So, was Marie Antoinette a political victim or an early day Paris Hilton?
"Was she, in fact," muses Welch, "the first victim of the paparazzi?" Don't expect the ballet Marie to answer that question. "I like to leave it a little bit ambiguous," Welch says, with a smile.
For tickets and further information, visit The Houston Ballet.
Marene Gustin is the dance critic for the Houston Press and a freelance writer in Houston, Texas whose work has appeared in Dance Magazine and Dance International.