by Aashaya Anand & Arpitha Bhat from En Avant Magazine September October 2022
The villains and antagonists we see in ballet represent our unfiltered emotions — rage, fury, envy and so on. Instead of suppressing these emotions, they embody them. They serve as more than just a means of conflict for the main character, often having more character than the protagonist themselves. In this article, we’re going to go over the complexities and intricacies of the antagonist in ballets — some more popular, some less.
Baron von Rothbart – Swan Lake
Swan Lake is a story of love and betrayal; enchanting yet tragic, and a ballet most loved. One of its central antagonists is Baron Von Rothbart, a selfish and cunning sorcerer who casts a spell on Odette and turns her into a swan. His character is cruel and obsessive, proving to be a stark contrast to that of Odette’s; the white swan representing kindness and purity. He often wears a winged costume with large feathers to seem almost owl-like, a representation of his true form. In some ballets, his costuming is less exaggerated: more human but with the feathers still present.
Odile – Swan Lake
His daughter Odile, also known as the Black Swan is considered one of the antagonists as well. She moves with a fierce elegance and is just as charming as her father. But really, Odile is only a puppet in her father’s grand scheme.
Click here to watch Odile’s variation!
Myrtha – Giselle
Myrtha, from Giselle, isn’t just a villain. Myrtha is what is created when a woman is wronged in such a cold and ruthless manner that she refuses to forgive or forget. She carries great malice and wrath with her everywhere she goes, but she’s also eternally weighed down by incredible sorrow from when she was betrayed. Myrtha is queen of the Wilis – phantoms who died just before they were married, deceived and betrayed in their lifetimes. They don’t ever let go of their pain. Instead, they channel it into vengeance, double-crossing those who crossed them once. Like a forest fire, they thrill through the woods they inhabit, dancing passers-by to death. “Myrtha is an exhausting role. When I would get tired my shoulders tended to go up, so I had to find a way to lift above my rib cage to make everything look simple and easy,” said Michaela DePrince, a dancer at the Boston Ballet. When Myrtha emerges from the darkness, audiences go silent. She enters in a pale white dress to ominous music. She forms large movements with her body, almost floating over the stage in a ghostly manner.
Click here to watch Myrtha – Queen of the Wilis variation.
Koschei – The Firebird
A Russian folk tale adapted into a ballet, The Firebird is about a mythical bird and a prince, Ivan Tsarevich, working together to take down a sinister sorcerer, Koschei the Deathless, and liberate thirteen princesses from his spell. Igor Stravinsky was the composer and genius behind the ballet. He masterfully orchestrated the soundtrack for this ballet, juxtaposing and blending themes of fantasy, realism and social commentary. Koschei the Deathless cannot be killed. His soul is stored away in a needle, which is in an egg buried under an oak tree. No existing record of literature describes his appearance, so he had to be reimagined for the ballet. His body is devoid of a soul and he wears a red costume, appearing both sickly and scathing. His body moves in concert with the egg in which his soul is hidden. When the egg is tossed around, his body too gets thrown around. When the needle snaps, so does he. One of our creepier antagonists, for sure.
Click here to watch the Infernal Dance of King Koschei.
Ghost Dancers – Ghost Dances
Trapped in the liminal space between life and death, the Ghost Dancers are wretched and desperate to escape from their state of not-quite-existence. Their costumes are heavily exaggerated — they wear torn clothes and body paint that highlights their bones, giving them a hollow appearance. They wear face masks that imitate those of the Mexican tradition, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The Ghost Dancers symbolise those who were oppressed and murdered across South America in the 1970s. The ballet artistically paints a picture of the aftermath of the Pinochet Coup in Chile, where the citizens of Chile who met their deaths too early, still live on and on somewhere, even if we can’t see them. There is an image of a tribe that grinds the bones of the dead to make a soup that is then drunk, to illustrate how the dead live on in the living. This ballet is powerful. The Ghost Dancers break and bend the boundaries of ballet, creating something entirely different out of it. Unlike most ballets, their movements do not appear effortless. The heaviness of their pain isn’t meant to be hidden from the audience — it is blatant. And there is nowhere they can put this pain. So they carry it, in death as they did in life.
Click here to watch the full ballet.
Not spooked yet? Try watching Vaslav Nijinsky’s chilling tale of sacrifice, The Rite of Spring, here. At its premiere, there were reportedly riots in the audience. The ballet wasn’t just terrifying, it was dangerous to watch it too!