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Subject: ‘Dance’

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The public and hidden world of Marrakesh

Posted in Africa, Customs, Dance, Historical articles, History, Religion on Monday, 3 February 2014

This edited article about Marrakesh first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 538 published on 6 May 1972.

Marrakesh,  picture, image, illustration
Marrakesh by Ron Embleton

In the market square of Marrakesh, tourists stare in amazement at the dancers and snake-charmers and buy hand-made souvenirs of leather and brass in the market stalls. Yet, in the narrow alleyways and behind the closed doors of this Moroccan city is a strange way of life which is hidden from the visitors’ eyes.

The dancers spin around on their toes and leap into the air. Faster and faster they dance, and their white robes fly out in all directions. The clash of iron cymbals and the insistent beat of the drum become louder and louder. One by one the dancers fall exhausted to the sand and lie there motionless.

These are the “gnaous,” black dancers from Central Africa. In another part of the immense square a young girl is dancing to the beat of a “guedra,” a drum made from a pottery vase with goatskin stretched over its mouth. She is completely covered in a black robe and wears an enormous shawl of brilliant blue.

In yet another part of the square, a man with long hair wearing a long woollen robe or “djellaba” squats on the ground. A small crowd gathers and watches as he reaches into a basket and pulls out a cobra with his bare hands. The man and the snake stare at one another steadily for what seems like hours.

Now a solemn procession of four camels moves into the square. Sitting easily on the camels’ humps are Berber tribesmen who have arrived from the Sahara desert. They wear blue robes and curious black headscarves.

Approaching from another direction, two donkeys are trotting along side by side, linked together with ropes. On the back of one of the donkeys rides a shepherd from the nearby Atlas mountains. With one arm he taps at the donkey’s head with a short stick, with the other arm he holds a lamb. Hung over both the donkeys’ backs are empty wicker baskets. Soon these will be filled with supplies bought in the “souks” or small shopping centres in the main section of the city.

Two odd-looking men walk past us wearing gaily striped “djellabas” festooned with polished brass bowls. Over their shoulders are goatskin bags full to the brim with something which can at times fetch a high price in this part of the world – fresh drinking water.

This is just part of everyday life in the market square or “Jemaa El Fna,” which is “place of punishment” in the Arabic language. Here dreadful things would be done to people committing quite mild crimes many centuries ago. But today about the most severe punishment meted out might be a hearty slap on the rump of some ill-tempered camel!

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‘The Lights o’ London’, a quadrille by Charles Coote Junr.

Posted in Dance, Historical articles, History, Leisure, London, Music, Theatre on Friday, 24 January 2014

Lights o London,  picture, image, illustration
The Lights o' London was first performed at the Princess's Theatre, 10 September 1881; music sheet by Alfred Concanen

The Lights o’ London is a melodrama by George R Sims. It was first performed at the Princess’s Theatre, 10 September 1881, and enjoyed a long and successful run. The story concerns a romantic couple who elope, which results in the hero being disinherited by his rich and furious father. A plot to inherit the Armytage fortune ensures that Harry Armytage (the hero) is framed for a crime by one Seth Preene, friend of the father and of the plotting cousin, Clifford. But when the brave hero leaps to save Seth from drowning in the Regent’s Canal, the repentant plotter confesses all, and the melodrama ends with virtue vanquishing vice. This Quadrille was composed by Charles Coote Junior, who had a prestigious dance band called Coote and Tinney’s Band, which had played for a State Ball at Buckingham Palace in 1870. The cover of the music sheet depicts the heroic rescue, which takes place in London’s Little Venice. It was painted by the prolific music-sheet artist, Alfred Concanen, whose artistry and social observation were greatly admired and praised by Sacheverell Sitwell.

Many more pictures relating to music sheets can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

Pantomime – a peculiarly English form of theatrical entertainment

Posted in Actors, Christmas, Dance, Historical articles, History, Music, Theatre on Tuesday, 21 January 2014

This edited article about theatre first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 519 published on 25 December 1971.

Cinderella, picture, image, illustration
Cinderella by John Worsley

The best of all pantomimes and the most popular! No prizes for guessing which that is: it is Cinderella, of course, which, unlike all too many of today’s pantomimes, has a real story, and an unbeatable one.

And at the London Palladium this year, where they are putting on Cinderella, they’ve assembled a real star cast to match. So just before we take a look at the history of this glorious, glamorous, slightly “daft,” and very British form of entertainment, which is hardly known outside our islands, let us take a glance at what it costs to put on a show of this nature. At least £110,000!

Pantomime, which still attracts hundreds of thousands of the young and the young-in-heart up and down the country ever Christmas and for weeks afterwards, is big business!

British pantomime goes back to 1717, when a manager named John Rich staged the first one, which had been inspired by the old Italian entertainments known as Commedia dell’Arte. These featured such characters as Harlequin, the lovely Columbine, Pierrot and Pantaloon, and were true pantomime, being dumb shows with the action carried on in “mime” not speech as with today’s pantomimes.

Gradually, Clown became more important than Harlequin. The greatest of all Clowns was Joseph Grimaldi, born in 1778. When only five, he fell forty feet down a trapdoor on stage because his cat’s costume in a pantomime called Hurly Burly was so badly made that he could not see out of it.

Later he found himself playing at Drury Lane and Sadler’s Wells on the same night. Pantomimes were then part of very long entertainments and young Joey would race between the two theatres. This, together with years of touring, undermined his health and he retired when he was only fifty.

In the “Harlequinade” of his day, which was the most important part of the entertainment, there would be marvellous bouts of horseplay. Clown would shoplift, with the foolish Pantaloon as accomplice, and the latter would get caught. A pot of paste would fall over a well-dressed gentleman, and a “red-hot poker” was constantly being applied to the seats of people’s pants! Happily, there is still plenty of this sort of horseplay today.

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England had its pleasure gardens and Rio its carnival

Posted in Dance, Historical articles, History, Leisure, London, Music on Thursday, 19 December 2013

This edited article about leisure first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 498 published on 31 July 1971.

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, picture, image, illustration
Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens around 1750 by Peter Jackson

Throughout Europe wherever the grape is grown, the successful gathering in of the harvest – “the Vintage” – is celebrated with a merrymaking as old as Ancient Rome. The Gods gave the grape, and “wine delighteth the heart of man.” In Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, France the “Queens of the Vintage” are crowned, and all who have laboured in the vineyards are given a great annual spree. Perhaps they take a little bit too much, dance over much and sing over loud! But it is only once a year, and for all who love a glass of good wine the general rule is moderation in this, as in all things.

But let’s leave Europe for a spell and take a look at the London of some three-hundred years ago. 1660 and the Monarchy restored in the pleasure-loving presence of King Charles the Second. 1661, and the opening at Lambeth on the south bank of the Thames of something not wholly new, but far, far more elegant than any predecessor. This was the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Today at Battersea are the “pleasure gardens” opened as part of the 1951 “Festival of Britain.” Battersea, with all the fun of the fair and a certain amount of wit and elegance as well, is a good enough spot in which to have an evening out and a bit of a spree. But it cannot compare with the sparkling splendour of the Vauxhall of long ago. Nor with the other “pleasure gardens” which became focal points of merrymaking London in the train of Vauxhall. The other two most famous were the gardens of Ranelagh and Cremorne with their rotundas and pavilions, their shady avenues, their groves and grottoes, their fountains and cascades, the thousands of lights twinkling among the trees, the music of their orchestras and their singers, their colonnaded arcades lined with pretty little supper rooms.

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Aaron Copland expressed the unique idiom of America’s rich musical language

Posted in America, Dance, Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Music on Monday, 7 October 2013

This edited article about music originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 419 published on 24 January 1970.

Aaron Copland, picture, image, illustration
Aaron Copland grew up in the tough waterfront district of Brooklyn

Aaron Copland was thirteen when he first decided to become a composer, and started a correspondence course in music. After two years, however, the New York-born youngster found that it was impossible for him to learn harmony by reading instructions that came through the post. Instead, he went to a music teacher, but there again he was frustrated. This time, he was accused of being too advanced and modern.

Aaron, who was born in 1900, had grown up in the tough waterfront district of Brooklyn, and he felt in sympathy with the ordinary man in the street. He knew how barbers and truck drivers talked to each other, and understood their problems and interests.

“I was anxious,” he said, “to write a work that would be immediately recognised as American in character.” Before doing this, he went to study composition in Paris, where his admiration for such modern French composers as Ravel and Debussy, increased. In 1924, he returned to New York, determined to compose in what he called the American manner.

His first attempts at this included a Piano Concerto, which he first played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1927. The piece was greatly influenced by the jazz rhythms that were popular at the time, but Copland wrote, “True, it was an easy way to be American in musical terms, but all American music could not possibly be confined to two dominant jazz moods, the blues and the snappy number.”

His next important work was his single-movement symphony, Symphonic Ode. But it was not until 1939, when his “character ballet”, Billy the Kid, was produced in New York, that Copland really captured the spirit of America. The ballet and the symphonic suite which he derived from it, tells of the infamous nineteenth century outlaw who terrorised the territory of New Mexico.

Three years later, he followed this with his dynamic music for Rodeo, a ballet which features a cowgirl who can outride any man on the range.

Although Copland’s later work became increasingly experimental – and difficult for audiences to appreciate – he remains one of the few composers to have expressed the essence and vitality of the American people. By breaking away from tradition, he has set new standards in music.

Gioacchino Rossini was obsessively superstitious and even suicidal

Posted in Dance, Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Music, Theatre on Monday, 23 September 2013

This edited article about music originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 407 published on 1 November 1969.

Rossini at home, picture, image, illustration
Rossini and his wife, Olympe, at one of their famous soirees musicales by Andrew Howat

For many months Gioacchino Rossini – composer of such world-famous operas as The Barber of Seville and William Tell – had been seeking the courage to kill himself. The victim of a severe nervous disorder, he had lost his sense of taste, could no longer swallow food, and had gone as long as 14 weeks without sleep. Each day, as he stood in front of a mirror, the Italian cursed himself for being too much of a coward to commit suicide. “To what am I come,” he asked pitifully, “and what am I doing in this world? And what will people say when they see me reduced, like a baby, to having to rely on a woman’s care?”

The woman in question was his second wife, Olympe, who looked after him with the tenderness of a mother. During the period of Rossini’s long illness he wrote no music at all. But in 1857, while living in Paris, he composed some songs and piano pieces which he modestly described as mere trifles. Nevertheless, he thought enough of the music to allow his guests to play and sing it at his regular Saturday evening parties. Everyone congratulated the composer on his recovery.

“I offer these little songs to my dear wife, Olympe,” he said in a dedication, “as a tribute of gratitude for the affectionate and intelligent care that she lavished upon me in my excessively long and terrible illness.” The songs were not published in Rossini’s lifetime. But more than 40 years after his death another Italian, Ottorino Respighi, arranged the pieces to form the one-act ballet La Boutique Fantasque, or The Fantastic Toyshop.

The ballet was successfully performed in London in 1919, so resuming Rossini’s association with a city that had always taken his music to its heart. In December, 1823, he came to London and left six months later after earning the then enormous sum of £7,000 by singing.

As a boy, Rossini was noted for his beautiful singing voice. His father was the municipal trumpeter to the Italian town of Pesaro, and the youngster soon became a competent ‘cello player. After training at the Conservatory of Bologna, he started his career as a composer and between 1810-29 wrote no less than 36 operas. He was renowned for his melodic sense of humour and also for being extremely superstitious.

He had a dread of signs and omens and allowed his life to be governed by them. This lasted until November, 1868, when he died after a series of illnesses on Friday the 13th.

Tchaikovsky studied law and might have remained a civil servant

Posted in Dance, Historical articles, History, Music, Theatre on Tuesday, 17 September 2013

This edited article about music originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 404 published on 11 October 1969.

Tchaikovsky, picture, image, illustration
Tchaikovsky composing at the piano by Andrew Howat

From the start of his musical studies it seemed that Peter Ilitch Tchaikovsky would never become a composer, or even a competent musician. His piano teacher complained that the youngster was lazy and would not do any work. When Peter’s father, the superintendent of a Russian copper mine, asked if there was any point in continuing the lessons, the teacher replied: “As far as I am concerned, no. The boy has no feeling for music. He would be better suited as a doctor or a lawyer.”

So the 19-year-old Peter went to law school, graduated with honours, and became a clerk in the Ministry of Justice in St. Petersburg. It was clear that he could soon rise to the top of his profession, but his love of music was by no means dead. During this time he practised regularly on the piano, and two years later, in 1861, he resumed his interrupted career.

This time he was in earnest, and his laziness was a thing of the past. He withdrew from the gay social round and was no longer seen in the fashionable salons and drawing-rooms. His new music professor spoke highly of Peter’s promise, but the dedicated young man could not find happiness or peace of mind. He was overcome by shyness, and later said:

“Every new acquaintance, every fresh contact with strangers has been a source of acute suffering for me. Previously I went into society, pretended to enjoy myself, played a certain part . . . and suffered terribly all the time.”

Shortly after this he experienced the first of a series of nervous breakdowns. This was brought on by strain and overwork while composing his First Symphony, known as Winter Daydreams. The piece was performed successfully in public, and caused him less anguish than his later music, much of which was not well received by Russian audiences.

In 1869 a friend and music expert suggested to Tchaikovsky that he should write an overture to Shakespeare’s tragic play, Romeo and Juliet. The idea appealed to the composer, and he finished the work in a few weeks. He sent it eagerly to his friend, who wrote to him saying:

“It is the first of your compositions that contains so many beautiful things that I do not hesitate to pronounce it good as a whole.”

But, despite its deeply felt melodies the fantasy overture was not an immediate success. It failed badly in Russia, and was hissed at in Dresden, Paris, and Vienna. Before Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893, however, the work had gradually won its way into people’s hearts.

Traditional Russian dancers are as skilled as Bolshoi ballerinas

Posted in Customs, Dance, Music on Tuesday, 30 July 2013

This edited article about traditional Russian dance originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 353 published on 19 October 1968.

Gopak, picture, image, illustration
Russian dancers performing the Gopak by Robert Brook

Russian folk dancers have to be hardy. Not only are the dances they perform entertaining; they are also designed to test a man’s physical stamina.

Most Russian folk dances go back many centuries and were evolved by country people who performed them purely for their own entertainment.

A lot of the movements were based on the everyday things the people did themselves. For example, many of the famous Cossack dances are based on horse-riding. The Cossacks had a saying: “A true horse, a fine sword and a brave heart are a man’s best friends.”

At first, all Russian folk dances may seem rather similar, with men in fur hats, floppy skirts and high boots throwing themselves about and doing acrobatic leaps, while girls in peasant costume clap an accompaniment or perform complicated figures. In fact there are scores of different dances, which, like the costumes of the performers, may vary from village to village.

Some dances are amusing parodies of people. There is a dance called the “Chumak,” which is a take-off of a swaggering merchant. No doubt long ago the village people were amused by the airs and graces which prosperous merchants gave themselves, and this was preserved in the steps of this dance. There are also dances which are based on butchers, cobblers, shepherds and so on.

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In the Balinese Ketjak dancing demons triumph over the monkeys

Posted in Anthropology, Customs, Dance, Music on Tuesday, 30 July 2013

This edited article about traditional Balinese dance originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 352 published on 12 October 1968.

Balinese ketjak, picture, image, illustration
The Monkey Men of Bali by Robert Brook

One of the strangest and most impressive of the world’s dances is the Balinese Ketjak. It goes back for so many centuries that its origins are lost, yet its power remains and it is now one of the most popular of all spectacles with visitors to Bali.

There are 150 performers in this dance, and they spend most of the time crouching close to the ground. The most important aspect is their finger movements, and at one stage they pretend to change into monkeys.

Ketjak takes place at night. The dancers are illuminated by the reddish glare of a large branched torch which looks like a primitive candelabra. The torch is placed in the centre of a temple courtyard.

In the weirdly flickering light, the dancers quietly enter the courtyard and form five or six circles, one inside the other. The dancers are all male and they wear loin-cloths, garlands of brilliantly coloured flowers and fantastically woven hats.

For some moments there is a dramatic silence. Then from the throats of the performers there comes a powerful rhythmic chant, so deep that it is almost a growl.

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The Highland Fling is a beautifully choreographed war-dance

Posted in Customs, Dance, Historical articles, History, Music, Scotland on Friday, 26 July 2013

This edited article about traditional Scottish dance originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 351 published on 5 October 1968.

Highland Fling, picture, image, illustration
The Highland Fling by Robert Brook

After the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745, there was much sadness and misery in Scotland. In an attempt to crush the spirit of the Highlanders, the English authorities banned all the things that were symbolic of the proud clans. It became unlawful to wear the kilt, play the bagpipes or dance the traditional dances which the Scots had enjoyed for centuries.

But you cannot kill the spirit of a proud people by passing laws, and today Highland dancing is one of the most famous forms of traditional dancing in the world.

The Scots even invented a dance to poke fun at the laws which were aimed at humiliating them. This dance, which is danced in dozens of countries outside Scotland today, where Scots migrants have taken it with them, is called the Seann Triubhas. Translated from the Gaelic, it means “The Old Trews” (or Old Trousers), and it was developed to show the contempt the Highlanders felt for the trousers they were forced to wear after the freedom of the kilt.

The clansmen despised the new “trews” they had to wear like Englishmen, and the dance was performed to express this. It demonstrates how restricting the trousers are after the kilt, the movements of the hands and fingers showing how uncomfortable the wearers found them.

It was mainly thanks to Sir Walter Scott that there was a return to Scottish traditions.

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