A Brief History of Ondine, A Ballet

“Ondine is a fairy of the water… she is as pure as the water is… she comes out looking for love.”

Ondine is a ballet in three acts by Sir Frederick Ashton and composer Hans Werner Henze. Its original production for the Royal Ballet was in 1958 (there was a production as early as 1843, by Jules Perrot, and this was noted by Ashton in 1958 that he was inspired by Perrot). There are many famous ballets that we all know of such as Swan Lake. However, Ondine, is most certainly an underrated gem in the ballet world and should be put into production more often. The choreographer is credited with establishing a distinctly “English style of ballet.” I am most fascinated by how this ballet explores the fluidity of movement and inspires one to think about how the human body connects to the natural elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Space), in particular pushing our ideas around water, femininity, and human expression through fluid bodily movements.

The concepts explored in this ballet are unique characterizations of the ballet world itself. For example, the character of Ondine is not an easy one to portray – she is complex and translating complex characters into dance is never a simple task. The ballet was adapted from a novella titled Undine be German writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouque, and it tells the tale of a water nymph who is the object of desire by a young prince named Palemon. A revival of this ballet took place in 1988. This ballet should be revived once again.

Particularly noteworthy is the composition of the music of this ballet. Nothing about the rhythm is too predictable or stable, which feels reminiscent of the way the seas can be and how the nature of the sea can change quickly. English prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn, below, played the title role and the ballet was choreographed specially for her. Between 1958 and 1966, nearly every performance by the Royal Ballet saw Fonteyn reprise this role. There is something beautiful about her willingness to repeat this ballet over and over again, as it must have been emotionally intense to engage with expressing the character so often. Fonteyn is a true ballet idol. She was appointed prima ballerina assoluta by Queen Elizabeth II.

Today, Ondine should be reprised by ballet companies around the world. The character “bears a resemblance to The Little Mermaid,” and it is worth noting that this ballet was revived in 1988, one year before the Disney film was released. We are seeing continuous tropes in popular culture which involve water, fluidity, and the nature of the human spirit. If we continue to build a cultural understanding of the veracity of our connection to nature and our spirit, perhaps through elevating art such as this ballet, we can have imagery to remind us of just how deeply connected nature is to the human spirit.

Ondine potrayed by famous English ballerina Margot Fonteyn in 1958

An illustration portraying Jules Perrot’s first production of Ondine, which took place in July 1851.

Source: Wikipedia

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