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Thinking About My Ballet Lineage -Giuseppina Bozzachi

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be posting several posts about lineage, particularly my artistic lineage. Part of this is simply due to the fact that these spirits have been strong and very present in my devotions of late, and partly to something one of my friends told me. 

Apparently, (this is what my friend told me – she watches Ukrainian, Russian, and English news about the war) pro-Russian propagandists are using the reputation of the imperial ballet and the ballet russe as justification for Russia invading and torturing Ukrainians (and anyone else – give it time). The argument is something like, look at the glory that only Russia has produced. Let me just say that the modern Russian ballet is a caricature of its glory days. Even Soviet era ballet was better formed, with better technique and far, far more artistry (though not choreography) than what we see now (1). Imperial Russian ballet had phenomenal dancers from all over what was then the Russian empire (not all of whom were ethnically Russian), and its core came from a French pedagogue and choreographer Marius Petipa (March 11, 1818- July 14, 1010) and an Italian dancer and pedagogue Enrico Cecchetti (June 21, 1850 -November 13, 1928–he was the first to dance the bluebird in Sleeping Beauty). The latter’s skill and style were essential parts of the artistic formation of every iteration of both the Imperial Ballet AND the Ballet Russe pretty much through Alicia Markova – who was actually English (2). It continues to form the core of British ballet training. Ballet is and always has been an international conversation. Without the Italian and French influence, there wouldn’t be modern Russian ballet. The artistic torch inevitably makes the rounds from generation to generation, prima to prima, pedagogue to pedagogue, country to country and no one country can lay claim to that artistic prize without bowing its head to the weight of the multi-national lineage that comes with it. 

Now, yesterday a piece of ephemera arrived for my ancestor shrine. This is meant for the section of my ancestor shrine given to my artistic lineage (and lately I sort of just roll castrati, ballet dancers, artists, and writers all into the mix – gaudeamus igitur and all that – but this particular person is part of my ballet lineage). 

G. Bozzacchi, photo portrait, my collection

This is an image of Giuseppina Bozzacchi (November 23, 1853-November 23, 1870 – yes, she died on her 17th birthday). Bozzacchi was an Italian ballerina who created one of the most beloved comedic roles in classical ballet: Swanhilda in the ballet Coppelia (3). Bozzacchi actually has the shortest ballet career on record. She lived during the Franco-Prussian war and died technically of smallpox or possibly an unspecified “fever” (4) but more likely of war-time starvation.  

At the time she was dancing with the Paris Opera ballet, she was “discovered” by choreographer Arthur Saint-Leon (September 17, 1821 – September 2, 1870). Saint-Leon was ballet master of the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg for a decade. He had studied music with Nicolo Paganini (October 27, 1782 – May 27, 1840) and ballet, most likely with his father who had danced with the Paris Opera. Saint-Leon danced with one of the last great romantic ballerinas Fanny Cerrito (May 11, 1817 – May 6, 1909) He even married her, though they later divorced.  While Saint-Leon was a gifted dancer, he has become even better known as a teacher and choreographer. He is responsible, along with Marius Petipa for creating the scaffolding of what became a pedagogical system that turned out some of the greatest dancers in the history of the Russian Imperial Ballet who in turn traveled west with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe and helped create English and American ballet. 

Bozzacchi danced Coppelia eighteen times before she died. Here is a lengthier article about her, Saint-Leon, and this ballet. 

A better image of Bozzacchi, which I got off wiki. She has excellent feet and very strong pointes for someone of her generation (the technology and technique of pointe work changed greatly throughout the early 20th c). I find her confidence in this image quite remarkable for someone only seventeen. She’s presented here in Coppelia.

Notes:

  1. The ability to raise one’s legs beyond a split does not artistry make. It’s a grotesque twisting out of true, in classical ballets – the core of the art – at least. There is also a simple fact that having a great artistic history doesn’t give you the right to go into a neighboring country and start killing people there—and I’ll forgive a lot in service to art, but there are limits even for me!
  2. Her birth name was Lillian Alicia Marks but in those days, because of the influence of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, and also dancers like Anna Pavlova, it was common for English girls to take Russian names if they were ballet dancers. I’ll be writing about Markova later this month.
  3. I danced this ballet – in the corps. I played one of Swanhilda’s friends who help her break and enter a dollmaker’s shop. It’s a fun ballet to dance. It tells the story of a dollmaker, who makes a doll so lifelike that a stupid young peasant boy, Franz, falls in love with it, thinking it a living girl. The toymaker, you see, would set the doll in the window, with a book in her hands, where she could be seen from the street. His sweetheart, Swanhilda, isn’t having it and after a small act of breaking and entering (lol), hides the doll and takes its place. The toymaker is initially none the wiser, and eventually, of course, it all works out. Her lover Franz gets his come-uppance and realizes he’s been an idiot, the toymaker is amused and forgives all, and Swanhilda and Franz go off into the sunset. It’s quite a charming ballet and the only one I can think of that’s anywhere close to it (though for whatever reason, it’s not performed very often these days) is La fille mal gardee (I believe it was first performed in the mid 18th century). The Royal Ballet has an updated ballet version choreographed by Frederick Ashton. 
  4. The accounts note smallpox and fever. Today we have a vaccine for smallpox but up until the middle of the twentieth century, smallpox was considered one of the “deadliest diseases known to humans.” See here and here for more info. As of today, it has largely been eradicated via vaccination. The vaccine was created by Edward Jenner in England in 1796 and there was a vaccination drive in France throughout the mid-nineteenth century. Bozzachi had grown up in Italy however and it wasn’t until the latter half of the nineteenth century that there was a significant push for vaccination in that country. The methods of vaccine creation were hotly debated as the technology was fairly new.

Might As Well End the Year Just Like It Was Begun

Predictably Patheos Pagan is on a roll again. If you want to learn how to do any type of polytheism poorly head right on over. I’m still shaking my head at what was read to me this morning. Apparently, people are freaking out because some polytheists (iirc, the conversation is about Celtic polytheism, but Heathenry was mentioned too) choose to A) honor Gods of multiple traditions or B) NOT honor Gods of multiple traditions. If you do B, you’re a racist (and maybe acting like the Heathens do! *gasp*) and if you do A, you’re doing it wrong, or some such. The lack of logic, sense, and piety gets kind of hard to follow sometimes. 

Get ready to have your minds blown, folks: either one can be proper and pious. Either one. It depends on the devotee, the Gods, their wyrd, their tradition, and any number of things. This is between the individual devotee and his or her Gods, and any sensible polytheist would get his butt to a good diviner, preferably one within his tradition (who is therefore familiar with that person’s primary Deities) to find out what his Gods want, if his can’t sort it himself. You’re not racist if you choose to only honor one particular pantheon (and unless that pantheon is Germanic, it doesn’t make you Heathen. Know what? Being Heathen is not synonymous with being racist either, and it’s just flat out hate-speech to claim otherwise). You’re not a bad polytheist if you honor more than one pantheon. Actually, the latter is probably closer to what many ancient polytheisms looked like. 

Here’s the thing, and if this bunch actually read books, studied history and theology, and had one wit of sense among them, they’d know this: there was hardly ever any expectation of exclusivity in pre-Christian religion. One honored one’s household and ancestral Gods, the Gods of one’s city or town, and was free to initiate into any mystery cultus he or she wished that would take them (just because we might want initiation, doesn’t mean we are owed access after all). If one did not wish, that was fine too. There are a lot of problems we face as modern polytheists working to restore our respective traditions. This bitch ain’t one of them. It shouldn’t be one of them, and really, there are better things to do than invent problems. 

My caveat, and I say this working in a blended tradition, is that each family of Deities should be honored according to Their own customs. I would not advise mixing and matching ritual styles. That’s a matter of politeness and respect. Our polytheistic ancestors crossed pantheons all the time. Here again though, if there is any confusion, an elder, priest, spirit worker, or diviner can help you sort it out. If you are called to honor only one pantheon, that doesn’t mean you’re not hearing your Gods rightly (yes, this was one of the comments made on Patheos: if you honor certain Gods exclusively, you’re not hearing Them). There could be reasons you can’t even comprehend for why They might put that restriction on you, and it’s hubris for some pissant second rate blogger over at Patheos, or anywhere else,  to imply that it is hateful or wrong. Likewise honoring across pantheons. 

You can find a million reasons not to do devotion but in the end it’s a choice. Every choice creates opportunities and closes off others. We have to work that out – in fear and fucking trembling – with ourselves and more importantly with and before our Gods. You know who doesn’t count in this equation? Some blogger on the internet whom you will never meet, and whose opinion matters to no one. 

Giving Up the Gods?

(warning: I am writing this with a blistering, nauseating migraine. My ‘nice’ filter is officially off).

Someone on twitter just suggested that I ‘explore other gods’ after reading the piece I wrote recently about Sweden’s proposed ban on the runes. Um…I’m not even going to pretend to be polite here. What the fuck kind of suggestion is that? If that’s what you do when your traditions are attacked, then maybe you don’t deserve to have them.

There is no reason to ever abandon our Gods, and the bullshit put forward by other misguided human trash is surely the least reason ever for which to do so. These are commitments, relationships built up over the better part of decades, cultivated, nourished, celebrated. As the commitments to the Gods reflects our commitments to our traditions so the opposite is true as well. We don’t give that up because suddenly it’s inconvenient. Or if we do, that’s pretty much the working definition of a niðling.

Every day I deal with people who are afraid to be outed as polytheists. I deal with timid people, who wonder if this is ok or that is ok, or would it be ok to do this but oh, let’s not rock the boat. Wake up. Time to develop a bit of virtue and a bit of spine. Stand up for your Gods. Stand up, speak out. Wear Their symbols proudly. Stop hiding what is THE most important part of your personhood and identity: your connection with the sacred. Quit being such fucking cowards.

Every time we soften our language, saying “God” when really we mean “Gods” to make monotheists comfortable or to conceal what we are, we contribute further to the erasure of our traditions. Every time we purposely conceal our alliances, we are committing a dishonest act. Every time we excuse the forced attrition of our sacred symbols, our practices, our sacred sites – hell, any sacred site – we are contributing to the destruction of our traditions. Which side do you want to be on? The one that venerates and nourishes the Gods and those gifts They give us or the one that would shit on all of that in the name of modernity and convenience simply because some people are spreading lies and rumors about them.

Grow the fuck up and if you fall into that latter category kindly take yourself off and away from my online world.

This is the time to hold even more closely to our Gods and traditions, to become fierce devotees and protectors of that which is holy. It’s not the time to run like a pack of whipped dogs.