Anyone who knows me and knows my wife knows that she is all class and I am all ass. It’s not that I’m self-centered, it’s just that I am always, always, always going to consider myself first. Class requires that you consider others first. That’s what Erin does. One of my good friend’s mom died recently. Erin asked if I wanted to send flowers; I considered it and said no. She considered me and my answer, and said yes. It was my friend’s mom, but she ordered the flowers.
You know that famous scene in As Good as it Gets where Jack Nicholson explains his love for Helen Hunt by declaring, “You make me want to be a better man”? That’s not really the way it is in my marriage. With Erin, I am a better man; I don’t really have the option of choosing to be a better man like Jack Nicholson apparently thought he did. Erin makes me a better man, whether I like it or not.
It should surprise no one, then, that my wife loves the ballet. It’s basically the classiest thing around. Growing up, Erin’s childhood aspiration of being a Solid Gold dancer evolved into becoming an accomplished ballerina. But for cruel Nature that robbed her of the last 8 inches of height, Erin would probably be dancing today.
Earlier this week, Erin told me she had won tickets to the opening night of The Three Musketeers. I agreed to go (and here I am using “agreed” in the loosest sense of the word possible). Though we live in Louisville and though Erin loves the ballet, we have not had the time or money to enjoy the Louisville ballet. In our three years in Louisville, I had not been to the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts.
Even though my attendance was compulsory, I was genuinely excited to go. Mostly just excited that Erin would have the ballet in her life again. I’ll be the first to admit that living with me must be difficult for someone, like Erin, with such classy and classic sensibilities. I was happy that she would be able to enjoy a oasis of class in my desert of bad taste.
As the lights fade, I stop reading my Twitter feed, put my phone in my pocket, and realize—despite my fourteen English classes at Davidson College and thirty-three years on this earth—I have no idea what The Three Musketeers is actually about.
Three guys… Are they French? Do they have muskets? Why do I always think of them as having swords if they’re musketeers?
So, I spend the first fifteen minutes trying to read tiny text under dim light with Erin whispering helpful things like, “That’s Buckingham. The Queen loves him. They love each other.”
The music turns ominous. “The Cardinal is a son of a bitch.”
Look, what’s going to happen in this essay is I’m going to make fun of the ballet from the perspective of a yokel (me) who doesn’t understand the ballet. But, before I do, I want you to know I’m taking the easy way out. It’s easy to write a story mocking and dismissing and joking about the ballet. But here’s the truth: the ballet is awesome and if you don’t like it then a) you’re dumb and b) the joke’s on you. And me. It would be much harder for me to actually study the ballet, research it, learn it, and appreciate it and write an essay about that. Instead, I’ll just make some whimsical observations about a performance that deserves better and move on.
I turned to the program to learn what the hell was happening on stage. Here’s the deal with the narrative in the program: it is all nouns and verbs.
The Queen has fallen in love with the English ambassador, Buckingham, and the Cardinal sees an opportunity to discredit her. (“The Queen is kind of a tramp,” Erin whispers.)
…The Cardinal’s guards, led by Rochefort, mock D’Artagnan’s poverty. he challenges them, but they attack him from behind and leave him lying unconscious.
The ballet, however, is all adjectives and adverbs, usually amounting to some variant of “a lot.” The dances exist, as far as I can tell, to express how deeply in love the Queen and Buckingham are, just how devious Milady is, how controlling the Cardinal is. The answer to all of these questions is: a lot.
My beef with The Three Musketeers ballet is not with the dancing. It’s not with the choreography or the set design or the music. If this ballet sucks, it’s because the plot sucks. The Queen of France is married to an effete king. She’s in love (a lot) with the ambassador from England, Buckingham. In order to avoid discovery of their affair, she pleads with him (successfully) to return to England. But (and this is just where everything goes downhill) before he leaves, the Queen gives Buckingham a priceless, unique diamond necklace that had been a recent gift from her husband. To remember her by. This is just the most insane thing I’ve ever seen. That anyone, even the most love-infested teenager, would think this ends well stretches credulity. My willful suspension of disbelief at this point turned into a willful hatred of the Queen.
Long (long) story short, the Musketeers retrieve the necklace and return it to their queen just in time to avoid scandal. But, not before Milady kills Buckingham in the process of stealing the necklace from him in order to discredit the monarchy.
When Buckingham died, I was sitting on the edge of my seat.
I think I was the only one.
Buckingham dies at the hands of Milady, one of the Queen’s servants who is secretly under the control (a lot) of Cardinal Richelieu. Five minutes before Milady stabs the crap out of Buckingham, she successfully steals this priceless, unique diamond necklace by spraying a perfume that made the necklace’s guards fall asleep. Why not just spray the perfume on Buckingham??? His death is completely implausible.
But, die he does because he allowed the Queen to insist on giving him this stupid necklace.
(As an aside worthy of parentheses, the necklace does make a really cool prop in a number of dances in this ballet. When two people are fighting over the necklace, they are both holding onto the necklace which makes some dance moves extra dramatic. Now you have all read the best ballet criticism I have ever written. “Cool.” “Extra dramatic.” Erin is weeping right now.)
When D’Artagnan and the Musketeers successfully returned the necklace to the Queen, she is ecstatic (a lot) and relieved (a lot) and grateful (a lot). Does she grieve the death of her English lover? Hell no. Does she (rightly) blame herself for his death? Nope. Does she dance around all happy-like? Yep.
“Well, what did you think?” Erin asked me as we walked out with the throng of satisfied ballet-goers.
“That bitch needed to die at the end. She should have committed suicide or something.”1
The overriding lesson I learned from The Three Musketeers is this: if you’re having an affair with a chick, don’t take a goddamn necklace from her that her husband just gave her.
But, I also learned a little about the ballet. Throughout the ballet, I was wondering how much artistic leeway the dancers have in a production like this. The answer is: not a lot. On the ride home (after I explained to Erin when she should and should not commit suicide for taking imbicilic actions that ultimately lead to my violent, untimely death), Erin explained to me that the flow of action (prologue, two acts, three scenes per act), the music, and the dances are all from the original. And, by “dances” I mean “movements down to the smallest twist of a wrist”. That’s canonical. The choreographer’s job in a production like The Three Musketeers is not to come up with original dances, but to ensure that these dancers replicate the original movements as closely as possible. As Erin explained, “you don’t noodle with Handel’s “Messiah” and you don’t change The Three Musketeers.
What was most interesting to me was learning this choreographer would know the dances because he had studied under a choreographer who had studied under a choreographer who had studied under a choreographer (etc.) who had learned the dances from the original, André Prokovsky. In this case, I think the choreographer studied directly under Prokovsky, but the point is that this is an oral and embodied tradition that survives in a digital age. That appeals to me.
Where a production can deviate from the canonical original is in set design and costuming. I have absolutely nothing insightful to say about either.
Apparently there is some leeway with choreography, though Erin has still not been able to explain to me exactly what edges are okay to fiddle with. For example, in the Louisville Ballet’s production, one of the Cardinal’s guards gets accidentally stabbed in the nuts no fewer than three times throughout the action. This, I’m told, is not canonical. I’ve got to say: this flourish felt a little patronizing to me. Each time the poor dude’s jumbles got poked, his eyes would cross, he’d grab his groin, and the audience laughed. But, I worry that this detail was added to appeal to the groundlings in Louisville. It was cute the first time, tolerable the second time, and overdone the third time.
In closing, I need to say a word to the men out there. Women, you can stop reading. Use the time you save to begin considering the times at which suicide might be an appropriate response to something you did to your lover.
Okay, men: I know some of you are reading this and thinking, “You know, I’d go to the ballet just for the hot, lithe young women with great legs in short skirts.” I hear you. I need to warn you, though, that there are also hot young men on stage. These men are incredibly athletic, definitionally sensitive, and wearing tights that are snug in all the right places. They support, physically and emotionally, the women with whom they associate. You’re basically taking your date to a moving cover of a romance novel. Just so you know. You need to ask yourself, “Is this how high I want to set the bar for myself?” Know that with every appreciative sigh that comes from your date as you’re sitting there in the darkness of the dance she is cataloguing the ways in which you will fall short in the future. And, know, too, that after you’re dead, she’ll be happy (a lot) just to have her necklace back.
Now, I know that Western literature is bursting at its chauvinistic seams with stories of hysterical women dying or committing suicide when they didn’t deserve or need to. On balance, Western literature is still, I’m sure, a phallocentric endeavor. But, that was one cold Queen who got exactly what she wanted. ↩