Leaping into a new series with Spectre

You might associate Spectre with Bond but I associate it with ballet. Le Spectre de la Rose is one of those ballets that as a young balletomane I longed to see because my mother had raved about it so much. 

Spectre is an exquisite short (under 10 minutes) ballet set to Weber’s lyrical Invitation to the dance. Choreographed by Michel Fokine for the Ballet Russes, it premiered in 1911 in Monte Carlo with ballet legends Tamara Karsavina – as a young girl returning from her first dance – and Vaslav Nijinsky – as the spirit of a rose momento she brings home from the dance that (literally) springs to life. The spectre leaps through the scenic window towards the end of the ballet (and in some versions vaults in at the beginning too). In Monte Carlo, Nijinksy’s impressive soaring exit made the ballet infamous and became the reason everyone wanted to see it.

Spectre is also the last ballet that Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev performed together in 1979. The remarkable Fonteyn at 60 still playing the young girl. Of the many recordings of this ballet on YouTube, I think my favourite is the Fonteyn and Mikhail Baryshnikov version (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=VyYrqMFZ-C8). 

If memory serves me correctly, I was at least midway through primary school when I first attended a performance of this short ballet delight. The Cape Town ballet company had performed it in 1983 (that was before my mother decided I was old enough to behave myself at the theatre) and it did not return again to the opera house until the late 80s. Our cast was Ann Wixley and Hubert Essakow – shortly after Wixley had excelled at Prix de Lausanne (one of the most prestigious international ballet competitions). Possibly the first time I (and most of Cape Town) saw her dance. Although, I think my favourite role for her was Phrygia in Spartacus.

I’ve had fun paying tribute to this delightful ballet through a few Hedgie Ballettoons in recent years. Last year, I began work on an oil painting, loosely inspired by one of the iconic leaps in the ballet and as part of my commitment to painting more male dancers.

Hedgie ballettoon of Spectre character

However, looking at both the Hedgie versions and my painting, it’s probably true to say that it’s actually the rose costume that first captured my imagination and became the focus of the painting. The original costume was designed by Léon Bakst. The production I saw in Cape Town had the spirit predominantly in green. But, from the footage I have seen, I think most contemporary productions adorn him in red or pink.

My painting explores the movement of the rose and petals. As I don’t have to worry about painted dancers slipping on rogue petals on stage, I’m free to accentuate the movement of the dancer and separate parts of the costume from the figure. And movement is essential. I played Invitation to the Dance on repeat throughout most of the early stages of this painting.

My focus is on expressing the emotion of dance, so I try not to worry about whether my figure is anatomically correct. If you’re familiar with my process, you’ll know that my primary reference is a wooden artist mannequin. While the mannequin lacks the tension that a human body might have, the need to reimagine and add this in enables me to exaggerate painted qualities to be more evocative. In this case, the power involved in the grand leap, the twisting of the inhuman body, and the ambiguity between human, spirit and rose.

My Spectre began as a solo painting. But, having him in my studio has inspired me to create more spirit danseur figures. So, I’m excited to announce he’s the first in a brand new series. So far, I’ve created eight new danseur spirits. Most of these are busy drying or awaiting finishing touches in the studio and I’m looking forward to sharing them with you as soon as they are dry. 

You can buy Spectre and some of my earlier danseur paintings here. Join my newsletter (link below) to hear when the next duo in this series are ready to leap into your online shopping trolley.  

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