Perhaps most celebrated for his so-called Black & White ballets, which are considered plotless and often described as “abstract,” George Balanchine was known to say, rather to the contrary, that if you put a man and a woman on stage, there is a story; a man and two women, there's a plot. Just such a triangle provides the drama at the heart of his Gothic tale of doomed love, La Sonnambula. Premiering in 1946 on the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo under the title Night Shadow, the ballet is the relatively rare work in the choreographer’s oeuvre whose story—and its emotional impact—remain its defining characteristics nearly eight decades later.
Though a dramatic ballet, La Sonnambula was, as with the entirety of Balanchine’s output, primarily inspired by the Vittorio Rieti score, which utilizes a selection of excerpts from the operas of Vincenzo Bellini. In his Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, Balanchine writes that the ballet was “suggested” by Bellini’s 1831 opera of the same name, though he later clarifies that Bellini’s work merely provides the “subject matter.” The opera was notably inspired itself by an earlier ballet-pantomime by Eugène Scribe, called La somnambule, ou L'arrivée d'un nouveau seigneur. Tying these works together is the figure of the somnambulist, or sleepwalker, of the title, whose costume and demeanor remain unchanged throughout.
Scribe’s original scenario for La somnambule was first staged in 1819 at the Théâtre du Vaudeville in Paris, where the production was billed as a “comédie-vaudeville,” in which the musical numbers weave together a number of convoluted plots, interspersed with physical comedy and romantic hijinx. This was then taken up and somewhat simplified for what has been described as the first full-scale Romantic ballet, by composer Ferdinand Hérold, written in 1827 and choreographed by Jean-Pierre Aumer for the Paris Opéra. The tone of Hérold’s ballet is less playful and occasionally tragic, approaching the semiseria genre of which Bellini’s opera was a pitch-perfect example.
A quick summary of the three-act narrative: On the eve of their marriage, we meet a young couple joyfully awaiting their nuptials, and a local innkeeper scorned by the groom-to-be. The son of a count comes to the village and is invited to stay at the inn, but to beware of a “phantom” known to stalk the area after dark. That night, the bride-to-be wanders into his room, at which point he realizes she is sleepwalking and the “haunt” of which the villagers warned, and quickly absconds before she falls asleep on his couch. She’s discovered in his room the next morning, leading to a swift disavowal by her fiancé, who immediately shifts his vows to the lady innkeeper, despite the visitor’s insistence that he has nothing to fear. The next night, the despondent bride-to-be finally sleeps, and is discovered having slept-walked onto the roof of the inn; the villagers are anxious not to disturb her for fear that she will fall (perhaps the sort of dramatic origin of injunctions not to wake sleepwalkers today?), but her erstwhile lover recognizes the truth and is kneeling before her as she awakens.
Paris theaters were particularly taken with stories of somnambulists in 1827; La somnambule was just one of at least 11 stage productions to feature women who wandered in their sleep, spanning comedies and tragedies and including, among the most recognizable titles, Macbeth at the Opéra and Hamlet at the Odéon. The figure of the sleepwalker traipsed the time’s burgeoning interest in psychoanalysis and the ongoing obsession with mesmerism, encapsulating the manner in which the subconscious and the supernatural, or the scientific and the otherworldly, intermingled in the public’s—and many doctors’—understanding. Both fields of inquiry considered dreams a doorway to hidden understanding; a woman who walked in her sleep, enacting unknown desires, perhaps, or revealing spiritual truths, was a potent figure, able to capture the interest of audiences for months.
By the time Bellini’s opera premiered in 1831, the fad for somnambulism had nearly faded, but La Sonnambula was still a success; following a Luchino Visconti-helmed production in 1955 that reinstated the work’s bel canto stylings, with Maria Callas in the lead role, the opera has continued to be performed though not part of the standard repertory. The plot of the opera is recognizably similar to that of the ballet-pantomime, slightly condensed, and representative of the manner in which a figure like the sleepwalker—and the music that accompanied her unconscious perambulations—continued to cater to Romanticism’s interest in unfettered, untranslated emotion.
Fans of Balanchine’s La Sonnambula won’t likely recognize the plot of the ballet in the story described above, though “unfettered emotion” is a fair characterization of what many praise in the later narrative. As Elizabeth Kendall notes in a 2016 feature for Ballet Review, letters between Sergei Denham, the “would-be Diaghilev” of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, and Rieti, who was commissioned to create the score for La Sonnambula before Balanchine was secured to choreograph, reveal that Rieti himself drafted the story that would eventually become the ballet of today. In his version, a poet attends a ball given by a nobleman, where, following a number of ensemble dances and diverting divertissements, he falls desperately in love with a somnambulist, who happens to be the host’s wife; upon discovering the one-sided assignation between danseur and sleepwalker, the nobleman murders the poet.
When Balanchine signed on in 1945, the narrative he choreographed was essentially the same—with the exception of the expanded role of the coquette, the host’s mistress, a passing fancy in the Rieti tale but a powerful seductress and counterpart to the sleepwalker in Balanchine’s. Kendall makes a rather compelling case for an autobiographical reading of this dramatic triangulation, noting that at the time, the choreographer’s marriage to “his most unrequited of loves,” the dancer-actress Vera Zorina, was on the rocks, and he’d recently “discovered” his next partner: the then-20-year-old ballerina Maria Tallchief. Tallchief would dance the role of the coquette, with that of the sleepwalker danced by Alexandra Danilova, an earlier common-law wife of Balanchine’s.
These romantic entanglements serve as the core of La Sonnambula, represented by two pas de deux equally as powerful as they are distinct. The first, between the poet and the coquette, keeps its dancers in tantalizing contact, sharing increasing intimacy in a decidedly sensuous seduction—in Kendall’s description, “a pas de deux of extreme closeness and extreme deviousness. It’s physical.” Eventually separated by the reappearance of the obviously forgotten party guests and the coquette’s current boyfriend, the poet is left alone, until an unseeing figure dressed in white begins to traverse the stage around him, entrancing him and seemingly entranced herself. The poet is able to direct her apparently aimless motion with a gentle touch here, a brush there, but cannot seem to pierce the veil of sleep that maintains her beguiling opacity. Per Allegra Kent, on whom the role of the somnambulist was recreated in the ballet’s 1960 premiere with New York City Ballet, “It’s full of mystery: I’m there and yet I’m not there.”
Again the pas de deux is swiftly swept away by the returning guests; the coquette jealously tattles on the poet, the latter of whom was likely unaware that the figure he’d so desperately attempted to possess was his host’s wife; the nobleman stalks offstage with dagger bared; moments later, the poet stumbles into view, mortally wounded, and expires. Here the mysterious sleepwalker returns, an almost-spirit recognizing that another spirit has just crossed into the realm, the edge of which she traces en pointe. She carries away the corpse in a scene that dance critic Arlene Croce describes as “high traumatic bliss.” How very Romantic indeed.
Where critics and writers have often waxed poetic about the inventiveness and iconoclasm of Balanchine’s choreographic combinations, La Sonnambula inspires the sort of enraptured emotional expression expected of the Bellini opera’s fans—no matter the era in which they experienced the ballet. Writer Deborah Jowitt, in a 2001 Village Voice piece, describes it as “like the last act of a ballet whose first acts are lost,” a Hoffmann-esque tale of which the audience are accidental witnesses. Edwin Denby writes, in Looking at the Dance, “It gives you a sense—as Poe does—of losing your bearings, the feeling of an elastic sort of time and a heaving floor. As a friend of mine remarked, ‘When it’s over, you don’t know know what hit you.’” But perhaps the most moving (and revealing) of the responses is that of Tallchief herself: “People so often think of [Balanchine] as someone who does steps—mechanical, dry steps—and this is so completely opposite from what he is. To me, his great glory is his wonderful mysticism—he’s a poet, really, more than anything else.”