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AT THE ALHAMBRA

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The Database of Ornament

                                        IMPRESSIONS AND SENSATIONS

                                                                      I

    AT the Alhambra I can never sit anywhere but in the front
row of the stalls. As a point of view, the point of view
considered in the abstract, I admit that the position has its
disadvantages. Certainly, the most magical glimpse I ever
caught of an Alhambra ballet was from the road in front,
from the other side of the road, one night when two doors
were suddenly flung open just as I was passing. In the moment’s interval
before the doors closed again, I saw, in that odd, unexpected way, over the
heads of the audience, far off in a sort of blue mist, the whole stage, its
brilliant crowd drawn up in the last pose, just as the curtain was beginning to
descend. It stamped itself in my brain, an impression caught just at the
perfect moment, by some rare felicity of chance. But that is not an impres-
sion that can be repeated. In the general way I prefer to see my illusions
very clearly, recognizing them as illusions, and yet, to my own perverse and
decadent way of thinking, losing none of their charm. I have been reproved,
before now, for singing “the charm of rouge on fragile cheeks,” but it is a
charm that I fully appreciate. Maquillage, to be attractive, must of course be
unnecessary. As a disguise for age or misfortune, it has no interest for me.
But, of all places, on the stage, and of all people, on the cheeks of young people :
there, it seems to me that make-up is intensely fascinating, and its recogni-
tion is of the essence of my delight in a stage performance. I do not for a
moment want really to believe in what I see before me ; to believe that those
wigs are hair, that grease-paint a blush ; any more than I want really to
believe that the actor whom I have just been shaking hands with has turned
into a real live emperor since I left him. I know that a delightful imposition
is being practised upon me ; that I am to see fairyland for a while ; and to me
all that glitters shall be gold. But I would have no pretence of reality :
I do not, for my part, find that the discovery of a stage-trick lessens my

76                              THE SAVOY

appreciation of what that trick effects. There is this charming person, for
instance, at the Alhambra : in the street she is handsome rather than pretty ;
on the stage she is pretty rather than handsome. I know exactly how she
will look in her different wigs, exactly what her make-up will bring out in
her and conceal ; I can allow, when I see her on the stage, for every hair’s-
breadth of change : yet does my knowledge of all this interfere with my
sensation of pleasure as I see her dancing on the other side of the footlights ?
Quite the contrary ; and I will go further, and admit that there is a special
charm to me in a yet nearer view of these beautiful illusions. That is why
I like to alternate the point of view of the front row of the stalls with the
point of view of behind the scenes.

    There, one sees one’s illusions in the making ; but how exquisite in their
frank artificiality, are these painted faces, all these tawdry ornaments, decora-
tions, which are as yet only “properties” ! I have never been disappointed,
as so many are disappointed, by what there is to be seen in that debatable
land “behind the scenes.” For one thing, I never expected to find an Arabian
Nights’ Entertainment of delightful splendour and delightful wickedness, and
so I was never chagrined at not finding it. The coulisses of the Alhambra
are, in themselves, quite prosaic. They form, of course, the three sides of a
square, the outer rim ; the fourth side being the footlights. On the prompt side
is the stage-manager’s chair, the row of brass handles which regulate the lights
and ring down the curtain, and the little mirror, with a ledge running along
below it, which (with the addition of a movable screen) constitute the dressing-
room accommodation of the “turns” who have to make a change of costume.
Layer after layer of scenery is piled up against the wall at the side, and nearly
the whole time there is a bustling of scene-shifters shoving along some great
tottering framework, of which one sees only the canvas back and the narrow
rim of wood. Turn to the right, pass under that archway, and the stone stair-
case going down leads to the canteen ; that going up leads to the dressing-
rooms of the corps de ballet. Another staircase on the other side of the stage
leads to the dressing-rooms of the principals, the extra ladies, and the
children. Downstairs are some more dressing-rooms for the supers and the
male “turns.” The back of the stage is merely a passage : it is occasionally a
refuge from the stampede of scenery in a quick change.

    It is ten minutes before the ballet is to commence. Some clowning comic
people are doing their show in front of a drop-scene ; behind, on the vacant
space in the middle of the stage, the ladies of the ballet are beginning to
assemble. They come down in twos and threes, tying a few final bows,

                          AT THE ALHAMBRA                                    77

buttoning a few overlooked buttons, drawing on their gloves, adjusting one
another’s coats and wigs. As I shake hands with one after another, my hands
get quite white and rough with the chalk-powder they have been rubbing over
their skin. Is not even this a charming sensation, a sensation in which one seems
actually to partake of the beautiful artificiality of the place? All around me
are the young faces that I know so well, both as they are and as the footlights
show them. Now I see them in all the undisguise of make-up : the exact line
of red paint along the lips, every shading of black under the eyes, the pink
of the ears and cheeks, and just where it ends under the chin and along the rim
of throat. In a plain girl make-up only seems to intensify her plainness ; for
make-up does but give colour and piquancy to what is already in a face, it
adds nothing new. But in a pretty girl how exquisitely becoming all this is,
what a new kind of exciting savour it gives to her real charm ! It has, to the
remnant of Puritan conscience or consciousness that is the heritage of us all, a
certain sense of dangerous wickedness, the delight of forbidden fruit. The
very phrase, painted women, has come to have an association of sin ; and to
have put paint on her checks, though for the innocent necessities of her pro-
fession, gives to a woman a sort of symbolic corruption. At once she seems
to typify the sorceries and entanglements of what is most deliberately enticing
in her sex—

                  “Femina dulce malum, pariter favus atque venenum”—

with all that is most subtle, and least like nature, in her power to charm.
Then there is the indiscretion of the costumes, meant to appeal to the senses,
and now thronging one with the unconcern of long use ; these girls travestied
as boys, so boyish sometimes, in their slim youth ; the feminine contours now
escaping, now accentuated. All are jumbled together, in a brilliant confusion ;
the hot faces, the shirt-sleeves of scene-shifters, striking rapidly through a
group of princes, peasants, and fairies. In a corner some of the children are
doing a dance ; now and again an older girl, in a sudden access of gaiety, will
try a few whimsical steps ; there is a chatter of conversation, a coming and
going ; some one is hunting everywhere for a missing “property” ; some one
else has lost a shoe, or a glove, or is calling for a pin to repair the loss of
a button. And now three girls, from opposite directions, will make a
simultaneous rush at the stage-manager. “Mr. Forde, I can’t get on my wig !”
“Please, Mr. Forde, may I have a sheet of notepaper?” “Oh, Mr. Forde,
may Miss—— stay off? she has such a bad headache she can hardly stand.”
Meanwhile, the overture has commenced ; and now a warning clap is heard,

78                              THE SAVOY

and all but those who appear in the first scene retreat hurriedly to the wings.
The curtain is about to rise on the ballet.

    To watch a ballet from the wings is to lose all sense of proportion, all
knowledge of the piece as a whole ; but, in return, it is fruitful in happy
accidents, in momentary points of view, in chance felicities of light and shade
and movement. It is almost to be in the performance oneself, and yet
passive, a spectator, with the leisure to look about one. You see the reverse
of the picture : the girls at the back lounging against the set scenes, turning to
talk with someone at the side ; you see how lazily the lazy girls are moving,
and how mechanical and irregular are the motions that flow into rhythm when
seen from the front. Now one is in the centre of a jostling crowd, hurrying
past one on to the stage ; now the same crowd returns, charging at full speed
between the scenery, everyone trying to reach the dressing-room stairs first.
And there is the constant shifting of scenery, from which one has a series of
escapes, as it bears down unexpectedly, in some new direction. The ballet,
half seen in the centre of the stage, seen in sections, has, in the glimpses that
can be caught of it, a contradictory appearance of mere nature and of absolute
unreality. And beyond the footlights, on the other side of the orchestra, one
can see the boxes near the stalls, the men standing by the bar, an angle cut
sharply off from the stalls, with the light full on the faces, the intent eyes, the
gray smoke curling up from the cigarettes. It is all a bewilderment ; but to
me, certainly, a bewilderment that is always delightful.

                                                                      II

    To the amateur of what is more artificial in the art of illusion, there is
nothing so interesting as a stage rehearsal, and there is no stage rehearsal so
interesting as the rehearsal of a ballet. Coming suddenly out of the clear
cold of a winter morning into the comparative warmth of the dimly-lighted
Alhambra (it must have been three years ago, now, I think), I found that
one of the rehearsals of a ballet named after “Aladdin” was about to
begin ; and, standing at the far end of the hall, I saw the stage gradually
filling with half-dressed figures, a few men in overcoats moving rapidly to and
fro in their midst. Lit only by a T-light, these odd, disconcerting figures
strolled about the stage, some arm in arm, some busily knitting ; they formed
into groups of twos and threes and half dozens, from which came the sound of
a pleasant chatter, a brisk feminine laughter. I found my way between the
lonely-looking stalls, disturbing the housekeeper at her work, and mounted to

                          AT THE ALHAMBRA                                    79

the stage. The stalls were covered in their white sheeting ; white sheeting
hung in long strips from boxes and balcony ; here and there a black coat and
hat stood out from the dingy monotony of white, or a figure flitted rapidly,
a sudden silhouette, against the light of a window high up in the gallery. The
T-light flickered unsteadily ; a little chill light found its way through roof and
windows, intensifying, by even so faint a suggestion of the outside world, all
that curious unreality which is never so unreal as at the prosaic moments of a
rehearsal.

    I had the honour to know a good many ladies of the ballet, and there
was no little news, of public and private interest, to be communicated and
discussed. Thus I gathered that no one knew anything about the plot of the
ballet which was being rehearsed, and that many were uncertain whether it
was their fate to be a boy or a girl ; that this one was to be a juggler, though
she knew not how to juggle ; and that one a fisher-boy, and that other a
fisher-girl ; and that Miss A had been put in a new place, and was disgusted ;
and Miss B, having also been put in a new place, was delighted ; together
with much information in no way bearing on the subject of the ballet. All at
once the stage-manager clapped his hands ; the ladies rushed to their places ;
I retreated to a corner of the stage, behind the piano, at which sat a pianist
and a violinist ; and the ballet-master came forward, staff in hand, and took
up his position on a large square piece of board, which had been provided
for the protection of “the boards” (technically speaking) against the
incessant thump-thump of that formidable staff as it pounds away in time
with the music. The rehearsal had begun.

    Rehearsal costume, to the casual outside spectator, is rather curious.
There is a bodice, which may be of any kind ; there is a short petticoat,
generally of white, with discreet linen drawers to match ; the stockings are
for the most part black. But a practising dress leaves room, in its many
exceptions, for every variety of individual taste. A lively fancy sometimes
expends itself on something wonderful in stockings, wonderful coloured
things, clocked and patterned. Then there are petticoats plain and orna-
mented, limp and starched, setting tightly and flapping loosely ; petticoats
with frillings and edgings, petticoats of blue, of pink, of salmon colour, of
bright red. But it is the bodice that gives most scope for the decorative
instinct. Many have evidently been designed for the occasion ; they are
elaborately elegant, showy even. There are prints and stuffs and fancy
arrangements in the way of blouses and jerseys and zouaves and Swiss
bodices ; with white shawls and outdoor jackets for the cold, and ribbons and

80                              THE SAVOY

bright ties for show. The walking-ladies are in their walking-dresses ; and it
is with the oddest effect of contrast that they mingle, marching sedately, in
their hats and cloaks, with these skipping figures in the undress of the
dancing-school. Those who are not wanted cluster together at the sides,
sitting on any available seats and benches, or squatting on the floor ; or they
make a dash to the dressing-rooms upstairs or to the canteen downstairs. One
industrious lady has brought her knitting. It is stowed away for safety in
some unused nook of the piano, which is rattling away by my side ; presently
it is hunted out, and I see her absorbed in the attempt to knit without looking
at the stitches. Another has brought woolwork, which is getting almost too
big to bring ; several have brought books : the works of Miss Braddon, penny
novelettes, and, yes, some one has actually brought the “Story of an African
Farm.” Occasionally a stage-carpenter or scene-shifter or limelight-man
passes in the background ; some of the new scenery is lying about, very
Chinese in its brilliant red and blue lattice-work. And all the while the
whole centre of the stage is in movement ; the lines and circles cross and
curve, hands lifted, feet lifted ; and all the while, in time with the music,
the ballet-master pounds away with his stout staff, already the worse for
wear, and shouts, in every language but English, orders which it is a little
difficult to follow.

    As the bright, trickling music is beaten out on the perfunctory piano and
violin, the composer himself appears, a keen profile rising sharply out of a
mountainous furred overcoat. It was just then that the ballet-master had left
his place, and was tripping lightly round the stage, taking the place of the
absent première danseuse. It was only for a moment ; then, after a rush at some
misbehaving lady, a tempest of Italian, a growl of good-humoured fury, he
was back on his board, and the staff pounded away once more. The coryphées,
holding bent canes in their hands, turned and twirled in the middle of the
stage ; the corps de ballet, the children, the extra ladies, formed around them,
a semicircle first, then a racing circle ; they passed, re-passed, dissolved, re-
formed, bewilderingly ; with disconcerting rushes and dashes ; turning upon
themselves, turning round one another, advancing and retreating, in waves
of movement, as the music scattered itself in waves of sound. Aimless,
unintelligible it looked, this tripping, posturing crowd of oddly-dressed figures ;
these bright outdoor faces looked strange in a place where I was so used
to see rouged cheeks and lips, powdered chins, painted eye-lashes, yellow
wigs. In this fantastic return to nature I found the last charm of the
artificial.

                          AT THE ALHAMBRA                                    81

                                                                      III

    The front row of the stalls, on a first night, has a character of its own.
It is entirely filled by men, and the men who fill it have not come simply
from an abstract æsthetic interest in the ballet. They have friends on the
other side of the footlights, and their friends on the other side of the footlights
will look down, the moment they come on the stage, to see who are in the
front row, and who are standing by the bar on either side. The standing-
room by the bar is the resource of the first-nighter with friends who cannot
get a seat in the front row. On such a night the air is electrical. A running
fire of glances crosses and re-crosses, above the indifferent, accustomed heads
of the gentlemen of the orchestra ; whom it amuses, none the less, to intercept
an occasional smile, to trace it home. On the faces of the men in the front
row, what difference in expression ! Here is the eager, undisguised enthusiasm
of the novice, all eyes, and all eyes on one ; here is the wary, practised atten-
tion of the man who has seen many first nights, and whose scarcely perceptible
smile reveals nothing, compromises nobody, rests on all. And there is the
shy, self-conscious air of embarrassed absorption, typical of that queer type,
the friend who is not a friend of the ballet, and who shrinks somewhat pain-
fully into his seat, as the dancers advance, retreat, turn, and turn again.

    Let me recall a first night that I still, I suppose, remember : the first
night of “Aladdin.” I have had to miss the dress rehearsal, so I am in all the
freshness of curiosity as to the dresses, the effects, the general aspect of things.
I have been to so many undress rehearsals that I know already most of
the music by heart. I know all the dances, I know all the movements of
masses. But the ballet, how that will look ; but my friends, how they will
look ; it is these things that are the serious, the important things. And now
the baton rises, and the drip, drip of the trickling music dances among the
fiddles before the curtain has gone up on the fisherman’s hut, and those
dancing feet for which I am waiting. Already I see how some of my friends
are going to look ; and I remember now the musical phrase which I came to
associate with that fisher dress, the passing of those slim figures. The Princess
flashes upon us in a vision, twining mysteriously in what was then the fashion
of the moment, the serpentine dance ; and this dance transforms, by what she
adds and by what she omits, a series of decorative poses into a real dance, for
it is the incomparable Legnani. Then the fisherman’s hut, and all mortal
things, vanish suddenly ; and Aladdin comes down into a vast cave of

82                              THE SAVOY

livid green, set with stalactites, and peopled with brown demons, winged
and crowned with fire ; reminding one of the scene where Orfeo, in the
opera of Gluck, goes down into hell. Robed in white, the spirit of the
Lamp leads on the coryphées, her genii ; and they are here, they run forward,
they dance in lines and circles, creatures with bat-like wings of pale green,
shading into a green so dark as to be almost black. The Princess enters :
it is “a wave of the sea” that dances ! And then, the scenery turning
suddenly over and round, the cave suddenly changes into a palace. There
is a dancing march, led by the children, with their toppling helmets, and
soon, with banners, fans, gilt staves, a dancing crowd moves and circles, in
beautiful white and gold, in purple and yellow, in terra-cotta, in robes that
flower into chrysanthemums, and with bent garlands of leaves. I search
through this bewildering crowd, finding and losing, losing and finding, the
faces for which I search. The Princess is borne on in a palanquin ; she de-
scends, runs forward (Simeon Solomon’s “Lady in a Chinese Dress”), and
in the quaintest little costume, a costume of a willow-pattern plate, does the
quaintest little trotting and tripping dance, in what might be the Chinese
manner. There is another transformation : a demon forest, with wickedly
tangled trees, horrible creatures of the woods, like human artichokes, shimmer-
ing green human bats, delightful demons. The Princess, the Magician,
Aladdin, meet : the Magician has the enchantment of his art, the Princess the
enchantment of her beauty, Aladdin only the enchantment of his love. Spells
are woven and broken, to bewitching motion : it is the triumph of love and
beauty. There is another transformation : the diamond garden, with its
flowers that are jewels, its living flowers. Colours race past, butterflies in
pale blue, curious morbid blues, drowsy browns and pale greens, more white
and gold, a strange note of abrupt black. The crystal curtain, a veil of
diamonds, falls, dividing the stage, a dancing crowd before it and behind it, a
rain of crystals around. An electric angel has an apotheosis ; and as the curtain
falls upon the last grouping, I try, vainly, to see everyone at once, everyone
whom I want to see. The whole front row applauds violently ; and, if one
observed closely, it would be seen that every man, as he applauds, is looking
in a different direction.

                                                                      IV

    Why is it that one can see a ballet fifty times, always with the same sense of
pleasure, while the most absorbing play becomes a little tedious after the third

                          AT THE ALHAMBRA                                    83

time of seeing ? For one thing, because the difference between seeing a play
and seeing a ballet is just the difference between reading a book and looking at
a picture. One returns to a picture as one returns to nature, for a delight which,
being purely of the senses, never tires, never distresses, never varies. To read a
book, even for the first time, requires a certain effort. The book must indeed be
exceptional that can be read three or four times ; and no book ever was written
that could be read three or four times in succession. A ballet is simply a
picture in movement. It is a picture where the imitation of nature is given by
nature itself; where the figures of the composition are real, and yet, by a very
paradox of travesty, have a delightful, deliberate air of unreality. It is a
picture where the colours change, recombine, before one’s eyes ; where the out-
lines melt into one another, emerge, and are again lost, in the kaleidoscopic
movement of the dance. Here we need tease ourselves with no philosophies,
need endeavour to read none of the riddles of existence ; may indeed give
thanks to be spared for one hour the imbecility of human speech. After the
tedium of the theatre, where we are called on to interest ourselves in the
improbable fortunes of uninteresting people, how welcome is the relief of a
spectacle which professes to be no more than merely beautiful ; which gives
us, in accomplished dancing, the most beautiful sight that we can see ; which
provides, in short, the one escape into fairy-land which is permitted by that
tyranny of the real which is the worst tyranny of modern life.

    And then there is another reason why one can see a ballet fifty times, a
reason which is not in the least an aesthetic one, but on the contrary very
human. I once took a well-known writer, who is one of the most remarkable
women of our time, to see a ballet. She had never seen one, and I was
delighted with her intense absorption in what was passing before her eyes. At
last I said something about the beauty of a certain line of dancers, some effect
of colour and order. She turned on me a half-laughing face : “But it is the
people I am looking at,” she said, “not the artistic effect !” Since then I have
had the courage to admit that with me too it is the people, and not only the
artistic effect, that I like to look at.

                                                                              ARTHUR SYMONS.

MLA citation:

“At the Alhambra: Impressions and Sensations.” The Savoy vol. 5, September 1896, pp. 75-83. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/savoyv5-symons-alhambra/