#Throwback Thursday: The Pharaoh's Daughter

This week's #ThrowbackThursday focuses on one of my favourite ballets: The Pharaoh's Daughter, or La Fille du Pharaon.

Rarely performed outside Russia, the ballet follows the story of the English Lord Wilson, who is travelling in Egypt. To escape a sandstorm, he and his servant, John Bull, and their guide take shelter in a pyramid. The guide asks them to be quiet out of respect for the Pharaoh's daughter, who is buried in a sarcophagus somewhere in the pyramid. To pass the time, the guide gives the tourists opium (a popular habit in the 19th century, similar to the noblemen's habit of taking snuff). Wilson falls into a kind of trance.

Svetlana Zakharova, Bolshoi

The mummies in the tomb come alive, including the Pharaoh's daughter, Aspicia. She lays her hand over Wilson's heart, and suddenly he is transported into the past. He becomes Ta-Hor, an ancient Egyptian, who saves the princess Aspicia from a lion. The two fall in love, but Aspicia is betrothed to the Nubian king. They run away, chased by the king, and take refuge in a fisherman's cottage on the banks of the Nile river. Ta-Hor accompanies the villagers on a fishing trip, but Aspicia stays behind. She is discovered by the Nubian king, who has stopped to rest at the cottage, and she jumps into the Nile to escape him.

When she reaches the bottom of the river, she meets the Spirit of the Nile. He summons all the most famous rivers of the world to dance for her, and tells her she must stay with him. Aspicia asks for one wish, which the Spirit promises to grant. She wishes to be taken back to land, where Ta-Hor has been detained by the Nubian king for 'kidnapping' the princess. He is taken back to the palace for punishment.

The fisherman return Aspicia to the palace, where she finds that Ta-Hor has been sentenced to death by cobra bite. She declares that if he dies, she will too, reaching for the snake. The Pharaoh pulls her back and grants her permission to marry Ta-Hor. The Nubian king leaves in a fit of rage, swearing revenge. The Egyptians begin their celebrations, but as the party reaches its height, the trance ends and Ta-Hor is transformed back into Lord Wilson. As he and his guide leave the pyramid, he looks back at Aspicia's coffin and remembers the love they shared.

The Pharaoh's Daughter was Marius Petipa's first major success as a choreographer for the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg. It was created in 1862, while Petipa was under the tutelage of Arthur Saint-Leon, then ballet master of the Imperial Theatres and creator of Coppelia. The role of Aspicia was created for the prima ballerina Carolina Rosati, who was then close to retirement. Petipa himself played the role of Lord Wilson/Ta-Hor.

Carolina Rosati, 1862

Petipa's ballet was intended to be a grand spectacle, lasting four hours and performed by a cast of around 400. He inserted divertissements, groups of dances which had little or nothing to do with the actual story. These were used to display dancers who were not usually given the lead roles. This was especially important during a time when almost all of the prima ballerinas of the Imperial Theatres were not in fact Russian (most were Italian); divertissements gave Russian dancers a chance to display their talents, and Petipa began inserting these types of dances into his other ballets (Swan Lake, La Bayadere, The Sleeping Beauty, etc.).

Vera Karalli as Aspicia, Platon Karsavin as Father Nile, and unnamed children, Kingdom of the Rivers, c. 1915

At the time of the production, there was immense interest in Egypt and its ancient culture. Petipa was inspired by the recent influx of archaeological finds, as well as Theophile Gautier's Le Roman de la Momie (though the setting and characters were almost entirely changed, the feel of Gautier's work - set in between life and death like so much of Egyptian art - remains). The finds influenced a refashion in the art of costuming, and the new, shorter tutus were heavily decorated to reflect the foreign flavour of the ballet. Authenticity was also often compromised in favour of opulence. The historical inaccuracy and mixing of styles that occurs throughout the ballet, in particular the dances of the rivers in the Kingdom of the Rivers scene, raised few eyebrows in St. Petersburg at the time; a few criticisms were, however, raised when the ballet was performed in Moscow.

Mathilde Kschessinskaya as Aspicia, for the Kingdom of the Rivers, c. 1900

The title role of Aspicia called for great acting ability, particularly during the scene where the princess reaches for a basket of flowers concealing the cobra. This was a set scene popular at the time due to its overtones of the death of Cleopatra (bitten by an asp concealed in a basket of figs). Such a type scene also occurs in the ballet La Bayadere, where the heroine dies after being bitten by a snake concealed in a basket of flowers. Twenty years after the premiere, Italian ballerina Virginia Zucchi portrayed an unusually humane and kind princess, nothing like the arrogant and voluptuous creation of her successor Mathilde Kschessinskaya, who gave the role a more virtuoso feel.

Anna Pavlova as Aspicia, and Mikhail Mordkin as Ta-Hor, 1905

Anna Pavlova as Aspicia, 1898

The Pharaoh's Daughter was mostly lost after the Russian Revolution of 1917, and remained so until 2000, when Pierre Lacotte staged a revival for the Bolshoi Ballet. He made use of old notes and notations from the original production, and the ballet has remained a permanent part of the company's repertory.

Sofia Fedorova as Hita/Ramze, with unidentified children in the 'Pas de Caryatids', 1905

Here's Natalia Osipova in the Bolshoi's The Pharaoh's Daughter, in Apsicia's Act II variation:

Thanks for reading!

- Selene

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