Movement and Meaning

Last night, before the production meeting, I checked in on a choreography rehearsal in the dance studio — where a select quartet of dancers were reviewing what we call the “Rose Ballet.” This is one of the few pieces of choreography I’ve retained from our 2004 production of “Ruddigore.”

A little context…

The character Mad Margaret sings a haunting ballad in Act I about lost love, neglect, and missed chances.  In true Gilbert and Sullivan brilliance, her ballad comes right after she’s been presented as a humorous, two-dimensional charicature of insanity.  Basically the authors are saying “look and laugh at this unkempt crazy woman” and then “now look closer and maybe care a little.”

In a standard reading of the poetic lyrics of the ballad, the message would be that there are two types of women — those men want and those men don’t want, or even notice.  The wanted women (the Roses) are confident and happy while the unnoticed women (Violets hidden in a bed of nettles) are disregarded and trampled underfoot.  A Victorian version of the power of the male gaze.

Fourteen years ago, I choreographed a quartet — the “Rose Ballet” — to accompany Mad Margaret’s ballad.  I wanted it to be lyrical, dreamlike, melancholy, wistful….  Beautiful, confident Roses dancing around a neglected and lost Violet.

I liked the choreography then, and I still like it now.  But it is interesting to revisit the movement from a different perspective all these years later.

Originally, I built the piece around the idea of a rose garden throughout the year. Hibernating, budding, blooming, and petals falling.  The gestures cycle through these concepts repeatedly.

As I watched the dancers reheasing last night, I realized I’d never told them the story.  “Here is where you are resting.”  “Here is where you are budding.”  “Here is where you are blooming.” “Here is where your petals fall.”

It helps when movement has meaning.

It was all well and good until I heard myself saying, “Here is where you remember a friend who was picked.” And “Here is where you are picked.”

I’ve been haunted by that phrase ever since.  “Here is where you are picked.”


I’d never fully considered the plight of the Roses.  Confined to a garden built by and for the pleasure of the gardener, they don’t exist for their own pleasure. They are manipulated, pruned, and encouraged to produce one result.  At which point they are harvested to be displayed and then thrown away at the first sign of fading.

The movements took on new meaning.  Resilience, shame, determination, bondage, strength, oppression, renewal.

The story of the Roses is now just as sad and compelling to me as the story of the neglected Violet.




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