A woman walks into a room or enters the stage. She’s wearing a striking black dress. Words aren’t needed. The black speaks for her, but it often comes with an additional warning: Danger Ahead. We’re talking here of seduction and sophistication, but most of all temptation.
The Temptress, as an archetype, was defined by Carl Jung as a sensuous beauty, one who physically attracts the protagonist of the story and who ultimately brings about his downfall. (It’s usually a him rather than a her).
In Swan Lake, the conniving black swan Odile triggers the fall. Dressed in a black tutu embellished in gold or silver, she makes a stunning entrance into the palace ballroom, where her glittering eyes and scissor-sharp dancing bring down the poor, befuddled Prince Siegfried.
The black bird is not as old as the ballet itself. Odile didn’t wear black when the ballet premiered in 1877 or again in the revised Swan Lake of 1895. It wasn’t until the early 1940s that black became her de facto colour. That switch followed the rise of the Hollywood femme fatale in the 1930s, a decade when movies began their slow transformation from monotone to colour and when, paradoxically, movie stars like Bette Davis, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford frequently chose the drama of a black dress rather than a pastel shade.
Tamara Toumanova may have been the first ballerina to wear the black tutu as Odile in 1941. Two years later Margot Fonteyn danced Odile in black, followed by Nora Kaye and Alicia Alonso. In time, the concept of the black swan took on a new meaning, most recently as a metaphor for an unpredictable event, and, in the 2010 thriller Black Swan, an absurdly melodramatic symbol of evil, complete with red pupils framed by a winged mask of jet-black eye make-up.
Black in ballet can also signify a woman who has fallen from simplicity and innocence to the depths of depravity. When the once-virginal Manon arrives at a party in Paris, she makes her grand entrance on the arm of her wealthy protector wearing a black dress sprinkled with gold. Manon dances alone, then as an object of desire as she is passed from man to man in swoops and swirls. She is held aloft before she dives into their arms and finally touches down by the side of the lascivious Monsieur GM.
Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon was created in 1974, yet her mixture of boldness and languor link her to a much older temptress – John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Madame Gautreau, known as Madame X. Sargent’s painting of 1884 depicts his subject in a black satin gown held with fragile, jewelled shoulder straps.
Madame X’s appearance hovers between seduction and sophistication, in much the same way as Audrey Hepburn did when she strolled through the streets of Manhattan in her black dress, a split showing one leg bared to the knee, in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s. This come-hither look was taken to new heights by Angelina Jolie at the Academy Awards in 2012: her black velvet Versace gown revealed her entire right leg as she strolled down the red carpet.
Roland Petit created the most seductive ballet temptress of all when, in 1949 at the Prince’s Theatre in London, he danced as Don José with his future wife Renée Jeanmaire in his ballet Carmen. In one scene Jeanmaire stunned the audience when she made her entrance dressed in a black corset and nibbling a plum.
While Manon and Carmen enter haplessly into dangerous worlds, there’s another kind of temptress in black, the one that triggers the danger herself. In the 1930s, no woman in black was more vicious than the Black Queen in Ninette de Valois’ Checkmate.
In the balletic game of chess the Black Queen tempts the Red Knight, but his vulnerability leads to his downfall. She stabs him to death and continues her murderous rampage by killing the Red King. Black, of course, signals death. The final scene in MacMillan’s ballet Mayerling is the enactment of a suicide pact by the Crown Prince Rudolf and his mistress, Mary Vetsera. After a reckless, erotic pas de deux, in which Mary dances in the sheerest of black dresses, Rudolf shoots his mistress and then himself.
The dominating dancer in black does not always arrive on stage alone. In Jiří Kylián’s Falling Angels, eight women in skimpy black costumes remain on the stage throughout the work as they express a range of intimate emotions, from panache to vulnerability. Kylian says that the Falling Angels represent a symbol of strife, “between belonging and independence”.
Look behind the bold façade of any temptress in black and you might glimpse the same struggle – to be part of the party but remain untouched by their own personal, and sometimes dangerous, actions. They’re not alone. As Kylián wrote, the tug of war between belonging and independence is a dilemma that accompanies all of us from cradle to grave.
See Manon make THAT entrance into the ballroom … in Sydney until 23 April. Book tickets