The Australian Ballet

In the Friend Zone: Ballet's Second-String Men

Ballet’s romantic heroes get a lot of press time. Your Siegfrieds and Jameses, your Romeos and Albrechts: our gazes, and that of the heroine, are perennially fixed on them. But what of ballet’s almost-rans – the nice guys, the second bananas? Today, let’s bring them out of the shadows for one brief moment in the limelight.

La Sylphide Colin Andrew

Gurn

In La Sylphide, the handsome young farmer James looks like a catch – but turns out to be the kind of guy who would dump you mid-wedding to chase off into the forest after a seductive aerial sprite. Luckily his buddy Gurn is there to pick up the pieces, having long loved James’ fiancée Effie. Why does it take Effie so long to notice Gurn? He has some of the ballet’s best comic moments, a snappy Act I solo, and by far the snazzier tartan. Moreover, he’s a good guy, willing to bury his feelings and celebrate James and Effie’s wedding (until it all goes horribly wrong).

Will Effie be happy with Gurn? He truly loves her, and shows no predilection for woodland spirits, so perhaps. But are we ever happy with our second choices? More importantly, are we ever happy in a match arranged by a spiteful witch? Madge wants Gurn and Effie to end up together as a revenge on James, who bundled her roughly out of his house when she sought rest at his fireside. She convinces Gurn to act against his better nature and pretend that he’s seen no sign of James in the forest, even though he’s just found his coat. The last we see of Gurn and Effie is them walking arm and arm from the glade, and Effie seems to be coming around to him; but she falters and faints as she passes by the Sylphide’s fallen wings. Is it a presentiment of grief for the couple?

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Hilarion

The gamekeeper Hilarion in Giselle has to be the most tragic of ballet’s almost-rans. His good-prospective-son-in-law moves (we first see him fetching water for Giselle’s mother) and his gift of a dead pheasant can’t compete with the glamour of the mysterious newcomer Albrecht. And when he unmasks “Loys” for the philandering nobleman he is – engaged to another, no less! – the plan backfires and Giselle dies of a broken heart. There’s a fraught and poignant moment just after her death where Albrecht and Hilarion butt heads in their grief: “You did this!” accuses Albrecht, gesturing to Giselle’s body; “Me?? Are you kidding? It was you!” Hilarion replies, pointing in accusation. And who would say that he is wrong?

Blameless and loyal though the poor gamekeeper is, he meets a sticky end. Visiting Giselle’s grave in the woods, he is surprised by the wilis, who dance him to death. As well as being the plaything of cruel fate, he’s a pawn of the plot – his death shows us how dangerous the wilis are, and heightens the suspense as Giselle fights to save Albrecht.

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Benno

Ah, Benno: ballet’s ultimate fifth wheel. Prince Siegfried’s friend is often dropped altogether from modern versions of Swan Lake. And yet, in early productions of the ballet, he muscled in on the first tender dance of the Prince and the Swan Queen. That’s right, that stunning Act II pas de deux was once built for three. This is popularly supposed to have been because Pavel Gerdt, Siegfried in the first Petipa/Ivanov production of Swan Lake, was getting on and wasn’t up to the partnering. However, this may not be the case: Petipa also used the device of having a second male partner his heroine in Le Corsaire. While it appears strange to the modern eye, the back-up boy is there to present the ballerina to the hero, focusing the movement on their interaction. However, his involvement is limited to promenades. It’s the lover who gets the spectacular lifts.

In contemporary versions of Swan Lake, such as Stephen Baynes’ for The Australian Ballet, Benno is restricted to Act I, where he often dances a pas de trois with ladies of the court.

Onegin

Prince Gremin

What is Prince Gremin from Onegin even doing on this list? Doesn’t he get the girl (even if on the rebound) and isn’t she faithfully devoted to him? Perhaps, but he too is a second choice. Tatiana marries him after being rejected by the bored, sophisticated man-about-town Onegin. Sure, she respects the Prince and they have a happy marriage – she even chooses Gremin over Onegin when the latter changes his tune and declares his love – but she’ll never feel the tempestuous passion for him that the bad-boy Onegin inspires in her.