A few months ago I posted about the danse macabre, dance as a metaphor for death. I’ve been thinking recently (maybe it has something to do with a certain Oscar-winning ballet movie) about the related idea of dancing oneself to death. It’s not exactly a pervasive trope, but I can think of a few examples offhand, and they make an interesting juxtaposition.
Appropriately, they both involve ballet. First is Giselle, the tale of a young peasant girl who falls in love with what she takes for a huntsman but who is really a prince out for a romp in the woods before he gets hitched. She finds out and dies of a broken heart, then spends Act II trying to prevent the object of her doomed affection from being killed by the Wilis, ghosts of similarly jilted young women who murder men by forcing them to dance themselves to death. (Can I just say how much I want Tim Burton to make this into a movie? It would be totally anti-feminist but just picture Helena Bonham Carter as the queen of the Wilis!)
The next one is the “anti-ballet” Rite of Spring. (If you’ve never heard the music, stop whatever you’re doing and listen to it right now. And if you think of dinosaurs, raise a glass to Walt Disney.) Though later Stravinsky wished the piece to be interpreted more as an abstraction of Russian pagan folk tunes, he noted one specific image: “…the wise elders are seated in a circle and are observing the dance before death of the girl whom they are offering as a sacrifice…” (perhaps this quote doesn’t make it clear, but the girl specifically dances to death.)
It’s interesting that these ballets share not only a rural/pagan element, but also direct ties to Russian folklore. I’m unfortunately not well versed in the latter, but perhaps this is a theme? If anyone has any more examples, Russian or otherwise, I’d love to hear of them. Note also the difference from the danse macabre, which emphasizes the universality of death; here death singles out and is vindictive.
Since this has been a rather musical post, it’s fitting that a bit of searching turned up a Canadian indie band called “Dance Yourself to Death”. Here’s some of their tunes—not sure if they will play outside of Canada.