A short analysis of the starting points of Pierrot Lunaire (1967) by Glen Tetley.

Arnold Schoenberg performing the composition Pierrot Lunaire, one of the key starting points of Glen Tetley’s ballet.

Glen Tetley’s Pierrot Lunaire (1967) is a revolutionary work which stems from two key starting points. Tetley takes key stock characters such as Pierrot and Columbine from 18th century commedia dell’arte, exploring the unrequited relationship between the two characters as well as analysing Pierrots own foolish, playful, daydreamer personality. Secondly, Tetley utilises Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, a daring composition which itself rebelled against classical music with free atonality and the use of a Spretchstimme who equally rebels against the comfortable use of ‘correct notes’. The text dictates the structure of the composition and the dance, consisting of 21 poems which are speak-sung in German and also connects to aspects of Pierrot’s wistful character.

Taken directly from the personality traits of the stock character seen in commedia dell’arte, Pierrot is a playful, foolish and naive character which is supported by Tetley’s choice of physical setting. The tall 3D metal scaffolding structure in the middle of the stage is uniquely modern, made with bars and multiple shelves. Pierrot begins at the top of this structure with his back against the top bar, holding his body weight up by his upper arms as he swings back and forth creating a C shape with his body. Later, he clumsily drops between gaps in the bars, before leaning and tumbling down the scaffolding in an acrobatic manner, hanging upside down and peeking towards the audience with his body again contorted into a backwards C shape. The structure somewhat resembles a childs climbing frame and is used in a carefree manner by the dancer, Christopher Bruce, resulting in moments of anxiety for the audience because of the apparent risk. This design is seemingly simple, yet it allows Tetley to explore the playfulness and foolishness of the character in a modern way.

Arnold Schoenberg’s composition, also called Pierrot Lunaire, sets a very specific mood and forebodes the darker themes of the piece to come later. The piece begins with a cascade of twinkling, singular piano notes which decrease in pitch and at first support the idea of Pierrot being a dreamer, as he looks up towards the moon and the stars. As the Spretchstimme begins, other instruments begin to mimic each other and layer, building into a chaotic and unpleasant sound. The flute sometimes mimics the piano notes, followed by the violin and clarinet in canon which becomes highly repetitive and complex and forebodes the idea of obsession, later to be connected to Pierrot’s obsession with Columbine. A violin is played by plucking the strings experimentally which creates a sinister mood and then switches to drawn-out, low-pitch short phases, accompanied by the high pitch flute which layers above with random swirling melodies. The overall effect is that of chaos, tension, obsession and mystery which on the surface makes audiences feel unnerved, and deep down forebodes some of the more tragic narrative later to come.

The relationship between the characters of Pierrot and Columbine has been dictated by commedia dell’arte over centuries, with only small details being edited from time to time. Tetley sticks with the sad, unrequited relationship where Pierrot pines for her attention and love despite her looking for something more in life. This is clearly seen at the start of the piece through the use of stage space and gesture. There is a moment when Pierrot sits on the corner of the middle shelf of his tower, with his arms and legs wrapped around the bar whilst he watches Columbine dancing below him. He performs a slow motif where he leans and reaches his arm towards her before slowly bringing himself to stand and balance on the bar, reaching towards her once more with soft and tentative arm gestures. His gentle and hesitant nature portrays the vulnerability and naivety of the character, linking back to his stock character and introducing the sadness and heartbreak his character often experiences. The reaches are repeated in multiple ways whilst he follows her with his eyes as she travels around the stage and pays no attention to him. This sets a one-sided relationship, supporting the theme of unrequited love. Furthermore, the distance between them is exaggerated by the high level provided by the scaffolding, creating distance between the characters and introducing their relationship to the audience as such. 

Finally, the text used in the poems of Schoenberg’s composition supports Tetley’s overall narrative and character development, alongside movement and lighting. The first poem, ‘Moondrunk’ talks of an obsessive dreamer: “skyward he directs his dizzy head, then reeling, gulps and slurps down…” This directly correlates to the reaching and grabbing gestures Pierrot performs at the start, where he looks up to the sky and cups his hand as he reaches upwards, zig-zagging his hand back down towards his mouth, as if he is catching moonbeams and gulping them. This is further supported by the blue lighting which washes the stage and gradually lightens as a white spot fades in, setting a relaxed evening scene as if the moon was really above, showering Pierrot. The links between the content of the poems subtly allows Tetley to fully explore Pierrot’s day-dreamer character and experiment with contemporary gestures.
Overall, the two starting points of Tetley’s Pierrot Lunaire fully dictate the themes, intentions and choreographic use of movement, space and physical setting. The stock characters from commedia dell’arte allow us to make connections to the storyline and relationships on stage, whilst the revolutionary composition allows Tetley to transcend traditions and explore more complex and experimental themes and constituent features. Therefore, the starting points of the work are important in the overall analysis and understanding of Tetley’s work.


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