Monday, November 22, 2010

Unicorns!

With the premiere of Tornerose a mere four days from now (coinciding with one of the most beloved homeland holidays, Black Friday!), life in Det Kongelige Teater has been very busy and stressful and anxious and sparkly. Ergo, lack of posting is a result of lack of free time/energy. And because my recent existence revolves around all things related to a certain princess who is fond of really, really, ridiculously long naps, this post will have nothing to do with ballerina dancing or Tornerose or the theatre, but everything to do with a subject near and dear to my heart: unicorns.

The word unicorn comes from the Latin unus ('one') and cornu ('horn'). Today, when we think of a unicorn--and when do we not?!--we basically picture a horse, only with a fancy horn on its forehead. But the traditional image of a unicorn also has a billy-goat beard, a lion's tail, and cloven hooves added to the already-fabulous mix. In The Unicorn and The Lake, children's book author Marianna Mayer waxed poetic about my favorite equine: "The unicorn is the only fabulous beast that does not seem to have been conceived out of human fears. In even the earliest references he is fierce yet good, selfless yet solitary, but always mysteriously beautiful. He could be captured only by unfair means, and his single horn was said to neutralize poison." Basically, Mayer is eloquently saying what I already know to be true, which is: Unicorns are perfect, plus they can neutralize poison.

A lot of people probably think unicorns are found in Greek mythology--because let's face it, there's tons of magic in Greek myths. But unicorns were actually first noted in Greek accounts of natural history. Like many rational-thinking people, Greek writers of natural history were convinced of the reality of the unicorn. Which they of course found in India. The earliest description of a unicorn comes from Greek physician/historian Ctesias who described them as "wild asses, fleet of foot, having a horn a cubit and a half in length and colored white, red and black." That famous thinker Aristotle comes next, talking about two one-horned animals, the oryx (a kind of antelope) and the so-called "Indian ass". Greek geographer Strabo says that in the Caucasus there were "one-horned horses with stag-like heads." Pliny the Elder (a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher with an awesome nickname) tells tales of three one-horned beasts: the oryx, an Indian ox, and finally, "a very fierce animal called the monoceros which has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits in length." We've also got Cosmas Indicopleustes, a 6th century merchant of Alexandria (who I'm guessing just went by "Cosmas"). He made a voyage to India, and in his subsequent works on cosmography, describes a unicorn--but not, as he puts it, from actually seeing one. His description comes from four figures of unicorns in brass held in the palace of the King of Ethiopia. Cosmas reports that "it is impossible to take this ferocious beast alive; and that all its strength lies in its horn. When it finds itself pursued and in danger of capture, it throws itself from a precipice, and turns so aptly in falling, that it receives all the shock upon the horn, and so escapes safe and sound." So his description is a little less magical than Mayer's, and also apparently, unicorns were sort of like cats when it came to falling, in the sense that they always landed on their horns.

Unicorns are all up in the Bible, too: an animal called the re’em is mentioned quite a few times in the Hebrew Bible, usually as a metaphor for strength. The re'em is described as a wild animal of great strength and agility, with a mighty horn or horns. This description fits the Assyrian rimu, another creature often used to personify strength. The rimu is shown as a powerful, wild mountain bull with large horns, and was often used in ancient Mesopotamian art, with only one horn visible. The Authorized King James Version of the Bible used "unicorn" as a translation for re'em, and thus gave us a familiar animal known for its wild nature. The American Standard Version translates this term to "wild ox", which is not nearly as magical, in my opinion. But perhaps my favorite Biblical unicorn use comes in the classical Jewish understanding of bible. This did not identify the re'em as a unicorn but instead spoke of the Tahash animal. The Tahash was thought to be a "kosher unicorn" (Wikipedia's words, not mine!) with a multi-colored coat, and it only existed in biblical times.

Fast forward to medieval times. There's a popular story going around in which a unicorn, representing the Incarnation, is trapped by a maiden (who is obviously the Virgin Mary). As soon as the unicorn sees her, it lays its head on her lap and falls asleep. MAGIC. The medieval idea of the unicorn was related to the popular tales of "beguiled lovers." Then you also had some medieval religious writers interpret the unicorn and its death as the Passion of Christ. Older myths often referred to a one-horned beast that could only be tamed by a virgin, so of course, many medieval authors turned this into an allegory for Christ's relationship with the Virgin Mary. The unicorn was also big with the court people--for some 13th century French authors, "the lover is attracted to his lady as the unicorn is to the virgin." And when humanism became popular, the unicorn got a bit more secular; it started to symbolize "chaste love and faithful marriage." But perhaps my favorite medieval use of the unicorn occurred in my current country of residence. Way back in the good old days, the royal throne of Denmark was made of "unicorn horns." (Which we now know were almost definitely the horns of the Narwhal, a medium-sized Arctic whale, but whatever.) Danes used the same material for ceremonial cups because the belief that unicorn's horns could neutralize poison was still the cool way to think. At this time, unicorn products were not cheap, since everyone was hearing about their aphrodisiac qualities and other alleged medicinal virtues. Plus, unicorns were said to be able to determine whether or not a woman was a virgin. Which I'm sure on more than one occasion would have been very useful, if that sort of thing was considered an important factor.

So do unicorns exist? Hunts for an actual animal have added a further layer of mystery to the unicorn. Example: There were many prehistoric bones found at Unicorn Cave (new vacation destination!) in Germany's Harz Mountains. In 1663, some of these were picked out and rebuilt by the mayor of Magdeburg, Otto Von Guericke, into a shape resembling a unicorn. Guericke's so-called unicorn had only two legs, and was made from fossil bones of a Woolly rhinoceros and a mammoth, with the horn of a narwhal stuck on for full unicorn effect. Another view came from Baron Georges Cuvier, who said that since the unicorn was apparently cloven-hoofed, it must therefore have a cloven skull--which would make the growth of a single horn impossible. To disprove this, University of Maine professor Dr. W. Franklin Dove, aka A Heroic Man Indeed, artificially fused the horn buds of a calf together, which resulted in the appearance of a one-horned bull.

In addition to actual hunts and experiments, there is historical evidence which makes one trend very clear: Once upon a time, there were a whole bunch of animals that really looked like unicorns. One example comes from the thought that the unicorn is based on the extinct animal Elasmotherium, which is a giant Eurasian rhinoceros. Elasmotherium didn't really look like a horse at all, but its selling point was its large single horn in its forehead. It became extinct about the same time as the rest of the huge ice age animals, but two sources dispute this: Nordisk familjebok (Nordic Familybook) and science writer Willy Ley. These guys say the animal may have survived long enough to be remembered in the legends of the Evenk people of Russia as a huge black bull with a single horn in the forehead. And they might not be crazy--13th century traveller (and inspiration for modern-day children's game) Marco Polo claimed to have seen a unicorn in Java, but his description of the animal makes it clear today that he actually just saw a Javan Rhinoceros. (But he probably died believing he'd seen a unicorn, and how awesome of a thought is that?)

In addition to these examples, there are several other animals who have been mistaken for unicorns throughout history. The Biblical vision of Daniel is to blame for the single-horned goat's confusion with a unicorn (as is the work of self-described "Wizard" Timothy Zell, whose webpage I strongly urge you to visit, because words cannot do justice). And as mentioned before, the narwhal was also falsely identified as a unicorn, along with the oryx--an antelope with two long, slender horns--and the eland, a South African antelope with a history of mythical importance.

But the interest in unicorns is not only in the distant past (and not exclusive to me, which makes me feel marginally better about the state of my brain). Just two years ago, in 2008, a new possibility for the inspiration of the unicorn came with the Italian discovery of a roe deer with a single horn. Single-horned deer are not uncommon, but what is very unique is the placement of the horn in the middle. The scientific director of Rome's zoo, Fulvio Fraticelli, has described the central horn placement as "a complex case." He also says that the placement of the horn could have been the result of some type of trauma in the life of the deer. And according to Gilberto Tozzi, director of the Center of Natural Science in Prato, “this single-horn deer is conscious to its uniqueness and does not come out a lot, always hiding."

So. Unicorns maaaybe don't actually exist. But they were fairly important in a lot of different cultures for many, many years. Plus, they're pretty to look at, and make appearances in current fantasy movies like Harry Potter and Stardust. I say for that, we keep them around. (Also, you never know when one will swoop in to neutralize some pesky poison. I'm just sayin'...)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sleeping Beauty

We have left the Lake known as SvanesĂžen, and are preparing to enter into a 100-year nap: Christopher Wheeldon's new Tornerose. In plain English, this is Sleeping Beauty. (And in my personal English circa when-I-was-two, due to pronunciation problems, it was known as "Sleeping Doody," but that's just some potty humor for you.) Probably one of the most beloved and well-known story ballets, it is very exciting to be involved in an updated version of a storied classic. Christopher Wheeldon is adding some twists and updates of his own, but I won't spoil the surprise. Instead, I'm here to give a little summary of the basic fairy tale version we all grew up with...

Once upon a time, there was a magical kingdom. All the best fairy tales involve royalty (and, in my opinion, unicorns, but even though this one doesn't have any, it's still pretty good so stick with this). The King and Queen of this kingdom get down to their royal business and make a beautiful pooping, crying toy more commonly known as a baby. A baby girl, to be precise, named Aurora. The sort of name which brings to mind sparkly things and daisy chains and rainbows and yes, unicorns. (Actually, the story says she is named after "the dawn," but whatever.) And because the King and Queen are respectable royal people--who, let's face it, love an excuse to throw a good party--they decide to hold a big Christening for their new bundle of joy. Everyone's invited, including some very special, extra-sparkly guests: the Fairies, led by the Lilac lady. See, the King and Queen are super well-connected, and the Fairies are important. You want them at your baby's Christening. Because even though their names are ridiculous (in this version, Beauty, Grace, Knowledge, Song, Temperament, and Dance; translate into Danish at your own risk!) and thus a bitch to write on the place cards, this bunch gives really good baby presents. Seriously, they'll make your kid sort of fabulous.

Anyway. The Christening is on. The Court is celebrating the new Princess, and the fairies are (literally) flitting about, hither and yon, giving out their presents. Everyone is having a fantastic time; this might be the most fun baptism ever. And then the Big Sack of Crazy crashes the baby bash. The BSoC being the evil fairy Carabosse--sort of the Wicked Witch of the West to the Lilac Fairy's Glinda. Carabosse is not happy. Girl loves a party, and SOMEONE forgot to invite her to this one, which happens to be a biggie. But instead of doing the normal thing and getting wasted and maybe giving a somewhat crude, socially awkward speech at the dinner like any sane uninvited guest would, Carabosse has to go one step further. She has to give a gift, and she has to make that gift totally awful and ruin everybody's fiesta, and also screw up the innocent baby Aurora's life. Which doesn't really seem fair, given that despite all the gifts she's getting, one thing Aurora still lacks is the ability to hold a pen (or quill) and write invitations. It's not her fault, but Carabosse doesn't see it this way, and so her gift to Aurora is that sixteen years from now on her birthday, the Princess will prick her finger on a spindle and die. (Carabosse really knows how to kill a mood. And, apparently, children.) Of course everyone totally freaks out. This is turning into the worst Christening ever. But the Lilac Fairy is all cool as a cucumber and comes up with a solution. She can't undo the curse, which doesn't seem fair to me but whatever, but she can alter it. Princess Aurora will prick her finger on a spindle on her sixteenth birthday, but she won't die. She will just fall asleep for 100 years until wakened by the kiss of a prince. Shockingly (to me), everyone accepts the idea of taking a giant coma sixteen years from now, and Carabosse leaves in a big evil huff. Then the King orders all spindles and needles and sharp things in the whole kingdom to be burned, hoping that will help. Obviously it won't, and clothing is just going to be that much harder to make for the next decade and a half, but the people do it because he's the King and he said so.

Fast forward sixteen years. It's Aurora's birthday, and finally she's getting a party she'll remember. Before, y'know, the Big Nap. Villagers are dancing around with garlands; the Princess and her friends are stupidly playing with roses--hello, Cursed Baby, thorns are spiny!; and the King and Queen present their baby girl with four eligible stud muffins, by which I mean princes. (And to think, all I got for MY sweet sixteen was permission to adopt an adorable mutt from a Harlem dog shelter.) The princes are beautiful and hail from exotic lands, which of course means they're unoriginal and completely unaware that this pretty young thing is not allowed near anything sharp: they all give her roses. Aurora's easily pleased, being a generally happy-go-lucky sort of gal, so she's having a grand old time. And then she gets a creepy present from a disguised guest. It's--wait for it!--a spindle. Aurora's all intrigued, but I gotta say, if someone gave me a GIANT NEEDLE on my birthday, I might wonder about their motives. But it's not my party, so I can't argue (or cry if I want to). Her parentals are freaking out, with good reason, but Aurora's sixteen now. And we've all been there: when you're sixteen, you know everything and are in fact superhuman and can't get hurt. So the Princess ignores her parents and dances around with the spindle before accidentally pricking her finger on it. No one says "I told you so" even though this would be an entirely appropriate time to do so, but I mean come on, everyone's thinking it. Turns out the disguised guest was Carabosse, that sly fox, but she hightails it outta there before the studs in tights (aka the princes) can fight her. And at the perfect moment, the Lilac Fairy appears. (She knows all about being fashionably late.) She reminds the kingdom: "Guys, I fixed this sixteen years ago. Seriously, you don't remember this?" Then she casts a slumber spell over the entire kingdom so that they will only wake up when Aurora does, and everybody falls asleep for a really, really, enviably long nap.

So. Everyone's taking a quick coma. And during the snooze, we meet Prince Desire. (Yes, that's actually his name. I know.) He's the one, the good kisser who's going to wake up the Princess and save the day. He sees this in a vision, put upon him by the Lilac Fairy. In the vision, he's in a forest surrounded by sparkly perky ladies in nymph form, and through them all comes Aurora. She's something of a babe, and Desire is all obsessed with her after this vision. So he does his thing, going through the vines and nature crap that have grown around the castle over the past century, fighting the shrubbery and mossy madness (oh and Carabosse), until he finds her: the Sleeping Beauty (hello, title moment!). And in the easiest part of his journey, he goes over and plants a big wet one on the Princess. She wakes up, followed by the rest of the kingdom. Everyone's a little groggy and covered in cobwebs and probably has a mean case of morning breath and eye boogies, but other than that they all look damn hot for having been in a 100-year nap. (And more importantly, no one seems to have suffered any major brain damage!) Desire and Aurora waste no time. They're like in "move-in-with-me" phase within a few minutes, and declare their love for each other, which is a little fast for my personal taste but I mean, to each his own right? The King and Queen are just happy this strapping young lad woke everybody up on time, and of course they give their blessing. Wedding preparations begin immediately--kudos to this kingdom for party-planning efficiency.

Wedding Day: there's a literal menagerie of guests. Everyone and their mother is invited, plus birds and cats and fairies and all that. Special guests perform for the new couple; court people are dancing; everyone is in hot sparkly royal outfits; and Desire and Aurora are totally that lovey-dovey-we-literally-just-met-but-it's-true-love couple that everyone loves and secretly also hates just a little. Third time's the charm, since at this party, no one gets cursed and no one goes into a coma. The whole thing is a rousing success, the King and Queen can finally take that vacation to Rio they'd been meaning to go on forever, and they all live happily ever after.

Christopher Wheeldon's Tornerose is a bit different from this traditional sequence of events. But I'm not going to let the cat out of the bag, and you get the gist. It's a fairy tale in every sense of the word, with beautiful Tchaikovsky music (and wonderful new costumes and sets by Jerome Kaplan). The only thing that's missing? Unicorns. But I can get over that easily enough--fairies are pretty damn magical, too.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Halloweenies

There are many things I love about living in Copenhagen: my work, my friends, the city, the culture and fun new language, the eerily-reliable public transportation system, etc. etc.... But, as with most things in life, there are a couple of things that still take some getting used to. Among this short list of "less-than-desirables" is the fact that the Danes do not celebrate the awesomeness that is Halloween. Sure, they have Fastelavn in February, where children dress up in costumes and hit large barrels--in the good old days, filled with a live black cat; but in these animal-friendly times, filled with candy and oranges. And there's something about "'fastelavnsris', with which children ritually flog their parents to wake them up on the morning of Fastelavns Sunday (Quinquagesima)." But nothing is quite like Halloween, that magical last October day when you can be anyone or anything you want, and even better you can get away with blackmailing strangers for sweets. And so, some friends and I decided to have a little slice of creepy home and had a costume-centric shindig. Preparing for the Halloween fest was maybe even more fun than the party itself, especially since now that we are all alleged grownups, we really went all-out with the costumes. I went as Mrs. Lovett, of Sweeney Todd fame; and my best sassy pal went as the Age of Enlightenment. Here, then, was how I spent my Sunday evening of tricks and treats...



Thanks to the power of makeup in the hands of good friends, I managed to look fabulously undernourished and mildly murderous. This is also photographic evidence that I mysteriously own a rolling pin.


Mrs. Lovett and the Age of Enlightenment.