Let’s face it: most of the classic ballet stories seem pretty dumb when you remove all the dancing and just look at the little synopsis they give you in the programme. And, of course, all those old ballets are so terribly Eurocentric, built on corny European folk-tales (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty), drawing on European stereotypes (beautiful princesses and handsome princes), and featuring Europeanish fauna (swans, fauns and, uh...firebirds?). This past summer, driving along highway two, and with nothing better to occupy my mind, I asked myself: why not early Canadian ballets? Ones with dumb Canadian stories, embarrassing Canadian stereotypes and exclusively Canadian (or, at least North American), fauna? Where, in heaven’s name, were they? Determined to rectify this nationally mortifying cultural lacuna, I set to work, and so it is my pleasure to offer you the synopsis of Moose Marsh:
Act I: The Garrison
Pokinfunatus, a Huron maiden who works in the tavern and household of the sorcerer, Comte Frontenac, is admired for her startling resemblance to a patronizing racial stereotype by all the voyageurs who pass through the garrison on their way upstream; but she is especially beloved by Ti-jean, a French-Canadian trapper who is no slouch in the offensive stereotype department himself, and who supplies venison to the Comte’s kitchen, where it is prepared for the hungry and loutish voyageurs who regularly stop at the Frontenac garrison. Comte Frontenac is engaged to an aristocratic woman named Showerilde (legal disclaimer: any resemblance to Bathilde, from the ballet Giselle, is purely coincidental) but has become bored with her. Having spied Pokinfunatus as she brings large platters of meat from the kitchen, he uses his black magic to disguise himself as one of the voyageurs, and in this guise demands that she dance for the voyageur team. As the tom-toms play an appalling pastiche of “aboriginal music,” she does so, the Comte and the voyageurs shouting their boorish encouragement while Ti-jean looks on anxiously. Pleased with Pokinfunatus’s performance, Comte Frontenac declares that he will marry her. Pokinfunatus raises a pretty eyebrow at this and is about to retort, when suddenly she is interrupted by Ti-jean, who declares the Comte to be a fraud who is already engaged to Showerilde. Pokinfunatus immediately rebuffs the Comte with a withering arm-crossing and tongue-clucking. The red-faced Comte vows vengeance upon them both and when Pokinfunatus snorts contemptuously, saying “talk to the ‘how sign’”, she is suddenly made to vanish in a puff of smoke. Enraged, Ti-jean attempts to attack the Comte, but he is restrained by the other voyageurs who, heavily inebriated and to be frank, somewhat slow on the uptake at the best of times, still believe the Comte to be one of their own. Ti-jean, in hopes of both finding Pokinfunatus and conclusively exposing the Comte’s imposture to the other voyageurs, puts on a tuque and a preposterous beard and as the voyageurs depart he joins the group, slipping unnoticed beneath the large canoe as it is portaged across the stage in the famous “canoe dance” (a challenging piece choreographed for eight males who in a series of dazzling arabesques and pirouettes, create the impression that a 600lb canoe is floating, while being able to see nothing but one another’s feet).
Act II: The Enchanted Marsh
In the event, it has proved unnecessary for Ti-jean to expose the Comte to the voyageurs, because he is quickly expelled from the team because of his incompetent paddling and his maddeningly incessant complaints about the mosquitoes and blackflies and the blisters on his pale aristocratic hands. Fleeing the voyageurs’ brandished paddles, Comte Frontenac escapes into the woods, pursued by Ti-jean. However the Comte eludes Ti-jean, who, now lost and exhausted, comes to the edge of an enchanted marsh where he collapses. As dusk falls, a pack of porcupines (the female corps du ballet) emerge for an evening dance on the shore, a performance that involves a good deal of skill not only in imitating the extremely short-legged gait, but, especially during the linked-armed sequence, in the dexterous avoidance of one another’s spiky tutus. (Perhaps it is needless to remark that any less than fastidious observance of port de bras here will have painful consequences.) After a preliminary dance, a pack of beavers (the male corps du ballet) arrives, and the two rodent choruses pair off for a series of virtuosic displays of waddling. Lurking near the back of the pack of porcupines is one with an improbable long black braid and a jagged-hemmed suede mini-dress (looking a little peculiar, to be sure, draped as it is over all those quills), by means of which clues Ti-jean recognizes Pokinfunatus. She shyly comes forward—although Ti-jean suggests that it might be best if she did not come too close—and explains that they have been bewitched by Comte Frontenac. She says that the many women who have refused the Comte’s embraces have been transformed into porcupines (“My sweet unembraceable you,” he had snarled); the beavers had all been young men whom the Comte had coaxed into clearing tracts of land on which they were promised they could settle, but, when they had finished, he invited them to his tavern and, once they were drunk, transformed them, with his trademark heavy-handed irony (“Come along, you eager beavers! Bwah-ha-ha-ha!”), so that he could seize their farmland for himself. The marsh emerged from all the half-finished glasses of beer that were left at the tavern, most of which, she adds with a certain distaste, were almost certainly corrupted by back-wash. Now each evening, they all gather by the edge of the marsh and wait for the moonlight, when they will briefly resume their human forms. The conversation is interrupted when suddenly the beavers begin slapping their “tails” (danced by means of the highly taxing “rapid-squat” technique) to warn of the approach, through the marsh, of a giant Moose. The Moose boastfully attempts to intimidate the beaver-males by means of a series of giant leaps which they cannot possibly match with their short rodent legs, but Ti-jean, abetted, at least in appearance, by his thigh-high leather boots, surpasses the Moose by leaping back and forth over its back and winning the applause of the chorus. Suddenly the envious and humilated Moose charges Ti-jean, who deftly leaps over a beaver dam which the Moose, in his rage, is tripped up by. Having the Moose at his mercy, Ti-jean declares that, having noticed that the Moose’s antlers are improbably pristine and fuzz-free in a manner with which only an aristocrat would bother himself, he believes the Moose to be the Comte in disguise, and threatens to have the Comte’s head stuffed and mounted back in his own dining-room unless he reveals himself immediately. Comte Frontenac reveals himself at the very moment that the moon rises and the rodent-dancers begin a transformation back to their human shapes, a process which, Comte Frontenac declares, he will allow to be permanent when the dawn comes. A celebratory dance ensues, and the Comte, moved to penitence by the joy of the others, offers to dance with each of the maidens in turn to choose one of them to be his wife. This, alas, proves an imprudent promise, for the maidens have not quite divested themselves of all of their porcupine traits. However, the Comte, nothing if not a man of his word, persists in dancing with one partner after another, until, bristling like a sea-urchin, he falls into the marsh of beer dregs and backwash and drowns disgustingly. Ti-jean and the beaver-men —very carefully— lead Pokinfunatus and the porcupine-maidens on a dance back towards the garrison.
(And listen, before anyone asks: no, I really don't have "a thing" about porcupines, although I will admit to finding it mildly fascinating that something so funny-looking can also be so terrifying, and also to having woken up with nightmares for several nights running about a decade ago, immediately after I was forced to use pliers to remove half-a-dozen quills from my dog's mouth...ONE...AT...A...TIME. Make what you will of that, Dr Freud.)