Monday, March 2, 2009




The Royal Academy of Dance

Our next scene takes place in Paris, in 1725. Picture a special ballet class for small group of advanced and professional pupils. The teacher is Francois Prevost (ca.1680 to 1741) the outstanding female dancer of her day. Jean Balon (1676 to 1739) was her partner. His name is easy to remember because his dancing was outstanding for its quality of ease, and the word we use for lightness in elevation is ballon.
Among Prevost's pupils were two talented young females whom Prevost addressed by their family names, Mademoiselle Camargo and Mademoiselle Salle, in order not to cause confusion, since both were named Marie. The rest of the advanced students didn't like the two Maries because they were obviously the teacher's pets. When the time came to practice jumping exercises, Camargo used to show off, continuing to jump easily, long after everybody else had to stop, completely out of bream. As for Salle, she would often interrupt an exercise with questions that the other students found very silly, like: "What if we tried to bend this way when we do the pirouette?" "Wouldn't that look like a leaf spinning in the wind?" In the previous chapter we noted the appearance of Mademoiselle de Lafontaine, the first female dancer of status. Next in line came Francoise Prevost who made her debut at the opera in 1699.
For thirty years. Prevoste was the foremost prima ballerina of her day, widely admired for lightness and expressive elegance. With the appearance of Camargo and Salle the place of the female dancer was secure. In fact, with them began the rivalry between ballerinas, which we will
hear of time and again in dance history. Camargo an Salle eventually divided the Paris dance public into two opposing camps, and you can be sure that each was very conscious of her standing as reflected by salary, the type of roles assigned bouquets (flowers) received, and all the other trappings of fame. Although ballerinas were popular, we still have to wait more than a hundred years for women to dominate men in professional ballet. In fact, the outstanding dancer of the early eighteenth century was a man, Louis Dupre.

Louis Dupre (ca. 1697 to 1774) was referred to as le grand, both because of his height (almost six feet) and because of his artistic greatness. Lillian Moore tells us (in Dance Magazine, June 1960) that Dupre made his debut in1714, and was soon acclaimed for his graceful elegance. He became the favorite partner of Marie Salle. Dupre was the premier danseur noble of his day. He was by inclination and temperament a classical, rather then dramatic dancer. In fact, Jean-Georges Noverre, one of his pupils, criticized Dupre for always dancing abstract chaconnes in which he excelled, instead of varying his style to suit the theme of a particular ballet. At the same time, Moore quotes this admiring description that Noverre wrote of his teacher.

The elegance of his figure and the length of his limbs were wonderfully suited to the execution of developpes effaces and the intricate steps of the dance…
This rare harmony in every movement earned for the celebrated Dupre the glorious title of Dieu de la Danse (God of the Dance.)

Dancing as a Career. The mark of professionalism from the time Camargo, Salle, and Dupre was that dancers from then on would be totally dedicated to their careers. They were not noble dilettantes, amusing themselves on occasion, but people middle and lower classes who put a tremendous amount of effort and time into their art-their work. Dancing lessons, rehearsals, and fours became the focus of their daily existence. They competed with one another for the public’s approval, and sought roles in productions not to show off among their friends, but to earn money and establish positions for themselves in a society which was rapidly changing.
During the eighteenth century, European culture made a somersault from a court-centered pyramid to a more stimulating, fluid, middle-class leadership a mixture of money and talent to prevail. Widespread changes were in evidence. In government, the Frenche and American Revolution were about to burst upon the world. In economics, mass production and industrialization were on the way. In education, literacy was increasing and freer intellectual attitudes prevailed. The dancer moved gracefully into this open environment; taking the role of producer and salesman of entertainment; trying to please a broad public and get as many people as possible to buy his merchandise. No wonder, then, that he strove for popularity, a word which took on new meaning with the appearance of cheap, daily newspapers. Through newspaper, theatrical gossip and critics' opinions were distributed to anyone who cared to read them. Journalists had no small part in promoting both the careers and the theatrical rivalries of Camargo and Salle.

The two Maries had a lot in common, in addition to their first names. They were both ambitious and artistically daring. They both made performing debuts at very early ages: Gamargo at nine: Salle at ten. Yet they were to present their public with a choice of ballet idols that differed sharply in style. In the eighteenth century, as in the present, a ballerina's charm included an image of her private life superimposed on her stage personality. Of course men, as now, the public sometimes had a distorted picture of a dancer's biography.

Marie Anne de Cupis de Camargo (1710 to 1770). Camargo had an exotic "foreign" background. She was born in Brussels to a Spanish mother and an Italian music-master father. Before making her debut at the Paris Opera when she was sixteen, she appeared successfully in Rouen and Brussels, beginning at the age of nine. Later, Camargo followed the fashion of Parisian society by being linked with a succession of high-born wealthy lovers. Noverre, whom we shall soon meet as a prominent ballet master, wrote of her: "Mademoiselle Camargo, so gay on the stage, was by nature melancholy and serious." Many performers presented this kind of mystery. There was no mystery, however, about her appeal to audiences. She was outstanding in speed and drive: in short, a brilliant technician.

If the general level of skill was considerably lower than it is today, you must remember that an audience can judge only in the framework of the times. Camargo was probably the first dancer to execute the entrechat quatre, which was fantasic for the 1700s. She was particularly famous for shortening the voluminous eighteenth-century skirt. This change in costume extended the range and virtuosity of women's movements beyond anything yet seen. To exhibit women's ankles so shamelessly was a bold move. In addition to shocking current standards of female modesty, her action also flew in the face of Rule XIII of the opera: "Artists are obliged to sing and dance in the clothing assigned to them." However, the academy administrators must have quickly appreciated the advantages of freeing the legs in this manner (even though we would consider it a very limited freedom indeed!). Anyway, Camargo was careful to wear special underwear under these shorter skirts to protect her modesty.

Not only did Camargo thrill her public with technical virtuosity and daring costume, she also had a fine musical sense. As Noverre wrote of her: “Mademoiselle Camargo enjoyed that precious gift of appreciating naturally and easily the movements of the most difficult melodies. This gift, plus an exact precision, accorded to her dancing a spirit of vivacity and gaiety which is never found in those dancers who have less sensitivity to music." Please note carefully Noverre’s comment under importance of music. Musicality is the prime quality that raises the dance technician out of the class of the athlete and places him squarely among the artists. Musical sensitivity makes the dancer beautiful, as well as skillful.

Marie Salle (1707 to 1756). Salle brought a different side of dance to the public. This second Marie was born into show business. Her father was an acrobat in her uncle’s successful touring company of actors, comedians, tumblers, and clowns. The troupe came to Paris every spring and summer to entertain at numerous fairs, and while they were in the neighborhood, Marie's family arranged for her to study with Prevost and Balon. Obviously, she had a special aptitude for dancing, and her performing family, always on the lookout for new talent, must have spotted it when she was very young. In fact, Marie Salle" made a big hit on a London Stage when she was only nine years old. Together with her brother, she appeared for two months as a harlequin in a dancing act that followed a melodrama (The Unhappy Favorite). Their engagement was so successful that it was extended to over one hundred performances in all.

One evening when Prevost, her teacher, was ill, she allowed Salle, a girl of fourteen, to dance in her place at the prestigious opera house. The reason for Salle's substitution lasting for only one night, however, was that the audience had responded to the young ballerina very enthusiastically, and Prevost, who was over forty, did not care for this at all. .Middle-aged people in every profession are resentful when faced with the threat of fresh young talent. This is an ever-recurring problem, particularly in our field. Since the instrument of the dance art is the body, a dancer, like an athlete, achieves his greatest technical skill quite early in life, usually somewhere in his twenties. Reaching the heights of interpretation, musically and dramatically, can take longer. But it is a rare dancer who can maintain his superiority well into his forties, or even continue to please the public. And the forties are the very years in which the dancer achieves an important position in a ballet or a theater company. This makes constant struggles inevitable between the mature performer and the newcomer who is pushing for his turn in the spotlight. This is an unpleasant, but inescapable fact of dance life. After her short one-night stand at the opera, Salle continued to tour with her uncle's troupe and to appear in London with her brother. When she finally landed an appointment at the Paris Opera, she was twenty. Then she had leading roles in all important opera productions. As well, she had her share of roles in ballets at court. There Salle was much admired and she made friends with important people like Voltaire. In her personal life, she was not particularly happy. Along with her constantly growing dance fame came increasingly more discomfiting gossip and backstage intrigue. The regular Parisian opera goers enjoyed scandals as much as ballets. They were disappointed that Salle didn't openly take lovers the way Camargo did. In her teenage years, she was neurotically preoccupied with her brother, and after his marriage and shockingly early death, she showed a preference for women over men. If the scandal-loving public enjoyed discussing details of ballerinas' love affairs, you can imagine what they made of an unconventional private life. The more private Salle tried to be, the more she wet the appetites of the gossips. Journalists catered to this appetite, inserting many nasty innuendos in their newspaper columns. They did this for the same reason that they enjoyed inflating the rivalry between Salle and Camargo. Scandals stimulated newspaper circulation and boosted the journalists' egos.

Artistically, Salle also had her problems with the opera administration. Many of the rigid, artificial aspects of court ballet had made their way into the opera, and remained there even after it became professional. Star dancers appeared in an opera, doing dance entrees tailored to fit their own abilities. As a result, these entrees often had little to do with the action of the work in which they were performing. These stars also used their favorite piece of music, not caring whether or not it harmonized with the style of the opera, or was written by the same composer. Such spirited prima donnas also refused to consider the logical or dramatic requirements of a role when they chose their costumes. They might be representing Greeks, or Indians, or peasants. Yet they dressed solely for prestige, in elaborate costumes, insisting on the tallest hairstyles, {he fullest skirts, and the most glittering jewelry possible.

These costumes caused quarrels between Salle and the opera's director, because her approach to dance was indeed a revolutionary one. Like Camargo, she also was interested in changing and simplifying dance costumes, but for a completely different reason. Camargo shortened her skirt so that she could execute more difficult, splashy jumps. Salle, on the other hand, was interested in dance not as a form for exhibiting technical skill, but as one for expressing feelings and portraying situations. Because of the attitude of the Paris Opera management, Salle had to return to London to put her theories into practice.


In London, Salle triumphed in Pygmalion, her best-known work, in 1734. Through this ballet, she realized several ambitions: creating choreography; performing as a dramatic dancer, capable of every nuance of expression; and designing dance costumes that suited the dance idea and at the same time allowed freedom of movement-the very opposite of the tinsel and clutter of French operatic ballet dress. Salle dared to wear a simple muslin dress, draped in the style of classic Greek sculpture; slippers without heels; and her hair without any ornament, falling loosely around her shoulders. Starting as a statue, she came to life before the eyes of the audience. An observer from the newspaper Mercure de France described it this way:

The statue, little by little, becomes conscious, showing wonder at her changed existence. Amazed and entranced, Pygmalion takes her hand, leading her down from the pedestal. Step by step she feels her way, gradually assuming the most graceful poses a sculptor could possibly desire, with steps ranging from the simplest to the most complex.

George Bernard Shaw took this ancient myth and changed it around quite a bit to bring it up to date—that is, to 1912, when he wrote the play Pygmalion. The original tale is of the sculptor, Pygmalion, who creates a statue of such an appealing woman that he falls in love with it, or her, Galatea by name. Galatea then comes to life. Shaw moved the ancient tale into modern England. He made the sculptor Pygmalion into Henry Higgins, a language expert; and the statue into a lovely English lady whom Higgins creates from the “raw clay” of Eliza, a rough lower-class girl who sells flowers. In turn, this play was made into My Fair Lady in the 1950s, with dialogue, songs, and dancing. Then, from the musical comedy, they made the popular movie. Thus My Fair Lady traces its lineage to comic opera and ballet, which relate to court entertainments and the comedie-ballet form perfected by Lully and Moliere. This family of artworks and art forms is like a large tree, with many intertwined branches.

Meanwhile, back in the eighteenth century, the London audience responded with enthusiastic excitement to Pygmalion. This was the high print of Marie Sally's career, when she was twenty-seven. After that, she performed intermittently with varying success born in London and Paris, until 1752. She died in 1756 but her appearance in ballets like Pygmalion left an unforgettable image with the public of the dancer as an instrument for creating emotional images. Noverre wrote of Salle:

We have not forgotten Mademoiselle Salle's artless expression. Her graces are always in our thoughts. Even though many other dancers have since copied her style, they have not succeeded in overshadowing the nobility, the harmonious simplicity, the tenderness, the fullness—yet the always modest movements-of that pleasant ballerina.

For a while there were many other dancers during that period who took their share of the spotlight, no one compared with the two Maries. Camargo brought technical virtuosity to a high point, and Salle did the same for expressive emotion. These remain the two great facets of the dance art: formalized movements performed with skill and musical sensitivity on the one hand; and gestures mat are made expressively to communicate feeling, on the other. This second facet was the overriding interest of Jean-George Noverre, a name that has been mentioned in passing several times. Now we owe our full and respectful attention to the most famous person of eighteenth-century dance.

Jean-Georges Noverre

Noverre (1727 to 1810) was born the year of Salle's debut at the Paris Opera. Because of him, 1760 stands out as a memorable date in dance history. By then, ballet had progressed to the point where it boasted long list of able, professional performers. It had spread through Europe with companies in residence in many cities. This came about with the increasing spread of theater buildings and opera companies beyond Italy, England, and France to Sweden, Austria, Portugal, and so on. Along with an impressive number of fine performers, ballet had also developed a host of problems and shortcomings. After all, if we date the first ballet as 1581 the Ballet Comique de La Reine- then by 1760 we are talking about something almost two hundred years old, even if its professional life was much younger. No wonder there were problems!

Anyway, 1760 saw the publication of Noverre's Letters on Dancing and Ballets, a series of essays whose main purpose was to attack the same ridiculous approach to choreography and costuming that had caused bad feelings between Salle and the directors of the opera. We have the book available to us today in a translation by Cyril Beaumont (issued by Dance Horizons). In this excellent work of criticism, Noverre laid down at length and in clear detail his own-and to some extent Salle's—philosophy of dance. It was one that emphasized this art form as a means of communication: of speech without words. In fact, Noverre held that in expressing emotion, dance was often superior to words. He wrote:

There are undoubtedly, a great many things which pantomime can only indicate. But in regard to the passions, there is a degree of expression to which words cannot attain-or rather there are passions for which no words exist. Then, dancing allied with action, triumphs.
A step, a gesture, a movement, and an attitude express what no words can say. The more violent the sentiments it is required to depict, the less able is one to find words to express them. Exclamations, which are the apex to which the language of passions can reach, become insufficient and have to be replaced by gesture.

In order that dance may best reflect nature, Noverre advised the ballet master to observe constantly how the people around him, every day, in every walk of life, move both in their occupations and in their dealings with one another. These and many other thoughts were well appreciated, both during Noverre's lifetime and since then. Fame came to his writings in part because he was such a fine performer himself. Also, several of his pupils rose to high places in and out of dance: Marie Antoinette, the ill- fated queen of France during the revolution, the great dancer Vestris, and the choreographer Dauberval. But most important of all to building his fine reputation was the fact that he himself proved his theories over and over again with renewed, successful entertainments which he created in his position as ballet master at the court of Stuttgart.

Jason and Medea 1763. This was the best- known work that Noverre produced. Again from Greek mythology, the terrible story went like this. Jason, in order to get back his throne from a wicked uncle who grabbed it unlawfully, needs to find the golden fleece (gold was contained in the magic wool that covered a ram). This treasure is guarded by a dragon, and Jason seeks the help of Medea the sorceress to slay it. In gratitude, Jason stays with Medea for ten years, and she bears him two children. But finally, Jason falls in love with a more appealing young nymph and he runs off with her. Medea goes mad with jealousy. First, she sends a gift of a poisoned mantle to Jason's young beloved, and when the nymph puts it on, it burns her to death. Still not satisfied, Medea kills the two children of Jason's that she bore, and in some versions she serves their hearts to him at a banquet.

With his treatment of this legend, Noverre had a tremendous success. In fact, the work was revived repeatedly with or without his permission, especially by Vestris, who starred in the premiere and broke precedent by appearing without a mask, according to Noverre's direction. In this way he could use facial expression as well as gesture to carry out his heroic role. Incidentally, copying choreography without authorization is a practice that continues. There is no real protection against it because; the ballet master can change things around so that his version isn’t identical with the original. Better copyright laws have helped, but probably won't entirely eliminate the problem.

Jason and Medea were not universally loved. There were some who objected to a horror story as the scenario for a ballet as one critic later explained. “I do not wish to see Jason's children strangled, while dancing—perishing on the beat 'neath rhythmic blows by their mother dancer..." In fact, in Saint-Hubert's advice on How to Compose a Successful Ballet, mentioned in our discussion of the seventeenth-century ballet art, he had warned against doing Homer's Iliad in ballet form because the burning of Troy would scare the ladies." How much worse would they be affected by seeing a mother murder her children? And indeed, it was reported from Stuttgart that at one point during Jason and Medea some in the audience fainted, while others fled the hall.

A basic argument over what should be suitably dealt with in dancing still goes on. Martha Graham choreographed Cave of the Heart in 1946, telling this same story. Scorn and ridicule, as well as the most ecstatic praise, have been heaped on Graham for such grim creations. In recent years, there have been performances of The-Miraculous Mandarin, with its complicated plot about multiple murders. It can be gruesome when the same character is killed and rises only to be killed again, which happens here several times. This work has been through many choreographic versions. In the eighteenth century, few ballets were about such gory events as the ones in Jason and Medea. Much more usual themes were adventure stories, many with exotic glimpses of far-off places like Turkey, China, and ancient Greece. Then in 1789, a few months before the French Revolution smashed the Old Regime, La Fille Mai Gardee appeared in a French provincial theater. This ballet was a story of peasant life, and marked a departure from the heroic themes that had dominated up to that time.

Jean Dauberval

Dauberval (1742 to 1806) choreographed La Fille Mal Gardee(1789) to apply ,Noverre's theories to comedy. Up to then, the master himself had emphasized tragic and lyric emotions, as had those who followed in his footsteps. While it may seem that here was a democratic interest in "the people," particularly considering the nearness of the revolution, today we can see that works like this were almost as exotic and artificial as an eighteenth-century balletic portrait of the Crusades, La Fille Mal Gardee was rose-colored image of "happy peasant villagers”. After all, villages were not far away in actual distance from the theater and the courts; but they were far enough from the life experiences of the middle and upper classes to be wrapped in a romantic glamour. Marie Antoinette, before she lost her head to the revolutionary guillotine, used to enjoy playing peasant maid with some of her ladies-in-waiting at a picturesque, miniature dairy farm, set up specially for her amusement. Whatever one thinks of the nature of these "games," the very fact that stage room was even given to a complete work set in a peasant village did indicate some change in the consciousness of the eighteenth-century ballet world about the way people in general spend their lives.

La Fille Mal Gardee has another distinction for a dance history. It is considered the oldest ballet—not first, still the Ballet Comique de la Reine, which had been produced over two hundred years earlier-but the oldest that is still current in the repertory of several companies in England, the United States, Denmark, and elsewhere. Please keep in mind that these versions are not authentic revivals. Duberval's choreography and the first musical accompanying score have long since disappeared from both memory and other records. What remains is the village setting, the rough outlines of a comic plot, the idea of combining naturalistic pantomime with dance interludes, the mixture of folk dance and academic ballet steps which today we call character, and the use of music based on French folk tunes.

The plot of La Fille Mal Gardee, now as then, concerns a wealthy widow who owns a farm and seeks a suitable marriage for her daughter Lisette. Arranged marriages were as accepted in eighteenth century village life as they were earlier in the Italy of Romeo and Juliet, and at the French court of Catherine de Medici. Money, not noble birth, is the prize sought here. The widow Simone does find a rich man who owns a vineyard and is eager to find bride for his son Alain, a good-natured dope. These practical adults agree on a marriage between Lisette and Alain. Of course, Lisette, being a high-spirited beautiful girl, already has a sweetheart of her own choosing: the honest, handsome, but poor Colin.

The attractive couple shares the friendship of all the merry young villagers, and they cooperate to help Lisette and Colin give the old matchmakers the runaround. Since this is a lighthearted comedy, the couple manages to tease old Simone into blessing their union, and the foolish boy and his father take themselves grudgingly off the scene.

Along the way, the action includes byplay with a butter churn and an umbrella, which silly Alain swings around while everybody gets wet in a sudden rainstorm. Dance interludes include a harvest festival in which the young people weave in and out of streamers, and wave kerchiefs, sheaves, and strike tambourines while doing polka and other folk steps in balletic precision. A love duet in straight classical adagio technique, is provided for Lisette and Colin. As much comedy pantomime as possible is milked from the foolish, clumsy Alain, his pushy father, the bossy buxom widow, and the fun-loving villagers. As the curtain lowers on La Fille Mal Gardee, we bring to a close the first stage of our ballet history.

Questions for Review

1. Which balletic style do you prefer, that of Marie Camargo or that of Marie Salle? Why?

2. Discuss Noverre's philosophy of dance.

3. Do you believe that murder is a fit subject for dance?

4. Describe the choreographic elements of La Fille Mal Gardee.

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