THE TAGLIONI INFLUENCE
A sigh of nostalgia for the Romantic ballerina has been echoed thousands of times, particularly after performances of Giselle, which has become one of the all-time favorites of the ballet repertory. If Giselle still has such great appeal 150 years after its premiere, then there must be something in Romanticism that speaks in a language more universal than that of the Parisian French of the 1840s. In fact Romanticism is the word historians use to describe much of European culture in the 19th century. Similar attitudes and ideas were expressed in poetry, novels, paintings, symphonic music, as well as ballet during that period. What united all these creations was their emphases on the emotions. Imagination, flying free, was carried aloft by the supercharged feelings of existed artists.
Emotion in Ballet You may well ask: Isn't all art always concerned with imagination and feelings? And the answer would have to be yes. Any dance (or painting, poem, or play for that matter) expresses feelings, and they need not be happy ones. For example, both Romeo and Juliet and La Mal Gardee are about the same thing. Two young people love each other, against the wishes of the girl's elders, who have plans for her to marry someone else. Romeo and Juliet in its many versions express dread, dismay, and needless, youthful death. The pantomimic movements in this ballet are seriously dramatic, the story has a tragic ending, and the music and many of the dance patterns are heavy with foreboding. On the other hand, in La Fille Mal Gardee, the pantomime is light and playful, even slapstick. The story ends happily. The music and the dance patterns are light, bouncy, and folksy, arranged in symmetrical designs. Therefore this ballet always expresses feelings of carefree harmony and foolishness. We do not go to see either of these ballets—or any others—for information and intellectual stimulation, but rather for emotional experience.
The difference that marked the Romantic Age was not the discovery of emotion, but the central place assigned to it, both in the theme itself and also in its treatment. The Romantic artist was less interested in telling a story than in delving deeply into feelings, his own and those of the characters he described. And for the most part, these feelings were not the ones that accompany the daily routine of living, but those that arise in solitude, at night, or while daydreaming. The Romantic artist was introspective, and therefore often gloomy. Or else he dreamed about far-off places, fairy-tale settings for exotic adventures. Romanticism was fantasy that stemmed from a sense of dissatisfaction with the here and now; a longing for distance in either time or space; a wish to escape from present reality. Its themes were poetic love that could never be real, foreign exotic scenes, and spiritual creatures that resembled people, but couldn't be grasped by ordinary men. Historically, the Romantic movement reached its peak in the years following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. Because of this timing, it has been explained by many historians as a disillusioned reaction against the excesses of war and politics; a desire to get away from the grim truth. However, even when reality is not so horrible, perhaps only fixed into boring routine, the idea of an imaginative escape is appealing.
It would be hard to find a more dreamy, sentimental image than that of the fairylike Romantic ballerina, floating as an unattainable figure of pure love, above mere mortal men. The steamy, hothouse climate of Paris in the 1820s turned the city into a breeding ground for exotic ballets, of which Giselle and La Sylphide later emerged as the shining examples. But Giselle still has top billing in the ballet repertory. And it is therefore Giselle who calls down through the ages from the spirit world, and awakens poetic longing in many hearts, especially in Act II when she dances after her death with her beloved prince.
Ballet and Opera. In 1800, the center of the ballet world was still Paris, although for a while during the Reign of Terror, London took over. There was also ballet activity as far north as Sweden, as far east as Russia, and as far west as the United States. The main setting for important new productions was the Paris Opera. This meant that ballets were often designed as amusing diversions in full-length opera productions. Even when ballet evenings were given separately, the choreographers, composers, scene designers, and performers were hired by the opera director. Opera, like ballet, had its roots in elaborate Italian Renaissance spectacles. At first, both forms were related to theatrical drama, taking their plots from ancient Greece and Rome,. To carry along the action, the opera substituted singing for dialogue, while the ballet substituted mime for speech. A lso included were passages of just song, or just dance. Both depended for their appeal, to a large extent, on cleverly engineered scenery. And both were closely intertwined with the historical development of music.
Ever since their birth, ballet and opera have grown along parallel lines, first at the courts and then in the more widely attended public theaters. Today they share the honor of being the most expensive art forms to produce. At any rate, they have been reared together intimately, often sharing one opera theater and one management, supported by subsidies of royal courts, civil governments, or wealthy establishment patrons. When they are together like this, the ballet is the subordinate unit. After all, dancing is often found as part of an opera, but who ever heard of opera being only part of a ballet?
Ballet of the Nuns
This ballet appeared in the third act of the opera Robert le Diable in 1831, and at its premiere it scored immediately with the public. Now you have to suffer through a long list of credits, because many of the names connected with this work have relevance for the whole of our Romantic golden age. Of course, some are notable only because they are linked with this pace-set-ting opera. The music was composed by Giacomo.Meyerfaeer. The libretto (scenario) was written by Eugene Scribe. The scenery was designed by Pierre Ciceri and Henri Duponchel. The choreography was arranged by Filippo Taglioni. The leading dance roles were performed by Marie Taglioni as the abbess and Adolphe Nourrit as Robert. And the opera manager was Louis Veron..
We now consider the contribution of each of these people. Histories of music refer to Meyerbeer (German born) as the most successful practitioner of the form known as French grand spectacle opera. Naturally this form included ballet interludes. The music for the Ballet of the Nuns was described as diabolical and highly effective. Libretto, which means the word script to be sung, as well as the scenario, was by a playwright. Eugene Scribe was not only the most popular and prolific playwright of his day,
turning out almost five hundred plays, he also merits a mention in our field as a scenarist.
We generally think of a scenarist as one who outlines the plot, characters, and situations of a movie. The word is also used for one who does this service for a ballet. Before Scribe, during the 1800s, the choreographer had usually been his own scenarist. He would settle for following the outlines of a drama already written: as Noverre did with the Greek play Jason and Medea; or Dauberval, who choreographed La Fille Mal Gardee after a comic opera libretto of 1758. Scribe changed this approach in 1827, when he provided a scenario for La Somnambule (The Sleepwalker). Four years before the premiere of Robert le Diable (Robert the Devil), La Somnambule was successful precisely because of Scribe's contribution. His subject of a sleepwalker allowed for suspenseful moments in movement as the sleeping heroine unknowingly made her way along a roof, in danger of falling to her death. This proved a welcome change from the ancient legendary heroes that had occupied the ballet scene for over two hundred years. Further, it foreshadowed the aerial themes and the psychological mysteries that were to seep into so many Romantic ballets.
Now, with Robert le Diable, the opera-ballet made another leap from Mount Olympus into the airy, eerie vapors of wispy phantoms. Greek and Roman gods and mortals were dismissed from center stage, which was now crowded instead with figures of the German poetic imagination, both on the floor and hovering above it. You see, Romanticism started out as a literary movement—actually with German novels, poems, and plays. So when writers turned their attention to ballet, as Scribe and then the playwright Saint-Georges and the poet Gautier did (these last two were later to provide the scenario for Giselle), the immediate effect was a complete shift in subject matter.
Writers brought with them the ideas and themes that were popular in their own fields. Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, about a young man who wallowed in hopeless misery through a foredoomed love affair, had appeared in 1774 and had quickly become a runaway best-seller. Byron's poem about a prisoner of Chilton has this message, "I learned to love despair," a line that sums up Goethe's novel of self-pity, and many other popular works of the day. Another favorite literary character was the supernatural being—whether ghost or sylph—-who was enough like a person to attract human passion, but who tended to fade away when touched by a love-sick mortal.
This last idea was to be featured in La Sylphide and Giselle, but some of the elements were present in Robert le Diable. Scribe's plot for the opera has Robert, a wicked knight, craving the love of Princess Isabelle. He can win her love with the aid of a magic stone, which he must seek from a statue of Saint Rosalie in the graveyard of a ruined cloister. The Ballet of the Nuns takes place at night, in the cemetery, where Robert is surrounded by spirits of dead nuns, who are damned because they broke their religious vows. They dance in wicked abandon, led by their abbess Helena, who tries to lure Robert to disaster. Finally, however, he reaches the statue, grabs the magic charm, and with its help makes his way safely through the group of nuns who weakly sink back to their waiting demons.
The tremendous impact made by this ballet scene came partly from the striking originality of the subject matter. Nuns in themselves were a departure from the usual. But wicked nuns! They were a real attention getter. The evil insinuations of the music also strengthened the drama. But a large share of the credit must go to Duponchel, who designed the scene, and Ciceri who painted it. We see a lot of ballets in the twentieth century that are performed on a bare stage, and so we sometimes forget what a prominent role ballet gave to stage settings in earlier years. For the Ballet of the Nuns, Henri Duponchel conceived the idea which Pierre Ciceri carried out, which was to create a mysterious night atmosphere, quite different from the ordinary bright or stormy landscape generally seen.
As visual artists, Duponchel and Ciceri would probably have been aware of the moonlit images in paintings by German Romantics like Casper David Friedrich. At any rate, they took advantage of the advanced lighting equipment that had recently been installed at the opera house by the new opera director Louis Veron to create a memorable poetic scene. Moonlight was exactly right for the Romantic themes of supernatural spirits, love-sick melancholy, and mystical charms. Ciceri caught this same atmosphere again later in La Sylphide, and it was to be taken up repeatedly by other ballet designers, as the moonlit landscape became a symbol for Romanticism.
What about those artists without whom there wouldn't be any ballet at all: the dancers and the choreographer? Wasn't there anything outstanding about the dancing in Robert le Diable? Yes, there certainly was. Marie Taglioni (1804 to 1884) triumphed in the part of the abbess Helena, which her father Filippo Taglioni had choreographed, and for which he had coached her.
For many historians, Marie Taglioni's dance personality is synonymous with the whole concept of Romantic ballet. She had made her Paris Opera debut in 1827, four years before the premiere of Robert de Diable. But her appearance in the Ballet of the Nuns, with its dance of dead maidens, made a strong identification between Marie Taglioni and supernatural fantasy, an idea that was confirmed in La Sylphide, which we’ll look at in a minute. In these two productions, Taglioni’s personal style matched perfectly with that of the works themselves, and the combination suited the spirit of the times.
What Taglioni did was to revolutionize the approach to ballet dancing. She changed it in two ways: first of all, through her attitude toward technique; and secondly, through her performing manner. Taglioni's mastery of technical difficulties was outstanding, but she added to that an illusion of effortless grace that was in marked contrast to what had been usual before her appearance, when a performer swaggered before the audience as though saying, "Look how good I am in these almost impossibly hard steps!" Further, in performing style, Taglioni allowed the dance role to be the focus of attention, rather than burying the content of the choreography under her own feminine charms and flirting tricks. The fashion before Taglioni was called the danse noble, the classical style with its mannered poses, stiffness, and stereotyped smiles. In 1840, a critic compared the state of ballet performance before and after Taglioni's arrival on the scene:
Before her appearance, the sceptre of the dance was entrusted to the hands, or rather the legs, of Messieurs Paul and Albert. Theirs was a dance of the springboard and the public square, and the daughters of Terpsichore [old style) were founded in their image
No elegance, no taste; frightful pirouettes, horrible efforts of muscle and calf, legs ungracefully stretched, stiff and raised to the level of the eyes or the chin the whole evening long; tours de force, the grand ecart, the perilous leap. All the male dancers were brought up in this school and built on this model.
The female dancers dislocated themselves by imitating these muscular and semaphoric exercises. .
Then Marie Taglioni appeared and started a revolution against the rule of the pirouette, but a revolution that was gently accomplished, through the irresistible power of grace, perfection and beauty in the art.
Marie Taglioni loosened the legs, softened the muscles, gradually changed by her example the tasteless routine and unstylish attitudes, taught the art of seductive poses and correct and harmonious lines, and founded the double kingdom of grace and strength, the most beautiful and most pleasing and rarest of kingdoms.
We have this and other detailed descriptions of all these matters, because no fewer than thirty-four newspapers and periodicals were printed in Paris with columns about ballet and opera. Many letters and memoirs from the period have also been preserved. The quotations in this chapter are found in Ivor Guest's The Romantic Ballet in Paris.
Marie Taglioni is also remembered for her gliding in point. Although Taglioni did not invent this use of the foot-rising up to, and moving on the very tips of the toes-she did popularize it by the light, floating quality she gave these steps. Thus Taglioni won her fame through the combination of great skill and attitude of ease. Along with this, she refused to emphasize her feats of technique; and maintained an air of aloof dignity that was a departure from standard ballerina conduct. For much of this we must thank her father Filippo Taglioni, who was her demanding private tutor. Not only did he put his daughter through a daily torturous physical routine, as severe as any ballet schooling has ever been, but he insisted on modest decorum in performance.
Ballet masters at the Paris Opera were known for preaching quite another line. Opera director Veron wrote in his memoirs, that along with plies and pirouettes, teachers gave instructions to promote:
elegance, seduction; they insisted on provocative smiles, poses and attitudes that were almost immodest and shameless. One was often heard telling his pupils, "My dears, be charming, coquettish; display the most alluring freedom in every move you make; you must inspire love both during and after your 'pas' and make the audience and orchestra desirous of sleeping with you!"
Veron went on to point out that Filippo Taglioni's instructions were exactly the opposite. Taglioni demanded graceful ease of movement, lightness and especially ballon; but he did not allow his daughter a single gesture or pose which might be lacking in decency or modesty. He told her: "Women and young girls must be able to watch your dance without blushing; your performance should be marked by restraint, delicacy and good taste." Accordingly, one woman in the audience wrote after Marie Taglioni's opera debut, "Here is a new style of dancing, graceful beyond all comparison. . ."And she was particularly charmed by the "decent dignity" with which Taglioni acknowledged the clapping and cheering that burst out at the end: "This was very unlike the leering smiles with which, in general, a danseuse thinks it necessary to advance to the front of the proscenium, showing all her teeth, as she slowly curtsies to the audience."
Filippo Taglioni carefully guarded his daughter's unique style, and when she was elevated to the position of first soloist at the opera, one of the conditions in the contract was that her father would arrange her pieces, and also be engaged as ballet master. Opera director Louis Veron's generosity with both Taglionis was justified by the success of the Ballet of the Nuns in Robert le Diable, in November 1831. But when this was followed by the reception given to La Sylphide in March 1832, Veron not only won a place for himself in dance history, but he made money for the opera—and himself. When he retired in 1835, it was with a personal profit of about one million francs. Adolphe Nourrit, who danced the title role in Robert le Diable, is not important in our history for that reason, but because he was the scenarist for La Sylphide
With La Sylphide, the Romantic ballet reached full flower. In the theater, it was a moment of complete triumph for a theme whose time had come, for the inspired designers of movement patterns, stage settings, and costumes, and above all, for a dancer who seemed born to embody a poetic image of Romanticism.
First, a note of caution. Don't confuse La Sylphide (singular) with Les Sylphides (plural). Les Sylphides, a scene of winged fairies dancing in a moonlit forest around a dreamy youth, was choreographed many years later by Fokine, who wanted to revive the spirit of Romanticism, when once again ballet had deteriorated into a free-for-all for acrobats and showoffs. You may have seen Les Sylphides which is given by many companies. You may even have danced in some of its Chopin-accompanied patterns in class. The chances are, however, that you have not seen La Sylphide, although there are some versions of it around, notably in the repertory of the Royal Danish Ballet and the American Ballet Theater. But if you were part of the ballet public in the 1830s, you undoubtedly would have seen La Sylphide—and more than once.
La Sylphide, 1832, tells the story of a winged sylph who falls in love with a mortal Scotsman, James. She comes to him with a kiss, on the night before he is to marry Effie, a fully human girl. Because of this beautiful vision, James cannot bring himself to go ahead with the wedding. Running out on Effie, he follows the sylph into a forest. Although she keeps fading out of sight, he catches up with her at dawn. When he finally reaches out to capture her, her wings fall off and she drops to her death. Grief-stricken, James is left alone, standing in the shadow of the trees as a wedding procession is seen passing in the distance. Effie has married another peasant lad, who loved her all along.
To understand the instant and continuing appeal of the theme, you must not think of the story literally. A man who abandons a flesh and blood, luscious bride, to chase after a dimly seen winged spirit, sounds like a dimwit. The fascination becomes acceptable if you look at the sylph as a symbol, which is the way she was viewed by the French public in 1832. A symbol of what? In a general way, the creature of flight stood for the spiritual half of man's nature. Victor Hugo, a French playwright who was a major spokesman for Romanticism, wrote in a preface to a play in 1824:
Christianity told man "you have a double nature. You are composed of two beings, the one perishable, the other immortal; the one flesh, the other spirit." One is chained by appetites, needs and passions. The other is carried on the wings of ecstasy and vision. The former always falls towards the earth, its mother; the latter constantly shoots towards heaven, its father.
The sylph therefore became a dance symbol of the poetic fantasy which lifts people away from everyday physical reality.
The sylph represents a young man's dream, his ideal vision, whether of beauty, art, love, or politics. This can be carried over to the disillusionment after the French Revolution. How magnificent the concepts of liberty, equality, and brotherhood! Compare the dream to the bloody terror that became the reality. Specifically, the sylph is the vision of a perfect love. In real life, such a dream is never fulfilled. Hence, when grasped, the wings fall off and the vision fades away. You can consider more realistically the future of the happy couple Lisette and Colin in La Fille Mai Gardee. It is easy to imagine them both growing a little stout and quarreling about money. To the Romantic poet, such a future was totally unacceptable. Being forced to settle for prosaic affection and the ordinary ups and downs of a relationship would be an intolerable compromise with a man's search for love. If he couldn't have his perfect, spiritual, eternal love, he would choose lonely misery or even death.
The scenarist for La Sylphide, Adolphe Nourrit, was known in his day not as a poet but as a tenor in the opera. He took the male lead in Ballet of the Nuns. However, his literary interests were demonstrated several times after he did the plot for La Sylphide, with his name appearing on a number of ballet scenarios. For this most famous work, he had several literary models for inspiration, particularly the story Trilby, which was also set in Scotland. But instead of a peasant lad longing for a female sylph, Trilby tells of a young fisherman's wife who was lured by the advances of an unearthly male creature. Thrown into a deep, psychological conflict by her desires, divided between normal happiness with her husband and her dreamy longings for mystical experience as represented by the elfin Trilby, the heroine dies. Despite the reversal of sex roles, the resemblance between Trilby and La Sylphide is quite clear. It would seem that scenarist Nourrit also felt too deeply, within himself, some kind of conflict between reality and dream, because seven years after La Sylphide came out, he committed suicide by jumping from a hotel room in Naples.
La Sylphide symbolized for one viewer nothing less than political freedom. This interpretation was included in a ballet review in the newspaper Le Constitutionel: "For a sylphide, as for a people, liberty is life. Deprived of wings, she ceases to exist." This was a disappointed reference to the French Revolution of 1830, as much as it was an explanation of the ballet. A modern viewer will not associate the wings of a ballerina's costume with political revolution. However, whether he recognizes the reason or not, if he enjoys and gets a lift from a Romantic ballet, it is because he shares with the viewers of 1830 a response to a winged vision of some beautiful ideal, a sense of escaping from the gravity of earthly problems. Today, this theme proves its universal appeal time and again for audiences as far apart as Tashkent, Russia and Havana, Cuba.
Interestingly enough, the director of the opera, Veron, was given his job after the revolution in the summer of 1830. Changes in public opinion and in the new government's financial policy brought about the separation of the opera from the royal court, where both it and the ballet had been from their beginnings. This separation meant that a director would be chosen to run the opera as a private business for profit. As noted above, Dr. Louis Veron, the first director under the new system, so well understood the business side of entertainment that he made a lot of money. (Those who followed him did not.) It is instructive to read Veron's formula for success, which he later set down in his memoirs:
Dramas and comedies of manners do not come within the choreographer's scope; in a ballet the public demands above all a varied and striking score, new and unusual costumes, a great variety, contrasting sets, surprises, transformation scenes, and a simple plot which is easy to follow and in which the dance develops naturally out of the situations.
To all that must be added the charm of a young and beautiful dancer who dances better and differently than those who have preceded her. If one is aiming neither at the intelligence nor at the heart, one must appeal to the senses and most particularly to the eyes.
Veron's opinion of ballet as an art form whose main appeal was to the eyes was echoed by Gautier, a famous poet and dance critic who is best remembered in the dance world for inspiring the creation of Giselle. In a ballet review in 1837, Gautier wrote:
Without a doubt, spiritualism is a respectable thing. But in making a dance, one
does well to make concessions to materialism. The dance after all, has no other
aim but to exhibit beautiful forms in graceful poses, and to develop lines pleasing
to the eye...
The dance is less suited to presenting metaphysical ideas. It only expresses feelings: love and desire with all their coquettries. The man is aggressive, and the woman modestly defends herself—the theme of all primitive dance.
Gautier loved ballet, but he limited its sphere to sex appeal and pleasing the eye, as did the opera director Veron. Needless to say, we can find a contradiction between Gautier's statement of 1837 that denies spiritualism in ballet, and his responsibility in 1841 for the theme of Giselle, which ranks with La Sylphide as a symbol of Romantic spirituality. It seems that both Veron and Gautier underrated ballet. It is true that many people go only for eye-filling spectacle or to be amused by a pretty girl (or boy). But there is often more to be found in a dance work, even if it is not easy to pin down exactly what it is.
A dance work presents ideal figures, in the person of dancers, carefully shaped by years of special preparation. It presents images, created onstage by the combined effect of these figures, their movement patterns enhanced by costume and scenery, ideas and music. These images can be compared to the statements made in poetry. They produce associations in the viewer's mind that awaken feelings and ideas. For example, a long, lifting leap can suggest flight, freedom, or ecstasy. When it is exquisitely performed, along with stirring music, it can bring the viewer an experience that is richer and more complex than simply visual pleasure. Even if the experience cannot be summed up in words, we know it occurs, because we have felt it. In this way, the excitement of the Paris audiences in 1832 at La Sylphide, and in the 1840s at Giselle, can be understood, as can that of audiences at hundreds of performances of Romantic ballets like these, down to the present. Therefore the statements of Veron and Gautier, along with those of certain twentieth-century producers, can be discounted. Very often, we find that people who themselves make important contributions to the dance art in practice; fall down quite clumsily when it comes to theoretical explanations.
At any rate, one reason for the tremendous reception given to La Sylphide came from a theme that was suited perfectly to the temper of the times. Of course, along with the theme, or idea, there was also the way it was carried out in dance, music, in stage setting, and costume. The music, composed by Schneitzhoeffer (the French ballet world had a terrible time pronouncing this name!) does not seem to have been one of the ballet's strong points. In fact, the Danish version that survives today is accompanied by a different score. There was a mixed reception for Schneitzhoeffer's original score, with some critics praising it and others complaining that it was weak. No matter. The visual atmosphere made up for whatever was lacking in sound. The setting by Ciceri, particularly the forest touched by dawn in the second act, when James pursues the sylph, was considered a masterpiece.
As for the costume, tradition credits this ballet with the introduction of the full, bell-shaped tutu that extends down to mid-calf, which is associated with all Romantic ballet. In fact, these ballets, with their endless yards of white gauze drifting about the legs of ballerinas, are also called (ballets blancs, "white ballets," because of the popularity of this costume. Never mind that similar skirts were not that unusual in performances before La Sylphide, and that they only reached their full size quite a bit later. A number of ballet traditions rest on inaccurate information. Just as Marie Taglioni is mistakenly thought to have invented toe-dancing, she is also remembered incorrectly as appearing in La Sylphide in the first bell-shaped tutu. The persistence of these false traditions really means that Taglioni's strong impression in La Sylphide led to her being credited with inventing all the new developments that characterize the Romantic ballet. Because beyond the theme, the scenery, or anything else, it was Taglioni's dancing that made La Sylphide such a sensation. From her debut in 1827, to her interpretation of the abbess Helena in Robert le Diable, Taglioni had already, won fame for her highly skilled, unassuming dancing, particularly her gliding en pointe and her ethereal manner.
As noted earlier, it is impossible to separate her own part in this from her father Filippo Taglioni's. It was he who trained his daughter, and Filippo was satisfied with nothing less than technical perfection. He was the one responsible for emphasizing dance in her performance, rather than sex appeal or personality. And finally, it was Filippo Taglioni who arranged the choreography for Marie, in which she shone so brightly. Unfortunately we have very little information about the choreography in La Sylphide. The surviving Danish version by Auguste Bournonville uses only the libretto—the scenario of the original. And we have seen that it uses another musical score. Not surprisingly, Bournonville created his own steps and patterns, rather than taking Filippo Taglioni's.
A brief comment from one spectator mentions an original effect in Taglioni's choreography in which the sylphs advanced from "the back of the stage, in groups of four, to form a delightful group in the very front" That is not much help in imagining the way the ballet proceeded! However, the audience does not usually observe the choreography very well, but tends to see the dancer who is physically before them.
Choreography often stands or falls on the performer's personality and ability. Marie Taglioni may have learned her art from Filippo, and was executing his steps. But Marie was onstage, not Filippo, and in the public mind she was La Sylphide, because the subject was perfectly suited to the Paris taste of 1832 and to Marie Taglioni's temperament. The ballerina once said of herself, "I have spiritual hands and feet." It is also true that she was not comfortable in the part of the abbess Helena, which included a seduction scene in the moonlit graveyard. Although she was highly praised in the Ballet of the Nuns, Marie asked to be replaced after three performances.
In La Sylphide she found the role of a lifetime. It was absolutely right as the setting for her ethereal, poetic style. While her father had helped form this style, he in turn was inspired by the magical quality of her dancing, and his choreography for this masterwork reflected it. The afterimage that Marie Taglioni left here was that of "a shadow condensed into a mist." One review raved:
There is a sequence of furtive, aerial steps, something ravishing beyond all description....The irresolute flight of a butterfly, those round tufts which the mild wind of April plucks like down from the cups of flowers and balances in the air, these are the only points of comparison with the timid graces, the mocking abandon, and the artful modesty of the Sylphide. Really Taglioni is no mortal. God could not have imagined the cherubim better.
Earlier, when Marie Taglioni first became the darling of the public, the word taglioniser was used to describe a light, floating dance technique. After the premiere of La Sylphide, the word itself—sylphide—was heard everywhere to describe dresses, hairstyles, and moods. The ballet became such a fad that two periodicals with ballet and theater news came out, one called Sylph and another called Sylphide.
Relative Importance of Male and Female Dancers. If such titles were conferred in the arts as they are in beauty contests, Marie Taglioni would have been unanimously acclaimed Miss Sylphide and even Miss Romantic Ballet. Don't bother to look for Mr. Romantic Ballet. The ballerina Taglioni summarized the Romantic ballet style. Her eminence in La Sylphide was the origin of the one-sided feminine emphasis in ballet. This art form swings from one extreme to the other in its sexist attitudes. A hundred years earlier, when Louis XIV took the stage as the Sun God, you can bet that this glittering male peacock was the center of all attention and the focus of the action. In fact, it was considered improper for women even to appear onstage. Men, dressed in skirts, took women's roles. Then the situation reversed itself. George Balanchine has often been quoted as saying, "ballet is a woman." This idea can be traced directly to La Sylphide and to ballerina Marie Taglioni as the visual symbol of the mysterious, elusive, feminine ideal. The male dancer was demoted from a masterly, dashing figure, spinning around on strong muscular legs, to a servant who waited around at the ballerina's feet. His job was to lift her and extend the image of her weightlessness by carrying her through space as though suspended.
In his book on the theory and practice of dancing, Carlo Blasis had stressed multiple pirouettes in his training manual. The male dancers of the 1820s had brought multiple pirouettes to the height of virtuosity. (Emphasis on jumps for men was a later, Russian contribution.) Perhaps because the male dancers made too much of a good thing, they helped bring about their own downfall. They overdid pirouettes, dragging them in whenever possible in order to dazzle the spectators. These monotonous repetitions may well have been partly responsible for the decline in male importance through the 1800s. Certainly during the golden age of Romantic ballet, there was only one popular male dancer, Jules Perrot (1810 to 1892), while there were many favorite ballerinas in addition to Taglioni, as we shall see.
There is no doubt that by 1840 the ballet world was clearly a matriarchy, as mirrored in this typical reaction of one newspaper writer:
You know we are hardly a supporter of what are called the "grand danseurs" [the
male ballet stars]. The "grand danseur" appears to us so sad and heavy! He is so
unhappy and so self-satisfied! He responds to nothing, he represents nothing, he is
Speak to us of a pretty dancing girl who displays the grace of her features and the elegance of her figure, who reveals so fleetingly all the treasures of her beauty. Thank God I understand that perfectly. I know what this lovely creature wishes us, and I would willingly follow her wherever she wishes in the sweet land of love.
But a man, frightful man, as ugly as you and I, a wretched fellow who leaps about without knowing why, a creature specially made to carry a musket and a sword and to wear a uniform. That this fellow should dance as a woman does—impossible!
Today, thanks to this revolution which we have effected, woman is the queen of ballet. She breathes and dances there at her ease. She is no longer forced to cut off half her silk petticoat to dress her partner with it. Today the dancing man is no longer tolerated except as a useful accessory. He is the shading of the picture, the green box trees surrounding the garden flowers, the necessary foil.
All this came about after La Sylphide. A foreshadowing hint of this development can be read into the birth of Nourrit's scenario. As noted before, his inspiration is credited to the novel Trilby, which concerned a peasant woman and a male elfin creature. If Nourrit changed the male to a female fairy, it was partly to give Taglioni a suitable role. But the deeper reason was that the French public of 1830 was in a mood to elevate the ballerina above her male partner. While Nijinsky, Nureyev, and others have restored prestige to the male dancer, in many circles the art of ballet is still often considered effeminate. This prejudice can be traced to the Romantic ballet, and to La Sylphide—Marie Taglioni.