Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 5. Detroit: Gale, 2005.
Social Dance in the Baroque
No immediate change in styles of dance or in attitudes to the art are perceptible between the late Renaissance and the early Baroque periods. The seventeenth century inherited from the Renaissance a widespread perception of dance as a necessary social grace, a sign of distinction that accomplished men and women needed to master to participate in society. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Europe’s first works of dance theory had appeared. While these treatises outlined the necessary steps and skills that a good dancer had to master, they also reached back to Antiquity in search of theories that might support dance’s general popularity in courtly society. In Aristotle, Europe’s dance theorists had located part of the rationality for dance’s aesthetic appeal, arguing that the art displayed the mind’s ability to subject the body to its disciplines. The popularity of Platonic thought during the later Renaissance also left its marks on artistic theory, as dance came to be treated in many literary works, conduct manuals, and aesthetic treatises as an expression of the concept of Platonic ideals. The philosophy of Plato taught that a higher, heavenly realm of universal concepts or ideals governed life on earth, and thus dance represented in the works of its most vigorous advocates, an expression of the harmony that prevailed in a higher realm. In his poem, “Orchestra,” first published in 1594, the English author Sir John Davies celebrated dance for its ability to express the well-ordered relationships that prevailed in the heavens, and Davies saw in the highly choreographed revolutions of the planets the origins of human dance. His extravagant praise of dance as “love’s proper exercise” found many echoes in the world of the late Renaissance and the Baroque. Dance was a motif found in the plays of Shakespeare and other writers and was often used to express the ideals of sociability, civility, and love. Similarly, dance figured prominently in the many conduct manuals of the age. These recommended the art as a necessary accompaniment to courtship, seeing in the ideal movements of the dance floor skills that might teach the art of love.
Important Social Skill
For nobles and the wealthy in Europe’s cities, dancing was thus an essential social skill and the mastery of the most popular social dances of the day was necessary for participation in elite society. In his voluminous memoirs of life in the court of Versailles, for example, the Duc de Saint Simon related the story of a provincial noble who was so unfamiliar with the dances of court that he was jeered off the dance floor. Dance was so important in noble circles that the great aristocratic households of Europe frequently employed dance masters to teach the young members of the household these skills. These masters also coached adults in new dances, even as they choreographed dances for special occasions. Dance masters often fulfilled a variety of other roles in royal and noble households, too. They planned spectacles, designed stage sets and interiors, and they sometimes taught horseback riding, gymnastics, and deportment. Europe’s most successful dance masters wrote texts on their art, and the second half of the sixteenth century saw a number of these appear that continued to dominate dancing styles during the decades of the early Baroque. In the mid-seventeenth century new patterns of dancing helped to produce another spate of new dance manuals published in Italy, France, Spain, and England. In this way knowledge of new steps and dances popular in one part of Europe was able to spread rather quickly throughout the continent. Travelers, too, carried knowledge of the latest dance fashions, so that despite regional variations, the patterns of social dancing practiced in Europe’s courts and “high societies” was relatively homogenous by the seventeenth century. In the continent’s cities, dance schools were another avenue that disseminated knowledge of the art, and these trained the sons and daughters of successful merchants, men of commerce, and bankers in the latest steps. In Catholic Europe, the Jesuit schools also provided instruction in dancing to their male students, since dance was thought to be an essential skill for courtship. In England and other places in which the rigorous Christian doctrines of Calvinism held sway, moralists and preachers attacked dancing, and in some places dancing was officially prohibited. Yet even during the years of the Puritan Commonwealth in England (1649-1660), dancing instruction continued in the country’s elite public schools.
Patterns of Social Dancing
While many dances were common throughout Europe, there was still great variety in the kinds of dances that were performed. Dances, in other words, existed to express all kinds of emotional states and for all tastes and occasions. A ball opened with a number of dignified processional dances, including pavans and branles. A series of couples dances usually followed in which only one couple at a time danced. Rank governed the progression of these dances, with the highest-ranking members present dancing before those of lesser status. For most of the seventeenth century the most popular of these couples dances was the courante, but toward the end of the century, the minuet began to supplant its popularity. Other dances popular at the time included the bourrée, gavotte, and passepied. In all these dances the emphasis was on sprightly, yet contained and disciplined footwork and on the repetition of rigorously defined steps with subtle modulations. Generally, seventeenth-century dances kept the upper body rigid and erect and the arms and hands remained contained, their movements stylized. Besides the dignified character of dances like the minuet and courante, a number of more theatrical and dramatic dances were performed. These included the sarabande, chaconne, and gigue(in English known as the jig), dances that had an air of exoticism about them. The sarabande, for instance, was believed to have been a dance alternately of South American or Saracen Turkish origins, and was originally wildly energetic. While it grew more staid and dignified as it entered aristocratic society, the rhythmic schemes of its music still featured lively syncopated motifs that were frequently repeated. In addition to these standard dances performed in elite societies throughout most of Europe, balls often featured special dances that were choreographed for the occasion. These specially created dances were often intended to display the skill of a single couple and they were consequently highly complex, calling for sophisticated amateurs to memorize a number of steps and their progression in the days and weeks that preceded a ball.
The dances of aristocratic society in seventeenth-century Europe were largely international in flavor, although subject to regional variations. Greater variety characterized the music played to accompany dances throughout Europe. In France, violins and violin variants were most often used at balls, the most famous French ensemble being the “24 Violins of the King,” an ensemble of strings employed at court to entertain at royal balls. In Italy, collections of dance music published for the lute were particularly popular, while in Spain the guitar often predominated. Dancing masters often doubled as violinists, lutists, and guitar players, and if a great deal of music has survived from the period, it must also be remembered that much of the dance music intended to accompany balls was heavily improvised and has consequently not survived. Of that which survives, numerous printed collections of dance music exist for solo instruments, and vocal pieces, too, sometimes accompanied dancing, although far less frequently than instrumental music. Dance suites—that is, instrumental music composed for small ensembles that recreated the rhythms familiar to social dancers—became enormously popular throughout the seventeenth century, and survive from every European region. The music recorded in this way, however, was intended primarily to be heard and did not accompany balls.
Rise of French Style
As in other areas of cultural life, the example of French aristocratic and court society came to dominate the dancing practices of much of Europe during the course of the seventeenth century. This taste for French dancing was particularly strong in the second half of the century, as Versailles became a model for courtly practices almost everywhere in Europe. One consequence of this dominance was the rise and spread of “country dances,” forms of figure dancing that were originally English in origin but which were transformed by French taste into the contredanses that became popular in Europe around 1700. In the 1650s, the English dancing master John Playford began to publish a series of short books entitled The English Dancing Master that informed their readers about how to perform “country dances.” In style, these dances were amazingly simple, their repertory consisting of no more than a few steps. Their appeal rather consisted in the intricate figures that four or more couples made on the dance floor as they progressed through the country dance’s figures. As knowledge of these dances spread to France, they had an enthusiastic reception in elite societies, but were soon transformed by French taste for more intricate and refined footwork. From the foothold that country dancing gained in France, however, the style soon spread throughout Europe, producing regional variations of “country dancing” almost everywhere on the continent. In one of the ironies of cultural history, Marie-Antoinette, for instance, brought to the French court of Versailles an Austrian version of “country dancing” that flourished in her native Vienna in the second half of the eighteenth century. This style, though, owed its origins to the taste for country dancing that French culture had helped to plant throughout Europe at the end of the seventeenth century.
Although historians have long supposed that many of the courtly dances performed in European courts derived from folk dances, the popular origins of ballroom forms cannot be established given the surviving documents. It is, nevertheless, logical to conclude that many dances popular in seventeenth-century Europe had origins in the customs of village life and of urban societies. The precise nature and extent to which folk dancing served to invigorate the elite ballroom, though, may always be a matter of conjecture. Many of the best-documented dances of the seventeenth century had, even then, legendary associations, associations that cannot be documented and that may mask their true historical origins. The French dance known as the passepied, for instance, was believed to derive from the folk dances of Brittany; the bourrée, another dance popular in cultivated ballrooms, was thought to come from the peasant dances of the Auvergne, a region of southern France. The origins of some dances are better known. During the sixteenth century a dance known as the sarabande became controversial in Spanish cities. Notable for its overt sexuality, the sarabande had by the early seventeenth century found its way into ballrooms everywhere throughout Europe. Originally seen as wild and licentious, its performance grew far more staid, and it became one of the standards of masked balls in the first half of the seventeenth century. While Protestant and Catholic moralists sometimes turned a disapproving eye on dancing generally, they usually reserved their greatest criticisms for folk dances practiced in the countryside. Moralists condemned the tight embraces of these dances, as well as the occasions for dance themselves, as events that led to immorality and fornication. During the seventeenth century religious attempts to reform the morality of village life persisted in many parts of Europe. At this time Calvinist divines were usually among the most vigorous in condemning the dances of rural societies as well as those of the urban poor and middling classes. While Calvinists were widely recognized for their uncompromising attitudes toward dance, Catholic and Protestant divines could and did react vigorously to folk dancing in particular times and places.
Dance in Court Spectacle
Intermedi and the Ballets de Cour
Besides dance’s role as a cultivated social pastime, the art had long played a role in the theatrical spectacles staged by kings and princes as well. In Italy, elaborately choreographed dances formed the heart of the many intermedi, or short interludes, that were staged between the acts of dramas and operas. In France, dance played a central role in royal fêtes and spectacles, and in the staging of ballets de cours. This form of courtly entertainment had appeared at the end of the sixteenth century, and it differed from the royal fêtes still popular at the time by virtue of its adoption of a more unified plot line. The ballet de cour made use of a printed libretto that was circulated among the audience, and its long performances included songs, musical interludes, dances, and poetry that treated a mythological theme or story. Its primary purpose was to glorify the figure of the monarch, but at the same time, the ballets de cour also made use of the knowledge recently unearthed by Renaissance humanism concerning ancient dance, music, and poetry. Like the Italian opera with its accompanying intermedi, these French productions mixed dance, music, and poetry in an attempt to recreate the theater of the ancient world, but most particularly of the Greeks. In both the Italian and French forms popular at the time, however, spectacle predominated, and productions made use of lavish costumes and sets as well as the most sophisticated stage machinery available in the period. In 1600 at Florence, for example, an opera was staged to mark the wedding of King Henri IV of France to Marie de Medici. In between the staging of the musical drama, a series of impressive intermedi or interludes diverted the attention of the audience while scene and costume changes were being made in the central drama. More than 100 dancers were required to produce these diversions, but a force of 1,000 stagehands was necessary to run the elaborate stage machinery necessary to raise and lower the stage, position the scenery, and man the many illusionary devices used in the productions. In France, the massive staging of the ballets de cours relied on similarly vast quantities of dancers, stagehands, and machinery to present spectacles that glorified the monarch.
The English equivalent of the French ballet de cour or the Italian intermedi was the masque. The origins of the masques stretched back to the time of Henry VIII, who, in 1512, had staged the first of these productions at court in imitation of continental entertainments popular at the time. Native traditions of wearing masks and of mumming, an early form of pantomime, also merged into English masques as well. Throughout the Tudor period masques increased in popularity and complexity at court, and they were usually staged with their disguised participants presenting a series of dances and pantomimes in the banqueting hall of royal palaces. The Stuart king, James I, who ascended to England’s throne in 1603, was a great admirer of the masques, and he stepped up the support the royal court gave to these productions. Inigo Jones’s famous Banqueting House, which still stands in London’s Whitehall section today, was constructed in part to provide a suitably grand venue in which to perform the masques. While in the earlier Tudor period masques had been performed with scenery that was wheeled into these halls atop carts, the Stuart masque came to be staged more and more on a fixed stage. The most lavish productions were presented as royal entertainments, although the Inns of Court in London, the guild of lawyers active in the capital, also staged their own masques in the first half of the seventeenth century.
Masques of Jonson and Jones
The most refined of all seventeenth-century English masques were those produced by the theatrical team of Ben Jonson and the stage designer and architect Inigo Jones. Jones’s and Jonson’s partnership lasted almost 25 years, during which they produced almost thirty productions. Eventually, though, the two fell out, and while Jones continued to produce masques for the Stuart court, Jonson no longer lent his hand to the staging of these productions. While their co-operation lasted, the two provided a steady stream of entertainment for King James I (r. 1603-1625) and Charles I (r. 1625-1648). The Jonson-Jones masques did a great deal to develop the tastes in England for continental patterns of staging and production. The architect Jones, for example, adopted the elaborate style of staging typical of French and Italian spectacles of the time, while Jonson eventually adopted the continental custom of interspersing scenes of anti-masques—that is, scenes of grotesque humor and ribaldry—alongside the more elevated themes of the masque proper. The heart of the masque was, as in the Italian intermedi or the French ballet de cour, the series of dances that either loosely or more forcefully conveyed the theatrical’s chosen text or story line. In Ben Jonson’s hands, the masque’s poetic underpinnings may have been elevated to a point of high art, but in most of these spectacles the high point was always the series of dances that were generally peppered throughout the productions. Sometimes these series of dances lasted more than four or five hours. In contrast to the couple’s dances that were popular in court society, the dances of the masques—as those of the French fêtes or ballets de cour—were figure dances. In the complex choreographies they created for these productions dancing masters created geometric figures, letters, and other symbols by skillfully arranging dancers, and these figured creations helped to convey some of the underlying themes and messages of the masque proper. Sophisticated amateur dancers within the court performed most of these dances, a fact that frequently elicited criticisms from English Puritan divines of the day. At the same time as masques grew more sophisticated, and as the comedy and ribaldry of anti-masques became ever more fixed within the masque structure itself, professional athletes, gymnasts, comedians, and dancers participated in these productions. The use of professional performers was just one factor that caused an enormous increase in the cost of masques in early seventeenth-century England. The importation of elaborate stage machinery and the steadily rising costs of costuming the many participants in these productions were two other factors that contributed to these increases as well. By the mid-century these costs were often enormous and produced a growing chorus of criticism. At that time William Prynne, a Puritan lawyer, published his Histriomatrix, a work condemning the licentiousness and sumptuous display of Charles I’s court entertainments. Charles responded quickly and fiercely. He required the Inns of Court, the association of lawyers in London, to stage a production of the masque The Triumph of Peace to demonstrate their allegiance to the crown. The production lasted for hours and was preceded by an equally long procession through London’s streets. More than 100 musicians and an almost equal number of dancers performed in the spectacle, which cost the prodigious sum of £21,000, the equivalent of more than several million pounds today. These costs had to be borne by the Inns of Court. In this way Charles used the masques as a political tool to quash opposition, but it was a policy that soon backfired on him.
Puritan Suppression of the Masques
There can be little doubt that the princely sums expended on the masques was one factor that aided in their suppression during England’s Puritan Commonwealth (1649-1660). Yet Puritan distaste for these productions ran deeper than just a mere distaste for sumptuous display and profligate waste. The Puritans opposed dancing and the theater as well, and so the masque stood condemned on multiple grounds. With the execution of King Charles I in 1649, the court masque ceased to exist, although during the period of the Commonwealth masque-like productions continued to be mounted throughout England, most notably in the country’s secondary schools where the masque was still considered a suitable vehicle for teaching knowledge of classical mythology and literature. In London and other towns, some of the techniques of staging masques survived in new plays that were termed “moral representations.” With the Restoration of the monarchy that occurred in 1660, the court masque was not revived, and the techniques of staging and dance that these theatricals had once nourished came increasingly to be accommodated as dramatic interludes within plays and operas.
The Rise of the Ballet in France
Several undeniable trends are evident in the history of dance in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century France. First, dances performed in the theater became increasingly the preserve of professional dancers and, second, dance began to acquire enhanced status as an art form on par with poetry, music, and drama. At the same time, the modern institution of the ballet emerged in close connection with the opera. Ballet troupes, for example, were most often connected to opera houses, and ballets played a key role within the action of operas or as a diversionary entertainment within theatrical and musical productions. This pattern developed in Paris at the end of the seventeenth century as the ballet’s rise to prominence as an art form occurred in close connection with the city’s main opera house. In 1672, Louis XIV chartered the Royal Academy of Music, a production company that throughout its long history came to be known most frequently merely as the Opera, since its operatic productions were a primary source of its revenue and fame. Within a few years the king also gave the Academy’s director, the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, the use of a theater in the Palais Royale, a popular theatrical and commercial development near the Louvre. For most of the Old Regime—that is, until the French Revolution’s onset in 1789—the Opera remained at this location. During its first fifty years of existence, the Opera premiered more than 100 productions, despite chronic bouts of financial instability and a space that was less-than-ideal for the performance of opera or the ballet. Because of the lavishness of its productions, tickets to the Opera cost twice what they did in other contemporary theaters in Paris. Dance figured prominently in most of the operas staged there, and Lully soon founded a permanent dance troupe within the opera to support his grand musical creations. The first director of this troupe was Pierre Beauchamp, an accomplished dancer and choreographer, who came to have an enormous influence upon the development of professional dance throughout Europe. He served as personal dance instructor to Louis XIV, and in his work with the Opera he codified the five positions that are still used by ballet dancers to this day. He also developed a system for notating dances, although Raoul-Auger Feuillet later revised his system. Beauchamp’s tenure at the Opera began in 1680 and ended at Lully’s death in 1687. He continued to choreograph dances, particularly for the Jesuit colleges in France. In his role as a director of the Académie Royale de Danse (the Royal Academy of Dance), he also came to have a profound impact on professional dance in France.
Another impetus to the development of the Opera’s professional dance troupe was Louis XIV’s retirement from dancing after 1670. The king had long been an avid dancer, and had regularly performed in the many ballets de cour that were mounted at the French court. As he matured, Louis gave up the art, and his courtiers followed suit. Professionals were thus needed to mount the extravagant theatricals that were still popular at court. The early history of the Opera’s ballet company suggests that many of its dancers performed both in musical productions in Paris and for the king and his court at Versailles. The dancers who performed in the troupe were initially all men, and they also performed for the king at the court and some choreographed productions staged elsewhere. Women entered the troupe quite early. The first female performer, Madame de Lafontaine (1655-1738), appeared at the Opera in 1681 in a production of Lully’s opera The Triumph of Love. As amateur performers, women had long been active in court productions, although they had usually appeared in scenes with other women, or they had relied on masques to hide their true identities. Madame Lafontaine’s appearance thus set an important historical precedent, and female dancers soon made inroads into the troupe. By 1704, men were still dancing many female roles in the productions of the troupe, although women were now employed in the company in roughly equal numbers. Within a decade, their numbers had surpassed male dancers, and the Opera emerged as the site for a ballet and singing school. In this early stage of its history the Paris Opera’s ballet school seems to have cultivated technical proficiency in its dancers rather than dramatic skills. In the course of the eighteenth century, however, the theatrical and dramatic demands of ballets rose, necessitating the training of performers with a greater acting sense. Several key developments in the late seventeenth century aided in dance’s rise to the status of a profession in France. The standardization of the system of five dancing positions may have only served to fix with greater accuracy what had already become standard practice among dancers, but as ballet acquired a greater precision, it also developed an increasing sophistication in its notational systems. Dance notation allowed for a progression of precise steps to be charted out, showing their progression across the floor, so that each time a dance was performed it was executed in a roughly similar way. Dances that were written down in this way were more long-lasting than those that were taught by a dancing master or choreographer to his students for each new circumstance. In this way the impact of a choreographer’s work was more permanent, and dances that were performed in one place could also be reproduced else-where through the circulation of manuscripts and printed dance notations.
The first dance notational systems to provide diagrams of how specific dances were to be performed appeared in France around 1700. In 1697 André Lorin published his Book of Country Dances Presented to the King, a work that helped to feed the popularity of the English country dance among the French aristocracy. In it, he included a series of sketches that showed precisely how the country dances’ figures were to be performed. At around the same time Raoul-Auger Feuillet developed a slightly different system that provided for a greater specificity of detail. His notation, in other words, showed how dancers were to place their arms and feet and how the specific movements corresponded to the music. Like Lorin, Feuillet deployed his method in printed works that codified country dances. At the same time, his notational system seems to have been readily adopted at the Paris Opera, since a number of dances survive from this era that were set down using his system. These dances combined many different steps in elaborate patterns, although at this time, the men and women who danced these steps usually did so in unison. The energetic leaps and bounds typical of the contemporary ballet were largely impossible in this early era of the art’s development. Heavy costumes, heeled shoes, masks, and other paraphernalia limited the movements of dancers. Dancing on toe-point, a readily recognizable attribute of the modern ballet, was largely impossible, although some steps were performed on partial toes. Instead the emphasis in the theatrical ballets was on elaborate and ornate patterned movements. These dances were often quite difficult for men and women performers alike, but the greatest demonstrations of technical proficiency were usually reserved for the solo dances of male, rather than female, performers.
Ballet As an Accompaniment to Opera
The operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully dominated the musical life of late seventeenth-century Paris and of the royal court at Versailles. Lully had a long history of using dance in his musical productions. During the 1660s he cooperated with France’s great comic playwright, Molière, to produce a series of “comedy-ballets” in which dances were interspersed between the spoken scenes of the drama. The last and greatest of these was The Bourgeois Gentleman, which was produced in 1670. His greatest achievements, though, were in the production of operas known as tragédies en musique, or lyric tragedies. These works became especially popular with the king in the later years of Louis XIV’s reign, as he adopted a new serious moral tone. Between 1673 and his death in 1687, Lully composed thirteen of these tragic operas, all of which show careful attention to the integration of dance into the drama’s action. He apparently worked quite closely with his librettist, Phillippe Quinault, to ensure that dance was an accompaniment and enhancement to the sung drama. Although dance was still considered a divertissement, a diversion to the main plot of his operas, Lully’s operas were long remembered after his death as a particularly “French” art form, in part because of their persistent attempts to integrate dance, poetry, music, and singing into a greater whole. Even in the eighteenth century great choreographers anxious to develop the ballet as an independent medium looked to the operas of Lully for support in their efforts, and French writers treating aesthetics were also quick to point to the composer’s art as an expression of the country’s genius. Still, the connection between dance and drama upon which he relied was largely implicit, and was consonant with much of the artistic theory of his time. In the works of artistic theoreticians of the late seventeenth century, dance was extolled for its ability to represent through mimed gestures what might have been represented in words. There was little sympathy, in other words, for the views that were to develop later in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that dancing’s representation might in certain situations exceed by virtue of its appeal to the emotions and senses the power of spoken words.
Ballet in Opera after Lully
Lully’s example in the operatic world remained influential long after his death in 1687, although changes began to occur soon after that time in the use of dance within the opera house. By the end of the century Houdar de Lamotte and André Campra had created a new kind of performance known as the opera-ballet that granted a greater importance to dance. In these productions singing still conveyed the essentials of the story line, although the role of dancing was expanded beyond a mere diversion and brought into the central flow of the opera’s story line. Many new production experiments occurred in Paris around this time, producing works that were termed “heroic ballets” or “ballet comedies,” all of which expanded the roles given to dancers. Thus dance escaped the longstanding role that it had played in the divertissements between scenes and acts, and mixed with the action of the drama proper. One of the most popular examples of this new style of production was André Campra’s The Venetian Feast (Les fêtes venetiennes) of 1710, a work that was frequently revived in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Like most of the new operas produced around this time, The Venetian Feast had several self-contained acts that were grouped around a central theme, in this case the foibles and complications of love. Dancers entered into the action by playing the roles of gypsies, clowns, gamblers, and gondoliers in the exotic setting of the city of the lagoons. Like most operas of this kind, the singing conveyed the drama, but dancers took a greatly expanded role. This was also the case in the many tragedies that were produced during the early eighteenth century. Lully’s tragic works had by this time become an esteemed part of the French operatic canon. His operas were continually revived in the eighteenth century, but their productions were packed over time with more and more ballets. Other composers created music for these dances, or music was adapted from other Lully compositions. These pieces accompanied the numerous new dance interludes that were injected into these venerable operas. The steadily increasing role that dance played in these operas contributed to the expansion of the Opera’s troupe in the first half of the century. While the troupe had consisted of about twenty men and women in 1700, its ranks had risen to more than thirty by 1738 and to 42 in 1750.
Dance Moves Toward Drama
As dance became an important force within the opera, a tension soon developed between the demands of technical brilliance and dramatic representation. In a private performance staged for aristocrats in 1714, two accomplished dancers from the Paris Opera first performed the concluding scene of a tragedy by Corneille completely in pantomime. In France, this experiment was not imitated for many years, although developments underway in England staged by the accomplished dance master and teacher John Weaver eventually influenced French ballet as well as dance troupes elsewhere in Europe. In 1703 Weaver produced a short dance work, The Tavern Bilkers, entirely in pantomime. He continued these experiments in dramatic dance, staging a pantomime ballet in 1717 at the Drury Lane theater near Covent Garden entitled The Loves of Mars, Venus, and Vulcan. Until Enlightenment sensibilities began to transform the French theater in the mid-eighteenth century, however, these innovations were not immediately imitated in France. In the operas of the composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, Lully’s successor as the dean of French music in the early eighteenth century, divertissement dances did sometimes take on a more complete role as miniature dramas within the structure of an opera. Rameau’s 1736 opera The Gallant Indies (Les indes galantes) included a concluding divertissement that was actually a small, completely self-contained ballet, consisting of its own narrative that was conveyed through the use of dance and pantomime. Rameau’s willingness to grant dance a greater role in some of his operatic productions seems, in part, to have derived from his partnership with Louis de Cahusac, the librettist he used for several of his operas. In 1754, Cahusac published a work on the history and theory of dance that aimed to promote the art’s ability to express a greater range of emotions. Although Rameau was open to the greater integration of dance into his operatic narratives, most of the uses to which he deployed dance in his production still remained within the conservative mold of the Opera at the time. He did not, in other words, rely on dance to convey central details of plot or story line.
Professional Dance Elsewhere in Paris
More imaginative and theatrical uses of dance to depict narratives occurred at other theaters in the city of Paris during the early eighteenth century. The Opéra-Comique (literally “Comic Opera”), a Parisian company formed of vaudevillian entertainers in 1714, performed pantomime ballets as early as the 1720s. Catering to a popular rather than elite audience, the origins of the “comic operas” this company produced lay in the commedia dell’arte, fair entertainments, and other forms of street theater that had been widely enjoyed throughout Europe since the Renaissance. Not all the productions that this troupe performed were comedies by any means, but the forms of drama, dancing, and music that the group cultivated had a broader appeal than the classically-inspired tragedies performed at the Opera at the same time. Another similar group active around the same time, the Comédie-Italienne, produced more than fifty pantomime ballets from 1738 until it merged with the Opéra-Comique in 1757.
During the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries a greater range of ballet forms began to appear in connection with the performance of operas in Paris. New notational systems as well as the codification of ballet positions provided the foundation upon which ballet developed as an art form performed by professional dancers. The center of much of this transformation lay in the Royal Academy of Music, the institution that fondly became known in Parisian aristocratic and upper-class societies as the Opera. While the Opera granted dance a new importance as a diversionary entertainment within musical dramas, it proved resistant to the development of completely independent forms of ballet. The limits of the Opera’s championship of dance as an art form able to convey narrative drama were demonstrated in its revivals of the popular operas of Lully as well as the productions of Rameau in the early and mid-eighteenth century. At the same time new forms of narrative pantomime ballet flourished in more popular venues in the city. These more popular forms told a story, and eventually the tendency to narrate an event or incident combined with the steps and techniques used in the more refined opera ballet to provide the foundation around which the modern ballet was to coalesce.
The Ballet Elsewhere in Europe
Dance was a vital component in the operas produced in Italy in the seventeenth century. In Venice, the home of Italy’s first professional opera house, professional productions featured dance from the mid-seventeenth century on. The relationship between these ballets and the plot of the opera was usually loose, however, with composers and librettists devoting far less attention to creating situations in their works in which dances might arise out of the plot. The typical Venetian opera of the seventeenth century featured three acts, and dances were usually concentrated at the end of the first and second of these divisions. A key figure in shaping the character of these dances in Venice was Giovanni Battista Balbi, an impresario (much like a modern producer) who designed productions in Venice and choreographed their dances between 1636 and 1657. Balbi played a key role in the spread of Italian opera throughout Europe. Anne of Austria, the mother of King Louis XIV, summoned him to Paris in the 1640s, where he staged several productions that had a great impact on French ballet and opera. In the dances that he staged at Venice, he gave certain kinds of roles to dancers to perform. Many Italian operas of the time adopted pastoral themes, meaning that a procession of forest nymphs and shepherds frequently appeared on the stage—roles that dancers might easily perform. Balbi’s productions, in particular, made use of exotic characters and even incorporated live animals into their fanciful productions. He also staged fantastic dream sequences as dances as well. Other roles commonly given to dancers in Balbi’s time included demons and soldiers. While tragedy dominated many of the Paris Opera’s productions, comedy played a greater role in Italian opera. Many roles for clowns, buffoons, and jesters were worked into productions—roles that were also ideal for dancers. As a new art form, the opera in Italy underwent rapid development in the course of the seventeenth century. While dances and ballets frequently peppered many of the productions of the mid- and late-seventeenth century, the reforms fostered by the Arcadian Academy at Rome after 1695 tended to relegate dancing more and more to the intervals between acts. The Arcadian theorists wanted to eliminate much of the comic buffoonery that existed in the Italian operas of their day, and instead introduce serious or pastoral themes that treated Arcadian figures and heroes, in imitation of the earliest operas that had been performed around 1600. Under the influence of these reforms, ballet began to be used in many Italian operas at the turn of the eighteenth century like a French divertissement. Dances, in other words, became diversionary entertainments staged between the scenes of the opera. Few documentary sources survive from the Italian theaters of the seventeenth century. Unlike France where systems of notation developed to record the precise steps used in dances, Italian choreographers did not develop a system to set down their creations. Scattered accounts of dances are all that survive to provide us with a glimpse of many of the Italian opera’s ballets. These suggest that the ballet in Italy was a vehicle for demonstrating greater gymnastic ability and athletic prowess than in the relatively refined forms that flourished in Paris at the same time.
The Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy in England in 1660 played a vital role in the history of dance in that country. Charles II (r. 1660-1685) was a great lover of the theater, and a steady stream of French dancers, theatrical producers, and choreographers traveled to England in search of employment in the wake of his return to the throne. One of these was Robert Cambert, a French composer who is often credited as being one of the “fathers” of French opera. Cambert came to England in 1673 to serve as music master in the household of Louise de Queroualle, a French noblewoman who was also the Duchess of Portsmouth. Louis XIV had arranged his appointment there, and at the time the Duchess was the Stuart king Charles II’s favorite mistress. Cambert established a Royal Academy of Music similar to the French institution that was just beginning to take shape in Paris at the time, but the fledgling institution soon failed. England, in contrast to France and many other European countries, remained without a royal opera house until the twentieth century, though operas were frequently staged in the many professional theaters there. Cambert’s work in England—especially his staging of two of his operas, Ariane and Pomone—helped to establish a taste for French opera in the country as well as for French dancing. Several other imported entertainments followed as well. During the last quarter of the century French ballet thus came to mix with native traditions in England, especially with the tradition of the masque. The result produced a new short-lived genre known as “semi-opera,” the most famous of which was Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen of 1692. These productions made use of the ballet practices common to the French operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully, while drawing on traditions of production that had been common in the Stuart Masques and other theatricals. Even as opera began to flourish as a site for ballet in England, dancing acquired a greater role in the professional theater of the period as diversionary entertainments between the acts of drama. The presence of a number of prominent, professional English dancers in London around 1700 reveals the rising appetite of Britons for professional ballets of a type similar to those that were already flourishing in France and Italy. Among these figures, the choreographer and dancer John Weaver was the most prominent. Weaver translated Feuillet’s Chorégraphie, publishing it as Orchesography in 1706. His work in this vein did a great deal to establish Feuillet’s system of notation in England and to spread patterns of French ballet in the country. Hester Santlow Booth, one of the first female professional dancers in England, was also a fixture of the theatrical life of the period. She debuted at the Drury Lane Theater near Covent Garden in 1706, and until her retirement in 1733 she continued to dance in many theatrical productions, particularly those choreographed by John Weaver.
Elsewhere in Northern Europe
The popularity of French and Italian forms of dancing spread to many other parts of Central and Northern Europe in the later years of the seventeenth century. After suffering great devastation during the Thirty Years’ War, Central Europe’s theatrical and musical traditions began to revive in the later seventeenth century. At Hamburg, Germany’s first public opera house was opened in 1678, and a little more than a decade later, in 1689, Lully’s Acis and Galatée was staged there. The fashion for the French-style ballet soon developed in the town’s productions, and the choreographers at work there derived much of their inspiration from Lully’s uses of dance. Austria was the second great center of opera production in seventeenth-century Central Europe. The Habsburg Emperor Leopold I first began to support the production of these “musical dramas” as early as the 1650s, staging a number of Italian productions at his court in Vienna, while in mountainous Innsbruck, a Venetian-styled opera house was first constructed in 1654, the first such theater to exist north of the Alps. Under Habsburg patronage, the opera flourished for a time in both towns, although Vienna’s dominance in the Austrian operatic world emerged largely as a result of Habsburg patronage. Similar court operas developed around this time in Munich, Dresden, and Hannover, while in Scandinavia, Stockholm became home to a vigorous tradition of opera and ballet performance.
Social Dance in the Eighteenth Century
At the beginning of the eighteenth century French patterns of social dances remained common in the courts and elite societies of continental Europe. The stately minuet was the dominant couple’s dance practiced at this time; its measured and careful use of the body was believed to reflect one’s grace and deportment. At the same time, the straightforward patterns of French contredanses or “country dances” also had a general appeal throughout cultivated circles. Knowledge of these dances had spread quickly throughout Europe in the later seventeenth century through the publication of dance manuals, as well as the adoption of Feuillet’s system of notation for dances. Dance also remained a vital social skill, practiced by nobles and the wealthy throughout the continent. As the eighteenth century progressed, though, a rising standard of living and increased numbers of leisure hours for many in Europe’s burgeoning cities meant that middling ranks of people began to learn the steps that previously had been confined to elite circles. Dance halls began to appear in Europe’s cities, while theaters and opera houses held “masked balls” as popular forms of entertainment. The general popularity of dancing can also be seen by the rise of many forms of classical music in the period that were closely modeled on the dances of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The eighteenth century saw spread of the practice of subscription concerts, paid performances to which middle- and upper-class men and women bought advance tickets. In the symphonies, string quartets, concertos, and other compositions that were played at these events dance rhythms and music figured prominently. In the typical Viennese symphony that appeared at this time, exemplified in the great works of figures like Franz Josef Haydn or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the minuet appeared as the third movement, while rondos, another popular form of dance music at the time, frequently figured prominently in many works’ concluding movements. Dance’s influence thus pervaded many other cultural spheres outside the European ballroom.
As the century progressed, new kinds of dances became popular throughout Europe. The popularity of the contredanse continued everywhere and evolved into altered and more complex forms. Originally English in origin, the contredanse had been transformed in the second half of the seventeenth century by its widespread acceptance in French aristocratic society. Like many French cultural products, its new, more refined features spread back to England as well as into central and southern Europe. In Austria and Germany, it was embraced enthusiastically, and many new variant forms developed. By the second half of the seventeenth century, for example, the contredanse allemande or “German country dance” had become the rage in Paris, its popularity spread, in part, by the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). During this conflict, the dance manual writers of the period noted, French troops had become familiar with the German forms, which included difficult patterns of hand holding and under-the-arm passes. The new form thus came to France’s capital where it was enthusiastically adopted. Another force that helped to popularize the contredanse allemande was the marriage of Marie-Antoinette to Louis XVI. The country dances of Austria thus came to be danced at Versailles and in other aristocratic circles as a homage to Marie-Antoinette’s native country. Most of the contredanses were written in double meter (that is, 2/4, 4/4, or 6/8 time). Toward the middle of the eighteenth century, though, three new dances spread quickly throughout Europe that were set to triple meter (3/4 time). The three were known as the Dreher, Schleifer,and Ländler, and were all of southern German and Austrian origins. In contrast to the stately dances that had developed as a result of the spread of French courtly practices, these new forms were rapid dances in which couples whirled about each other. The Ländler, for example, was increasingly known after 1780 by a new name, the Waltzer, the German word for turning around or twirling. The medical wisdom of the later eighteenth century rejected such dances as unhealthy since they might cause dizziness and disorientation, and moralists, too, decried these fashions as suspect. Yet the popularity of these straightforward, energetic forms persisted, and by the end of the century the waltz, as it had now become known, had emerged as a popular dance almost everywhere in Europe.
While many common dances were performed in Europe’s cities and aristocratic courts, regional dances continued to play an important role in the social life of many areas. In Central and Eastern Europe, the polonaise was a processional dance of Polish origin. By the mid-eighteenth century it was danced throughout the German-speaking world as well. Another Polish dance, the mazurka, was just beginning to spread through Central Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. In Austria and Hungary, the verbunko, a dance of gypsy origin, came to be performed in the region’s cities after 1765. In Spain, two new dances—the fandango and seguidilla—gained popularity before spreading to other European regions. At the same time, composers of the eighteenth century frequently inserted Turkish-styled dances into their operas. Both the choreographies and music for these pieces were widely Europeanized, although certain steps marked them as exotic. Few social dances seem to survive that made use of this idiom, and the Turkish style seems to have flourished more in the theater than in the ballroom.
The Enlightenment and Ballet
The movement known as the Enlightenment had an ever-deepening effect on theatrical dance during the course of the eighteenth century. Throughout the eighteenth century the thinkers of this broad, international movement argued that ancient superstitions and outmoded customs should be eliminated, and that reason should play a major role in reforming society. Their works were particularly important for all forms of literature and theater at the time because in France the leaders of the movement known as philosophes devoted special attention to the arts. In 1751, one of the greatest Enlightenment projects, the publication of the Encylopédie, began in Paris. This project was directed by the philosophes Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean le Rond d’Albert (1717-1783). The two commissioned other like-minded progressive social figures to write the 72,000 entries contained in their project. Although the work was not completed for more than twenty years, its 28 volumes were released as they were compiled, and many of the subjects treated in it touched upon themes in music, dance, and the theater. With articles by such luminaries as Voltaire, Rousseau, and many other French philosophes, the Encylopédie profoundly influenced the ideas and tastes of educated French men and women in the second half of the eighteenth century. In their entries on dance and ballet as well as those on the theater generally, the philosophes supported the development of art forms that gave meaningful expression to human thoughts, ideas, and feelings, and they disregarded merely decorative or ornamental forms of art. The aesthetic ideas of their movement generally advocated greater naturalism in place of the contrived sophistication and majesty that had been such an important feature of Baroque aesthetics. The ideas of Enlightenment thinkers came to fruition in the second half of the eighteenth century in the emergence of new forms of ballet that attempted to convey meaning, drama, and the human emotions, eventually giving birth to a new genre known as the ballet d’action, a dance containing an entire integrated story line. The rise of the new form soon met resistance, although Enlightenment arbiters of tastes like the philosophes weighed in mightily on the side of these new art forms. In his play Le fils naturel (The Natural Son) (1756), the philosophe Diderot had decried the current state of ballet in his country, a state he argued derived from the inability of dancers to understand that theirs was an imitative, and not merely decorative, art. Dance, he observed, should play a role similar to poetry as an art form that heightened the expression of the human emotions. To do so, Diderot and other Enlighteners argued it should adopt the techniques of traditional pantomime and jettison the elaborate trappings customary in the Baroque theater. By the 1770s the taste of Europe’s urban audiences shifted in favor of this position, and new danced dramas became a fixture in many European capitals.
At the same time, powerful changes were also underway in the day-to-day world of the ballet. As the art form achieved a new maturity, great new stars emerged whose careers and performances were avidly followed by the audiences of the day. As a result the quickly developing art form also began to acquire a greater independence from its long tutelage to opera. A new technical finesse emerged among the dancers of the eighteenth century, a development that was often at odds with the Enlightenment’s advocacy of greater naturalism and sophisticated uses of drama. These competing demands—brilliance in execution and dramatic representation—often warred against each other, and the greatest French ballet performers and choreographers of the period sometimes left Paris in search of environments that were more amenable to their own artistic ideas. In this way the innovations and achievements of the French theater in the realm of dance came to be established in many of the opera houses of Europe.
Rise of Ballet Stars
The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries had produced a number of notable dancers, but their careers and reputations were soon eclipsed by many new stars. Louis Dupré (1697-1774), a dancer who first debuted at the Paris Opera in 1714, continued to perform there until his sixties. In 1743, he became director of the Opera’s school, and in this position he trained many of the great dancers of the later eighteenth century. Dupré was responsible for expanding the virtuosity of performance, and his gracefulness and physique were widely admired. Two ballerinas of the period, Marie-Anne Cupis de Camargo (1710-1770; Paris Opera debut 1726) and Marie Sallé (1707-1756; Paris Opera debut 1727) were noteworthy for expanding the repertoire of steps and leaps practiced by women and for reforming the conventions that governed female performance. Camargo was apparently the first ballerina to practice two leaps, the pas battu and the entrechat, previously reserved for men, an achievement that caused the philosophe Voltaire to observe that she was the “first woman to dance like a man.” She was also the first woman ballerina to dance in slippers rather than heeled shoes, and she shortened the length of her skirt so that she could perform more difficult steps. Such departures earned Camargo both censure and adulation, although the path that she blazed was one that many prima ballerinas followed in the next decades. In contrast to Camargo’s athleticism, Marie Sallé’s dancing was noteworthy for its great subtlety and refinement. She, too, was something of a reformer and a renegade, however, and her agility engendered jealousy in the Paris Ballet. Although she was a student at the Paris Opera for a number of years, she did not make her debut as a star until she was twenty. In the intervening years, she divided her time between performing in London and Paris, first appearing in the English capital in a performance of Love’s Last Shift in 1725. The performance that she staged there in 1734 of Pygmalion was also notable for its revolutionary costuming and great naturalness. Sallé discarded the cumbersome costumes and masks that ballerinas had worn to this point, and instead appeared with her hair let down and in a simple muslin shift. The performance was recognized for its innovative appeal from the start, and her production of Pygmalion ran for several months. Sallé’s learning, ingenuity, and intellect also distinguished her among the dancers of her day; she was one of the first great ballerinas to associate with men and women of letters. In this way her own art and that of ballet writ large figured as topics discussed in the brilliant French salon culture of the period.
Differentiation of Styles
Like opera, which developed several different kinds of genres that were suitable to performers who specialized in particular kinds of roles, ballet’s dance styles became increasingly delineated and differentiated in the course of the eighteenth century according to three distinct dancing styles: grotesque or comic, noble or serious, and demi-caractère(the counterpart of character roles in acting). While many of the burgeoning caste of professional performers danced all three kinds of roles, some began to specialize in one of these particular forms; as time progressed, the ballet schools in France came to identify dancers for one of these three kinds of genres based upon their physique. Louis Dupré, for instance, was recognized for his great ability in dancing noble roles, although he still performed as other kinds of characters. As the eighteenth century progressed, many more dancers came to specialize in comic, grotesque, or character roles to feed the French audience’s rising appetite for virtuosity and technical brilliance.
Perhaps the most influential performer and choreographer of the entire eighteenth century was Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810), a reformer who was controversial in his own day but who helped to transform the character of ballet in the second half of the eighteenth century. Noverre was born in Paris and trained at the Opera’s ballet school under Louis Dupré. In his long life Noverre became an iconoclast, dedicated to destroying what he felt were outmoded and antiquated forms of the ballet. He was also a crusader for a new type of art, helping to create a new genre of dramatic dances known as the ballet d’action, works that are similar to the “classical” ballets of the nineteenth century by virtue of their enactment of a story. Noverre, in other words, took up the Enlightenment’s call to create new forms of ballet that conveyed greater meaning and emotional depth. While he did not create the genre of ballet d’action single-handedly, he was so vital to its development that he has long been accorded the title “Father of the Ballet.” For inspiration, Noverre turned to the pantomime ballets that had been performed in London and Paris with increasing frequency in the first half of the eighteenth century, particularly those of the English dance master John Weaver. The ideas of Louis Cahusac—another advocate for the inclusion of greater drama within ballets—were important, as well. Noverre also admired the many pantomime ballets that had been performed at the Comédie-Italienne in Paris between 1738 and 1756. Noverre fused these elements together in his works, and in a long and varied career he attempted to establish a philosophical underpinning to the ballet d’action that was consonant with the Enlightenment’s demands for a more meaningful art. He was both a dancer and choreographer, and at times he worked in Paris, London, Stuttgart, Vienna, Milan, and Lyons. While he often produced the typical dance divertissements used in operas of the day, his passion was for the ballet d’action, the first of which he staged in Lyons in 1751. This work, a pantomime ballet, was not enthusiastically received, and Noverre moved to Stuttgart, a less staid environment, a few years later. At the same time, he published Letters on Dance, a work that advocated his dramatic theories and showed the influence of Enlightenment thinking as well. Its widespread circulation established him as the foremost dance theorist of the day and as an important writer more generally on the subject of aesthetics. In the Letters Noverre argued that dancers should abandon the elaborate costumes and trappings that hid their expressions from the audience, and that they should become adept, not only at the repertoire of steps that comprised their art, but in the skills of pantomime that might allow them to convey the human emotions and to tell a story. In the early 1760s he brought these ideas to bear while at the Paris Opera, but they were resisted, and Noverre left again for more congenial appointments elsewhere in Europe. Over time, his call for a more naturalistic art that was able to convey drama and emotional content was heard in the French capital as it was in many places during the second half of the eighteenth century. In Paris, the Opera’s ballet eventually adopted principles more closely akin to those of Noverre, and in 1776, he was recalled there to choreograph productions once again.
While Paris had long been the cradle of the ballet’s development, Noverre’s career shows that new centers of dance were emerging as important sites for innovation during the mid- and later eighteenth century. Besides Stuttgart, the site for some of Noverre’s most innovative productions, Vienna was also home to a flourishing dance culture in the 1750s and 1760s. At the same time that Noverre was advocating the development of a more meaningful form of ballet, the Italian dancer and choreographer Gaspero Angiolini (1731-1803) was also conducting experiments in ballets d’action in Austria. At Vienna, Angiolini staged a number of ballets in the city in partnership with Christoph Willibald von Gluck, Vienna’s then-reigning court composer. In contrast to Noverre’s calls for greater naturalism and for an art that was consonant with the emerging philosophies of the Enlightenment, Angiolini intended to revive the dance of Antiquity, hoping to stage complete dramas upon the principles that had been set down by the ancient Greeks. Like Noverre, Angiolini also produced diversionary entertainments to be inserted within operas and dramas, but his true allegiance was to dramatic forms of dance. He staged a number of ballets d’action on pastoral and mythological themes. One of his most daring productions was Don Juan, a work that provided great dramatic force since it ended with the central character being carried off to the torments of Hell at the ballet’s conclusion. In this production Gluck’s music suggested the terror that gripped Don Juan at this climactic moment. Gluck was a natural partner for Angiolini’s ambitions since he had recently come to produce a series of “reform operas,” works that aimed to present a broader range of human emotions and which attempted to integrate musical forms of expression more closely to the texts being sung. In his collaboration with Angiolini, then, Gluck provided music that augmented and heightened the danced pantomimes that conveyed a story. This new sophistication in creating a fusion between music and dancing suggested to the Viennese audience some of the possibilities that lay within the emerging ballet d’action’s integration of the two art forms. Elsewhere in Europe the music for the new pantomime ballets was usually adopted from pre-existing pieces that did not fit so closely with the choice of dramatic story line, and the results were not always as appealing to audiences. While both Noverre and Angiolini labored to establish the new tenets of the ballet d’action, the two shared a number of differences. In contrast to Noverre’s difficult and challenging intellectualism, Angiolini’s ideas about the new art form were more straightforward and less complex. As a result, the two waged a long and sometimes bitter rivalry, but in tandem their efforts helped establish the new dramatic ballets within many key European dance centers of the day.
Ballet in an Age of Revolution
Destruction and Change
The onset of Revolution in France in 1789 produced profound changes in the production of all the arts. Both opera and ballet had flourished in Paris in tandem with the Opera, a royal institution that had long been nourished by the court’s patronage. As the Revolution approached, bankruptcy loomed as the only way out of an engulfing royal financial crisis. In the first few years of the Revolution the special privileges of the clergy and nobility as well as many of the ancient prerogatives of the monarch were abolished in a series of progressively tightening measures directed at all forms of ancient privilege. At first, a new constitutional monarchy was fashioned, but King Louis XVI’s attempt to escape from France with his queen in
June of 1791 turned the tide of opinion against such an option, leading to the abolishment of the monarchy and the establishment of a new republican government. As a result of these swiftly moving events, Louis XVI’s patronage of the arts at first rapidly diminished as he was forced to cut costs to fit with his dramatically straitened circumstances, and then dried up altogether. As the new republican government moved to establish its control over all elements of the state, a pervasive Reign of Terror ensued in which anyone suspected of monarchical sympathies might fall prey to persecution and execution. Many of the institutions that had long nourished ballet and opera thus faced great trials during the Terror, since their longstanding ties to aristocratic society marked them as bastions of privilege. An older musical and dramatic culture, sustained by aristocratic sensibilities, quickly disappeared in Paris and other French cities, and the political leaders of the Revolution advocated art that might express the democratic principles and revolutionary ideals that lay at the heart of their movement. Such principles were aptly suited to the rising form of the ballet d’action, since its narrative dances provided one way of presenting stories that fit neatly with the new revolutionary impulses. While ballet did not disappear as a diversion within the operas of the time, its place as an independent art form became firmly established by the end of the eighteenth century in Paris as the revolutionary government embraced it to defend republicanism.
Changes in Ballet
Despite the monumental changes that were occurring in French society at the time, the Paris Opera continued to flourish in the tumult of Revolution. As aristocrats disappeared from the ranks of its audience, new spectators appeared from among the middle classes. While financial shortfalls were typical at the institution during the early days of Revolution, they subsided somewhat after the city of Paris assumed its control. At first, the ballets and operas staged there continued in much the same pattern as they had over the previous two decades. Many ballets, in other words, were performed that relied on ancient mythological or heroic themes. As the fervor of republican sentiment grew in Paris in the years after 1790 and the Revolution grew more radical, the commune—that is, the city’s own municipal government—demanded that the company stage new revolutionary dance dramas. The Opera’s ballet performers were also enlisted to dance in productions held in other Parisian theaters. During the Reign of Terror between 1792 and 1794, the revolutionary government commissioned many new ballets and dances to mark key events in the Revolution. The establishment of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the execution of King Louis XVI were two events that were celebrated with the staging of elaborate dances. Dance dramas commemorated important events in the Revolution’s history, but they also marked some of the momentous changes that the revolutionary assembly attempted to implement in France. The Worship of the Supreme Being, a state-sanctioned deistic religion opposed to traditional Christianity, became mandatory throughout France in May 1794. Within a month a massive festival was mounted to commemorate the new change, and an elaborate series of dances that involved hundreds of participants was staged in the open air. Dance commemorated the Revolution even as the Paris Commune and the national assembly’s Committee of Public Safety exerted a tightening grip on the kinds of operas, ballets, and plays that were performed in the city. The Committee of Public Safety, for example, decreed that from henceforth no aristocrats should figure as characters in any theatrical productions. In this way art conformed to revolutionary demands, and the Committee dispatched police officials and soldiers to supervise ballet and operatic productions. These years of the Terror were particularly difficult for many artists, especially ballet dancers and opera singers who had long enjoyed the patronage and largesse of the nobility. A number of key French dancers left France during this period, many taking up residence and performing in London at the time. Jean-Georges Noverre, Auguste Vestris, and Jean Dauberval were just a few of the many Parisian dancers who took refuge in England. For those who stayed in France, participation in the new revolutionary ballets, with their story lines that defended liberty and republican government, provided one way of averting the regime’s suspicions and avoiding imprisonment and the guillotine. In the heightened atmosphere of persecution that revolutionary demands produced, there was consequently no shortage of volunteers to dance in the Revolution’s ballet spectacles.
Growth of Troupes
Despite fiscal crises and revolutionary upheaval, the ballet flourished in Paris during the years of the Revolution. Old patronage networks that had been supported by the aristocracy had disappeared, but dance’s new role as a promoter of republican ideals at festivals guaranteed its lavish support even while the new regime faced chronic shortages of funds and supplies. Elsewhere in Europe, the final decades of the eighteenth century were times of great expansion in ballet troupes as well. In Italy, most major opera houses employed around forty dancers at this time, while in distant Stockholm their ranks numbered around seventy. By 1770, the Paris Opera’s own troupe had risen to more than ninety performers, and although the chronic fiscal crisis of the 1780s may have caused these numbers to shrink somewhat, the elaborate spectacles staged with professional dancers from the Opera point to its continuing vitality. By the end of the eighteenth century, the purpose of these urban troupes was in most places twofold; the ballet troupes of the time still performed divertissements, entr’actes, and concluding ballets within operas as they had done for almost two centuries, but they also performed pantomime ballets or ballets d’action. Ballet’s long apprenticeship to opera had not completely ended by the year 1800, but the art form had achieved a striking degree of independence during the course of the previous century. One sign of this new reality, and a harbinger of even greater innovations to come, occurred at the very end of the eighteenth century as the Italian dancer and choreographer Salvatore Vigano instituted drastic reforms in costuming and footwear to the dance troupe at the Venetian Opera. Vigano introduced light and loose-fitting Neoclassical dress, and he required his dancers to wear either sandals or slippers. His emancipation of dancers from much of the elegant trappings in which eighteenth-century aristocratic society had long placed them opened up the way for the striking innovations in dance technique that occurred in the nineteenth century.