Paris, the 19th century. For the first time, ballet stages are filled with otherworldly creatures gliding on their tiptoes through soft atmospheric haze – and the Romantic ballet is born. Author and dance historian Valerie Lawson captures the moment.
10 Jul 2018
The director of the Paris Opera had a strange request for the company’s dancers. Would they agree to fly on wires in their La Sylphide costumes in return for a bonus of 10 francs? Yes, it was danger money, but many agreed to the risk in order to boost their meagre wage.
It was just as well they didn’t know the possible outcome. Dr Louis Véron, appointed director of the Paris Opera in 1831, was far from confident that the stage machinery would work. At every rehearsal of La Sylphide he checked and double-checked the wires, but he knew the potential for disaster remained. The night before the premiere Véron struggled to sleep. But nothing went wrong. The first performance of La Sylphide, on March 12, 1832, was a magnificent success. None of the dancers fell from the wires and the audience was entranced by Marie Taglioni, the ballerina who danced the Sylphide. The peacock-feather wings attached to her tutu added to the impression that she was soaring high above the stage.
If one moment signalled the start of Romanticism in ballet this was it. The illusion of flight, the corps de ballet dressed in diaphanous, long-skirted white tutus, the dancers’ ability to rise on their feet as if they were standing on the tips of their toes, and the seductive appeal of the otherworldly heroine became the model for all the ballets blanc that followed.
Some years following the premiere of La Sylphide, the French critic Théophile Gautier described its effect on 19th-century ballet. After La Sylphide, he wrote, "the opera was given over to gnomes, undines, salamanders, elves, nixes, wilis, peris – to all that strange and mysterious folk who lend themselves so marvellously to the fantasies of the maîtres de ballet”. A few years later, Gautier began to write the scenario for Giselle, whose corps de ballet of wilis – the ghosts of brides-to-be, betrayed by men – were sylphides in another guise.
Mythical creatures had flown on the stage before La Sylphide and Giselle, but it was these two ballets that captured the public imagination, ensuring they remained in continuous performance for more than 170 years. Their early success was due to a rare coalescence of politics, persuasive marketing and the revolutionary movement known as Romanticism, which swept away classicism and formality in the arts. The writers E. T. A. Hoffmann, Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo and Gautier were some of the first to embrace Romanticism, but the movement also influenced many artists, among them Delacroix and Gericault, and composers such as Weber, Berlioz, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and Wagner.
Romanticism was a latecomer to the ballet stage, arriving after the 1830 French revolution that propelled Louis-Philippe I to the throne. Rather than taking the title 'the French King', he preferred to be known with the slightly more modest title, 'King of the French'. During his reign Louis-Philippe focused more on the upper bourgeoisie than he did on the aristocracy.
This emphasis triggered a change of management at the Paris Opera where, in 1831, Véron was given the task of steering the opera in a new, commercial direction. A former doctor and businessman who made his money marketing patent medicines, Véron was a publicity wizard, manipulating the press and enticing audiences by programming escapist works.
His first big success was Robert le diable, (Robert the Devil), an opera composed by Giacomo Meyerbeer. Its most thrilling moment came in the third act when Marie Taglioni, as the Mother Superior, led a corps de ballet of nuns who had violated their vows. As they emerged from their graves (by way of stage trapdoors) to dance in the moonlight, all modesty was abandoned. Their religious habits fell from their shoulders as they seduced Robert in a bacchanalian dance.
This Ballet of the Nuns was later immortalised by Degas, who depicted the scene from the perspective of the musicians in the orchestra pit. In his painting the musicians are seen in sharp contrast to the hazy dancers, whose white dresses and blue veils are illuminated by gaslight.
The success of the opera was the inspiration for La Sylphide, whose collaborators were only one degree of separation from Robert le diable. La Sylphide’s libretto was written by Adolphe Nourrit, the tenor who sang the title role in Robert le diable, and Filippo Taglioni (Marie’s father) choreographed both the opera and ballet. Pierre Ciceri, the stage and lighting designer for the opera, duplicated the eerie lighting effect for La Sylphide by hanging gas jets from the flies over the stage. This dangerous practice led to disasters, in particular in 1862, when gaslights set fire to a costume worn by a protégée of Taglioni’s, Emma Livry. She died of her wounds the following year.
Giselle, the most beloved Romantic ballet of all time, was staged at the Paris Opera in 1841. Its scenario, by Gautier, drew on the works of Victor Hugo and Heinrich Heine. The first act was inspired by Hugo’s poem Fantômes, which told the tale of a 15-year-old girl who loved to dance. Over-excited and exhausted after dancing all night at a ball, she died in the cold light of dawn as she left the party.
Giselle’s second act, set in a forest, was based on Heine’s book De’Allemagne, in which he described “poor young creatures” called wilis. They went to their graves wearing bridal dresses, but “they could not rest peacefully … In their hearts which have ceased to throb, in their dead feet, there still remains the passion for dancing which they could not satisfy during life; and at midnight they rise up and gather in bands on the highway and woe betide the young man who meets them, for he must dance until he drops dead."
Dancing and death, betrayal and revenge: these were at the heart of Romantic ballet, then and now. La Sylphide and Giselle continue to enchant today’s audiences because their stories, based on the encounters of humans with otherworldly creatures and the concept of unattainable love, are timeless. We still love tales of the supernatural, whether on stage or on the cinema screen, where phantoms congregate with elves, witches, wizards and vampires, and superheroes fly through the air.
For a true immersion in old-school ballet Romanticism the best place in the world to visit is Paris’ Montmartre Cemetery. Within the winding pathways are the graves of Marie Taglioni, Emma Livry, Adolphe Adam (the composer of Giselle), Degas, Gautier, Heine and Hugo. Perhaps, like the ribald nuns of Robert le diable, they might rise from their graves from time to time and dance in the moonlight.