Arthur Saint-Léon (1821 – 1870)
Saint-Léon is best remembered as a phenomenal performer for his time and as a choreographer of great popularity and influence. He was technically accomplished, energetic and strong, and possessed a light easy jump, an extraordinary elevation with the rare ability seemingly to pause in mid-air, aesthetic port de bras, and a solid balance, which facilitated controlled, cleanly finished multiple pirouettes. Although he was criticised for his acrobatic exhibitions and an Italian miming style, he won accolades for his masculine grace, bravura, and artistry from a public which disdained male dancers. His acceptance may also be attributed to his adjunct career as a violinist, begun as a child prodigy.
Aided by his musicality and choreographic instincts, Saint-Léon adeptly created intricate and visually pleasing variations and divertissements, especially in his masterpiece, Coppélia. His works, infused with tours de force and reflective of his technical prowess and tastes, brimmed with movement, which in a later era would have found greater appreciation. Especially talented at fashioning dances to display a ballerina’s technical attributes, Saint-Léon crafted many successful vehicles for his wife Fanny Cerrito, and for a succession of protégées, including his muse Adèle Grantzow.
Folk and national dances, an element of Romantic ballet, were Saint-Léon’s speciality. Though criticised for undermining their national character and for unjustified interpolation, he popularised ethnic dances and their incorporation into the classical repertory, influencing his successor as ballet master at the Russian Imperial Theatres, Marius Petipa. Conversely to compete with Petipa, his assistant and choreographic rival, Saint-Léon improved the quality of his crowd scenes, an area which he had previously ignored.
Saint Léon’s other major contribution to ballet history is as a creator of a dance notation system and defender of a consistent “school” of ballet technique. An advocate of “serious” dance training, Saint-Léon was dissatisfied with ballet’s undervalued position in France, a consequence of the ebbing popularity and influence of the Romantic ballet. Writing in 1856, he astutely blamed the discontinuance of dance training in general education as partially responsible for unappreciative audiences – a perception with ongoing relevance today. He theorised that Romanticism’s dissipation could be offset by establishing professional dancer conservatories. His ideal school, promoting concepts now generally accepted – specialised musical training, regimented classical technique, enforced daily class and sequential instruction – would elevate dance to an “art”, produce well-rounded choreographers, and form disciplined corps de ballet. Recognising the fallibility of human memory, the evanescent nature of ballet, and the need for dance to find a written language, Saint-Léon invented a system of dance notation. Although several methods had been developed in the previous century, his visually based stick figure technique, outlined in La Sténochégraphie, ou Art d’écrire promptment la danse (1852), was the first to record upper-body movements instead of general floor patterns.
The system which recorded the dance from the audience’s perspective was adequate for its time but was limited in its ability to notate technical intricacies. He notated a portion of Giselle’s Peasant Pas de deux, the Pas de quatre from Antonio Guerra’s Le Lac des feés and his Il Basilico. But unfortunately, he left his own major works unrecorded.