By the 1700’s women had made it onto the stage but they still hadn’t liberated themselves from their cumbersome and restrictive costumes. Any sort of realistic drama or expressivity was impossible, as was a complete range of motion. Costume reform ignited one of the many controversies that ballet often undergoes when innovation confronts tradition.
Marie Sallé was a gifted, graceful dancer with a modest style, but her bold rejection of past conventions flabbergasted ballet audiences of the 1730’s. She introduced drama and realism, dancing with natural movements and gestures. She abandoned the masks that dancers always wore to conceal facial expressions, and even more shocking: in her own production of Pygmalion she wore a simple, flimsy muslin tunic instead of a large, ornate skirt over a corset, and she danced wearing her own hair, down and flowing loosely, instead of a wig. It was a sensation, a scandal, and a huge success.
A dancer turned choreographer, Jean-Georges Noverre, took Sallé’s reforms even further in the 1760’s. He created the ballet d’action, “action ballet”. By uniting music, costumes, scenery, and choreography he sought to produce narrative ballets with compelling plots and powerful characters. Today it is hard to imagine ballet without stories and without dramatic dancing roles, but in their time Noverre and Sallé were radicals whose ideas threatened established traditions and were met with vehement opposition.
Sallé had a rival, Marie Camargo, the dancer who got women off the ground. When ballet moved out of the ballrooms of royal palaces and onto proscenium stages, the sightlines changed, requiring dancers to project the fronts of their bodies to the audience. In order to do that, they developed turnout. With turnout new steps became possible, difficult steps with jumps and beats. It was called danse d’elevation, or “elevated dance,” and it separated the professional from the aristocratic amateur; it’s where ballet and ballroom dancing parted company, because professionals were specially trained to develop turnout and execute virtuosic steps that were seen only in the theater.
Camargo had mastered the flashy new steps, but her heeled shoes were making it hard to perform them and her long skirts were making it hard for anyone to see what her feet were doing. So she removed the heels from her shoes and — shocking! —raised the hemline of her skirt. Her brilliant petite allegro, now facilitated and made visible, became a success that expanded the female dancer’s range, but not everyone at the time considered danse d’elevation to be good thing. For many it seemed a vulgar display of athleticism. Noverre himself wrote that “entrechats and cabrioles spoil the character of beautiful dancing,” and that, “… employing cabrioles in the noble style of dancing has altered its character and deprived it of its dignity.”
Copyright © 2014 by Eliza Minden. All rights reserved.