Sunday, March 24, 2019

Women's History Month: 5 Portraits of 18th-Century Ballerinas

Women's History Month: A month celebrating women of history! I will be posting media and book recommendations, highlighting women from (mostly) the 18th century, and otherwise sharing content with an emphasis on women in history. 

5 Portraits of 18th-Century Ballerinas

18th-century ballerinas did not yet rule the stage as they would come to do just a few decades later, but as the foundations of modern classical ballet began to take root in the 1700s, so did the presence of female dancers who found themselves the subject of fame-boosting public acclaim, scathing critics, and even amorous royalty. Let's take a look at 5 portraits of 18th-century ballerinas who made their mark on the stage over 200 years ago.

A portrait of Caterina Gattai Tomatis by Marcello Bacciarelli, circa 1780.

Caterina Gattai Tomatis (1747-1792) was an Italian ballerina who made her debut in Venice and would later become a prima ballerina at the Royal Opera in Warsaw. During her time at the ballet, she became the mistress of Stanisław II, a position which would continue on-and-off again until at least 1778. She retired from dancing upon her marriage to Carlo Alessandro Tomatis in 1766, just six short years after her ballet debut.

A painting of Françoise Prévost as Bacchante by Jean Raoux, circa 1723

Françoise Prévost  (c.1680-1741) was a French ballerina whose unique dramatic work helped to pave the way for the development of ballet d'action and other emotional, more independent styles of ballet dance during the mid-to-late 18th century.. Prévost, whose students included Marie Sallé and Marie-Anne de Cupis de Camargo, is best known for a famous solo she choreographed in 174 called 'Les Caracteres de la Danse,' which she later taught to her students. Prévost retired as a première danseuse for the Paris Opera in 173.

A portrait of by Marie Sallé Maurice Quentin de La Tour, circa 1741-1742.

Marie Sallé (1707-1756) was a  French ballerina whose then-unusual takes on ballet costume and scenic design made a lasting impact on the development of ballet as an independent art form. Sallé also challenged the male-dominated world of dance in numerous ways, most visibly by creating and giving substantial roles to female dancers and helping to popularize costumes which did less to restrict movement than typical ballerina costumes of the time.Sallé performed with various ballet companies throughout her career and made history in 1734 with her rendition of Pygmalion, marking her as the first female choreographer to also dance in a piece she created. 

Portrait detail from La Camargo Dancing by Nicholas Lancret, circa 1730.

Marie-Anne de Cupis de Camargo (1710-1770) was one of the most distinct French ballerinas of her era; after her debut at the Paris Opera in 1726, she became the first female ballerina to ever execute a  entrechat quatre. She also championed changes in ballerina's costumes, foregoing the typical heavy full gowns and replacing them with lighter fabrics and shorter lengths; she also popularized the use of satin slippers over heeled shoes. Camargo's popularity inspired jealousy in her teacher, and Prévost demoted her to corps de ballet--a demotion which was overturned shortly after when Camargo stepped in for a missing male dancer and saved the performance with an improvised solo. Camargo appeared in a total of 78 operas during her lifetime; she finally retired fully from the stage in 1751.

A colored engraving of Mademoiselle Parisot after Arthur William Devis, circa 1797.

Mademoiselle Parisot (c.1775-after 1837) was a French ballerina who became well known for her scandalous costumes and dances which inspired criticism--and acclaim--in Britain.. Her given name and family is not exactly known, as she was known only as Mademoiselle Parisot after the launch of her London career. She made her debut, aged 14, at the Theatre de Monsieur in December 1789; her father (believed by the V&A museum to be journalist Pierre-Germain Pariseau, who was guillotined) died in 1794, and afterward Parisot moved to London. Her debut was reviewed favorably bycritics, who noted her balance technique was "positively magical, for her person was almost horizontal while turning as a pivot on her toe." Parisot became well known for her leg-accentuating costumes, sometimes even implementing neoclassical costumes which exposed or nearly exposed one breast. The response of the British House of Lords to Parisot's performances did not reflect the audience's warm applause and critical praise: in 1798, the Bishop of London criticized the rise of "female dancers who, by the allurement of the most indecent attitudes and most wanton theatrical exhibitions succeeded ... in loosening and corrupting the moral feelings of people." After this, dancers were required to stop wearing flesh-toned dresses and ballet performances were no longer allowed to go on past midnight. In 1805, one of Parisot's performances caused a riot--not because of its risque content, but because the theater manager drew the curtain before her dance was completed, in order to comply with the midnight curfew. Furious audience members "threw all the chairs out of the boxes into the pit, tore up the benches, destroyed the chandeliers, jumped into the orchestra, smashed the piano forte and broke all the instruments of the poor unoffending performers." Parisot retired from the stage in 1807.

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