The Bent-Legged Jumps of Eighteenth-Century Ballet
One of the most interesting aspects of eighteenth-century ballet was its system of distinct styles: There was not one technique but rather four, commonly called the serious, half-serious, comic, and grotesque. In practical terms, this meant that a single given step would have had potentially four or more different manners of execution. The choice between these then depended on the role and the general style performed. Indeed, some movements and positions were proper to only one style and thus were not used in the other three.
One of the distinctive features of the comic and grotesque styles was the practice of “picking up the feet” in jumps. That is to say, while airborne, the dancer bent the knees and drew the feet up under the torso. These bent-legged jumps are mentioned or described a few times in some of the eighteenth-century sources, the most important of which in this context are Lambranzi (1716) and Magri (1779). Such jumps could be denoted in Italian by either ritirato or rancignato / ranzegnato, both meaning ‘drawn up.’ The former author (1716: 1/3; 2/45), for example, notes in one of his dance scenarios, almost certainly grotesque in style, that the dancer is to do “ranzegnati, that is, with the knees and feet drawn up.” And Magri (1779: 1/122) writes at one point that “all these sorts of capers stretched can likewise be done drawn up, be they French, Italian, or Spanish entrechats or cabrioles; the only difference is that the legs are shortened or drawn up [ritirato].”
A consideration of all the references to this practice – I have given only two here – makes it clear that any jump, whether beaten or not, could be performed in the low styles with the feet picked up, as well as with the legs stretched straight. As an example, I include here reconstructions of two different ways of executing a comic changement de pieds, with the legs straight (fig. 1), and with the feet drawn up (fig. 2).
There is also a little evidence – to be outlined in my scholarly study entitled The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet – which suggests that instead of both legs, only one leg could be drawn up as well. The following illustration (fig. 3) shows a reconstruction of a comic changement de pieds executed with only one foot drawn up.
In all of these reconstructions, the dancer is shown with the arms in so-called first position, the norm in the comic and grotesque. A slight bit of rounding at the elbows was also apparently possible but is not shown here; such variability in shape was certainly true of the reflex of this position in the nineteenth century (fig 4). (In a future blog-post, I will give a short introduction to the arm positions of early ballet.) Furthermore, the shape of the foot when picked up was variable and apparently dependent on personal style. The three possibilities are as follows, arranged in order of decreasing frequency of use, as far as that can be determined: vertical to the floor (as shown in figures 2d and 3d); diagonally flexed, following more or less the line of the thigh above; or fully pointed, as in modern practice, i.e., following the line of the shin above. (The arguments supporting this claim are too lengthy to be presented here.)
This drawn-up execution was proper only to the low styles (comic and grotesque) and was not found in the high styles (serious and half-serious). It was, as it were, a kind of “thumbing the nose” at the high styles, wherein a stretched leg was de rigueur. As Pasch (1707: 61) notes, comic and grotesque dances “must be formed and arranged in contravention of all the rules that belong to the serious.” That such a practice was indeed proper to the low styles is clear from the following (as well as from other sources not cited here):
All the beaten springing steps and capers must be done with the knees well stretched as the legs interweave when bounding into the air, and this is what is known as fine dancing, for drawn-up capers were used in the past only in the theater, contrary to the rules, by grotesque dancers, and if today good taste has removed the ban on them, it would be unseemly to see them done in a hall for civil conversation [i.e., in the ballroom]. (Costa 1831: 227)
Costa mentions only “grotesque dancers,” but it was common terminological practice to lump together the two closely related styles of the comic and grotesque and refer to them by one term, either the comic or grotesque, even though they were, strictly speaking, not identical. The “ban on them,” that is, the stylistic restriction limiting their use, had been done away with by Costa’s day, as an upshot of the meltdown of the system of distinct styles at the end of the eighteenth century (Fairfax 2003: 257-91).
The rancignato was no innovation of the eighteenth century. Bent-legged jumps were already in existence by the beginning of the seventeenth century, although the absence of full turnout creates a rather different appearance. Negri (1602: 77) describes a salto con le gambe piegate (‘jump with the legs bent’):
In the first jump with the legs bent, stand a piè pari [i.e., with the feet together side by side]; first rise straight up off the floor and bend both legs equally, with the left ankle over the right, and spreading [i.e., bending] the knees, land in the same place.
The practice of picking up the feet in jumps continued well beyond the eighteenth century, although without the old “ban” mentioned by Costa, i.e., without being restricted to low characters. Roller (1843: 216-19), for example, gives a few examples of some basic jumps – écart, pas sauté, changement de pieds, and entrechat – executed with the feet drawn up once or even twice while the dancer is airborne. Emmanuel (1895: pl. 3) provides a sequence of eighteen time-lapsed photos showing a dancer executing a string of three entrechats with the feet picked up (fig. 5). Observe the apparent attempt to have the feet vertical when drawn up (nos. 4, 10, 16), and note that the concluding land of the sequence (no. 18) is not in a demi-plié but on the toes with the knees only slightly bent, such that the greater part of the impact is absorbed by the elasticity of the insteps – another old practice. And the position of the arms assumed here appears to have been an acceptable variant in the eighteenth century as well in the comic and grotesque, instead of that shown above in figures 1-3; this is suggested at least by the arrangement of arms drawn in figure 6, a detail from a dance for Harlequin from the 1720s.
Picking up the feet was particularly popular in the so-called Italian school – one of a number of connections between the old comic and grotesque and the later Italian school. (The comic and grotesque styles were extremely popular – indeed dominant – in eighteenth-century Italy (Fairfax 2003: 189-217).) In his preamble to jumping generally, Lifar (1951: 105), for example, writes that “the legs must be stretched out as far as possible, contrary to the teaching of the Italian school which recommends jumping à la crapaud, i.e. with knees bent.” Nicolaeva-Legat (1947: 118) also notes that “entrechats are taught with bent knees in the Italian school.”
Vaganova ( 1969: 72, 74, 76) clearly disliked the practice and broadly proscribed it. In her discussion of the grand changement de pieds, for example, she writes that “in the Italian school, it is customary to bend the knees when doing changement de pieds” but prescribes straight legs for her Russian school (fig. 7).
And in connection with the assemblé, she adds that
in order to create an impression of a higher jump, the Italians bend their knees after grand battement, before lowering themselves into 5th position. This bending of the knees during the jump renders the dancer a grotesque character, spoiling its classic line. [fig. 8]
So too in the pas jeté, she notes that “the Italian school teaches the pupil to throw up the legs very high and to bend them sharply; the movement acquires a great strain and the design acquires a definitely grotesque shade.”
This practice has been largely rooted out of contemporary classical ballet, no doubt owing to the widespread influence of the Russian school in the twentieth century, which disseminated Vaganova’s taste. Only a small number of jumps involving such leg movements, most notably the pas de chat, are now regularly seen in contemporary ballet performances. The same goes for jumps with only one leg drawn up, such as the passé sauté.
Costa, Giacomo. 1831. Saggio analitico-pratico intorno all’arte della danza per uso di civile conversazione. Turin: Stamperia Mancio, Speirani eCompagnia.
Emmanuel, Maurice. 1895. Essai sur l’orchestique grecque. Paris: Hachette.
Fairfax, Edmund. 2003. The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Lambranzi, Gregorio. 1716. Neue und curieuse theatralische Tantz-Schul. Nuremberg: Joh. Jacob Wolrab.
Lifar, Serge. 1951. Lifar on Classical Ballet. London: Allan Wingate.
Magri, Gennaro. 1779. Trattato teorico-prattico di ballo. Naples: Vicenzo Orsino.
Negri, Cesare. 1602. Le gratie d’amore. Milan: Gio. Battista Piccaglia.
Nicolaeva-Legat, Nadine. 1947. Ballet Education. London: Geoffrey Bles.
Pasch, Johann. 1707. Beschreibung wahrer Tanz-Kunst. Frankfurt: Wolffgang Michahelles and Johann Adolph.
Roller, Franz Anton. 1843. Systematisches Lehrbuch der bildenden Tanzkunst und körperlichen Ausbildung. Weimar: Bernh. Fr. Voigt.
Vaganova, Agrippina.  1969. Basic Principes of Classical Ballet, Russian Ballet Technique. Translated from the Russain by Anatole Chujoy. Unabridged replication of the second English-language edition published in 1952. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
Zorn, Friedrich.  1905. Grammar of the Art of Dancing. Boston.