The Arabesque of Eighteenth-Century Ballet

The Arabesque of Eighteenth-Century Ballet


Figure 1. Interior detail from the Tsarkoye Selo, Russia, showing the use of rococo arabesques.

It is something of a misnomer that the straight-legged pose of contemporary ballet, namely the arabesque, should be so called. As an art term, an arabesque is, after all, “a species of mural or surface decoration in colour or low relief, composed in flowing lines of branches, leaves, and scroll-work fancifully intertwined,” to give the OED definition (fig. 1). Morphologically, the term consists of the root arab- ‘Arab’ + the suffix -esque (the same found in picturesque, for example). Such an etymology is understandable, since traditional Arabian and Moorish art made great use of arabesques.

The modern sense of the dance term was already well established in the Russian school by the 1930s. As Vaganova ([1934] 1969: 56) writes, “if in attitude the leg is bent or half-bent, in arabesque it must always be fully extended” (fig. 2). Current usage is almost certainly due to the pervasive influence of the Russian school in the twentieth century, for the modern definition does not appear to predate the twentieth century.

Figure 2. First and second arabesques (Vaganova [1934] 1969: 56).

And so, how did such a term, one denoting fanciful “intertwining” or “flowing” – i.e., curvilinear – lines of foliage, come to refer to a straight-legged pose? In order to understand this peculiar development, it will be helpful to work our way backwards through the historical sources.


The Nineteenth-Century Arabesque

Figure 2. Left: opposition; right: false opposition.

The term as defined in the nineteenth-century sources has a rather vague denotation, and varying, even conflicting, definitions are given, but the general sense for most of the century was a pose that was seen as being in some way “imbalanced.” That is to say, the pose showed a more fanciful arrangement of the arms or false opposition, or alternatively a lengthening of the upper body and the limbs, such that the dancer could even seem to be off his center. (By opposition is meant an arrangement of the arms wherein the arm opposite to the forward leg is bent, while the other is extended to the side; and so in false opposition, the bent arm and the forward leg are both on the same side of the body (fig. 2).)

Consider, for example, the rather vague definition given by Desrat (1895: 20-21):

In dance, this word suggests one or several poses of the body, poses which can be varied ad infinitum like attitudes. One hand or one leg when slightly displaced changes the meaning and the name of an arabesque. Choreographically speaking, the arabesque is done by supporting the body over one leg bent or straight and keeping the other horizontal. The placement of the legs depends upon what the arms express. Arabesques serve mainly to betray jealousy, anger, scorn, disdain, as well as joy and pride. Arabesques are executed in an upright, inclined, or diagonal manner.

Emmanuel (1895: 106-7) gives the following:

A derivative of the attitude, the arabesque is a combination of special positions of the legs, body, and arms, noticeably different from those given before [i.e., attitudes]. The arabesque is characterized by a lengthening of the torso and limbs, which are in keeping with the same very open arc, and by the shape of the balance. The body of the dancer is supported, as in the attitude, on only one leg, and it tips over; the leg off the floor is raised and is slightly rounded in order to continue the curve of the torso.

According to Emmanuel then, the gesture leg is not perfectly straight but “slightly rounded,” in order to “continue the curve of the torso,” as the latter “tips over” (fig. 3), although Desrat notes that the arabesque could also be done “in a upright” manner.

Figure 3. Grande Arabesque by Edgar Degas, c.1885-90, posthumous cast.

For Adice (1868?: 10), however, the arabesque was defined more by the disposition of the arms. He outlines five arabesque arm poses (fig. 4), which could be combined with different basic positions of the head, torso, and legs. (His first arabesque position is also shown in fig. 3.)

Figure 4. The five arabesque positions (Adice 1868: 10)

But in agreement with Emmanuel above, Adice also shows a slightly rounded gesture leg with reduced turnout:

Examples of arabesques in Adice.

Like Adice, writers from the earlier part of the nineteenth century seem to have defined the arabesque more in terms of the placement of the arms. Théleur (1831: 50), for example, writes that

there are likewise, attitudes made with the same arm and foot, and sometimes with both arms, but all partaking of the foregoing principles, *[Théleur’s footnote: “*In this class I include all attitudes that are made to prepare for the purpose of taking pirouettes, &c.; it does not follow that the arm should be high to form an attitude.”] these are called les attitudes arabesques and require judgment and taste in their execution.

Théleur waywardly imagined that arabesque attitudes were ultimately derived from Spanish dance. (It should be borne in mind here that in early ballet, the term attitude meant broadly and vaguely any kind of pose, not necessarily one wherein the knee of the gesture leg is bent, as in current usage.)

I have not succeeded in discovering the authentic origin of the arabesques attitudes, but am inclined to think that we borrow them from the Spaniards, who for the most part do their steps with the same arm and foot. They, I conjecture, copied them from the Moors, who, in the eleventh century infested their country: this leads me to suppose that they derive their origin from the Arabians, and are thence called arabesques.

And finally, Blasis (1820: 63) notes in particular that “in arabesques the position of the arms departs from the common rule [of opposition], and the dancer ought to know how to place them as gracefully as possible.” Those poses identified as arabesques in his treatise (fig. 5) clearly point to fanciful arm arrangements, wherein a sense of opposition is absent, but clearly, the shape of the gesture leg was immaterial to the concept. (Adice’s second and third arabesque positions (fig. 4) are also apparent in some of these.) But Blasis adds elsewhere (p. 56) that “in arabesques, the body departs from the perpendicular and is to incline with pleasing abandon,” and indeed, some of his illustrations of arabesques do show inclinations. But it is nonetheless clear that the term was more open-ended than this.

Figure 5. Various poses explicitly identified as arabesques in Blasis (1820). Top row: pl. VII/4; pl. X/1-4; pl. XI/1-2; bottom row: pl. XI/3-4; pl. XII/1-3.

Thus, the general trend throughout the nineteenth century was apparently for the term arabesque to refer less and less to mainly a fanciful disposition of the arms in a pose and more and more to a lengthened placement of the torso and limbs.

Figure 6. “Fig. 160 fourth arabesque open; fig. 161 fourth arabesque crossed; fig. 162 fifth arabesque open; fig. 163 fifth arabesque crossed” (Cecchetti 1995: 99).

Still in the first part of the twentieth century, the arabesque was associated in some quarters with a certain “lengthening” and seeming “imbalance.” According to Grazioso Cecchetti (1892-1965), the son of the famed teacher Enrico, arabesques “are outside all the rules and laws that control the movements and positions in dance and, above all, the basic principle of balance, for they move away from the perpendicular line of the center of gravity, finding their balance only in the virtuosity of the dancer” (1995: 96). And some of Grazioso’s sketches of his fourth and fifth arabesques show both legs bent (fig. 6). (The two top examples in figure 6 show Adice’s second and first arabesque positions (fig. 4).) But in the Russian school, the “lengthening” was taken to its logical extreme of a fully stretched leg at all times.

The equation of the term arabesque, however, with a pose made in someway “bizarre” or exaggerated or off-kilter was already present at the very beginning of the nineteenth century. Noverre (1804: 4/49-50) speaks of

indecently exaggerated attitudes stolen from them [i.e., from painters]. This new sort is called arabesque. Clearly it is lost on dancers that the arabesque genre is too fantastic and too bizarre to serve as a model for their art. Painters fancy that the arabesque owes its origin to a frenzied state. They look upon it as a foundling of the art.

But the context here suggests that Noverre may have been using the term vaguely to mean simply ‘grotesqueries.’

To give some context, below is a reconstruction of an arabesque from Giselle, based on Justamant’s rough sketch and minimal description from c1860s, in light of the foregoing:


An Early Semantic Change

But even the nineteenth-century meaning of the term arabesque, however imprecisely defined, does not appear to have been original. Blasis (1831: 74-75) writes that arabesques “we have derived from antique relievos, from a few fragments of Greek paintings, and from the paintings in fresco at the Vatican, executed after the beautiful designs of Raphael.” But a careful and systematic consideration of early-ballet iconography shows that dance poses generally were commonly taken or adapted from the visual arts, either from ancient or more contemporaneous works. And these were used not only by dancers but also by playhouse actors (Fairfax 2003: 172-81). And so, an origin in the visual arts cannot be a defining feature of the early arabesque. But Blasis also writes thus of the word:

Our dancing-masters have also introduced this term into their art, as expressive of the picturesque groups which they have formed of male and female dancers, interlaced in a thousand different manners, one with another, by means of garlands, crowns, hoops entwined with flowers, and sometimes ancient pastoral instruments, which they hold in their hands. These attitudes, so diversified and enchanting, remind us of the beautiful Bacchantes that we see on antique basso relievos, and by their aerial lightness, their variety, their liveliness, and the numberless contrasts they successively present, have, in a manner, rendered the word arabesque natural and proper to the art of dancing.

The descriptor “picturesque groups . . . interlaced . . . by means of garlands, crowns, hoops” seems to point to the origin of the term. In other words, the arabesque attitude appears to have been originally a pose – or poses making up a grouping – wherein arabesques in the commonly received sense of the word (i.e., intertwining or flowing curvilinear lines of foliage) were created through the use of flowery props held by one dancer or more (fig. 7). Compare also Hentschke’s description (1836: 189):

Arabesques are the plastic attitudes modeled on ancient bas-reliefs or the arabica ornamenta, i.e., ornaments composed of plants, flowers, and human forms on the frieze of an entablature, and the like, which are said to stem from the Arabs or Moors and bear a resemblance to the metamorphoses of the Greek myths. The imitation of such forms are called arabesques and are the most difficult attitudes because of the way in which one balances in them.


Figure 7. A caricature of a garland grouping by Gillray, 1790s.

Already by the 1790s, arabesque could be used to denote a kind of pose. In his printed scenario for the Bordeaux revival of the ballet Télémaque (1797), Dauberval notes that “you cannot pay too much attention to the elegance of the groupings, to ‘arabesques’ and voluptuous poses” (trans. in Guest 1996: 404). It is impossible to say what Dauberval precisely meant by the term, but the context suggests he understood thereby a kind of pose or grouping. And it is clear from Gardel’s scenario for his ballet La dansomanie of 1800 that the term at the time of his writing no longer referred specifically to the presence of flowery props. According to Gardel’s synopsis, the dancing master Flicflac, who has come to the home of Duléger to give him a lesson, demonstrates

the new double, triple and quadruple temps de cuisse, steps in which the legs are thrown forward one after the other, pirouettes on the cou de pied, waltzes, arabesques, and finally all those steps that make our social dances look ridiculous and all too often disfigure the dancing in our theatres. (Trans. in Guest 2002: 83)

It would be odd for a visiting dancing master to show up equipped with garlands, and so the arabesques here must refer simply to kinds of poses.

Given the dearth of material, it cannot be established when such a semantic change took place – i.e., a shift from a pose employing a garland to a pose seen vaguely as “imbalanced” or in some way whimsical – but the sources above suggest that the shift predates 1800. And while Adice’s arabesque positions (fig. 4) can be found in the eighteenth-century iconography – figure 8 shows versions of Adice’s first and second positions, for example – it is unlikely, in light of the foregoing, that even in very late eighteenth-century usage the term referred only to these five, as Adice would have it.

Figure 8. Left: Scaramouche in a pose, with the arms in the forebear of Adice’s first arabesque position (Lambranzi 1716: 2/27); middle: Scaramouche in a pose as a “fine statue,” with the arms in the forebear of Adice’s second arabesque position (Lambranzi 1716: 2/24); right: a late seventeenth-century or early eighteenth-century dancer in a pose, with the arms in the forebear of Adice’s second arabesque position.


The Eighteenth-Century Garland Pose

It is unknown when arabesque began to be used as a dance term, but certainly it was established already by the 1790s, as noted just above. It is clear, however, that arabesque attitudes in apparently the original sense, that is, poses of any sort making conspicuous use of garlands (flexible flowery festoons), wreathes, and possibly more rigid hoops, or a combination of these, were not a novelty in the eighteenth century (fig. 9, right); indeed, they are depicted already in the seventeenth-century iconography (fig. 9, left and middle).

Figure 9. Left: a triton from Thésée (1675); middle: a “woman dancer at the Opéra, dressed as Flora, the goddess of spring,” late seventeenth or early eighteenth century; right: a “Zephyr,” c1760s.

Whether these were actually called les (attitudes) arabesques in the seventeenth century or first part of the eighteenth is impossible to say, but such poses and groupings were clearly not uncommon. Indeed, they were an essential element of garland dances, and there are several references to such dances. In the prologue to Lully’s Atys (1676), for example, “the goddess Flora, led by one of the Zephyrs, comes forth with a troupe of nymphs bearing sundry ornaments of flowers (fig. 9, middle). In a review of Les fêtes de Polymnies as mounted at the Paris Opéra in 1745, we read that

Hymen appears followed by Games and Pleasures, who carry garlands of flowers. It is hard to describe the arrangement of this dance. While Hymen dances between Hébé and Alcide, around each of the lovers are formed two rings of garlands held by Games and Pleasures. Hymen holds in one and the same hand one of the garlands from each ring. (Mercure de France Oct. 1745: 142-43)

Figure 10. Philippe Taglioni as a satyr “binding” Aglaé (c1827).

A dance in Les hommes as performed at the Comédie-française in 1753 ended thus: “The men are instructed by the cupids to place themselves at the women’s knees, who bind them with garlands” (Mercure de France Aug. 1753: 182). And a dance in Les femmes, mounted at the Comédie-italienne in the same year, showed genies danced about by a group of women covered with foliage, who “bind them [i.e., the genies] with garlands of flowers” (Mercure de France Oct. 1753: 175). Cf. figure 10.

A dance included in a performance of Castor et Pollux at the Paris Opéra in 1754 again conspicuously included attitudes and garlands: “The women of the corps d’entrée present themselves to him [i.e., Pollux] in attitudes all grouped together well, with their arms interlaced with their garlands” (Mercure de France Feb. 1754: 189); cf. figure 7. In a performance of Noverre’s ballet La fontaine de jouvence in 1754, the shepherds at one point “begin their dances with their garlands only” (Mercure de France Nov. 1754: 176). According to La Ferté (13 Sept. 1788), the pas de deux inserted into the Paris Opéra’s production of Le devin du village in 1788 featuring the young Charles Didelot and Guimard “was made up of interweavings of garlands and crowns, attitudes and movement with which we are already familiar” (trans. in Guest 1996: 279). Such garland dances were long-lived and continued to be performed throughout the nineteenth century as well (figs. 11-13).

Figure 11. A garland grouping (Théleur 1831: pl. 48a).

Figure 12. A grouping with garlands (Théleur 1831: pl. 48b).

Figure 13. A tableau with garlands and hoops (Zorn [1887] 1905: 96.


Figure 16. “Pantomime dancer in the ballets of the Opéra doing the Spanish peasant dance,” second half of the eighteenth century.

If in the eighteenth century the term arabesque did not refer to a straight-legged pose as in contemporary ballet, how did one then refer to such a position? Apparently, no unique term was used. The strict opposition between attitude and arabesque of ballet today reflects a more recent “balleticization” of poses, wherein the freedom in form typical of early ballet has been severely limited, and even the turnout of the legs, which originally and properly belonged to pure dance movements, has been imposed. In contrast, the poses of early ballet were not “dance” but moments of “non-dance,” so to speak, and were commonly taken from the visual arts of painting and sculpture, hence the common absence of turnout, the frequent presence of unstraight legs and unpointed feet bent to varying degrees and lifted to a great variety of heights, and the appearance of fanciful arm arrangements that are so conspicuous in the early-ballet iconography. Poses were clearly meant to provide contrast to the movements of pure dance and allow for the plastic expression of the passions. Such an open-ended motley collection of shapes does not lend itself well to a neat distinction between a bent-legged pose and a straight-legged pose, and so there was little need to make such a distinction. (For further discussion of eighteenth-century dance poses, see Fairfax (2003: 172-81).)


The foregoing is a somewhat reduced presentation of material from my scholarly study in progress entitled The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. For a general discussion of the stylistic conventions of early ballet, see The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet.



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