When Ballet Laughed: Comic-Grotesque Steps of Early Ballet

When Ballet Laughed:

Comic-Grotesque Steps of Early Ballet

Contrary to received opinion, the history of ballet has been one of loss, not one of enrichment. Positions, movements, steps, and even the cultivation of idiosyncratic manners of execution have fallen by the wayside, resulting in the current highly “streamlined” form of contemporary classical ballet. Of the nearly twenty different positions of the feet used in eighteenth-century ballet, for example, only five are now recognized, and of these only three are regularly used – third position lives on really only as a theoretical possibility, and first is seldom employed. Furthermore, this “streamlining” has manifested itself not only in the choice of body type – there really is only one type admissible now – but also even in the general character of ballets: Few choreographic works are created now in a low comic or farcical style, and when such are undertaken, the contemporary technique offers little that can be seen as distinctively comic. This is in marked contrast to early ballet, by which I mean that of the eighteenth century, wherein there was stylistic variety in the technique. To give some sense of this lost heritage, I present here a handful of “steps” that were employed in the early comic and/or grotesque styles (two of the four conventional genres – beside the serious and half-serious – cultivated before the nineteenth century).


Saut de Pendu

This jump is described by Magri (1779: 1/134-35), who had been a professional dancer in the grotesque style from the late 1750s until the early 1770s:

The saut de pendu, or the ‘hanged man’s jump,’ is used in the role of Pulcinella, or the Drunkard, or any other clumsy character; or sometimes it is done just to be queer, this being a difficult jump. It also begins with the feet parallel and with the knees together. Bend [fig. 1a], and in springing, straighten the body well, with the legs coupled. The arms, stretched, fall with the hands touching the thighs, with the head lost to one side [fig. 1b]. Then in landing, having reached the surface of the floor [i.e., as soon as the toe of the landing foot touches the floor], take one foot well out into the air as high as possible, landing obliquely on the other foot [fig. 1c]. The difficulty of this jump lies in the great height needed to catch the spectator’s eye; otherwise it will amount to nothing. He who lacks the ability to reach such height should on no account do this caper.

Figure 1. A reconstruction of Magri’s saut de pendu. It is to be understood that the dancer does not travel here.

This jump was still known in the middle of the nineteenth century. A somewhat different version is described by Roller (1843: 218-19):

Figure 2. A reconstruction of the attitude assumed at the height of the jump in Roller’s saut de pendu.

The Saut de Pendu. Take tempo [i.e., do a preparatory jump to gain momentum], and landing on the toes with the feet in first position, spring off and up. In doing so, stretch the right leg utterly stiff [i.e., straight] a little away to the right; stretch the right arm stiffly downwards with the hand towards the toe; take the right shoulder deep down likewise to the right; incline the head sideways to the right, following the right shoulder, with the right side of the body bending strongly inwards. Strongly bend the left knee and draw the sole to the height of the right knee; strongly bend the left arm so that the elbow forms a sharp angle, and the hand is drawn as high up the left side of the body as possible, with the left shoulder likewise thrust up high. Thus, on the right side everything is stretched and held downwards, while on the left side everything is bent to form rectangles and is drawn upwards, right up to the head, which must incline towards the limbs that are stretched downwards [fig. 2]. The land must give the tempo to spring up again, and then the contra is done on the left side. The body while in the air presents the figure of a hanged man, which is doubtless the reason why pendu figures in the name. When done well by a comic dancer, this spring always excites laughter.


Pirouette Basse

The pirouette basse (‘low pirouette‘) is a pirouette executed with the knee of the supporting leg well bent, and with the gesture leg held in one or other position. Lambranzi (1716: 3/37) illustrates one version of this turn (fig. 3), defined as a “zurlo basho” (evidently an engraver’s error for zurlo baßo, i.e., zurlo basso, Italian for ‘low turn’). The dancer’s arms are shown in a pose and his legs in disengaged Spanish second, i.e., held parallel. (The “pas piroles” in the following quotation is almost certainly a flawed attempt to give basses pirouettes, influenced by Italian pirola – cf. Magri’s pirola bassa – and showing the confusion of voiced and voiceless obstruents common in sources of German provenance during this period, thus “pas” for bas[ses].) “As this figure shows [fig. 3], pas piroles are done all the time; and one quickly springs up and then does these pas piroles again.”

Figure 3. The zurlo basso, or ‘low turn’ (Lambranzi 1716: 3/37).

Magri (1779: 1/89) sketches this kind of turn as well: “The low pirouette, which is also indeterminate and forced [i.e., done with as many revolutions as the dancer can execute], is done only by the grotesque ballerino, done by turning quickly on the toe of one foot with the knees bent.”  Presumably, the dancer in this version has the gesture foot sur le cou-de-pied, since “the knees [are] bent” (fig. 4).

Figure 4. A reconstruction of Magri’s pirouette basse (en dehors): the descent from the preparatory jump (left); the position wherein the dancer turns (right).

A low turn is also described by Roller (1843: 210-11):

Pirouette en bas sur la terre. The tempo [i.e., preparation] for this is taken as in number 140 [i.e., with a small jump]; at the moment of swinging around, however, squat down as much as possible on the left foot, on which the turn is done – accomplished dancers sit right on the heel [as shown by Lambranzi in fig. 3]. The right leg must hover stretched straight out to the side in a horizontal line, and the arms are likewise extended away to both sides. Strength and practice are needed to keep the body perpendicular here and to keep the extended leg sweeping around freely in a horizontal line over the ground so that it does not sink to the floor. Contra to go around to the right.


Figure 5. A reconstruction of Roller’s low pirouette.

Both Lambranzi and Roller imply that the usual preparation for low turns was a land from a jump, as shown in figures 4a and 5a. That is, the momentum to turn was partly created by the body’s descent (and, almost certainly, by an accompanying throw of the arm(s) and thrust of a shaded shoulder, which are described elsewhere in the sources and reconstructed in figures 4a and 5a).

Bent-kneed pirouettes, proper only to the comic and grotesque styles in the eighteenth century, became a not uncommon feature of the so-called Italian school of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (The comic and grotesque styles were extremely popular in eighteenth-century Italy, and many of the features of these old styles lived on in the single composite style of the nineteenth century, especially as cultivated in Italy (Fairfax 2003: 243-55).) Nicolaeva-Legat (1947: 119), for example, writes that “in the Italian school, pirouettes are often executed with bent knees to make more turns possible, thus commercialising much of the classical line for the sake of effect.” (These were apparently done with a more shallow bend of the knees, in contrast to the eighteenth-century versions.) This kind of turn has almost completely died out of the corpus of contemporary classical ballet; it is still, however, occasionally seen in dances belonging mainly to the Bournonville tradition.


Cabriole à l’Espagnole

This “caper in the Spanish manner” (fig. 6) is described by Ferriol (1745: 1/128), thus:

The Caper of Little Wings [Cabriola de Aletas]. This begins in [Spanish?] second position; doing a jump, and without crossing [the feet], shake the legs [past each other] in the air (with the toes of the feet a little downwards) as many times as possible, landing in the same position.
All of the aforesaid capers can be done tilting the body while in the air and landing straight, but one must first learn them without tilting.

Figure 6. A reconstruction of the cabriole à l’espagnole. The land on the floor is not shown. It is understood that the dancer does not travel here.

Magri (1779: 1/120-21) also describes the step:

The cuts of the cabrioles à l’espagnole [capriole alla spagnola] are also marked in two movements. They begin with the feet parallel, that is, in a Spanish position. Place the right foot behind the left, for example, in Spanish second and count the first cut in taking the right to Spanish first, the second in taking the right to Spanish second in front, the third in taking it back to first for a second time, the fourth to second behind, that is, Spanish second, and carry on in this manner, counting all the cuts. . . .
The interweaving in these capers is done more closely together, unlike those in the French and Italian manners, wherein the wider the interweaving, the more brilliant they appear, but in these, too great a widening and disengaging lessens their worth.

While Ferriol seems to prescribe mainly a flexed foot (“with the toes of the feet a little downwards”), Magri, however, implies a pointed foot, as pointing the feet is the only way to keep the passes “closely together” without confounding Spanish fifth and Spanish second positions.

Magri also notes that the cabriole à l’espagnole could begin and end in a variety of ways. They “can begin with both feet on the floor and end likewise, or with one foot off the floor, beginning thus but ending with both on the floor or with the same foot off the floor as at the beginning, or changing on the floor the one off the floor and the one on the floor.” A variant wherein the dancer lands on only one foot at the end is shown in notation in figure 7. Here the executant beats in and out of Spanish third (rather than Magri’s Spanish second) and ends with one foot raised off the floor, and with the legs turned out again.

Figure 7. A “cabriole italienne” (‘Italian caper’) in notation (Lange 1763: tab. 24). The off-the-floor sign is missing from the penultimate left foot symbol (dd), and the bend sign is missing from the first right foot symbol (ee). The dancer beats in and out of Spanish third, rather than Magri’s Spanish second, and ends with the left foot raised off the floor, and with the legs turned out again.

The cabriole à l’espagnole was a direct continuation of an earlier caper, described thus by Caroso (1581: 12v) towards the end of the sixteenth century:

You can learn the triple capriola easily by resting your hands on a chair or on two trestles. With the left foot ahead of the right such that the heel of the left meets the toe of the right [with both feet held more or less parallel], raise yourself then by the strength of your arms, which are to be well stretched like the legs; first pass the right [in front] and then the left, and thus you pass the feet three times as fast as you can, with the left behind at the end, landing lightly on the toes of the feet.

Cabriole à la Turque

According to Magri (1779: 1/133), the cabriole à la turque (‘caper in the Turkish manner’) was done as follows:

It is evident from the name of these Turkish capers [capriole alla turca] that they are meant to be used in [comic] Turkish roles. They are done [with the legs] drawn up under the body, but instead of beating as usual or interweaving, the soles of the feet beat together, and this beat can be done two or at most three times. They are likewise done to the side, with the body oblique in the air, as usual; in these, you land on one foot.

This same jump is described by Roller (1843: 219-20) under the name of the ranicellione battuto:

The foregoing jump in 163 [the ranicellione (see below)] is fully done, but once the legs have been flung apart, as in the spaccata [i.e., the splits], the soles of the feet quickly beat together. The land here is done in second position, for first cannot then be reached on account of the rebound of the soles.

The ranicellione mentioned above is done thus:

Take tempo in first position [i.e., do a preparatory jump coming down into a plié to gain momentum]. Spring up strongly and in doing so draw the feet up towards the body as high as possible. But as soon as [their maximum] height is reached, they are quickly thrown apart to both sides as in the spaccata [i.e., the splits]. You must land again in first position.

This “Turkish” manner of beating was most likely inspired by a form of Ottoman corporal punishment or torture, to wit, the falaka, or bastinado, wherein the soles of the victim’s bare feet were whipped or caned. The dance convention then almost certainly derives from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century satiric topos of the “cruel Turk,” sadistically keen to beat soles, vel sim. Cf. the character of Osmin in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, for example, or the “dara bastonara” bit from the Turkish ceremony in Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme.


Pas de Polichinelle

Figure 9. The pas de polichinelle (Lambranzi 1716: 1/40).

The pas de Polichinelle (‘Pulcinella step’) is simply a version of the pas marché used in the grotesque role of Pulcinella, who was “droll by being the reverse of all elegance” (Hogarth 1753: 149). Here the dancer performs the walking step with his feet well turned in, and with his knees bent and just off the floor. An illustration of the step is found in Lambranzi (1716: 1/3; 2/40) with the following caption: “This figure [fig. 9] comes out, as shown above, and after he has danced around in a circle in his manner and done bent crippled steps [German caption: “peculiar crooked limping steps”], the dance ends to the satisfaction of all the spectators.” Magri (1779: 1/137) also apparently alludes to this step:

In the role of the French Pulcinella, who has two humps according to the way that nation dresses him, I have come down with the feet in Spanish fourth [sic, i.e., false second] with the knees together and bent, half a palm’s breadth off the floor, and in such a manner, I proceeded to walk about, ending the walk with a tour en l’air taken from this same position.

Saut Genou

The saut genou (‘knee jump’) is briefly sketched by Vieth (1794: 2/462), thus: “One grasps the left foot in the right hand and jumps over it with the right foot. Likewise contra [i.e., the same on the other side]. It is not as easy as one might think” (fig. 10).

Figure 10. A reconstruction of the saut genou. The land on the floor is not shown. It is to be understood that the dancer does not travel here.

The same jump is described in greater detail by Roller (1843: 222-23):

The Knee Jump. This jump is done on the spot with one foot [jumping] over the other and is quite different from the [other] saut genou (157). Starting position, on the right foot. The toe of the left foot is held in the right hand. The foot is held in such a way that the fingers lie across the toes; the thumb is set in the middle of the sole between the ball and the little toe. In this manner, the foot that is held raised athwart can be forced away to form a bow to one’s fore, thereby allowing more room to be made for the right foot, which is to jump over it now. Hop strongly on the right foot, quickly draw it up high, and jump thus over the right [sic, i.e., left] foot held in the right hand; at the same time, the right hand, however, does a quick movement backwards with the toe of the foot held in the hand in order to ease the jumping over, which otherwise could easily fail. The position is again on the right foot, but with the left (held in the right hand) behind it. The right foot now is to do the jump again back over the left, which is harder than springing over to the fore. A good hop on the right is needed now in order to draw up the foot high and quickly and take it back over the left, during which the right hand must move the left foot forwards. To stand on the left foot and spring over the right is the opposite.


The foregoing examples are but a very few of the distinctive elements of the old comic and grotesque styles, genres which died out in the first few decades of the nineteenth century, and which hint at ballet’s rich (but largely ignored, or grossly misunderstood) heritage.

The foregoing is based on material from my scholarly study in progress entitled The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet.

For further information on the eighteenth-century comic and grotesque styles, see the video below:



Caroso, Fabritio. 1581. Il ballarino. Venice: Francesco Ziletti.
Fairfax, Edmund. 2003. The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press.
Ferriol y Boxeraus, Bartholomè. 1745. Reglas utiles para los aficionados a danzar. 2 parts. Copoa: a costa de Joseph Testore.
Glushkovsky, Adam. [1851] 1940. Vospominiya Baletmeystera. Leningrad: Iskusstvo.
Hogarth, William. 1753. The Analysis of Beauty. London: printed by J. Reeves for the Author.
Lambranzi, Gregorio. 1716. Neue und curieuse theatralische Tantz-Schul. Nuremberg: Joh. Jacob Wolrab.
Lange, Carl Christoph. 1763. Choreographische Vorstellung der englischen und französischen Figuren in Kontretänzen nebst einem kurzen Auszug der französischen Kunst die Tänze aufzuzeichnen. Erlang and Leipzig: Johann Caspar Müller.
Magri, Gennaro. 1779. Trattato teorico-prattico di ballo. Naples: Vicenzo Orsino.
Nicolaeva-Legat, Nadine. 1947. Ballet Education. London: Geoffrey Bles.
Roller, Franz Anton. 1843. Systematisches Lehrbuch der bildenden Tanzkunst und körperlichen Ausbildung. Weimar: Bernh. Fr. Voigt.
Vieth, Gerhard Ulrich. 1793-94. Versuch einer Encyklopädie der Leibesübungen. 2 vols. Halle: Dreyssig.