The Eighteenth-Century Dance Mask

The Eighteenth-Century Dance Mask


In our day, dance costume has become almost something of a contradiction in terms: Especially in more contemporary pieces, costume is often seen as a necessary evil, to be kept as simple and minimal as possible, so as not to hinder the dancer in any way. In fact, performances with partial or even full nudity are not unheard of, especially in contemporary dance (fig. 1). Even in more traditional works, such as the Tchaikovsky ballets, costume still tends to be rather basic: Men’s garb amounts to little more than tights and tunic, and women’s garb typically consists of tights, tutu, and bodice. Variety here is largely created through embellishment rather than through novelty of cut. For better or for worse, costume played a more conspicuous role in ballet’s early history. And one sartorial practice apt to strike the modern spectator as rather strange was the wearing of masks by dancers in the eighteenth century.

Figure 1. Tableau from the Sydney Dance Company’s Nude Live (2017).


Practice at the Paris Opéra

According to Despréaux (1806: 2/273), who had been a danseur at the Paris Opéra from 1763-1781, dancers at that theater regularly wore masks in performance, a longstanding practice that was established already in the seventeenth century (fig. 2):

All of the ballets at the court of Louis XIV were performed with masks. There were masks according to the kinds of dance: serious or noble ones, galant [i.e., half-serious] ones, comic ones, and so forth. This practice was maintained at the Opéra for more than a century.

Despréaux clearly indicates that this was the norm in all three of the stylistic divisions of dance cultivated at the Paris Opéra. (By convention, the technique of eighteenth-century ballet was divided into four separate styles: the serious, half-serious, the comic, and the grotesque, the latter two often lumped together as one, even though distinct (Fairfax 2003: 81-188).)

Figure 2. Late seventeenth- or early eighteenth-century masked dancer in a small pose.

There are a number of further references to the wearing of a mask by dancers in the serious style in particular (a slow terre-à-terre style). Casanova, in his description of a performance by Louis Dupré at the Opéra in 1750, for example, mentions that the famed serious dancer appeared “with his face covered with a mask (that goes without saying)” (1961: 2/140-41). And in regard to serious dancers at the Opéra generally, Laus de Boissy (1771?: 18) writes that “as these persons have nothing to express, their countenances being useless, great care has been taken to cover the face with a mask of illuminated plaster.”

Such a convention reflects the taste of the French, and especially that of the more highbrow audience at the Paris Opéra, which preferred a more abstract form of dance throughout much of the period. It mattered little then what expression the face might have (Fairfax 2003: 204-9).



Photographs of a few surviving masks and their wooden moulds (kept at the Musée de l’Opéra, Paris) are reproduced in Beaumont’s translation of Noverre’s Lettres (1966: 78b, 82b, 86b), shown in figure 3. Beaumont’s captions indicate that these examples are made of leather, evidently cuir bouilli. Other materials, however, were apparently used as well. Laus de Boissy (1771?: 18) speaks of a “mask of illuminated plaster,” and Noverre (1760: 199) also mentions “plaster ill designed and illuminated in the most disagreeable manner.” Noverre (1760: 196) also describes the dance mask as “a piece of cardboard,” while Castil-Blaze (1832: 171) refers to it as a “canvas or cardboard face.” By “cardboard” is presumably meant papier mâché, and by (illuminated) “plaster” stiffened canvas coated with gesso, or the like, and painted.

Figure 3. Examples of eighteenth-century leather masks with their moulds beside.


Reasons for Wearing a Mask

There appear to have been more than one reason for this practice of wearing masks. A mask can help define a character – especially a fanciful one like the Fury, for example – more easily than a living youthful face, say, especially if its owner lacks acting ability. A desire to imitate the practice in theaters of antiquity may have also played a part. A further more practical reason is alluded to in Noverre (1760: 217, 221): “Several people assume that masks have two purposes: first, to create uniformity: and second, to hide the twitches and grimaces produced in the efforts expended in a painful exercise,” for “the twitches, contortions, and grimaces are less the result of habit than of the violent efforts made in order to jump.” And finally, the mask prevented the spectator’s eye from being distracted by the dancer’s face, allowing the viewer to focus on the movement and line of the whole body. Indeed, the mask may have helped less handsome dancers fare better in vying for the public’s favor. (See the quotation below in connection with the 1750 revival of Campra’s Les fêtes vénitiennes.)


Abandonment of the Mask at the Paris Opéra

The practice of wearing masks was eventually abandoned, and the abandonment seems to have had a few fitful starts before setting in in earnest. One early instance of unmasked dancing, apparently an isolated case, occurred in the 1750 revival of Campra’s Les fêtes vénitiennes, wherein, according to Grimm (1877: 1/439 = 22 June 1750), “our two best dancers after Dupré, Lyonnois and [Gaétan] Vestris, each danced for a moment with the face uncovered. The former inspired pity, but the latter aroused admiration, particularly among our ladies, in too marked a manner.”

Figure 4. Maximilien Gardel (1741-1787).

Maximilien Gardel (fig. 4), however, is credited with ultimately bringing about the permanent abandonment of the mask at the Paris Opéra through his precedent. Despréaux (1806: 2/273) writes that

it was Gardel the elder who was the first to dance with his face uncovered, in 1766. This novelty displeased the greater part of the audience, but people became used to it, such that two years later, when Gaétan Vestris was prevailed upon by the leading seigneurs de la cour to take up the mask again, the public found it as ridiculous to see someone dance masked as they had found it odd two years before to see someone dance with the face uncovered.

In light of the remarks cited above from Laus de Boissy and Bachaumont from 1770-71, which suggest that wearing a mask was still the norm at their time of writing, Despréaux seems to have misremembered and given the wrong date. (Dates elsewhere in his work also tend to be incorrect.) He perhaps confused here the 1765 revival of Rameau’s Castor et Pollux with that of 1772. Castil-Blaze (1832: 207-8), who received some of the information for his book from the aged Pierre Gardel, Maximilien’s much younger brother, dates the trendsetting precedent in fact to 1772, which harmonizes better with Laus de Boissy and Bachaumont:

On the 21st of January 1772, Castor et Pollux was to be performed, one of Rameau’s operas, beloved by connoisseurs, who had been deprived of it for some time. Gaétan Vestris was to dance the entrée of Apollo in the fifth act; he was to represent the blonde Phoebus with an enormous black wig, a mask, and on his chest, a large beaming sun of gilded copper [wire, i.e., gold embroidery]. I do not know what prevented G. Vestris from performing his role that day, but M. Gardel was called upon to replace him. He agreed to do so, on the condition that he be allowed to appear with his own long naturally blonde hair, without a mask, and without the encumbrance of the ridiculous attributes wherein Apollo would be decked out. This fortunate innovation was welcomed by the public, and after that, the principal dancers gave up the mask.

Despréaux may have in fact confused two different instances of unmasked dancing in connection with the same opera. In the Opéra’s 1765 production of Castor et Pollux, Marie Allard clearly danced without a mask in her role as a Fury. According to a review in the Mercure de France (Apr. 1765: 1/183), she “became a veritable Fury through the fieriness of her steps, the amazing fluidity of her attitudes and the energy of her pantomimic acting, right down to the features of her face.” This was apparently another isolated instance, like that of 1750, for as will be seen below, the mask was retained for the Furies for some time after 1773.

In agreement with Despréaux, Castil-Blaze (1832: 172) writes that the mask made a brief comeback but then was dropped again among soloists generally. The two sources differ only in the time frame: Castil-Blaze gives one year later (1773), while Despréaux, likely mistaken, gives two years later (1768). (The latter source also attributes this reintroduction to Gaétan Vestris.)

The women understood their interests too well to submit to a ridiculous masquerade; they danced with uncovered faces and appeared alongside masked men. This was no less an absurdity. The numerous partisans of the old costume got the upper hand; the mask reappeared and once again came to cover the features of the dancers at the Opéra, especially the figurants [i.e., the male dancers]. But this restoration did not last long: In 1773, one year later, masks were dropped, never to reappear.

But even this second abandonment was apparently not complete. According to Castil-Blaze again (1832: 208-9), the mask

was kept, however, for some years thereafter for the choristes dansants [i.e., the corps]; for the Shades, as their completely white mask seemed perfectly suited to the characters represented; for the Winds; and for the Furies. In 1785 [i.e., 1787], the Winds still figured in the prologue of [the opera] Tartare with their puffed-out masks, but they no longer bore bellows in hand as formerly.

Figure 5. Detail of a portrait of Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810) by Jean-Baptiste Perronneau.

Noverre (fig. 5), who was strongly opposed to the use of masks, was appointed maître et compositeur des ballets at the Opéra in 1776 and must have also played an important part in ensuring that the mask experienced no comeback. Indeed, in a memorandum to La Ferté dated 1781 (Arch. Nat., O¹ 622 (329)), Noverre puts himself forward as the one at the Opéra who was instrumental in effecting “the permanent abolition of those ridiculous wigs and those even more ridiculous masks” (trans. in Guest 1996: 157).


Practices Outside the Paris Opéra

The foregoing remarks touch upon the practices specifically at the Paris Opéra. It appears that theaters in France broadly followed suit as well, but in Italy, masks were generally not worn by dancers, according to the Italian Giovanni Gallini (1762: 110):

The looks of the dancer are far from insignificant to the character he is representing. Their expression should be strictly conformable to his subject. The eye especially should speak. Thence it is that the Italian custom of dancing with uncovered faces, cannot but be more advantageous than that of dancing masked, as is commonly done in France; when the passions can never be so well represented as by the changes of expression, which the dancer should throw into his countenance.

Reviews of dance performances confirm Gallini’s generalization. In their comic pantomimic dance at Drury Lane in 1741, for example, the Italian dancers signor and signora Fausan (i.e., Fossano or Antonio Rinaldi together with his wife) showed “Variations of the Countenances,” which clearly point to unmasked faces (Gentleman’s Magazine Jan. 1741: 29). The Italian practice was doubtless owing in large measure to the fact that Italian audiences on the whole much preferred the comic and grotesque, styles wherein pantomime was an essential element (Fairfax 2003: 204-9). And so Italian performers would have needed to use their face as much as any other body part to express the passions in their comedy.

The practices followed in other countries are more difficult to discern and may have been more variable. Suffice it to mention merely the following here. Angiolini (1773: 9, 13, 12) writes that in bringing the serious style to Vienna in the 1730s, the Austrian dancer and choreographer Franz Hilverding (1710-1768) did in fact faithfully imitate French practice at first: “With a mask on his face, a great black wig and helmet on his head, and a tonnelet [i.e., a kind of male tutu], he danced the genre of ballet . . . called – “I know not why,” as Addison says – serious dance.” But after 1742, as part of his ballet reform, “the aforesaid cold serious style also took on a new appearance under him.” And more generally “at this same time, he reformed the silly masks and the quirky costumes that meant nothing. But without abandoning them altogether, he made use of them with intelligence for fantastical characters, in order to come ever closer to the simple and true.”


Masks in Commedia dell’Arte Roles

A number of commedia dell’arte roles, such as Harlequin (fig. 6) and Pulcinella, for example, absolutely required that a suitable mask be worn as part of the correct costume (Pasch 1707: 60-1), and so a mask would have been the norm everywhere with these roles, even in Italy. Indeed, failure to wear a mask in this context was apt to elicit comment. In 1726, for example, a performance of Les dieux Pierrots at the Haymarket was announced, “in which Monsieur [Philippe?] Lalause the Arlequin will perform without a Mask,” according to an extant playbill (cited in Highfill 1984: 9/122).


Maskless Dancing in Pantomime Ballet

Figure 6. Detail of a masked dancer as Harlequin in a small pose (Lambranzi 1716: 2/30).

Masks do not seem to have been generally worn in pantomime ballets throughout the period, unless there appeared in them a character normally requiring a mask, such as certain commedia dell’arte roles. John Weaver (1717: 23), one of the early proponents of this genre, gives some examples of the kind of pantomimic gesture he used in his ballet The Loves of Mars and Venus:Contempt is express’d by scornful Smiles; forbidding Looks,” among other gestures. Clearly such facial expressions would have been pointless if covered by a mask. Hilverding’s pantomime ballet Psyché et l’Amour also clearly included a dancer performing maskless. At one point,

the stage grows dark, and Psyche alights from her chariot, which leaves at once. Her face, her attitudes, her steps, everything, show her surprise, wonder and successively her impatience to find Cupid. He comes, she cannot see him, but her heart tells her that he is near. She searches for him. This pas de deux is most expressive. Every time that Psyche thinks she touches him, one can see that joy in feeling, that sweet voluptuousness in her face. When Cupid eludes her, sadness and despondency make her fine eyes grow dull. The movements of her heart are painted there. Weary, Cupid throws himself down on a bed of grass and falls asleep (Journal encyclopédique 1 Jan. 1756: 76-77)

One of the most influential creators of pantomime ballet in the second half of the century, namely Noverre, damned the use of the mask altogether. In his Lettres (1760: 260), he exhorts, “let us destroy the masks and uncover the soul.” Indeed, Angiolini (1765) writes that

in regard to the high dance of the likes of Dupré, [Gaétan] Vestris, and their precursors [i.e., dance in the serious style], such as it was before Monsieur Noverre appeared (who has turned this latter style in the direction of expression) . . . all expression, however, had been banished from it in the past by covering up with a mask the face of the dancer.

When in 1770 Gaétan Vestris mounted his own version of Noverre’s pantomime ballet Médée et Jason at the Paris Opéra, after having worked with Noverre in Stuttgart in the 1760s, Vestris himself appeared “without a mask, and astonished the public by the energy of his performance, not merely as a dancer, but as an actor as well” (Bachaumont 1783: 19/289 = 12 Dec. 1770).

The genre of pantomime ballet grew in popularity as the century progressed, and it seems most likely that the practice of dancing maskless in this kind of work exerted a powerful influence on dance practices generally and may well have greatly contributed to the demise of the dance mask.



The foregoing material is drawn from a chapter on dance costume to appear in my study The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet (in progress).



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