The High Leg of Eighteenth-Century Ballet

The High Leg of Eighteenth-Century Ballet

Dance Magazine (7 Jan. 2019) recently ran an article called “The Story of How Ballet Legs Got Higher, and Higher, and Higher” (click here to read). The view presented there is informed by a kind of teleological evolutionism, such that the range of leg movement in the course of ballet’s history is seen as simply getting bigger and bigger. This is a completely mistaken notion: a careful examination of relevant primary sources reveals a much more complicated development. This blog-post then, which is based on my scholarly study in progress entitled The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet, is intended to debunk the myth and show some of the wayward changes in fashion, by focusing mainly on theory and practice in the eighteenth century.

 

Ballroom Versus Theatrical Dance

It is incontrovertible that eighteenth-century ballet employed a number of different leg heights, from the very low to the very high. This fact, however, has not been widely embraced in both scholarly and popular presentations wherein older ill-informed views have been uncritically accepted. Part of the problem here has been the unfounded assumption that the dance of the ballroom and that of the theater were more or less the same as far as technique goes.

While many movements were shared by both kinds of dance, it is quite clear, however, from both textual and pictorial sources that the execution of movements in the theater differed from that in the ballroom, or as Magri (1779: 1/137) puts it in his handbook for amateurs, “generally speaking, all these steps, being theatrical, are performed on stage differently, not as we have minutely shown.” One of the major ways in which the two differed was in the range of movement: that is, movements on stage were exaggerated, while those in the ballroom were contained. Mattheson (1739: 37), for example, writes broadly that

the art of gesture is as indispensable to the art of dance as the feet themselves. A composer who is poor at judging dances, whether they belong, say, to the choric [i.e., social] or hyporchematic [i.e., theatrical] styles – the difference lying more in the positions than in the steps, turns, or springs – will not do well at all here, for from his notes must stem comic or serious gestures.

Other sources clarify that by “positions” here was meant in part an expansive execution, with arms and legs held higher on stage than in the ballroom, and jumps reaching greater heights than on the ballroom floor. Rameau (1725: 70) writes in his ballroom handbook that “as I have undertaken, however, only to give instructions on how to do the different steps belonging to ballroom dancing [danses de ville], I am obliged not to go into these [theatrical] steps, which are executed in a grander way.” That danses de ville meant ‘ballroom dance’ is made clear by Essex’s translation of the phrase (1728: 40) as “Ball Dancing,” and by Ratier’s definition (1759?: 38) “the dance of the salon, or la danse de ville.

The professional dancer and choreographer John Weaver (1712: 162-63) also notes specifically that dance steps on stage differed in the performance, so much so that a theatrical execution would have been “rough and ridiculous” in a ballroom, that is, too exaggerated for so small a space:

SERIOUS Dancing, differs from the Common-Dancing [i.e., ballroom dance] usually taught in Schools, as History Painting differs from Limning. For as the Common-Dancing has a peculiar Softness, which would hardly be perceiveable on the Stage; so Stage-Dancing would have a rough and ridiculous Air in a Room, when on the Stage it would appear soft, tender and delightful. And altho’ the Steps of both are generally the same, yet they differ in the Performance: Notwithstanding there are some Steps peculiarly adapted to this Sort of Dancing, viz. Capers [i.e., cabrioles], and Cross-Capers [i.e., entrechats] of all kinds; Pirou[e]ttes, Batteries [i.e., battements], and indeed almost all Steps from the Ground [i.e., jumps].

The Spectator (25 Aug. 1712) likewise touches upon the overdrawn movements cultivated by theatrical dancers:

the Dancing [i.e., the dancers] on our Stages are very faulty in this Kind; and what they mean by writhing themselves into such Postures, as it would be a Pain for any of the Spectators to stand in, and yet to hope to please those Spectators, is unintelligible.

Indeed, dancing in too contained a manner on stage was in bad taste. As the famed choreographer Jean-Georges Noverre puts it (1760: 344), “confined steps, slight or “shrunken” movements, in short, an execution that is too small, this is equally offensive to good taste.” The professional dancer and choreographer Giovanni Gallini (1762: 146) also speaks against mincing – and flaccid – dance movement generally, for the true art of dance “equally reprobates an ungainly rusticity, and a mincing, tripping, over-soft manner.”

The difference in the manner of executing movements on the ballroom floor versus the stage, as outlined above, continued into the following period. Carlo Blasis (1831: 489, 492-93) notes that “the private dancing [i.e., ballroom dancing] derives its origin from the theatrical dancing” and that

as to the movements of the body [in the former], they are nearly the same as those practiced by stage dancers, with this difference only, that they should not be carried to that grandeur and elevation, should have less impulse, and be modified, and adapted to the circles of Private Dancing. The legs ought to be raised from the ground but very little above the method of the second position; however, gentlemen may raise them something higher: the peculiar style of their dancing being more powerful and unrestrained, will admit of more elevated steps.

The professional dancer Théleur (1831: 100-101) in like manner comments on the difference in range of movement between stage-dancers and social dancers, noting that ballroom dance was the simpler part of theatrical dance executed “in miniature”:

Room-dancing is nothing more or less than that which is used for the stage, but executed in a more quiet style, avoiding all extravagances, or large steps; consequently, the practice to acquire this part of the art is considerably more easy than that of the public-dancer; it consists of the bending in the first position [i.e., fifth position], the little battemens from the first ground station to the fifth half aerial [i.e., from fifth to second position off the floor], the little battemens to, and from, the third half aerial station [i.e., battements sur le cou-de-pied], the ronds de jambe on the ground, the little ronds de jambe, the changes of the feet, the assemblées, the temps levés, the chassés, &c. selecting the more simple part of the practice laid down for the theatrical dancer, employing all the grace, &c. but in miniature.

For further discussion, see Fairfax (2003: 15-79).

 

References to a High Leg

The two heights of leg normally used in ballroom dancing were those wherein the toe of the gesture foot was raised to the heights of the ankle or the calf of the supporting leg. These are either explicitly prescribed in the ballroom handbooks or shown in surviving illustrations of ballroom dancers (fig. 1).

Figure 1. Ballroom dancers, 1735.

As was made clear in the foregoing section, the range of movement on stage was normally grander than in the ballroom, and this then implies that heights of leg above those of the ankle and calf were common in the theater. And, indeed, the heights wherein the toe of the gesture leg was raised until roughly level with the hip or above – to the height of the shoulder or even above the head – are alluded to or actually depicted in surviving illustrations of theatrical dancers. Bonin (1712: 169), for example, writes that “cabrioles can also be cut out in front, wherein the feet must come to lie almost level with or opposite the hips.” The same height is mentioned by Taubert (1717: 728) in the same context; cf. the height shown in figure 2.

Figure 2. Auguste Vestris, London 1781, an engraving after a design by Nathaniel Dance.

In the écart (i.e., the splits in the air), Ferriol (1745: 1/127) has the dancer “jump and while in the air fully open the legs as much as possible” (fig. 3). Pauli (1756: 20) sketches a grand rond de jambe thus: “the ouverture de jambe is performed when the leg does a rond in the air at the height of the thigh.” In the gargouillade, Magri (1779: 1/124) has the performer execute the circular movements with “the legs and thighs in an even line parallel to the floor.”

Figure 3. A caricature of a comic dancer apparently doing the splits in the air, circa 1780s, George Dance.

Compare as well the height of leg depicted in figure 4, which arguably shows poses, hence the reduced turnout, the bent legs and unpointed foot, and the more fanciful arrangements of the arms.

Figure 4. Dancing dwarfs: left 1716; right 1720s.

 

References to an Overhigh Leg

References to an overhigh height – above the hip, to the height of the shoulder or above the head – are found in Magri, for example, who had been a professional dancer in the so-called grotesque style from the late 1750s to the early 1770s. Consider his description (1779: 1/40-41) of the grand battement (the bolding is mine in the following quotations):

Figure 5. Reconstruction of Magri’s grand battement.

There is another kind of battement, which is said to be a high battement dégagé. Placed as usual in fifth, raise the right leg, for example, keeping the knee well stretched and turned out and the cou-de-pied arched, disengage the leg at least to the height of the shoulder, then take it down behind the left but see to it that it does not go beyond the foot on the floor; otherwise the body will be visibly contorted, and raising it again to the height of the first, take it back down in front, this second one done heeding the same warning. As many of these as possible are repeated thus. Not going beyond the foot on the floor will be difficult because of the force of the descent; this must be done with care, curbing this force of the descent, which is easy to achieve if done with caution. There are two movements here, the first lifting the leg and the second lowering it. These are also done as quickly as possible in order to acquire the desired benefit and fine dégagé of the thigh.
I have proven myself with these battements and have gone higher than the head. Indeed, I held up my left hand so that it was raised perpendicular, and I touched the palm of my left hand with the right foot, or rather cou-de-pied, a clear indication of having disengaged the leg well [fig. 5]. Take care, however, not to practice these battements violently; do them after you have made the sinews soft and flexible, and do not be heedless of keeping the foot on the floor well supported. In practicing these in a heat once, my beating foot displaced the other on the floor, and falling flat on my face, I broke my nose. With the same carelessness, Cesarini had the ill-luck to break an arm.

In one version of the grande révoltade, Magri (1779: 1/126) notes of the gesture leg, at the height of the jump, that “its thigh [is] taken up so high that the knee passes close to the face with the leg pointing upwards and the foot going above the head.” And most impressive of all, both feet are taken above the head in the grotesque jump the spazzacampagna (lit. ‘blunderbuss’), reconstructed in figure 6, which is based on the following two descriptions and other relevant material not presented here:

The caper known as the spazzacampagna begins in fifth position. Bend both knees [fig. 6a, which shows forced fifth (ball against ball with the heels a little off the floor) and a forward inclination of the body], and in rising into the air [fig. 6b], draw up the legs under the body as much as possible without taking the feet apart from this fifth [fig. 6c]. Then with them both coupled together in fifth, stretch them forwards to just above the head, which is drawn down a little to hide behind the feet [fig. 6d]. From here both legs are stretched out to the sides, opening and stretching as much as possible; raise the head and straighten the body at the same time [fig. 6e]. As you start to descend, begin to bring the feet together [fig. 6f] until they are in fifth again in coming down, but with the foot in front that was behind at the beginning [the land is not shown in fig. 6]. To do this caper, you need to precede it with a grand brisé or a grande [demi-]sissonne, which will be able to give force to the jump. Usually the fifth positions in which it begins and ends are forced, for when greater force is needed for height, an exact position is not to be looked for but rather that which will give greater force to the jump. (Magri 1779: 1/127)

The Spacciato Campania [sic]. This was always the most outstanding tour de force of the grotesque dancer. A tempo [i.e. preparation] for it with a few steps in a running start and a forward spring is needed. With both feet on the toes in first position, spring up at the very same time and do a high jump. At the same time as the spring into the air, the right foot does a tour de jambe to the right from front to back; the left does a tour de jambe to the left from front to back. The right arm does a circular movement to the right from front to back, and the left arm does a circular movement to the left from front to back. Land again in first position. Not a little strength and practice are needed here in order to do these four circular movements with the arms and legs very high at the same time. When highest in the air, the body looks like a frog tossed up into the air with all fours stretched away, which may well be the source of the name. (Roller 1843: 221-22)

Figure 6. Reconstruction of the spazzacampagna (land on the floor is not shown).

Clearly, raising the gesture foot to the height of the shoulder or higher was already established by the beginning of the eighteenth century and continued into the early nineteenth century, as is apparent from figure 7.

Figure 7. Left: “Monsieur Dubreil dancing the role of Scaramouche,” before 1713; right: the comic dancer Charles Masurier dancing with his mistress in Blache’s ballet Les meuniers, 1824.

As mentioned above, Magri was a dancer in the so-called grotesque style, a genre which by definition was to be as contorted and exaggerated as possible (Fairfax 2003: 124-61), and these overhigh heights almost certainly were proper to this style in theory. (Eighteenth-century ballet was by convention divided into four distinct styles – and thus into four distinct techniques – commonly called the serious, half serious, comic, and grotesque. For further details, see Fairfax (2003: 81-188).)

 

Excursus on the Upper Body

Figure 8. Parisot in a pose, London, 1790s.

I might mention here only very fleetingly that there appears to have been a stylistic difference in the way the upper body was managed when a high straight leg extension to the rear was executed. In the high styles (the serious and half serious), the dancer seems to have regularly performed here a forward upper-body inclination, so that the whole body came to be horizontal to the floor when the gesture leg was highest (fig. 8). Cf. Bonin’s remark (1712: 169) in connection with the cabriole en arrière as described in his chapter on the high styles:

If I wish to do this cabriole to the back, however, the body and the feet must come to lie in a horizontal line, but I have even seen it done with the heels visible above the horizontal line so that the head and feet formed a transverse line.

In the low styles (comic and grotesque), however, the torso seems to have been regularly held as upright as possible to produce a more contorted line in the body (fig. 9). Further evidence relevant here will be outlined in my forthcoming study.

Figure 9. Left: posed dancer in the grotesque role of Scaramouche, 1716; right: grotteschi, 1823.

 

The Dupré Precedent

In the 1730s, Louis Dupré, a famous dancer in the so-called serious style (a slow graceful terre-à-terre style), set a precedent for plentiful use of overhigh leg extensions in this genre, and he was widely imitated by other serious dancers. Dupre’s elasticity is alluded to in a number of sources, such as Casanova (1961: 2/141), who saw Dupré perform at the Paris Opéra in 1750, at the end of his career: “Truly it was an elastic body, which became bigger as it unfolded.” Noverre (1760: 342-44), who had been a student of Dupré, clearly indicates that many imitated these lofty extensions (the bolding is mine in the quotation):

The déploiements [i.e., unfoldings] of the leg and the temps ouverts [i.e., movements into an open position] were doubtless suitable to Monsieur Dupré; the elegance of his figure and the length of his limbs went wonderfully together with the temps développés and daring steps of his dancing, but what suited him will not suit dancers of middling height, yet everyone wanted to ape him. The shortest legs were forced to run through the same spaces and describe the same circles as those of this celebrated dancer, thus, the loss of stability: The hips were never in their place, the body wavered continuously, the execution was ridiculous, I thought I saw Thersites imitating Achilles. . . .
This fault [of disproportionate movement], Monsieur, is very fashionable among serious dancers, and as this style holds greater sway in Paris than everywhere else, it is very common there to see the dwarfish dance with movements of gigantic and ridiculous proportions. I would even go so far as to say that those who are gifted with a majestic figure sometimes misuse the extent that their limbs can reach and the ease with which they cover the stage and make their movements stand out. These exaggerated déploiements alter the noble and peaceful character that la belle danse [i.e., the serious style in this context] should have and deprives the execution of its softness and gentleness.

Figure 10. Costume design by Boquet for the serious dancer Gaétan Vestris, circa 1760s.

Elsewhere, Noverre (1760: 183) again implies that these high leg extensions were to a height well above the waist. In speaking (ill) of the tonnelet, which was a kind of male tutu worn by especially serious dancers throughout much of the eighteenth century and which in this case was not uncommonly made with pronounced lateral projections (fig. 10), he writes that “I would do away with those stiff tonnelets, which in certain dance positions, bring the hip to the shoulder, as it were, and which obscure [the body’s] contours.” Carrying the gesture foot markedly above the height of the waist would naturally cause one edge of the tonnelet to rise with the leg, thus bringing “the hip” (i.e.., the outer edge of the tonnelet) “to the shoulder.”

And so, the not infrequent use of overhigh extensions, which almost certainly were originally proper to the grotesque style, spread to the serious style in practice. The latter style in theory, however, was to cultivate only graceful movements and positions and avoid any contortion and caricature which might “alter the noble and peaceful character” requisite here.

 

The Vestris Precedent

Figure 11. Auguste Vestris c.1781-2, Thomas Gainsborough and Gainsborough Dupont.

The course of ballet history was radically changed by Auguste Vestris (1760-1842), a superstar dancer (fig. 11) who developed a highly idiosyncratic style of dance wherein elements from the four traditional styles were blended into a single composite style, during the heady days of the French Revolution. His style was marked by, among other things, much use of exaggeration, such that “his leg would rise to the height of his head” as in the grotesque style (Berchoux 1808: 20), a penchant caricatured in figure 12. (For a discussion of the freedom granted dancers to cultivate a unique personal style, see Fairfax (2003: 243-55).)

Figure 12. Two caricatures of Auguste Vestris circa 1800: left by Isabey; right by George Dance.

His tremendous popularity induced a widespread imitation of his personal style and ultimately resulted in the demise of the four traditional styles and the emergence of a single composite style in the early nineteenth century. As Noverre remarks (1807: 2/127-28), “everyone became imperfect and unfaithful copiers,” such that he could ask,

what has come of this unreasonable and capricious aping? The dancing at the Opéra is now of the same color, the same style, the same genre. There is only one manner of execution. This art has driven out variety in order to adopt the most unbearable monotony.

As part of this widespread imitation and “unbearable monotony,” limbs now were not infrequently raised overhigh with all characters, soloists and corps, men and women alike. That is to say, the exaggeration that had originally been proper only to the grotesque style, but then became common in the serious style, was now found everywhere. Noverre (1807: 2/167) complains of typically having “to see sixty arms raised well above the head and thirty straight legs carried in one spontaneous movement to the height of the shoulder.” In like manner, Roller (1843: 19), who had been a professional dancer in the 1790s, speaks broadly of “the loathsome contortions and grotesque movements to which ballet has now degenerated, little by little since the French Revolution,” and which are lampooned in figure 13. A fuller discussion of these changes can be found in Fairfax (2003: 275-91).

Figure 13. A caricature of a pas de deux in Giselle, entitled Grise-Aile (‘Tipsy-Wing’), from Le musée Philipon, 1841.

The early nineteenth-century craze for highly exaggerated extensions eventually spent itself, and by the beginning of the twentieth century, the theoretical norm of hip-height seems to have been favored. Alexandra Danilova (1903-1997) notes in her memoirs (1986: 40), for example, that

at that time, during my years at the school, we didn’t lift the legs high – it was considered not classical, rather daring, a little bit vulgar. “You are not in the circus,” our teachers would scold if développés or grands battements got too big. Just a teeny bit above the waist was as high as we were allowed. The Victorian attitudes still prevailed.

Contrast Danilova’s statement with that of the grottesco Magri from the eighteenth century, who prescribes that the foot of the gesture leg in a grand battement be raised “at least to the height of the shoulder.” Or contrast it with that of Noverre, who writes that serious dancers after Dupré commonly performed “with movements of gigantic and ridiculous proportions.” Danilova attributes the popularization of overhigh leg extensions in the twentieth century to the influence of George Balanchine, who “wanted the legs higher” – higher once again, it could be said, in light of the foregoing.

 

Postscript

The remarks given above concerning eighteenth-century practice refer specifically to male ballet technique. The history of women’s technique for this time frame is somewhat different and more nuanced, but I have not dealt with it here, as the purpose of this already lengthy blog-post is to debunk the myth that very high extensions of the leg were foreign to early ballet. (For a partial treatment of changes to women’s technique, see Fairfax (2003: 219-42).)

 

Bibliography

Berchoux, J[oseph]. 1808. La danse, ou la guerre des dieux de l’Opéra. Second ed. Paris: chez Giguet et Michaud.
Blasis, Carlo. 1831. The Art of Dancing. Translation by R. Barton. London: E. Bull.
Bonin, Louis. 1712. Die neueste Art zur galanten und theatralischen Tantz-Kunst. Frankfurt and Leipzig: Joh. Christoff Lochner.
Casanova de Seingalt, Jacques. 1961. Histoire de ma vie. 6 vols. Wiesbaden: F. A. Brockhaus.
Danilova, Alexandra. 1986. Choura, the Memoirs of Alexandra Danilova. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Essex, John. 1728. The Dancing-Master. London: J. Essex and J. Brotherton.
Fairfax, Edmund. 2003. The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Ferriol y Boxeraus, Bartholomè. 1745. Reglas utiles para los aficionados a danzar. Copoa: a costa de Joseph Testore.
Gallini, Giovanni-Andrea. 1762. A Treatise on the Art of Dancing. London: printed for the author.
Magri, Gennaro. 1779. Trattato teorico-prattico di ballo. Naples: Vicenzo Orsino.
Mattheson, Johann. 1722-1725. Critica musica. 2 vols. Hamburg.
Noverre, Jean-Georges. 1760. Lettres sur la danse, et sur les ballets. Stuttgart and Lyon: Aimé Delaroche.
Noverre, Jean-Georges. 1807. Lettres sur les arts imitateurs en général, et sur la danse en particulier. 2 vols. Paris: chez Léopold Collin.
Pauli, Charles. 1756. Élémens de la danse. Leipzig: Ulr. Chret. Saalbach.
Rameau, Pierre. 1725. Le maître à danser. Paris: chez Jean Villette.
Ratier, Joseph. 1759?. Observación 1 sobre el arte de la danza. Manuscript Mn Barbieri Mss 14059. Madrid: National Library.
Roller, Franz Anton. 1843. Systematisches Lehrbuch der bildenden Tanzkunst und körperlichen Ausbildung. Weimar: Bernh. Fr. Voigt.
Taubert, Gottfried. 1717. Rechtschaffener Tantzmeister. Leipzig: bey Friedrich Lanckischens Erben.
Théleur, E.A. 1831. Letters on Dancing, Reducing this Elegant and Healthful Exercise to Easy Scientific Principles. London: printed for the author.
Tomlinson, Kellom. 1735. The Art of Dancing. London: printed for the author.
Weaver, John. 1712. An Essay Towards an History of Dancing. London: printed for Jacob Tonson.

Eighteenth-Century Pointe

Eighteenth-Century Pointe

It is a commonplace in dance histories to claim that pointe was an innovation of the nineteenth century. This is, in fact, a misconception: pointe was clearly in use already in the eighteenth century. The clearest reference to such early use comes from Magri (1779: 1/91), who writes that the French dancer Antoine-Bonaventure Pitrot (fl. 1744-1770)

does not remain in equilibrium on the ball of one foot, as others do, but raises the whole body on the tip of the big toe and straightens all the joints so perfectly that the thigh, the leg, and the foot itself fall into one perpendicular line.

And there is some evidence that Pitrot was not the only eighteenth-century dancer to perform this feat. Almost certainly, Sandham, an early eighteenth-century English dancer specializing apparently in comic and grotesque roles, performed on pointe in his dance the Dutch Skipper during the 1721-22 season at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. A bill draws attention to his performance “on his Toes” (cited in Highfill 1991: 13/202). If the phrase is taken to mean simply ‘on the balls of the feet,’ then there would have been little need to highlight this manner in a bill, since a high rise on the ball was the norm in eighteenth-century theatrical dance.

Almost certainly, a further example is mentioned in a description of a performance seen by Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach (1935: 31) at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in 1710:

A man appeared as Scaramouche, but he was far from being as elegant a dancer [as Hestor Santlow, who preceded him], though he excels in droll attitudes, leaping and contortions of the body, in which I never saw his equal. The most amazing of all was that he danced a “Chique” [i.e., a jig] with great agility on the tips of his toes with his feet turned entirely inwards, so that one cannot conceive how he was able to bend his feet thus backwards, stand on tiptoes, and spring about without straining his feet or breaking them at the ankle-joints.

A description of Giovanna Baccelli’s début at the Paris Opéra in 1782 also alludes to the “tours de force” of landing, balancing, and pirouetting “sur l’orteil” (‘on the toe’):

It was in the ballet in the second act of Électre, to an air by Monsieur Sacchini, that Mademoiselle Baccelli débuted yesterday. It cannot be gainsaid that she is a most agreeable dancer, who links strength and a brilliant execution to a neat figure; but because her style is utterly the same as Mademoiselle Dupré’s (who made her appearance a few months ago and who already has many partisans), she excited less admiration especially in her tours de force of landing, holding herself, and pirouetting on the toe [sur l’orteil] without losing anything of the nobility and grace in her role, which the former did as well. (Bachaumont 1783: 21/1/ii = 16 Nov. 1782)

The “landing” sur l’orteil here most likely refers to a sharp rise onto the toe with the ball raised off the floor in a terre-à-terre jump. Indeed, springing up onto the tips of the toes is in fact prescribed by Gourdoux-Daux (1817: 55-56) in his description of the “assemblé upon the toe,” within the context of even ballroom dance technique.

Place yourself according to the rules of deportment, the knees straight, the feet in the third position. To perform this motion, place the weight of your body entirely upon the fore foot and straight upon the hip; this will disengage the hind foot. Bend upon the fore knee, raising, at the same time, the hind foot upon the toes. This motion will cause the hind knee to bend also; hold it well turned out and unfold it by sliding the foot with the toes low and near the floor towards the [56] second position, which it will reach, being extended, at the same moment the foot you stand on will reach its utmost bend. To rise up straight again, hold the foot extended which is pointed in the second position, and drawing it on the toes towards the ones you stand on, you will enter it above that one, which will be straightened at the same moment that the foot, coming from the second position, will reach the third, where you will continue to hold yourself upon the tip of your toes, bending them down as much as possible, and let the heels come down gradually.

That pointe is indeed referred to in the description of Baccelli is strongly suggested by the fact that the expression sur l’orteil was used in the first part of the nineteenth century to refer to a position on the toe(s), and not on the ball. Saint-Léon (1852: 31), for example, writes that

to be sur l’orteil is said of that position of the feet wherein the body is carried onto the tip of the toes, that is, that position wherein the body is carried onto the little phalanx of the big toe and onto the little phalanxes of the four other toes. . . [In contrast,] to be sur la demi-pointe is said of that position of the feet wherein the heel leaves the floor while the body is carried onto the front of the foot, that is, that position wherein the body is carried onto the back of the sesamoid bone and the metatarsal bones of the toes.

Saint-Léon is clearly referring here to an alternative form of pointe, one wherein the toes are not fully vertical, and the body’s weight is borne by the pads of the toes, with the ball still lifted from the floor. This version might be called “pad-pointe” as opposed to “tip-pointe.” (These two forms might have been distinguished by the expressions sur les orteils and sur les pointes respectively; Michel Saint-Léon (1829: 13r) seems to use them contrastively when he occasionally notes that a rise is to be done “sur les pointes / orteils,” although synonymity is not out of the question.)

The pictorial record suggests that these two forms of pointe existed side by side in the first part of the nineteenth century. Consider the depictions of the feet in figures 1-3: the first two show “pad-pointe,” and the third “tip-pointe.

Figure 1. The three Prices: Sophie, Amalie, Juliette, circa 1850s.

Figure 2. Deblin, Mr. Conway, and Mrs. Conway, New York, 1827.

Figure 3. Geneviève Gosselin, 1815.

As is apparent from these figures, men as well as women could rise up sur l’orteil or sur la pointe. And this was clearly true for dancers in the eighteenth century as well. In an extant engraving of Pierre Gardel from the 1790s (fig. 4), the lack of foreshortening in the toes of his right foot strongly suggests that a position sur la pointe is intended. Indeed, the engraving agrees completely with Magri’s description of Pitrot’s pointe given above.

Figure 4. Pierre Gardel in a small pose, circa 1790s.

An eighteenth-century example of “pad-pointe” is possibly shown in an engraving of Gallini (fig. 5), although the diagonal line of the forepart of the weight-bearing foot may be simply due to the engraving’s lack of skill.

Figure 5. Giovanni Gallini in a small pose, 1762.

Bachaumont states that Baccelli excited less admiration during her début at the Paris Opéra because “her style is utterly the same as Mademoiselle Dupré’s,” and that Bacelli’s feat of dancing sur l’orteil, Eléonore Dupré “did as well.”

These few references suggest, moreover, that pointe-work was largely a virtuoso feat in the eighteenth century, and that the norm was still to rise on the ball rather than on the toe(s). These moments of pointe, moreover, were apparently just that, virtuoso moments, such that the position was normally not maintained for long in the course of a dance. Indeed, what made Geneviève Gosselin’s pointe-work so memorable were both the remarkable duration of these moments and their frequency of occurrence. A critic in Le journal des débats (3 Aug. 1827), for example, writes that “her astonishing flexibility of limb and her muscular power . . . allowed her to remain suspended for a minute or two on the extreme tips of her feet.” And “she could rise more often than usual on the point of her feet, presenting an elegant body supported, so to speak, on the big toe, or on a single toe-nail” (Journal de Paris 23 Jul. 1813).

It is unclear how far back the use of pointe goes. The material available for the pre-eighteenth-century periods is simply too sparse to make any certain claim about the origin of the technique. But given the high level of skill achieved by early acrobats, who were able to perform amazing feats of contortion, jumping, and balance already by the beginning of the eighteenth century (Fairfax 2003: 28-33), it would not be surprising if pointe originated fairly early among this latter class of performer and then eventually spread to more highbrow performances. Indeed, it was not unknown for some performers to lead a double life as acrobat and dancer (especially in the comic and grotesque styles). Consider the figure of Antoni, who was

in his day the most perfect rope-dancer [i.e., acrobat who performed dances on a tightrope] ever seen in France. His dancing was noble and easy, such that a skilled dancer might have performed on a stage. To this talent he united that of jumping with admirable elevation, justness, and precision, not to mention that he was original in the dance of the Drunkard, which he performed several times on the stage of the Académie Royale de Musique [i.e., the Paris Opéra] to the liking of all connoisseurs. (Parfaict 1756: 1/152-53)

Interestingly enough, two of the earliest allusions to pointe, adduced above, are found in connection with dances for low characters.

And finally, it should be stressed that a pointe position does not require a modern pointe-shoe. (For a brief discussion of eighteenth-century dance shoes, click here.)

The foregoing is a somewhat abbreviated presentation of material from my study in progress entitled The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet.

 

Bibliography

[Bachaumont, et al.]. 1777-1789. Mémoires secrets pour servir à l’histoire de la république des lettres en France, depuis MDCCLXII jusqu’à nos jours, ou Journal d’un observateur. 36 vols. London: chez John Adamson.
Fairfax, Edmund. 2003. The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
G[ourdoux-Daux], J. 1817. Elements and Principles of the Art of Dancing As Used in the Polite and Fashionable Circles. Philadelphia: J.F. Hurtel.
Highfill, Philip H., Jr. et al. 1973-93. A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800. 16 vols. Carbondale, Illinois: South Illinois University Press.
Magri, Gennaro. 1779. Trattato teorico-prattico di ballo. Naples: Vicenzo Orsino.
Parfaict, François. 1756. Dictionnaire des théâtres de Paris. 7 vols. Paris: Lambert.
Saint-Léon, Arthur Michel. 1852. La sténochorégraphie, ou art d’écrire promptement la danse. Paris: the author.
Saint-Léon, Michel. 1829. “1ier Cahier, Exercices de 1829.” Opéra Rés. 1137.(1).
Uffenbach, Zacharias Conrad von. 1935. London in 1710: from the Travels of Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach. Translated and edited by W.H. Quarrell and Margaret Mare. London: Faber and Faber Limited.

Was the “Wrapped” Position Used in the Eighteenth Century?

Was the “Wrapped” Position Used in Eighteenth-Century Ballet?

Part of reconstructing an earlier dance technique is determining not merely what was done but also what was not done. In other words, what features from periods predating and postdating the age in question were likely or almost certainly unknown? Since technical features must have a beginning, sometimes an end, and not uncommonly a metamorphosis, a ballet historian might wonder when the “wrapped” position of the traditional Russian school of ballet came into existence, i.e., whether it was perhaps known as early as the eighteenth century (and eighteenth-century ballet is, by the way, the focus of my academic research).

First, let’s be clear about the formation of this position. According to Grant (1982: 33-34), the “wrapped” position is

the position of one foot placed between the ankle and the base of the supporting leg just under the calf muscle. The sole, with instep stretched and toes pointed, encircle the ankle so that the pointed toes are behind the heel of the supporting foot [see photo]. This position is used for petits battements sur le cou-de-pied and battements frappés.

The little evidence that I have unearthed points to an early nineteenth-century origin for this position. The following passage from Helmke (1829: 136-137) seems to be the earliest description. He writes that

not long ago, even a sixth position was invented, but I must wholly spurn it, however neat it may be, for firstly it is seldom used, and secondly you are apt to dirty your stockings with the soles whenever you attempt to use it. I know this sixth position under sundry guises and find many of them so meddled with that it seems to me that the inventor had suffered brain damage.

Helmke gives no further particulars on the shape of this position, but his vague remarks that this arrangement was “neat” and further “apt to dirty your stockings with the soles” do in fact well characterize the wrapped position. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what other position of the feet Helmke could possibly have had in mind here. His comment that this arrangement was “seldom” used – at least in the ballroom – would also explain why other nineteenth-century dance handbooks do not commonly show or describe the position. But clearly it was used and eventually became a codified position in the Russian school by the early twentieth century (Vaganova [1934] 1969: 32-33).

Helmke states that the position was invented “not long ago.” Given that his handbook was published in 1829, it would be reasonable to assume that the position was introduced into formal dance sometime in the first few decades of the nineteenth century. And so it seems most likely indeed that the wrapped position was foreign to eighteenth-century ballet.

 

Postscript

Almost certainly some reader of this post will want to add that “eighteenth-century dancers couldn’t have performed this position, because they had only shoes with biggish heels, which would have made the position impossible or uncomfortable to do.” No. Soft flexible dance shoes with only a slight heel – “pumps” to use the period term – were in existence already by 1717 and are clearly described and even shown in the pictorial record (click here to see a detailed discussion). And so, this position could have been done if it had been known in the period.

 

Bibliography

Grant, G. 1982. Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet. Third ed. N.Y.: Dover.
Helmke, E.D. 1829. Neue Tanz- und Bildungschule. Leipzg: bei Christian Ernst Kollmann.
Vaganova, A. [1934] 1969. Basic Principles of Classical Ballet, Russian Ballet Technique. N.Y.: Dover.