Eighteenth-Century Dance Shoes

Eighteenth-Century Dance Shoes


Dance history seems to love its myths. Take dance shoes, for example. A deeply entrenched view has long been that proper dance footwear was unknown until around the beginning of the nineteenth century. In her history of the Pre-Romantic ballet, Winter (1974: 3), for example, claims that “a decisive change in dance technique and style came toward 1790, literally on the heels of the Ancien Régime, as the dancer’s heeled shoes were exchanged for supple cothurns or soft, gloving-fitting slippers.”

Figure 1. Lancret’s portrait of the dancer Camargo c1732.

Such writers are quick to point to an image such as Lancret’s portrait of the famed dancer Camargo from c1732, which shows a heavy stiff high-heeled shoe (fig. 1). This is, however, a portrait, not a photographic record of what was actually worn by professional dancers. And there is good evidence that such a shoe – essentially a street shoe – would not have been typically worn by eighteenth-century dancers in performances on or off the stage.



Shoes designed for – or at least well suited to – dancing were in existence already by the beginning of the eighteenth century. Such shoes were apt to be call pumps in the English of the period, or escarpins in French (e.g., Noverre 1760: 417). And there are a number of references to these. The Connoisseur (17 Jul. 1755), for example, mentions in passing “dancing pumps,” while the Satyr Against Dancing (1702: 2) speaks of thin-soled shoes for dancing:

The Feet, which vilely to the Earth declin’d,
Are the remotest Members to the Mind:
Yet these manur’d with Cotton Pantaloons,
Soft tender Heels, gay Hose, compleat Buffoons,
The Shoes must be precise, the Soles as thin,
As theirs, who Puppet-like shall dance therein.

Jenyns (1729: 7) in like manner speaks of thin-soled low-heeled shoes to be used in ballroom dancing:

Thus each Man’s Habit with his Bus’ness suits;
Nor must we ride in Pumps, or dance in Boots.
But you, that oft in circling Dances wheel,
Thin be your yielding Sole, and low your Heel.

Walcke’s handbook (1783) also prescribes that one “always change shoes before entering the dancing hall,” which again implies the regular use of dance shoes in the ballroom.

The equation of dance shoes with insubstantial pumps is also evident from an anecdote told by Henry Angelo about Grimaldi Iron Legs’s duping of the theater manager John Rich in 1742:

Rich . . . listened with rapture to Grimaldi; who proposed an extraordinary new dance; such a singular dance that would astonish and fill the house every night, but it could not be got up without some previous expense, as it was an invention entirely of his own contrivance. There must be no rehearsal, all must be secret before the grand display in, and the exhibition on, the first night. Rich directly advanced a sum to Grimaldi and waited the result with impatience. The maître de ballet took care to keep up his expectations, so far letting him into the secret that it was to be a dance on horse shoes, that it would surpass anything seen before, and as much superior to all the dancing that was ever seen in pumps. The newspaper were all puffed for a wonderful performance that was to take place on a certain evening. The house was crowded, all noise and impatience – no Grimaldi – no excuse; at last an apology was made. The grand promoter of this wonderful, unprecedented dance had been absent over six hours, having danced away on four horsehoes to Dover and taken French leave. (Cited in BDA 1978: 6/401)

Pumps were not strictly confined to dance but could also be worn as a kind of sports shoe (fig. 2). The Tatler (7 Jul. 1709) satirically alludes to the nicety of a couple of duelists who momentarily set aside their slighted dignity in order to take the time to don their pumps first. At the appointed place, “the Principals put on their Pumps, and strip’d to their Shirts, to show they had nothing but what Men of Honour carry about ‘em, and then engag’d.” In like manner, the London Magazine (1735) refers to a beau skating with “his pumps bespatter’d all with mud” (cited in Cunnington 1971: 80).

Figure 2. A plate from Angelo Domenico’s L’école des armes: avec l’explication générale des principals attitudes et positions concernant l’escrime. . . . London: R & J Dodsley, 1763.

Pumps could be worn even as everyday wear, especially by fops until the latter part of the century, when they became widely fashionable. In his novel Jonathan Wild (1743), for example, Fielding has an attorney’s dandified clerk wear “a pair of white stockings on his legs and pumps on his feet.” The London Magazine (1734) also refers to a fop dressed in “Spanish-leather pumps without heels and the burnished peaked [i.e., pointed] toes” (cited in Cunnington 1971: 80). Retrospectively, the vicomte de Châteaubriand (1768–1848) was to typify the genteel garb of the late ancien régime in France thus: “A man in a French coat with powdered hair, a sword, a hat carried under his arm, pumps and silk stockings” (1902: 1/173).


The construction of dance pumps is described by Taubert (1717: 407-08):

A light dance shoe with a pointed toe, single sole, and low heel and tongue is both elegant and comfortable for dancing, especially since it can be easily flexed and controlled like a sock [figs. 3-5], which best allows one to dance with grace, while a large, thick, and broad shoe, on the other hand, is heavy on the foot like a lead weight. With a neat shoe, one can dance on the toes of the foot and execute all movements with style and almost without effort, while with a clumsy shoe, one must use the greatest of force and cannot even get up onto the toes because of the length and the thick soles. The latter sort then suits peasants and grenadiers much better indeed than galant dancers. If one wishes to make use of a pair of such muck-plungers for drudgery and daily wear, then one can at least keep a pair of neat dance shoes aside, which will stand one in good stead on the [dance] floor and at assemblies.

Figure 3. Details from figure 4.

Figure 4. Left: the dancer Eva Maria Veigl c1740s; right: the dancer Auguste Vestris in the role of Colas from the London production of Ninette à la cour c.1781.

Something similar, again in the context of ballroom dance, is also suggested by Bonin (1712: 113-14):

And finally, much also hinges upon the shoes, and it is a requirement that they be made neat and delicate. Wide shoes are mostly worn now, which are very serviceable for everyday use and which some wear in the winter instead of boots. I have no bones to pick with such use or ménage, but I think that it is not very good if they are huge, with thick heavy soles, such that they end up looking more peasant-like than galant.
I would advise those in particular who are to make an appearance on the dance floor – or if they are already advanced in this exercise and are to join in at balls or assemblies – that they wear a pointed shoe, which is no little ornament to the foot. It is more agreeable by far than a shoe made merely for traipsing about.
If it has a neat buckle, so much the better, since that contributes much to a person’s pleasing appearance, especially if it lies not on the stocking, but rather the tongue goes somewhat beyond it.
But whether it is to have a red or black heel, with a large tongue and other features, that is up to the individual.

Figure 5. Auguste Vestris c1781, Nathaniel Dance-Holland.

Completely heelless shoes were also known. The London Magazine (1734) cited above, for example, mentions “pumps without heels.” These were worn by fops, acrobats and dancers (fig. 6).

Figure 6. “Le petit sabotier,” i.e., the child dancer Jacques Boudet c1730s.



Taubert’s description refers specifically to “light” shoes, which implies the use of lightweight materials. Cunnington (1971: 230) notes that with eighteenth-century pumps generally, satin, for example, could be used for the uppers, leather for the thin soles, and either leather or cork for the slight heels. Such materials would, of course, wear out fairly easily with heavy use, especially on the feet of a professional dancer and on the fairly rough surfaces of an eighteenth-century stage and presumably also the rough floors of class and rehearsal studios. Indeed, the Satyr Against Dancing (1702: 2) also mentions that “the Shoes must be precise, the Soles as thin, / As theirs, who Puppet-like shall dance therein.” And Jenyns (1729: 7) writes that “you, that oft in circling Dances wheel, / Thin be your yielding Sole, and low your Heel.”

That such shoes did not last long is also apparent from shoe allowances granted to professional dancers. When Jean Dauberval signed a contract in the fall of 1762 making him first dancer in Noverre’s ballet company at Stuttgart, he was to receive “2,500 florins yearly and 130 florins shoe money to Easter 1764.” Noverre himself was also granted a shoe allowance of 130fl. in 1760; Charles Le Picq a shoe allowance of 100fl. in 1761; and Baletti 130fl. in 1761. (The quotation and the figures come from entries in the Wurtemberg Landschreiberrechnungen und Rentkammerprotokollen (K.44.F.18) and Oberhofmarschallamt (43.18.590), trans. in Lynham (1972: 182-83).)

130fl. was a considerable amount of money. When Antonia Guidi was engaged by Noverre to come to Stuttgart, from Copenhagen apparently (a distance of nearly a thousand kilometers), she was allowed 200 florins as travel money (BDA 1978: 6/446). If we follow Paritius’s exchange rate (1709) to get a very rough British equivalent of Dauberval’s shoe allowance, then 130fl. would seem to have been worth about 20£. A pair of pumps advertized in Britain in 1747 cost 1/10 (Cunnington 1971: 80); in 1761, serviceable shoes for the poor could cost 2/-, while between 1768-1790 shoes suitable for servants on average might cost 3/11 a pair (Styles 2007: 25). And so if, on the basis on these figures, we allow a generous 10 shillings per pair suitable for a first dancer (with 20 shillings equal to a pound), Dauberval’s shoe money may have allowed him to procure for himself roughly forty pairs of pumps or more, and this was apparently thought sufficient for two years of employment as first dancer. (A professional ballerina today might go through 100-120 pointe-shoes in one season.)

While such a large number of shoes perhaps reflects in part the need to have a variety of shoes in varying styles or colors on hand to harmonize with different costumes, clearly the expectation was that a professional dancer would quickly go through not a few shoes, which, in turn, implies that such shoes were flimsy in construction and would wear out very quickly. Indeed, the insubstantiality of these shoes was indirectly the cause of the dancer Maximilien Gardel’s death. In alighting from his carriage in 1787, apparently wearing his dance shoes, he stepped on a bone fragment lying in the street, and this pierced both his shoe and foot, and he ultimately died of gangrene caused by the wound (Guest 1996: 253-54). In fact, eighteenth-century footwear generally does not appear to have lasted long. An English laborer would typically wear out two pairs of shoes each year, while a stout nailed shoe might last one year, even with mending (Styles 2007: 26, 72-73).


Shoes depicted in the pictorial record regularly show buckles rather than lacing (figs. 3-4), typical of the footwear from this period generally. Lacing was not unknown, however. Weaver (1712: 167) saw French dancers in London, for example, who “perform’d in Shoes lac’d, and ribbanded.” And Noverre (1760: 417) notes that the shoes for the fauns in his ballet La toilette de Vénus sported “lacing.” (The use of shoe-strings rather than (especially ornamented) buckles became politicized in France during the early 1790s, as a sign of republican sympathies (Ribeiro 1988: 54).)

Red Heels

When they bore a heel, eighteenth-century dance shoes appear to have been commonly black with red heels, in or outside of France, although not invariably so. The author of “Observations sur l’Opéra” (1777: 24) complains about the popularity of this color combination at the Paris Opéra, irrespective of its fittingness for the character represented, and notes that he would not “have it that heroes, gods, the Pleasures, or shepherds always wear black shoes with red heels and large buckles. Footwear should be made for them that represents buskins as needed.” The Guardian (1 Sept. 1713) similarly alludes to the popularity of red heels, and red stockings, among dancing masters generally: “a Dancing Master of the lowest Rank seldom fails of the Scarlet Stocking and the Red Heel; and shows a particular respect to the Leg and Foot, to which he owes his Substance.” Weaver (1712: 167) also mentions “Red-silk Stockings” as typical among the French dancers that he saw perform in London in the early eighteenth century. (Noverre (1760: 417) seems to imply that white stockings were also very common on stage.) The option of red heels is also mentioned by Bonin (1712: 114). Such heels – and red stockings – were doubtless intended to draw attention to the movement of the feet and would have been particularly effective in highlighting the brilliance of beaten jumps such as the entrechat. (Red heels with cream or white uppers seem to have been an option as well, at least with classy street shoes (figs. 1, 7).)

Figure 7. Detail from Hyacinthe Rigaud’s portrait of Louis XIV of France, 1701.

Red heels had been introduced in the seventeenth century at the court of Louis XIV (fig. 7). Within the kingdom of France, they were initially the preserve of the nobility (Frisch 2013) and never lost their association with the royal milieu. The anti-royalist pamphlet Portefeuille d’un talon rouge, contenant des anecdotes galantes et secrètes de la cour de France of circa 1783 (‘Portfolio of a Red Heel, Containing Fashionable and Secret Anecdotes About the French Court’), for example, clearly equates red heels with the denizen of a corrupt royal court. This association must have made them increasingly unfashionable – and even politically risky – in France during the years leading up to the Revolution, and then during the 1790s, they appear to have disappeared for good, presumably out of political expediency.

Even outside of France, red heels were not entirely free of any association with the high class outside of the theater. According to Cunnington (1971: 228), red heels were proper for court wear or full dress in Britain until circa 1760, when they briefly went out of fashion, but were revived again by Charles James Fox in the 1770s.



The material presented above is an abridged excerpt from my ongoing scholarly study to be entitled The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet, the second volume in a three-part study of early ballet. The first volume was published as The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet (Scarecrow Press 2003).


BDA = 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.
Bonin, Louis. 1712. Die neueste Art zur galanten und theatralischen Tantz-Kunst. Frankfurt and Leipzig: Joh. Christoff Lochner.
Châteaubriand, vicomte de. 1902. Mémoires d’outre-tombe. Paris.
Cunnington, C. Willett, and Phillis Cunnington. 1971. Handbook of English Costume in the Eighteenth Century. London: Faber & Faber.
Fairfax, Edmund. 2003. The Styles of Eighteenth-Century Ballet. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Frisch, S. 2013. “Talons rouges – absolutismens røde hæle.” Dragtjournalen 7/9: 41-44.
Guest, Ivor. 1996. The Ballet of the Enlightenment: the Establishment of the Ballet d’Action in France, 1770-1793. London: Dance Books Ltd.
Jenyns, Soame. 1729. The Art of Dancing, a Poem, in Three Canto’s. London: J. Roberts.
Lynham, Deryck. 1972. The Chevalier Noverre: Father of Modern Ballet. London: Dance Books.
Noverre, Jean-Georges. 1760. Lettres sur la danse, et sur les ballets. Stuttgart and Lyon: Aimé Delaroche.
Observations sur l’Opéra, par un amateur abonné à l’amphithéâtre.” 1777. Journal des théâtres (1 Dec.), 19-28.
Paritius, Georg Heinrich. 1709. Cambio mercatorio, oder neu erfundene Reductiones derer vornehmsten europaeischen Müntzen. Regensburg.
Ribeiro, Aileen. 1988. Fashion in the French Revolution. London: Batsford.
A Satyr Against Dancing. 1702. London: Printed for A. Baldwin.
Styles, John. 2007. The Dress of the People, Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England. New Haven / London: Yale University Press.
Taubert, Gottfried. 1717. Rechtschaffener Tantzmeister. Leipzig: bey Friedrich Lanckischens Erben.
Walcke, Svend Henrik. 1783. Grunderne uti Dans-Kånsten, til Begynnares Tjenst. Gothenburg: L. Wahlström.
Weaver, John. 1712. An Essay Towards an History of Dancing. London: printed for Jacob Tonson.
Winter, Marian Hannah. 1974. The Pre-Romantic Ballet. London: Pitman Publishing.

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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