This is a tentative draft of a short section from “Introduction to the Steps,” chapter 8 of the work in progress The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet (© Edmund Fairfax 2018).
A few of the sources give fleeting glimpses into how eighteenth-century dancers made their entrances on stage. According to Borsa ([1782-83] 1998: 224-225), they not uncommonly ran on in order to take up their beginning positions.
If someone must come on stage, be it even the queen mother or the gravest minister, the person pops out of one wing with the greatest of speed in order to find the beat and then stop on the beat, and with seven or eight rushed steps to the side, very much like starts, to run to their spots in a jumping manner, where suddenly stiffening up they are forsaken by all movement and, as if nailed down, remain in the posture of a statue, in order to begin then in one stroke to talk about their affairs. Neither the cultured Athenian nor the harsh Spartan, neither the soft Sybarite nor the robust Crotonian, knows any other manner, such that no matter whence they hail, having reached the box, they lose all memory of native customs and their homeland, this queer but all too true metamorphosis brought about in them by ballet. Indeed, I know not whether I could ever get used to seeing anyone come to the middle of the stage by walking naturally. Be it business or pain, fear or breathlessness, which brings them forth, they always come on either running or jumping.
While Borso’s description is clearly somewhat tongue-in-cheek, other sources do confirm that running or rushing on was not an uncommon way for dancers to enter. In the second scene from the prologue to Rameau’s opera Les Indes galantes of 1735, for example, one finds an “Entrée of the Four Nations: a group of French, Spanish, Italian, and Polish youths, who rush on and perform graceful dances.” Noverre’s pantomime ballet Renaud et Armide of 1763 has Armide at one point “invoke the demons and Furies, who rush on at her bidding” (Uriot 1763: 146). Lambranzi (1716: 1/46) sketches a scenario that begins such that the two performers “come out running.”
None of the handbooks describes how such running was to be done. Borso characterizes it as “rushed steps . . . very much like starts . . . in a jumping manner.” Presumably this was not a natural run but a “dancer” run, executed on the balls of the feet with the legs straight, like most other dance movements from this period. This would certainly be in line with later practice, such as that described by Zorn ( 1905: 120-121): “running steps upon the balls are more graceful, and in these the legs are fully stretched and the upper body is held erect. These steps are often and differently used in dancing. They are usually small, and may be executed either forward, backward, sidewise or crossed.” This is, of course, still the usual run in traditional classical ballet.
Borso suggests that running on was the norm for all characters, “even the queen mother or the gravest minister,” but there is some evidence that in the traditional serious style, the dancer entered in a cadenced walk, which would be more in line with the gravity expected of this genre in its traditional manifestation. This at least was the way that the famed serious dancer Louis Dupré entered for one solo at the Paris Opéra in 1750. Casanova (1961:2/140) writes that “I saw this fine figure come forth in cadenced steps, and reaching the edge of the orchestra, he slowly raised his rounded arms, moving them gracefully, and extended them fully,” and then began dancing. Thus, the dance was preceded by a cadenced walk into a position down stage and then a port de bras.
It should be borne in mind, however, that the serious style was not very popular in Italy, and most of the dancing performed on Italian stages was in the more animated airborne styles (Fairfax 2003: 189-217). And so the Italian Borso may have been overgeneralizing based on the prevailing taste in his homeland. But the serious style did become adulterated in the course of the eighteenth century, and Dupré’s cadenced walk may have been partly supplanted by a more animated entry as a result of this adulteration, at least with some later serious dancers.
Moreover, a walk-on rather than a run-on was not necessarily restricted to the serious style. Some dances for grotesque characters in Lambranzi (1716: 1/25, 40) require the dancer to walk on in grotesque movements: the pas de Scaramouche (with the stride so broad that the sitz-bones come to be only a little off the floor), or the “crabwalk” (a grotesque walk with the legs bent and turned inwards and the knees only a little off the floor).
The usual path of the run-on or walk-on, one would expect to have been serpentine in line, certainly in the serious and half-serious styles. This is in agreement with the aesthetics of the period, expressed so clearly in Hogarth’s remark (1753: 148) that “when the form of the body is divested of its serpentine lines it becomes ridiculous as a human figure, so likewise when all movements in such lines are excluded in a dance, it becomes low, grotesque, and comical.” And so in the grotesque, and even the comic, one would expect a straight rather than curvilinear path, for “in the comic, grace loses its rules, as it were” (“Remarques sur l’estampe de la demoiselle Camargo” 1732: 811).
A further alternative mentioned by Borso was “coming on . . . jumping.” That is, the dancer emerged from one of the wings by performing a (presumably grand) jump that carried him into view. This practice is mentioned in other sources as well. Lambranzi (1716: 2/22) gives a dance for an English sailor, who “jumps forth in a big caper and continues the dance.” In like manner, the opening corps dance from the pantomime ballet Le peintre amoureux de son modèle, found in Ferrère (1782: 1), has “several individuals arrive at the painter’s by dancing on,” performing the sequence “contre[temps], ent[rechat] ii; ballotté[s] ii; 4 ent[rechats] volé[s] iiii” in the first eight bars. Preisler (1789: 2/86) describes an entrance by Auguste Vestris in 1788, which apparently involved a grand jump into view: “the stage was left empty for a few moments, the orchestra fell silent, and then in flew the darling of the public.”
More sensational entrances were possible. Eighteenth-century stages often sported trapdoors, which were particularly handy for demons or Furies, allowing them to emerge from the bowels of the earth. Indeed, in his description of a typical Furies scene, Bonin (1712: 196) has them “come forth from sundry holes.” And a dance scene from Canente performed at the Paris Opéra in 1761 had “demons emerge from under the stage amid flames” (Mercure de France Jan. 1761: 1/157).
A performer could also be conveyed on. The flying machine – a bit of stage machinery that suspended performers – allowed one to descend “from the heavens,” as it were. It was not, however, without its dangers. During a performance in Venice in 1723, for example,
a mishap happened during one of the first performances at the San Crisostome Opera, when a whistle-call given at the wrong moment caused the fall of one machine filled with actors and dancers, which was going down to join the one coming up from the stage. No one was killed, but several were injured and greatly shaken. (Mercure de France Mar. 1723: 585)
More prosaic ways existed as well. In a dance for Scaramouches, Lambranzi (1716: 1/26) simply has the two little Scaramouches carried on hidden in baskets.
A further possibility was to have the dancers take up their positions on stage before the curtain went up. An example can be found in Lambranzi (1716: 1/24) in a dance for Scaramouche: “when the scene opens, this fine unmoving statue is seen [i.e., Scaramouche standing in a pose on a pedestal] . . . he jumps off the pedestal and does his fine pas de Scaramouche, with cabrioles and pirouettes.” Alternatively, a delayed entrance was also possible; that is, the music strikes up and plays initially to an empty stage. Lambranzi (1716: 1/27) gives a scenario wherein it is only “when the first part of the tune is over” that “these two characters jump forth” onto the stage.