La Statue

The following is an adaptation of a section from “The Carriage of the Body and the Positions of the Feet,” chapter 3 of the work in progress The Technique of Eighteenth-Century Ballet (© Edmund Fairfax 2018). Some aspects are discussed in detail in other sections or chapters, and the reader would simply consult those sections in a completed work, but these are not available here.


3.4.6 La Statue

Noverre (1807: 1/80) writes that Gaétan Vestris was responsible for the introduction of novel positions into ballet, that Vestris “gave greater breadth to the positions and created new ones.” Noverre does not mention how many such new positions Vestris created and what they looked like. There is, however, a little evidence suggesting that the positions alluded to by Noverre were two derivatives of disengaged fifth and disengaged third, illustrated in Zorn ([1887]) and shown in fig. 1.

Fig. 1. Two “crossed positions,” based on fifth and third (Zorn [1887]: vol. 2, pl. V).

At least the version derived from disengaged fifth (fig. 1 left) had clearly been in existence for some time by Zorn’s day, as it is described by the late eighteenth-century dancer Franz Roller (1843: 147) and shown in an extant engraving of the dancer Jules Perrot dating from 1832 (fig. 2). As the following passage makes clear, this stée, as Roller calls it, was thought of simply as one further position of the feet:

The stée is merely a position wherein one stands with one foot flat on the whole sole while the other, with the knee bent and well turned out to the side, is set very firmly on the tip of the toe, enclosed in front or behind the other in fifth position. This position either precedes or ends a step, commonly in order to create a pause and to show a momentary rest of the whole body, whereupon, as a rule, quick or beaten steps follow by way of contrast.

Fig. 2. Konig’s depiction of Jules Perrot in F. Taglioni’s Nathalie (1832), after a drawing by Lacauchie, in the Bibliothèque de l’Opéra, Paris.

Here the dancer stands on the flat rather than ball of one foot, with the tip rather than the ball of the free foot set down on the floor, in fifth or alternatively, as Zorn shows, in third, with the free foot in front of the weight-bearing leg, or, as Roller indicates, behind the latter. When placed in front of the standing leg, the free foot was evidently placed along the outside of the weight-bearing foot so that its toe was hidden behind standing foot, as shown in Zorn’s illustration above, as well as in that of Perrot. As Roller notes, this position was typically used to begin or end a step and “to create a pause or to show a momentary rest of the whole body.” As such, it functioned largely like a small dance pose. Roller (1843: 150-151) also gives a combination to demonstrate its use, the stée-battement as he calls, one drawn from the “grand serious style” of old (ch. 4).

There are a couple of considerations which suggest that these forms of the stée were the new positions that Gaétan Vestris introduced into dance. First of all, the stée seems to have been a position already established in the latter part of the eighteenth century, for Roller, who was trained in the late 1780s and performed professionally as a serious dancer until 1799, links this position to a combination belonging to the “grand serious style,” a genre defunct by the time of Roller’s writing. Indeed, he speaks of this style in the past tense. The leading performer of this genre in the second half of the eighteenth century and one of its last famous practitioners was in fact Gaétan Vestris, who retired from the stage in 1781.

A more compelling consideration is the form of the name itself. The word stée appears to be a corruption of statue, the name of an undescribed “step” that Vestris is said to have invented. This novelty is alluded to in the Journal des théâtres (15 Jan. 1778: 198), which makes mention of “the famous step known as ‘the statue,’ invented by Monsieur Vestris, and which expresses nothing more than ‘look how beautiful I am!’” The transformation of the French word statue (‘statue’), or more likely its diminutive statuette (‘little statue’), into stée is, from the vantage point of the science of linguistics, an entirely plausible and “natural” change, the likely result of apocope and syncope, which would give [statɥɛt] › [statɥe] › [ste] respectively when expressed in IPA symbols. Such garbling of a term is not surprising given that the names of dance steps “are often abbreviated and occur incorrectly in the theatrical school” (Roller 1843: x). Indeed, other names of steps found in Roller’s handbook are mangled.

The stée as described by Roller and illustrated in Zorn is a position that, once assumed, would certainly give the dancer the air of saying “look how beautiful I am!” as Vestris’s statue evidently did, particularly when used “to create a pause and to show a momentary rest of the whole body.” Indeed, the name statue suggests a certain stasis that is quite at one with the character of Roller’s stée.

Figure 3. A detail from Thomas Gainsborough’s Mr. and Mrs. Andrews.

This position – or at least its close equivalent – was clearly known throughout the eighteenth century, even if not used as a dance position during part of the age, for a very similar foot position is not uncommonly found in paintings from the period. Gainsborough’s portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews of c. 1750, in the National Gallery in London, affords a memorable example (fig. 3). This small pose as used in the visual arts was likely the source of Vestris’s statue, and it is clear that poses for theatrical dance could be taken directly from the visual arts in this period (Fairfax 2003: 172-79).

If my postulate is correct then, that Roller’s stée is synonymous with Vestris’s statue, then this position must have been introduced into ballet sometime between 1748 (the year in which Vestris began his career as a serious dancer at the Paris Opéra) and 1778 (the year of the citation from the Journal des théâtres). Given its origin, the position was likely restricted to or leastwise typical of the grave genre until the end of the period when the system of distinct styles collapsed. Indeed, Roller speaks of it in the context of the “grand serious style” of old.