Dance History

With her weightless technique and uncanny ability to balance on her toes in darned, soft-toe ballet slippers, Marie Taglioni (1804–1884) was the first to make gravity-defying pointework popular among performers and audiences alike. However it was her artistry, particularly in her signature role in La Sylphide, that inspired a devoted following and forever changed the artform of ballet.

Taglioni was born in Stockholm and moved with her family to Vienna at a young age. Her father Filippo was a dancer and choreographer, while her mother Anna was the daughter of a noted singer and dramatic author, Christopher Karsten. Taglioni studied ballet in Vienna with her father, and in 1822 made her debut in one of his ballets, La Reception d’une Jeune Nymphe à la Cour de Terpsichore. Fanny Elssler, who would later become one of Marie Taglioni’s greatest rivals, danced in the corps de ballet for this performance.

Taglioni went on to dance in Munich and Stuttgart before making her debut with the Paris Opéra in 1827, in a variation in the opera Le Sicilien. Taglioni performed at the Paris Opéra for the next 10 years, with her father as her primary teacher and choreographer, while ballet continued to gain respect as a distinct artform, separate from opera. Onstage, Taglioni was known not only for her legendary grace in supernatural story ballets but also for her excellent character dancing. In addition to her wild success in the ballet world, she danced in two operas, Robert le Diable and Le Dieu et la Bayadère, becoming perhaps the first bayadère in ballet history.

Taglioni created the title role in La Sylphide in 1832, in a part choreographed specifically for her by her father. Eugene Lami created her costume, which is now considered to be the standard romantic tutu. The ballerina wore a form-fitting bodice baring her neck and shoulders, a bell-shaped skirt in a light, white material that ended mid-calf and pink tights. The style was later reproduced in ballets such as Giselle (1841), choreographed by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli, and Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides (1909). The Romantic ballerina was meant to be an elusive, idealized creature: from her flowing white costume to the way in which she balanced delicately on her toes and fluttered across the stage, she was always just out of the hero’s reach.

Contributing to this image were Taglioni’s signature postures and port de bras, which have come to exemplify Romantic ballet. Many historians now believe that these movements and poses were originally created by her father to compensate for a deformity in her back, which could have been anything from a hunchback to a severe spinal curvature. Whatever the handicap, Taglioni became known for her ethereal style: curved arms overhead, framing her face, a forward body posture with the legs in fourth position on pointe and the shoulders slightly tilted in effacé, her forefinger under her chin. Glimpses of Taglioni dancing were captured in Alfred-Edouard Chalon’s romantic prints, which depict charming, coquettish poses and showcase the ballerina balancing on one unusually small foot.

The style of Taglioni and her contemporaries has been recreated in Keith Lester and Anton Dolin’s reconstruction of Perrot’s Pas de Quatre, based on one of Chalon’s lithographs and a historic performance by the four goddesses of Romantic ballet: Taglioni, Elssler, Fanny Cerrito and Lucille Grahn. Perrot originally created the divertissement to be presented before Queen Victoria in 1845.

Taglioni’s personal life during her performing years was turbulent: In London in 1834, she married Compte Gilbert de Voisins, with whom she later had a son; a separation followed a year later. Additionally, Elssler’s arrival at the Opéra in 1834 created a rivalry for Taglioni’s position, and perhaps contributed to both Filippo and his daughter accepting annual contracts at the Russian Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1837. There they collaborated on a number of ballets that premiered in London at Her Majesty’s Theatre after their creation at the Maryinsky in Russia.

Taglioni gave her last performance in 1848, after a 26-year career in an age of accelerating European train travel that changed performers’ schedules forever. Her retirement was short-lived, however, due to mismanagement of her funds; she was forced to return to Paris in 1858. She became Inspectrice de la Danse at the Paris Opéra in 1859, and is credited with the inauguration of the institution’s examination system. In 1860, she choreographed Le Papillon for her protégé, Emma Livry, who died tragically when her costume caught fire after brushing against the stage’s gas lighting. After losing her fortune during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871, Taglioni taught ballroom dancing in London. In 1880, she moved to Marseilles, where she lived with her son until her death in 1884.

Taglioni’s legacy touches every ballet student today, because the pointework that was a novelty in the early 19th century is now an integral part of ballet training and a definitive component of both classical and contemporary choreography. Her innovations increased the technical skill necessary to perform ballet, while her expressive performances ensured that pointework, once thought of as merely an acrobatic trick, would become a crucial storytelling element as well. Taglioni created a new standard of technique and artistry for ballet performers and audiences, and set the stage for today’s talented professionals. DT

San Francisco–based writer Renee Renouf has written on dance and cultural subjects for mainstream papers and specialized journals, including Pointe and Dance Teacher, since 1960.

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