Marie Taglioni ushered in a new era of ballet—what we now call the Romantic period—with her performance in La Sylphide. With pointe work that was revolutionary for her time, she set new standards for grace and virtuosity.
Born in 1804 in Stockholm, Taglioni moved to Vienna as a child. Despite having a severely curved spine, she chose to follow in the footsteps of her Italian father, Filippo, who was a dancer and choreographer. She trained with him almost exclusively. When she made her Paris Opéra debut at 23 in Le Sicilien, the public response was sensational. Unlike other dancers of her time, Taglioni’s pointe work was marked by lightness and quiet strength, not effortful acrobatics. Her shoes, which were not as stiff as today’s pointe shoes, allowed her to stand very high on demi-pointe.
Five years after her first performance with the Opéra, her father’s ballet, La Sylphide, premiered. Her costume for her role as the sylph, or fairy, was what we now consider the standard Romantic costume: A formfitting bodice; a fluffy, bell-shaped skirt that reached the middle of her calves; and pink tights. Taglioni’s soft, rounded arms and forward tilt (to camouflage her hunchback) became the defining movement style of Romantic ballet.
When popular Viennese dancer Fanny Elssler joined the Paris Opéra, Taglioni and her father signed contracts with the Russian Imperial Theatre so she wouldn’t have to share the spotlight. She retired from performing in 1847, after a 25-year career, but later taught at the Paris Opéra. Taglioni died at the age of 80 in Marseille. DT
Taglioni was known for her grace, dramatic skill and aura of femininity. Critic Théophile Gautier once characterized her as a chaste, “Christian” dancer (and referred to her rival, Fanny Elssler, as “pagan”). Multiple pirouettes or other ballet pyrotechnics had no place in her performances. Taglioni never revealed the immense effort it took for her to rise on her toes.
- La Sylphide (1832) A young Scottish man, about to be married, pursues a fairy (Taglioni) who dies once he finally succeeds in catching her. Taglioni’s costume and grace continue to identify her with this ballet nearly 200 years later.
- Pas de Quatre (1845) French choreographer Jules Perrot created this ballet to showcase four of the most famous Romantic ballerinas (and all bitter rivals): Taglioni, Fanny Cerrito, Lucile Grahn and Carlotta Grisi.
- Le Papillon (The Butterfly) (1860) Taglioni choreographed her only ballet for her protégé, Emma Livry, who died tragically when her costume came in contact with the stage’s gas lighting and caught fire.
- Taglioni was often teased as a child for her back deformity. Her now famous poses—body forward while on pointe, with shoulders tilted in effacé—were created to conceal her hunchback.
- To transform her into a star, Taglioni’s father put her through a grueling training session for six months: two hours of intense exercises in the morning, two hours of adagio in the afternoon and two hours of jumping. To develop strong muscles, she would hold poses for 100 counts.
- Unlike today’s pointe shoes, Taglioni’s were made of soft satin with leather soles and ribbons, with only a layer of darning beneath the metatarsal and toe for added support. She went through two to three pairs each show.
The Legacy Lives On
Taglioni transformed pointe work from a mere acrobatic trick to a legitimate part of the art of ballet. Her performance in La Sylphide—costume, posture and sense of weightlessness—now characterizes the Romantic ballet period (circa 1827–1870). Today’s audiences are most familiar with Danish choreographer August Bournonville’s version of La Sylphide, created in 1836. It remains in the repertory of companies worldwide, as do other ballets from the Romantic era, like Coppélia and Giselle.
“Marie Taglioni: A ballerina who shaped the artform at the pinnacle of the Romantic era,” by Renee Renouf, Dance Teacher, April 2005
Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, by Jennifer Homans, Random House, 2010
Ballet & Modern Dance: A Concise History, by Jack Anderson, Princeton Book Company, 1992
Dance as a Theatre Art: Source readings in dance history from 1581 to the present, edited by Selma Jeanne Cohen, Princeton Book Company, 1992
Photo (top) courtesy of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, Astor Lenox and Tilden Foundations; by Tony Spielberg, courtesy of Ballet Austin