Marie Taglioni

Marie Taglioni The first Romantic ballerina

Taglioni in costume for
La Sylphide, in a lithograph by Alfred-Edouard Chalon

 

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

Style

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.

The Work

  • 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.

Fun Facts:

    • 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.

Ballet Austin’s 2011 production
of La Sylphide

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.

Resources:

Print:

“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

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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