The Italian-French ballerina Marie Taglioni (1804-1884) revolutionized ballet with her graceful, almost evanescent dancing, introducing the spirituality of Romantic poetry and literature to the world of dance.
Taglioni, under the tutelage and influence of her choreographer father, fundamentally changed the way ballet looked. Dancing en pointe—on the tips of her toes—she created the sensation that she was floating through the air, the perfect incarnation of the sylph or forest spirit she portrayed in her most famous ballet, La Sylphide. Her simple white garment, essentially the earliest instance of what became known as the tutu, influenced not only dance but also the world of fashion generally as young women strove to adopt a pale, insubstantial appearance. Taglioni was one of the first true celebrities of 19th-century Europe, inspiring merchandise bearing her image that today would be called product tie-ins. In the words of Carol Lee, writing in Ballet in Western Culture, “Taglioni was one of the very few ballerinas ever to have assisted in creating a new style of dancing,” and her appearance in La Sylphide in 1832 is generally recognized as the beginning of the Romantic era in dance.
Born on April 23, 1804, Marie (also known as Maria) Taglioni was the product of a well-established dance family. Her uncle Salvatore was a dance master in Naples, Italy, and the services of her father, Filippo Taglioni, himself the son of a famous dancer, were in demand all over Europe. When Marie was born he was living in Stockholm, Sweden, where he had become the head of a ballet company and had married Swedish dancer Sophie Karsten. He later moved on to the Paris Opera, where elaborate dance scenes were interpolated into the sumptuous opera productions of the day. Marie was enrolled in dance lessons but did not seem to be a promising student. She was prim and awkward; her arms were too long; and her classmates and even her teacher called her a hunchback. At the age of six she was dismissed from her class and told to forget about becoming a dancer.
Drilled to Exhaustion
At that point, Filippo Taglioni took over his daughter's education. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica noted that he was “said to have been pitilessly severe”; Marie's dance practices ran for six hours at a stretch, and she was reportedly so tired at the end of the day that she required help to undress herself before going to bed. The training paid off, however, as Taglioni began to develop unprecedented strength in her leg muscles. Other ballerinas showed strain when dancing en pointe, with the result that choreographers composed only short sequences using the technique. Taglioni, however, could soon dance en pointe almost effortlessly.
At 18, Taglioni made her debut at the Hoftheater in Vienna, Austria, in a production called La Réception d'une jeune nymphe à la cour de Terpsichore (The Reception of a Young Nymph at Terpsichore's Court). Like most of the productions for which Taglioni was famous, it was choreographed by her father. She danced for several years in Vienna before moving west through Munich and Stuttgart, Germany, and in 1827 she made her all-important Paris debut in a dance sequence inserted into the opera Le Sicilien (The Sicilian). Before the performance, Taglioni's coach realized that her dancing was so beautiful that the company's regular dancers would probably try to sabotage her performance, so he arranged for her to rehearse with the opera's conductor alone.
Her dancing created the expected sensation; her New York Times obituary stated that she achieved a triumph “by her first bound upon the stage.” By 1829 she was one of the company's lead ballerinas. As she developed into one of the top dancers in Paris, Taglioni's fame also began to spread across Europe. She danced in Bordeaux, France, in 1828, and in 1830 and 1831 she made several much-heralded appearances in London. Her 1831 starring role in La Bayadère placed her in an Indian setting and costume—one of the first manifestations of influence from India in Western dance, although choreographers and audiences of the time knew very little about what Indian dance actually looked like.
Meanwhile, Taglioni was continuing to appear regularly at the Paris Opera. In 1831 Filippo created an interlude called the Ballet of the Nuns to be performed during Meyerbeer's gigantic opera Robert le Diable; it had some of the supernatural elements for which Taglioni would become internationally famous. But nothing prepared audiences for La Sylphide the following year. That ballet, unconnected with an opera, told the story of a Scottish farmer who falls in love with a sylph, a forest sprite, played by Taglioni. With her father's choreography creating maximum contrast between the rustic movements of the Scottish peasants and her own ethereal grace, Taglioni seemed to float across the stage as she danced en pointe, making an impression that influenced young dancers for several generations to come.
Admired by Victoria
The Scottish setting and the supernatural elements of the ballet were well known to readers of Sir Walter Scott and other Romantic literature, but they were quite new in the visual and kinetic world of ballet. Filippo Taglioni provided his daughter with a steady stream of new ballets that mostly held close to the themes and imagery of La Sylphide. One notable Taglioni work of the 1830s was Brezilia; ou, La Tribu des femmes (Brazil, or The Tribe of Women), which had its premiere at the Paris Opera in 1835. In 1838's La gitana, she portrayed a noblewoman abducted by Gypsies. Taglioni traveled all over Europe with productions of La Sylphide itself; among her biggest admirers was London's Princess Alexandrina Victoria, later to become Britain's long-reigning Queen Victoria. In London she commanded the unheard-of sum of 100 pounds per performance
In the midst of these triumphs, Taglioni's personal life was unhappy. She married the Count Gilbert des Voisins— the date is generally given as 1832, but an account of her divorce proceedings written by Edgar Allan Poe places the marriage in 1834. In any event, Taglioni's new husband did not approve of her transcontinental travels and demanded that she give up dancing, which she refused to do. A stormy scene transpired when she returned to Paris from one trip; as she was said to have related in Poe's account (quoted by Dance Insider), “on her return to France she had hoped to find M. des Voisins more disposed to conform to her wishes, but that so far from that being the case he actually shut the door against her; that in this conduct M. des Voisins had offered her a gratuitous injury and insult, which would render it impossible that they could ever live together again as man and wife …” After three years of marriage and two children, she was granted a divorce.
Perhaps the apex of Taglioni's career came during the five seasons she spent performing to capacity crowds at the Imperial Ballet (now the Kirov Ballet) in St. Petersburg, Russia, from 1837 to 1842. Her stay in Russia was interspersed with trips to Vienna, Stockholm, Paris, London, and Milan. Taglioni was beloved by the Russian public, who snapped up caramels and cakes named for her; beauticians also did a brisk business in the Taglioni hairstyle. She nurtured the careers of young Russian ballerinas and contributed to the spectacular development of Russian ballet in the later 19th century. Upon her departure, according to one story, a group of her admirers bid 200 rubles at auction for a pair of her ballet shoes, which they then had cooked, topped with a special sauce, and served. Accounts of Taglioni's career are garnished with a variety of outlandish tales, which, even if unverifiable, attest to the sheer breadth of her popularity.
Retired from Dancing
One of the most famous appearances of the later stages of Taglioni's career came in London in 1845, in a so-called Pas de quatre, choreographed by Jules Perrot, that was designed to showcase the talents of Taglioni as well as three of the other great ballerinas of the day: Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito, and Lucile Grahn. Even in her early 40s, an advanced age for a ballerina, Taglioni was capable of graceful, bounding leaps that transfixed an audience. In 1847 she retired from the stage, moving to a villa on Lake Como in northern Italy. The home became a favored stop on the itineraries of well-heeled tourists.
After a decade, Taglioni felt the pull of the dance world once again and returned to Paris in 1858. She took the post of inspectrice de la danse at the Paris Opera, setting up a system of dance exams that was used for decades. But much of her energy was directed toward her student Emma Livry, for whom she created her sole work as choreographer, Le papillon (The Butterfly), in 1860. The ballet was a triumph, but Taglioni was shaken by Livry's death in 1863 in a freak accident in which her costume caught fire after brushing a gas lamp being used as a stage light.
Troubles shadowed Taglioni in her old age. She had been financially comfortable when she retired to Italy (the Times stated that she had “a complete museum of jewelry and works of art”), but poor investments begun by her father, further complicated by financial upheavals connected to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, drained her fortune. Taglioni moved to London, where she took on a few ballet students but mostly instructed young women in the new social dances, which was more profitable. Among her students was Mary of Teck, later England's queen consort as wife of King George V, and grandmother to Queen Elizabeth II. Mary related proudly in later life that she had been taught to curtsey by Marie Taglioni. Taglioni's name was still widely recognized enough that Vienna's Waltz King, Johann Strauss II, composed a Marie Taglioni Polka incorporating tunes from some of the ballets that had featured her most famous performances.
Marie Taglioni, once the talk of Europe, died destitute in Marseille, France, in 1884. She was buried in Marseille, but her body was later moved to the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris (it is marked “Comptesse des Voisins,” her title as a married woman). Many of the great dancers of the 1800s are known by little more than their names and a few documentary images—their dances themselves have been lost, for a thorough system of dance notation was not developed until the 20th century. But Taglioni continued to exercise a strong fascination in the minds of young dancers; after an ultimately erroneous report surfaced in 2004 that she was actually buried in Montmartre Cemetery, pointe shoes arrived from all over the world with requests that they be placed on her grave.
Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 edition.
International Dictionary of Ballet, 2 vols., St. James, 1993.
Lee, Carol, Ballet in Western Culture: A History of Its Origins and Evolution, Routledge, 2002.
Migel, Parmenia, The Ballerinas, Macmillan, 1972.
New York Times, April 23, 1873.
“Dancer on Wings: Marie Taglioni (1804–1884), Life in Italy, http://www.lifeinitaly.com/heroes-villains/marie-taglioni.asp (December 31, 2007).
“Marie Taglioni,” Theatre History Online, http://www.peopleplayuk.org.uk/guided_tours/dance_tour/ballet/romantic_taglioni.php (December 31, 2007).
“Marie Taglioni Charms Russia,” The History of Russian Ballet, http://www.aha.ru/=vladmo/d_txt10.html (December 31, 2007).
“Taglioni's Not in Montmartre,” The Dance Insider, http://www.danceinsider.com/f2004/f1006_1.html (December 31, 2007).