The Ballet Elsewhere in Europe

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The Ballet Elsewhere in Europe


Dance was a vital component in the operas produced in Italy in the seventeenth century. In Venice, the home of Italy's first professional opera house, professional productions featured dance from the mid-seventeenth century on. The relationship between these ballets and the plot of the opera was usually loose, however, with composers and librettists devoting far less attention to creating situations in their works in which dances might arise out of the plot. The typical Venetian opera of the seventeenth century featured three acts, and dances were usually concentrated at the end of the first and second of these divisions. A key figure in shaping the character of these dances in Venice was Giovanni Battista Balbi, an impresario (much like a modern producer) who designed productions in Venice and choreographed their dances between 1636 and 1657. Balbi played a key role in the spread of Italian opera throughout Europe. Anne of Austria, the mother of King Louis XIV, summoned him to Paris in the 1640s, where he staged several productions that had a great impact on French ballet and opera. In the dances that he staged at Venice, he gave certain kinds of roles to dancers to perform. Many Italian operas of the time adopted pastoral themes, meaning that a procession of forest nymphs and shepherds frequently appeared on the stage—roles that dancers might easily perform. Balbi's productions, in particular, made use of exotic characters and even incorporated live animals into their fanciful productions. He also staged fantastic dream sequences as dances as well. Other roles commonly given to dancers in Balbi's time included demons and soldiers. While tragedy dominated many of the Paris Opera's productions, comedy played a greater role in Italian opera. Many roles for clowns, buffoons, and jesters were worked into productions—roles that were also ideal for dancers. As a new art form, the opera in Italy underwent rapid development in the course of the seventeenth century. While dances and ballets frequently peppered many of the productions of the mid- and late-seventeenth century, the


introduction: The English dance master John Weaver envisioned the revival of ancient pantomime as a way to reinvigorate the eighteenth-century ballet. In his Essay towards an History of Dancing (1712) he treated the subject of the pantomime, outlining its adaptability to modern dance.

After the Romans, by the introduction of the Asiatic luxury with the conquest of that country, had sunk into effeminacy and lost all the manly taste of the great arts as well as arms, the stage (which too often in its ruin has forerun that of the country) sunk into ridiculous representations, so that the poet's part grew the least considerable of it. The pompous passage of a Triumph, rope dance, and twenty other foolish amusements, carried away the people's affections and took up the representation, so that the admirable effects of tragedy and the agreeable diversions of comedy were lost in noise and show. Then arose a new set of men called mimes and pantomimes to restore that imitation without words which was lost among them. The stupidity of the people was not moved with the conception that in a manner confounds credibility, yet the testimonies of eyewitnesses are too strong to suffer us to doubt of the matter of fact, but the accounts are so strange, that they almost exceed the belief of our times, where nothing like it is performed by any of our French pretenders to dancing. Nay, even some of our best actors are so little acquainted with this mimicry, or imitation, that they appear insipid and dull to any spectator who has any notion of the characters which they represent.

The mimes and pantomimes, though dancers, had their names from acting, that is, from imitation; copying all the force of the passions merely by the motions of the body to that degree as to draw tears from the audience at their representations. It is true that with the Dancing, the music sung a sort of opera's or songs on the same subject, which the dancer performed, yet what was chiefly minded, and carried away the esteem and applause of the audience, was the action of the pantomimes when they performed without the help of music, vocal or instrumental.

The actions and gestures of these mimes and pantomimes, though adapted to the pleasure of the spectator, were never thought a general qualification fit for persons of quality, or gentlemen, from thence to derive a graceful motion, mien, or handsome assurance in conversation. It is true that many of the Roman young nobility were very fond of them and attempted to learn their art till there was a law made that no pantomime should enter a patrician's house. It is likewise true that Augustus Caesar gave Laberus, though a mimick, a golden ring, which used to be the honorary present of soldiers that had served their country in the war, as we gather from Pliny and others …

The pantomimes, as I said before, were imitators of all things, as the name imports, and performed all by gesture, and the action of hands, legs, and feet, without making use of the tongue in uttering their thoughts, and in this performance the hands and fingers were much made use of, and expressed perhaps a large share of the performance. Aristotle says that they imitated by number alone without harmony, for they imitated the manners, passions and actions by the numerous variety of gesticulation.

source: John Weaver, An Essay Towards an History of Dancing (London: Jacob Tonson, 1712): 118–121. Text modernized by Philip M. Soergel.

reforms fostered by the Arcadian Academy at Rome after 1695 tended to relegate dancing more and more to the intervals between acts. The Arcadian theorists wanted to eliminate much of the comic buffoonery that existed in the Italian operas of their day, and instead introduce serious or pastoral themes that treated Arcadian figures and heroes, in imitation of the earliest operas that had been performed around 1600. Under the influence of these reforms, ballet began to be used in many Italian operas at the turn of the eighteenth century like a French divertissement. Dances, in other words, became diversionary entertainments staged between the scenes of the opera. Few documentary sources survive from the Italian theaters of the seventeenth century. Unlike France where systems of notation developed to record the precise steps used in dances, Italian choreographers did not develop a system to set down their creations. Scattered accounts of dances are all that survive to provide us with a glimpse of many of the Italian opera's ballets. These suggest that the ballet in Italy was a vehicle for demonstrating greater gymnastic ability and athletic prowess than in the relatively refined forms that flourished in Paris at the same time.


The Restoration of the Stuart Monarchy in England in 1660 played a vital role in the history of dance in that country. Charles II (r. 1660–1685) was a great lover of the theater, and a steady stream of French dancers, theatrical producers, and choreographers traveled to England in search of employment in the wake of his return to the throne. One of these was Robert Cambert, a French composer who is often credited as being one of the "fathers" of French opera. Cambert came to England in 1673 to serve as music master in the household of Louise de Queroualle, a French noblewoman who was also the Duchess of Portsmouth. Louis XIV had arranged his appointment there, and at the time the Duchess was the Stuart king Charles II's favorite mistress. Cambert established a Royal Academy of Music similar to the French institution that was just beginning to take shape in Paris at the time, but the fledgling institution soon failed. England, in contrast to France and many other European countries, remained without a royal opera house until the twentieth century, though operas were frequently staged in the many professional theaters there. Cambert's work in England—especially his staging of two of his operas, Ariane and Pomone—helped to establish a taste for French opera in the country as well as for French dancing. Several other imported entertainments followed as well. During the last quarter of the century French ballet thus came to mix with native traditions in England, especially with the tradition of the masque. The result produced a new short-lived genre known as "semi-opera," the most famous of which was Henry Purcell's The Fairy Queen of 1692. These productions made use of the ballet practices common to the French operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully, while drawing on traditions of production that had been common in the Stuart Masques and other theatricals. Even as opera began to flourish as a site for ballet in England, dancing acquired a greater role in the professional theater of the period as diversionary entertainments between the acts of drama. The presence of a number of prominent, professional English dancers in London around 1700 reveals the rising appetite of Britons for professional ballets of a type similar to those that were already flourishing in France and Italy. Among these figures, the choreographer and dancer John Weaver was the most prominent. Weaver translated Feuillet's Chorégraphie, publishing it as Orchesography in 1706. His work in this vein did a great deal to establish Feuillet's system of notation in England and to spread patterns of French ballet in the country. Hester Santlow Booth, one of the first female professional dancers in England, was also a fixture of the theatrical life of the period. She debuted at the Drury Lane Theater near Covent Garden in 1706, and until her retirement in 1733 she continued to dance in many theatrical productions, particularly those choreographed by John Weaver.

Elsewhere in Northern Europe.

The popularity of French and Italian forms of dancing spread to many other parts of Central and Northern Europe in the later years of the seventeenth century. After suffering great devastation during the Thirty Years' War, Central Europe's theatrical and musical traditions began to revive in the later seventeenth century. At Hamburg, Germany's first public opera house was opened in 1678, and a little more than a decade later, in 1689, Lully's Acis and Galatée was staged there. The fashion for the French-style ballet soon developed in the town's productions, and the choreographers at work there derived much of their inspiration from Lully's uses of dance. Austria was the second great center of opera production in seventeenth-century Central Europe. The Habsburg Emperor Leopold I first began to support the production of these "musical dramas" as early as the 1650s, staging a number of Italian productions at his court in Vienna, while in mountainous Innsbruck, a Venetian-styled opera house was first constructed in 1654, the first such theater to exist north of the Alps. Under Habsburg patronage, the opera flourished for a time in both towns, although Vienna's dominance in the Austrian operatic world emerged largely as a result of Habsburg patronage. Similar court operas developed around this time in Munich, Dresden, and Hannover, while in Scandinavia, Stockholm became home to a vigorous tradition of opera and ballet performance.


Irene Alm, "'Four Corners of the Earth': Exoticism in XVII Venetian Opera," in Musica Franca: Essays in Honor of Frank D'Accone. Eds. Irene Alm, et al. (Stuvesant, N.Y.: Pendragon Press, 1996): 233–57.

Susan Leigh Foster, Choreography and Narrative. Ballet's Staging of Story and Desire (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1996).

Donald. J. Grout, A Short History of Opera (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988).

A. Macaulay, "The First British Ballerina: Hester Santlow c. 1690–1773," Dancing Times xxxi (1990–91): 248–50.

Sarah McCleave, ed., Dance and Music in French Baroque Theatre: Sources and Interpretations (London: IAMS, 1998).

E. Rosand, Opera in Seventeenth Century Venice: The Creation of a Genre (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1991).

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The Ballet Elsewhere in Europe

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