The Enlightenment and Ballet

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The Enlightenment and Ballet


introduction: In France the Enlightenment thinkers criticized the conventions of the ballet of their time. The philosophes who shaped public opinion argued that the dances that were practiced in the opera ballets of the day did not serve to further the plot, but were instead mere gymnastics inserted to demonstrate the prowess of certain dancers. These sentiments were circulated widely in France and Europe through the publication of the Encylopédie, a massive compendium of Enlightenment thinking that commenced publication in 1751. Diderot was one of the editors of this project, and a few years after it began, he himself criticized contemporary ballet in a play he wrote entitled The Natural Son. In the Introduction to the printed version he made this lament about the dance of his day.

The dance? The dance still awaits a man of genius; because one seldom finds it used as a genre of imitation, the dance one sees is terrible everywhere. The dance should be to pantomime as poetry is to prose, or more precisely as natural speech is to song. It is a measured pantomime.

I would like someone to tell me what all these dances performed today represent—the minuet, the passe-pied, the rigaudon, the allemande, the sarabande—where one follows a traced path. This dancer performs with an infinite grace; I see in each movement his facility, his grace, and his nobility, but what does he imitate? This is not the art of song, but the art of jumping.

A dance is a poem. This poem must have its own way of representing itself. It is an imitation presented in movements, that depends upon the cooperation of the poet, the painter, the composer, and the art of pantomime. The dance has its own subject which can be divided into acts and scenes. Each scene has a recitative improvised or obligatory, and its ariette.

source: Denis Diderot, "Entretiens sur 'Le Fils Naturel,'" in Diderot's Writings on Theatre. Ed. F. C. Green (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1936): 97–98. Translated and reprinted in Susan Leigh Foster, Choreography and Narrative. Ballet's Staging of Story and Desire (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1996): 17–18.

Philosophical Underpinnings.

The movement known as the Enlightenment had an ever-deepening effect on theatrical dance during the course of the eighteenth century. Throughout the eighteenth century the thinkers of this broad, international movement argued that ancient superstitions and outmoded customs should be eliminated, and that reason should play a major role in reforming society. Their works were particularly important for all forms of literature and theater at the time because in France the leaders of the movement known as philosophes devoted special attention to the arts. In 1751, one of the greatest Enlightenment projects, the publication of the Encylopédie, began in Paris. This project was directed by the philosophes Denis Diderot (1713–1784) and Jean le Rond d'Albert (1717–1783). The two commissioned other like-minded progressive social figures to write the 72,000 entries contained in their project. Although the work was not completed for more than twenty years, its 28 volumes were released as they were compiled, and many of the subjects treated in it touched upon themes in music, dance, and the theater. With articles by such luminaries as Voltaire, Rousseau, and many other French philosophes, the Encylopédie profoundly influenced the ideas and tastes of educated French men and women in the second half of the eighteenth century. In their entries on dance and ballet as well as those on the theater generally, the philosophes supported the development of art forms that gave meaningful expression to human thoughts, ideas, and feelings, and they disregarded merely decorative or ornamental forms of art. The aesthetic ideas of their movement generally advocated greater naturalism in place of the contrived sophistication and majesty that had been such an important feature of Baroque aesthetics. The ideas of Enlightenment thinkers came to fruition in the second half of the eighteenth century in the emergence of new forms of ballet that attempted to convey meaning, drama, and the human emotions, eventually giving birth to a new genre known as the ballet d'action, a dance containing an entire integrated story line. The rise of the new form soon met resistance, although Enlightenment arbiters of tastes like the philosophes weighed in mightily on the side of these new art forms. In his play Le fils naturel (The Natural Son) (1756), the philosophe Diderot had decried the current state of ballet in his country, a state he argued derived from the inability of dancers to understand that theirs was an imitative, and not merely decorative, art. Dance, he observed, should play a role similar to poetry as an art form that heightened the expression of the human emotions. To do so, Diderot and other Enlighteners argued it should adopt the techniques of traditional pantomime and jettison the elaborate trappings customary in the Baroque theater. By the 1770s the taste of Europe's urban audiences shifted in favor of this position, and new danced dramas became a fixture in many European capitals.

New Directions.

At the same time, powerful changes were also underway in the day-to-day world of the ballet. As the art form achieved a new maturity, great new stars emerged whose careers and performances were avidly followed by the audiences of the day. As a result the quickly developing art form also began to acquire a greater independence from its long tutelage to opera. A new technical finesse emerged among the dancers of the eighteenth century, a development that was often at odds with the Enlightenment's advocacy of greater naturalism and sophisticated uses of drama. These competing demands—brilliance in execution and dramatic representation—often warred against each other, and the greatest French ballet performers and choreographers of the period sometimes left Paris in search of environments that were more amenable to their own artistic ideas. In this way the innovations and achievements of the French theater in the realm of dance came to be established in many of the opera houses of Europe.

Rise of Ballet Stars.

The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries had produced a number of notable dancers, but their careers and reputations were soon eclipsed by many new stars. Louis Dupré (1697–1774), a dancer who first debuted at the Paris Opera in 1714, continued to perform there until his sixties. In 1743, he became director of the Opera's school, and in this position he trained many of the great dancers of the later eighteenth century. Dupré was responsible for expanding the virtuosity of performance, and his gracefulness and physique were widely admired. Two ballerinas of the period, Marie-Anne Cupis de Camargo (1710–1770; Paris Opera debut 1726) and Marie Sallé (1707–1756; Paris Opera debut 1727) were noteworthy for expanding the repertoire of steps and leaps practiced by women and for reforming the conventions that governed female performance. Camargo was apparently the first ballerina to practice two leaps, the pas battu and the entrechat, previously reserved for men, an achievement that caused the philosophe Voltaire to observe that she was the "first woman to dance like a man." She was also the first woman ballerina to dance in slippers rather than heeled shoes, and she shortened the length of her skirt so that she could perform more difficult steps. Such departures earned Camargo both censure and adulation, although the path that she blazed was one that many prima ballerinas followed in the next decades. In contrast to Camargo's athleticism, Marie Sallé's dancing was noteworthy for its great subtlety and refinement. She, too, was something of a reformer and a renegade, however, and her agility engendered jealousy in the Paris Ballet. Although she was a student at the Paris Opera for a number of years, she did not make her debut as a star until she was twenty. In the intervening years, she divided her time between performing in London and Paris, first appearing in the English capital in a performance of Love's Last Shift in 1725. The performance that she staged there in 1734 of Pygmalion was also notable for its revolutionary costuming and great naturalness. Sallé discarded the cumbersome costumes and masks that ballerinas had worn to this point, and instead appeared with her hair let down and in a simple muslin shift. The performance was recognized for its innovative appeal from the start, and her production of Pygmalion ran for several months. Sallé's learning, ingenuity, and intellect also distinguished her among the dancers of her day; she was one of the first great ballerinas to associate with men and women of letters. In this way her own art and that of ballet writ large figured as topics discussed in the brilliant French salon culture of the period.

Differentiation of Styles.

Like opera, which developed several different kinds of genres that were suitable to performers who specialized in particular kinds of roles, ballet's dance styles became increasingly delineated and differentiated in the course of the eighteenth century according to three distinct dancing styles: grotesque or comic, noble or serious, and demi-caractère (the counterpart of character roles in acting). While many of the burgeoning caste of professional performers danced all three kinds of roles, some began to specialize in one of these particular forms; as time progressed, the ballet schools in France came to identify dancers for one of these three kinds of genres based upon their physique. Louis Dupré, for instance, was recognized for his great ability in dancing noble roles, although he still performed as other kinds of characters. As the eighteenth century progressed, many more dancers came to specialize in comic, grotesque, or character roles to feed the French audience's rising appetite for virtuosity and technical brilliance.


Perhaps the most influential performer and choreographer of the entire eighteenth century was Jean-Georges Noverre (1727–1810), a reformer who was controversial in his own day but who helped to transform the character of ballet in the second half of the eighteenth century. Noverre was born in Paris and trained at the Opera's ballet school under Louis Dupré. In his long life Noverre became an iconoclast, dedicated to destroying what he felt were outmoded and antiquated forms of the ballet. He was also a crusader for a new type of art, helping to create a new genre of dramatic dances known as the ballet d'action, works that are similar to the "classical" ballets of the nineteenth century by virtue of their enactment of a story. Noverre, in other words, took up the Enlightenment's call to create new forms of ballet that conveyed greater meaning and emotional depth. While he did not create the genre of ballet d'action single-handedly, he was so vital to its development that he has long been accorded the title "Father of the Ballet." For inspiration, Noverre turned to the pantomime ballets that had been performed in London and Paris with increasing frequency in the first half of the eighteenth century, particularly those of the English dance master John Weaver. The ideas of Louis Cahusac—another advocate for the inclusion of greater drama within ballets—were important, as well. Noverre also admired the many pantomime ballets that had been performed at the Comédie-Italienne in Paris between 1738 and 1756. Noverre fused these elements together in his works, and in a long and varied career he attempted to establish a philosophical underpinning to the ballet d'action that was consonant with the Enlightenment's demands for a more meaningful art. He was both a dancer and choreographer, and at times he worked in Paris, London, Stuttgart, Vienna, Milan, and Lyons. While he often produced the typical dance divertissements used in operas of the day, his passion was for the ballet d'action, the first of which he staged in Lyons in 1751. This work, a pantomime ballet, was not enthusiastically received, and Noverre moved to Stuttgart, a less staid environment, a few years later. At the same time, he published Letters on Dance, a work that advocated his dramatic theories and showed the influence of Enlightenment thinking as well. Its widespread circulation established him as the foremost dance theorist of the day and as an important writer more generally on the subject of aesthetics. In the Letters Noverre argued that dancers should abandon the elaborate costumes and trappings that hid their expressions from the audience, and that they should become adept, not only at the repertoire of steps that comprised their art, but in the skills of pantomime that might allow them to convey the human emotions and to tell a story. In the early 1760s he brought these ideas to bear while at the Paris Opera, but they were resisted, and Noverre left again for more congenial appointments elsewhere in Europe. Over time, his call for a more naturalistic art that was able to convey drama and emotional content was heard in the French capital as it was in many places during the second half of the eighteenth century. In Paris, the Opera's ballet eventually adopted principles more closely akin to those of Noverre, and in 1776, he was recalled there to choreograph productions once again.


While Paris had long been the cradle of the ballet's development, Noverre's career shows that new centers of dance were emerging as important sites for innovation during the mid- and later eighteenth century. Besides Stuttgart, the site for some of Noverre's most innovative productions, Vienna was also home to a flourishing dance culture in the 1750s and 1760s. At the same time that Noverre was advocating the development of a more meaningful form of ballet, the Italian dancer and choreographer Gaspero Angiolini (1731–1803) was also conducting experiments in ballets d'action in Austria. At Vienna, Angiolini staged a number of ballets in the city in partnership with Christoph Willibald von Gluck, Vienna's then-reigning court composer. In contrast to Noverre's calls for greater naturalism and for an art that was consonant with the emerging philosophies of the Enlightenment, Angiolini intended to revive the dance of Antiquity, hoping to stage complete dramas upon the principles that had been set down by the ancient Greeks. Like Noverre, Angiolini also produced diversionary entertainments to be inserted within operas and dramas, but his true allegiance was to dramatic forms of dance. He staged a number of ballets d'action on pastoral and mythological themes. One of his most daring productions was Don Juan, a work that provided great dramatic force since it ended with the central character being carried off to the torments of Hell at the ballet's conclusion. In this production Gluck's music suggested the terror that gripped Don Juan at this climactic moment. Gluck was a natural partner for Angiolini's ambitions since he had recently come to produce a series of "reform operas," works that aimed to present a broader range of human emotions and which attempted to integrate musical forms of expression more closely to the texts being sung. In his collaboration with Angiolini, then, Gluck provided music that augmented and heightened the danced pantomimes that conveyed a story. This new sophistication in creating a fusion between music and dancing suggested to the Viennese audience some of the possibilities that lay within the emerging ballet d'action's integration of the two art forms. Elsewhere in Europe the music for the new pantomime ballets was usually adopted from pre-existing pieces that did not fit so closely with the choice of dramatic story line, and the results were not always as appealing to audiences. While both Noverre and Angiolini labored to establish the new tenets of the ballet d'action, the two shared a number of differences. In contrast to Noverre's difficult and challenging intellectualism, Angiolini's ideas about the new art form were more straightforward and less complex. As a result, the two waged a long and sometimes bitter rivalry, but in tandem their efforts helped establish the new dramatic ballets within many key European dance centers of the day.


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

Ivor Guest, Le Ballet de l'Opera de Paris (Paris: Théâtre national de l'Opera, 1976).

—, The Ballet of the Enlightenment (London: Dance Books, 1996).

J. C. Manfred Krüger, Noverre und das Ballet d'action (Emdstetten, Germany: Lechte, 1963).

Deryck Lynham, Chevalier Noverre, Father of Modern Ballet (London: Sylvan Press, 1950).

Artur Michel, Ballet d'action before Noverre (New York: W.P., 1947).

see also Philosophy: The Enlightenment in France

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The Enlightenment and Ballet

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