Born the son of a Swiss soldier and a Parisian woman, Jean-Georges Noverre, the man who was destined to transform the ballet, studied dance in Paris from an early age. At first a student of the noted master Marcel, he later studied with Louis Dupré, at the time the first dancer in the Paris Opera's troupe. He made his debut with the Opera ballet around 1743 in a production that Dupré directed of the burlesque ballet Le Coq de Village (The Village Rooster). In the same year he danced for the royal court at the Palace of Fontainebleau, outside Paris. In these early years of his career he came in contact with the great naturalism of the female dancer Marie Sallé as well as with the expressive music of Jean-Philippe Rameau. These two influences left their mark on Noverre's career as he labored to develop ballet as a form of drama. In the years that followed his Paris debut, Noverre left Paris for Berlin, where he performed in a number of productions. By 1747, he was back in France, where he may have taken a short post in the city of Marseilles before moving on to Strasbourg.
In Strasbourg in 1749, Noverre made the acquaintance of the actress and dancer Marie-Louise Saveur, whom he married. A year later, he was called to dance at Lyons, France's second-largest city, where he partnered with Marie Camargo, France's great female dance virtuoso. In 1751, he staged his first pantomime ballet there, a production of The Judgment of Paris. In his subsequent engagements as choreographer and dancer in the next few years at Strasbourg and Paris he did not continue to stage pantomime ballets, but instead confined his work to more traditional ballets filled with complex figural patterns and the virtuosic displays typical of the time. His productions were noteworthy, however, for their complex stage scenery and costuming. Because of his failure to garner a permanent position at the Paris Opera, Noverre left France for London in 1755. Here he worked with the prominent man of letters and impresario David Garrick at the Drury Lane Theater near Covent Garden. At the time, relations between France and England had turned sour, and an upswell in anti-French sentiment condemned Noverre's production of The Chinese Feast to failure. The crowds who attended this production even erupted in a riot after one performance. Unable to earn a living in England, Noverre returned to Lyons, where he began to work on his book, Letters on Dance and Ballet. Published in 1759, the book was an immediate success and it did a great deal to enhance his reputation throughout Europe.
Letters on Dance.
Noverre's letters on dance developed ideas that France's Enlightenment thinkers were promoting about the nature of the arts. The philosophes, as they were known, stressed that art was far more than a mere adornment or ornament to life. The arts possessed the power to ennoble humankind by presenting to the race an image of beauty as well as the range of human emotions. The thinking of the Enlighteners stressed the ability of the various arts to convey ideas, thoughts, and feelings in ways that were unfettered by courtly conventions and elaborate rules. Around the time that Noverre was writing his book on dance, the famous Enlightenment dramatist and encyclopedist Diderot produced his play The Natural Son. In that work he de-cried the merely decorative and ornamental nature of the ballet in his time, and he expressed the fervent hope that a master might come along who could show the art a way out of its decadence. It was Noverre who took on this task in his Letters, and in the remainder of his career he devoted himself to transforming the ballet into a dramatic, rather than merely athletic, art.
Move to Stuttgart.
While France's Enlightenment thinkers and literati found his Letters on Dance a compelling work, Noverre's colleagues in French opera houses were not won over. After working at the Opera for only a short time as a choreographer, he made his way to the court of the Württemberg dukes at Stuttgart, which was then home to a more experimental dance culture than in either Paris or Lyons. Here he produced about twenty ballets before the company he directed was disbanded in 1767. At that time he secured his most important position—ballet master to the Habsburgs at Vienna—where he staged almost forty ballets in eight years. His productivity in Vienna was enormous, and his most important ballets date from this period. The resources of the Habsburg imperial court were considerable, and their musical culture was among the finest in Europe. Noverre staged his ballets to music by Gluck and several other Viennese masters, including Josef Starzer and Franz Aspelmayr. As a result of these performances, his reputation as a choreographer spread throughout Europe. Despite rivalries with other dance masters—most notably the Italian Gasparo Angiolini—and brief periods of unemployment, Noverre continued to be in demand as a choreographer throughout the continent for most of the rest of his life. In 1776, for example, he finally achieved the position he had long desired as ballet-master at the Paris Opera. Although he remained in this position until 1781, the Parisian audience was not receptive to his artistic vision, and he accepted a semi-retirement from the company in 1779. Many complained of his choices of themes as well as his refusal to stage ballets that were a part of a larger opera. Noverre, ever convinced of the cause of his art, took some of his productions to London, and over the course of the following years, he staged ballets and divertissements in England and Lyons. He retired, but in the 1790s the inflation of the French Revolution forced him to return to choreography. At the height of the Terror he fled to London and produced a number of productions; when his fortunes improved, he returned to France, where he spent the rest of his life in retirement.
Noverre's artistic ideas contained in his Letters on Dance and Ballet were undeniably his most important contribution to the theory and practice of dance. He advocated an art freed from the merely ornamental and subjected to new dramatic discipline and emotional expression. Many other ballet masters of the period openly advocated reforms similar to those of Noverre, and some of their own innovations preceded this French master's. Noverre's widely published book, however, established a place for its author in posterity, so that he has long been wrongly credited with single-handedly transforming the ballet into a form of dramatic art. Noverre's own theatrical career was checkered with many failures and a few successes. The high point of his activity occurred in Vienna during the late 1760s and 1770s. After this time, the choreographer never matched the success he had experienced in this environment, although his intellectual influence on dance persisted by virtue of his widely read Letters.
Ivor Guest, The Ballet of the Enlightenment (London: Dance Books, 1996).
Deryck Lynham, The Chevalier Noverre: Father of Modern Ballet (London: Sylvan Press, 1980).
Pierre Tugal, Jean-Georges Noverre, der grosse Reformator des Balletts (Berlin: Henschel, 1959).
Marian H. Winter, The Pre-Romantic Ballet (London: Pittman Publishing, 1974).