Vestris, Gaetano

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Gaetano Vestris



A Distinguished Family.

Gaetano Vestris was born into a family notable for its dancers and musicians. His elder sister Teresa Vestris (1726–1808) was a prominent dancer at the Paris Opera during the 1750s, before becoming a courtesan. Gaetano's younger brother Angiolo also became a dancer, performing in Paris and then later in Stuttgart in the pantomime ballets that Jean-Georges Noverre produced there. In total, nine members of the family were connected with the Opera in Paris or distinguished themselves in the field of dance or music during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thus like the Bach family, who provided church and court musicians for the German principalities throughout the eighteenth century, the Vestris family was a major force on the Parisian musical and dance scene. Gaetano himself trained at the Paris Opera and performed there between 1749 and 1780. His career thus coincided with the rise of the ballet d'action, and he became the leading dancer of the mid-century. After retiring from performance, he continued to teach in Paris, training the male dancers who carried forward French innovations in ballet into the nineteenth century. Thus like Louis Dupré, who dominated dance in Paris in the first half of the eighteenth century, Vestris's long career assured his influence over professional dance for years following his death.

Tradition and Innovation.

The Vestris family had emigrated from Florence to France around 1740, and certain members seemed already to be well acquainted with Italian traditions of miming. The daughter Teresa was the first to make her way as a ballerina, performing in the Esterhazy Ballet in Hungary before moving on to Dresden and her later Paris debut. In Paris, she used her influence to obtain for her brothers Gaetano and Angiolo instruction at the Opera's school. As a student there, Gaetano studied with Louis Dupré, the greatest dancer and teacher of the first half of the eighteenth century. He acquired the traditional skills necessary to a ballet performer of the time. These included a ready athleticism, knowledge and mastery of all the steps and leaps that formed the ballet's vocabulary of movements, and a thorough understanding of how these were to be combined with the musical forms that had since Lully's time accompanied the opera ballet in France.


Although Vestris's training had been largely traditional, he performed in the new pantomime ballets that became popular after 1750. In addition, as a teacher and choreographer he adapted himself to the changes in technique that were quickly transforming the ballet. His tenure as ballet master at Paris coincided with a bleak period in the institution's history, and historical assessments have not always been kind to his choreography. Vestris tried to strike a balance in the works that he created for the Opera between the new and the old. While his productions have sometimes been discounted as too traditional, it must be remembered that this was a low period in many ways in the Opera's history. In 1763, the Opera's theater in the Palais Royale burned down, and for seven years, the company was temporarily located in the Tuileries Palace nearby. A new theater reopened at the same site north and east of the Louvre in 1770, but it was as cramped and inadequate as the one it had replaced. When it was damaged in a fire in 1781, plans were made to house the Opera and ballet in new, grander surroundings. Besides the problems of space at the time, artistic differences about the direction the Opera's dances should take were numerous. In creating new ballets, then, Vestris appears to have tried to strike a compromising chord, a chord that seemed to please few. In these years, though, he continued to dance and impress audiences with his athletic prowess, developing a reputation as the best living exemplar of the "noble style" in French dancing. By the early 1770s, Gaetano was in his early forties, and he sometimes deferred performing to allow his son, Auguste, to dance his roles. Auguste was even more definite about adopting the reforms that were circulating in the dance world of his day. While previous dancers had sometimes given up the masks and elaborate costuming to perform more complex roles, Auguste abandoned them completely. He was thus able to perform with such freedom of movement and to execute such a range of steps that the longstanding custom of decking dancers out in an array of trappings soon disappeared. Around 1780, both Gaetano Vestris and his son Auguste undertook a tour to London, where their ballets caused a sensation. Both Vestris's returned to Paris in triumph, and at his retirement from dancing a few years later in 1782, Gaetano was celebrated as a French national hero. He received a state pension as a result of his distinguished career.

Troubles in the Revolution.

Like many other dancers who had flourished in the aristocratic society of eighteenth-century France, Gaetano Vestris's fortunes fell on hard times during the early years of the French Revolution. As a result of the fiscal crisis, the new republican government cut off his state pension, and for a time, Vestris fell under suspicion of monarchical sentiments. He traveled again to London, where he became ballet master to the King's Theatre. In 1793, though, he returned to Paris, and the republican government restored his pension to him. During the 1790s his son, Auguste Vestris, as well as several of the students that Gaetano had trained, continued to dominate ballet performance in Paris.


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).

Spire Pitou, The Paris Opéra: An Encyclopedia of Operas, Ballets, Composers, and Performers. 2 vols. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983–1985).

Marian H. Winter, Pre-Romantic Ballet (London: Pitman Publishing, 1974).