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Cerrito, Fanny (1817–1909)

Cerrito, Fanny (1817–1909)

Italian ballerina and choreographer. Born Francesca Cerrito in Naples, Italy, in 1817; died on May 6, 1909; studied at the Ballet School of the Royal Theaters; married dancer and choreographer Arthur Saint-Léon, in April 17, 1845; children: (with the Marqués de Bedmar, a Spanish noble) Matilde (b. 1853).

Fanny Cerrito, considered one of the finest ballerina's of the Italian Romantic school, was the daughter of modest Neapolitans who doted on her. Although it was always her wish to dance, she was short and plump as a child and showed little outstanding talent. However, as a student at the Ballet School of the Royal Theaters, she worked so hard on her technique and physical appearance that by age 15 she was ranked as a solo dancer. She made her debut in July 1832, dancing a pas de deux in L'Oroscopo. Cerrito subsequently toured Italy and Austria (in Vienna they converted her name from Francesca to Fanny, which she used from then on), before becoming the prima ballerina at La Scala in Milan. There, she studied with the renowned Carlo Blasis, whose precepts influence the teaching of classical ballet to this day.

Originally scheduled for April 30, 1840, her London debut at Her Majesty's Theatre was postponed due to a rowdy demonstration over the failure of the management to produce a favored tenor for the same show. On May 2, with Queen Victoria in attendance and a promise that the tenor in question would soon appear, Cerrito's debut took place. She was an instant success, as much for her opulent figure as for her dancing.

Waiflike slimness was not always de rigeur for ballerinas. In the 19th century, they were admired for their ample bosoms, wide hips, and sturdy legs. One critic, quoted in Parmenia Migel's The Ballerinas, took a ballerina to task for what was later to be considered a dancer's great attribute:

We are grieved to utter unpleasant truths about Mlle Fitzjames. … The sight of her abnormally thin body is quite painful. … Mlle Louise Fitzjames has no body at all; she is not even substantial enough to play the part of a shadow; she is as transparent as a lantern pane, so that the corps de ballet girls who hover behind her are quite visible through her.

Cerrito's dancing was praised as spectacular, especially her leaps and point work, and even the appearance of her serious rival Maria Taglioni could not eclipse her success. Amid accolades,

she returned to La Scala and a successful tour of several Italian cities.

The year 1843 was a turning point for Cerrito. After excelling in Perrot's Ondine, in which she also presented some of her own choreography, she was asked by Queen Victoria to dance the pas de deux with Fanny Elssler at a Royal Command performance. The success of this performance led to the sensational pas de quatre with Maria Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi , and Lucille Grahn , staged by Perrot in 1844. Cerrito danced other notable roles in Perrot's ballets, including a goddess in Le Jugement de Pâris (1846), Air in Les Eléments (1847), and Spring in Les Quatre Saisons (1848).

In 1847, during her brief marriage to her dancing partner Arthur Saint-Léon, she made a successful debut at the Paris Opera, dancing La Fille de Marbre, which had been choreographed by her husband especially for her. Saint-Léon was apparently not as gifted a choreographer as Perrot but understood how to take advantage of his wife's particular talents as well as his own. Although Cerrito left him in 1851 and became involved with a Spanish noble, Marqués de Bedmar, she stayed at the Opera, where she starred and also choreographed. In 1853, at age 36, she had a child, Matilde. The Marqués de Bedmar became a devoted and generous father to the child, whose parenting continued after his affair with Cerrito had ended.

Motherhood did not prompt Cerrito to retire, and she remained busier than ever, but her greatest joy was now her daughter. Her career included two seasons in Russia between 1855 and 1857, where she made an appearance at the coronation celebration for Alexander II. Although she grew quite round (Cerrito lost her adorable plumpness early in her career, prompting critics to extol her dancing "in spite" of her figure), she did not stop dancing until 1857, after which she remained active in the ballet world for another half century. Fanny Cerrito lived in Paris until her death a week shy of her 92nd birthday. Not long afterward, Paris witnessed the arrival of Anna Pavlova , one of the greatest dancers of modern times.


Migel, Parmenia. The Ballerinas: From the Court of Louis XIV to Pavlova. NY: Macmillan, 1972.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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