Taglioni, Maria (1804–1884)

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Taglioni, Maria (1804–1884)

Italian ballerina who was one of the most acclaimed dancers of the Romantic period. Name variations: Marie Taglioni; countess de Voisins; countess of Voisins. Born in Stockholm, Sweden, on April 23, 1804; died in Marseilles, France, on April 23, 1884; only daughter and one of three children of Filippo Taglioni (1778–1871, a dancer and choreographer) and Sophia (Karsten) Taglioni; niece of Salvatore Taglioni (1780–1868, the principal dancer and ballet master at Naples); aunt of Maria Taglioni (1833–1891, also a ballet dancer); married Count Gilbert de Voisins, in 1832 (separated 1835); children: daughter Marie ("Nini," b. 1836); son Georges (b. 1843, father unknown).

"Legend has completely triumphed over fact," wrote the celebrated ballet historian André Levinson about famed ballerina Maria Taglioni, one of the most acclaimed dancers of the Romantic period. "A literary fiction has colored the truth regarding this great person; the lyrical outbursts of poets exalted the 'Sylphide' to the seventh heaven; the engravings which adorned Keepsakes masked her real features beneath a likeness of pure convention. The complex and private life of a human being is submerged under a monotonous and verbose phraseology, because mediocrity in literature had never sunk so low as during the aftermath of 1830." According to Parmenia Migel , much of the record on Taglioni was set straight by her biographer Léandre Vaillat, who had access to many of the ballerina's private papers in preparing his work. Migel's one complaint, however, is that Vaillat was so enamored of his subject that he too glossed over many of her imperfections.

Maria Taglioni was born into a great ballet family. Her father Filippo Taglioni was a renowned Italian dancer, choreographer, and ballet master and his brother Salvatore Taglioni was the principal dancer and ballet master at Naples for half a century. Maria's younger brother Paul was also a dancer and choreographer, and Paul's daughter Maria Taglioni (1833–1891) would have a dancing career prior to her marriage to Prince Joseph Windisch-Grätz in 1866. Maria's father Filippo was in Stockholm, Sweden, when he met and married Maria's mother Sophia Karsten Taglioni , the daughter of the leading opera singer Christoffer Karsten. Maria was born in Stockholm in April 1804 but grew up in Vienna (where her two brothers, Gustave and Paul, were born) and in Cassel, where Filippo served as ballet master until the Napoleonic wars made him decide to move his family to Paris. Maria was nearly 12 when she began studying ballet with her father's teacher. "She was a thin, stoop-shouldered, unprepossessing child, and it did not help matters that she often played hooky from class or failed to make a sufficient effort whenever she was present," writes Migel. At 17, when Maria was expected to make her debut, she simply was not ready, and Jean Aumer, the newly appointed ballet master at the Paris Opèra, suggested to Sophia Taglioni that her daughter might be better suited to dressmaking than dancing. In the meantime, Filippo, now serving as ballet master in Vienna, sent for his family and arranged for Maria to debut at the Kärnthner-Thor. When he realized that she was unprepared, he put her through a rigorous six-month training program which kept her on the brink of exhaustion.

On June 19, 1822, cured of her poor posture, and thoroughly schooled in the restraint, delicacy, and good taste demanded by her father, Taglioni made her debut in La Réception d'une nymphe au temple de Terpsichore, a ballet staged especially for the occasion. "For the first time that my daughter Maria appeared on the stage, she obtained the very greatest success," wrote Filippo in his journal. For the next year, Maria continued to dance in Vienna, gaining assurance and poise and observing such experienced dancers as Amalia Brugnoli , from whom she learned much about dancing on point.

After Vienna, Taglioni performed for three months in Munich and then went on to Stuttgart, where she received an even more enthusiastic reception. She spent three years there, the happiest of her career, although her father kept her hard at work, perfecting her point technique and her famed ballonné style. During the summer before her last year at Stuttgart, Maria, accompanied by her family, went to Paris to practice for her debut at the famed Paris Opéra. She would make six mandatory trial appearances with the Opéra before obtaining a contract, the first of which occurred on July 12, 1827. Dancing the pas in Le Sicilien, she was "a more than total success," as her father noted in his diary. By her sixth appearance, she had inspired some jealousy among the Opéra's personnel. (By one account, envious rivals scattered bits of soap on the stage before her entrance, hoping she might fall.) Over the course of the next two years, her popularity increased, culminating with her triumphant performance in the title role of La Sylphide, the ballet that from then on would be associated with her. Ushering in the Romantic era, the ballet is a fairy tale about a Scottish youth who sees and converses with a magical sylph-like creature invisible to everyone but himself. Coinciding with Taglioni's appearance in this important work was her signing of a six-year contract with the Opéra, at which time her father also became ballet master. Maria also celebrated another contract: her engagement to Count Gilbert de Voisins, who was considered a thoroughly worthless scoundrel by most everyone who knew him.

La Sylphide premiered on March 12, 1832, marking a number of production "firsts," including the introduction of a costume that would become standard for ballet dancers, the "romantic tutu." Designed for Taglioni by Eugène Lami, it consisted of a tight-fitting bodice, baring the neck and shoulders, and a bell-shaped light gauzy skirt reaching midway between knee and ankle to reveal pale tights and satin shoes, with a darned rather than blocked toe to support the foot on point. (Down through the years, the tutu has been adapted to various lengths, but has remained essentially the same.) The production also boasted a moonlit forest scene utilizing new gas reflectors, and the flight of dozens of sylphs, "flown" above the stage on invisible wires. It was Maria Taglioni's dancing, however, that inspired the most impassioned responses to the ballet. "Never before or since has there been such a gush of febrile, overwrought prose as that which flooded the Paris press from then on for years to come," writes Migel, who also quotes a few of the best: "The flight of birds or the airy passage of butterflies cannot be described in words; they must be seen. It is the same with Mlle Taglioni: language is powerless," or "She speaks to the soul; she makes one dream," or "To describe Marie Taglioni one would have to dip a hummingbird quill into the colors of the rainbow and inscribe it on the gauze wings of a butterfly." The ballerina particularly treasured a letter from one young man who upon seeing her dance was seemingly stricken with a fatal case of love sickness. "Farewell, farewell, beloved Marie. Your image, the image of Taglioni, will be close to me in the tomb."

Less than a month after the premiere, a cholera epidemic closed the ballet, and Taglioni fled Paris to perform in Berlin and in London, where on July 14, 1834, she married her count in a Protestant church ceremony. (Because the count's father disapproved of the marriage, the French civil ceremony was deferred until August 28, 1834, in Paris.) The groom, however, wearied of his bride quickly, and the couple separated after eight weeks. They reunited for a six-month period in 1835, but legally separately for good in 1844.

Shocked and upset by her husband's hasty departure, Taglioni then also faced some serious competition from Fanny Elssler , who made her own debut at the Paris Opéra in September 1834. Several years younger than Maria, quite a bit prettier, and dancing in an appealing staccato style, Elssler stole much of the spotlight from Taglioni. Their rivalry, fueled in part by the partisanship of the critics, divided the public into two opposing camps—Taglionists and Elsslerists—and grew uglier as time went on.

In May 1835, following her brief reunion with her husband, Taglioni was laid up for six months with her famous " mal au genou," a mysterious knee ailment which baffled doctors. The following March, she gave birth to a daughter Maria ("Nini"). From that time forward, the ballet community took to referring to the pregnancy of a dancer as " mal au genou." In 1843, Maria gave birth to a second child, Georges, whose father is apparently unknown. He may have been the writer Eugène Demares, who helped Filippo create the ballet La Fille du Danube for the dancer, and was reported to be her lover, but Georges' paternity has never been verified.

La Fille du Danube, meant to counter Elssler's stunning performance in the Le Diable boiteux, received only mixed revues, making Taglioni more cranky and temperamental than usual. Meanwhile, new management at the Opéra was not as patient with her frequent knee problems and refusals to perform. In 1837, Maria left Paris for an appearance in St. Petersburg, accompanied by her family and her lover Eugène, who now also served as her agent, manager, and librettist.

Maria's Russian debut was recorded by Eugène as, "Immense, immense success! Incredible success! Such as has never been seen before." Audiences indeed went wild, and tributes to the ballerina flowed in, including gifts of jewels

from Tsar Nicholas I—diamond and emerald broaches and earrings, and a garland of diamond and turquoise forget-me-nots for her to wear in her hair. Following her first season, she was contracted for four more years, with time allotted for tours to Poland, Vienna, and London. For Taglioni, now at the peak of her success, even the specter of Fanny Elssler seemed remote and unimportant. Her perfect world was shattered, however, when Eugène fell ill and died within two weeks. Despite her overwhelming grief, the ballerina went on with her work, dancing the lead role in her father's L'Ombre, which told the story of the ghost of a young girl seeking her lost lover.

Taglioni left Russia in 1842. Now a wealthy woman, she invested in a house on the shore of Lake Como and in two palazzi in Venice, where she planned to retire. Before leaving the stage, however, she returned to Paris to perform in a revival of La Sylphide, which was reviewed by Théophile Gautier, then the city's leading ballet critic. He noted that age had not diminished Taglioni's performance.

Always the same elegant and slender form, the same calm, intelligent, and modest features; not a single feather has fallen from her wing; not a hair has silvered beneath her chaplet of flowers! … What airiness! What rhythmic movements! What noble gestures! What poetic attitudes and, above all, what a sweet melancholy! What lack of restraint, yet how chaste!

Other critics were neither as verbose nor as kind, among them Albéric Second, who saw Maria perform in a revival of L'Ombre. "Don't speak to me anymore about your old Taglioni, that forty-six-year-old sylphide," he wrote, adding six years to the age of the ballerina, "who is always being thrown at other dancers, the way Molière is thrown at playwrights."

With retirement looming, and despite her turbulent temperament, Taglioni had apparently mellowed enough with age to agree to appear with three of her rival performers—Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito , and Lucile Grahn —in Pas de Quatre, composed by Cesare Pugni and choreographed by Jules Perrot, and performed in London. Called "the greatest Terpsichorean exhibition that was ever known in Europe," the four ballerinas were welcomed with clapping and cheering that continued throughout the performance, and a barrage of bouquets, wreaths, and garlands that so littered the stage it became almost impossible to dance amid the clutter. On the heels of this success, Perrot and Pugni staged Le Jugement de Pâris, in which Taglioni danced the Pas des Déeses with Cerrito and Grahn.

Maria Taglioni retired from the stage in 1847, although her professional career was not yet ended. In 1859, she was confirmed as Inspectrice de la danse at the Paris Opéra, a position she retained until 1870, and as such taught advanced classes. (As a teacher, she became the mentor of ballerina Emma Livry who died at an early age when her costume caught fire.)

As a result of some unwise financial speculations made by her father, Maria lost most of her fortune late in life, and was forced to move to London, where she established a school of dance and deportment. She lived on her own and remained socially active until 1880, when she went to live with her son Georges and his family in Marseilles. She died there four years later.

Maria Taglioni's influence upon ballet cannot be overstated. "She freed it from the lingering remnants of affectation, the artificial and stilted style of the 18th century," writes ballet historian Anatole Chujoy. "Her art invested ballet with a hitherto unknown quality of spirituality, emphasized by her technique, her prodigious elevation, and her ability to seemingly remain in the air at the highest point of ascent before descending."


Chujoy, Anatole, and P.W. Manchester, eds. The Dance Encyclopedia. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1967.

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

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts