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Dancers in the 19th Century


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These days, it seems that every girl in the U.S. between the ages of 2 and 20 is either enrolled in ballet classes or has taken them. Judging from conversations with my co-workers who have daughters, ballet has evolved into a rite of passage for certain girls - girls, that is, whose parents can afford the lessons.

Was a similar dynamic at work in Europe in the early 20th and in the 19th centuries CE? I've read that at one time, ballet was a not altogether reputable profession and that women who danced were considered by some to belong to the demi-monde.

But if that was ever true, how, then, did men become dancers? Why were male dancers looked down upon in France but celebrated in Russia?

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Was a similar dynamic at work in Europe in the early 20th and in the 19th centuries CE?  I've read that at one time, ballet was a not altogether reputable profession and that women who danced were considered by some to belong to the demi-monde.

But if that was ever true, how, then, did men become dancers?  Why were male dancers looked down upon in France but celebrated in Russia?

As far as I know people from regular middle class backgrounds did not train to be in a ballet company et al. Upper-middle class boys and girls learned various forms of social dances and that was it. There were of course amateur theatricals and every vaguely upper-middle class family had a piano and the daughters played and sang. This was however not intended to develop into any kind of serious professional thing. Women graced the home and pleased their husbands and fiancees.

I'll happily stand corrected if I'm wrong but in most case people who went into the theatrical arts did so because they came from a family of actors, dancers and what have you. Nijinsky's dad was a dancer; so was Karsavina's dad, wasn't he? Stravinsky's dad was in the Mariinsky orchestra. The fact that these people were extrardinarily talented was just a coincidence, though being in the business from day one sure helps to hone your talent fast.

This tradition of a trade used to be very much a given thing in the past. You were part of a subculture, especially in the arts. Think of the old guild unions, too. Social and professional mobility to the degree we know now is a fairly recent thing.

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My take is similar to Herman's. I do remember reading once (where I can't remember, but probably in Ivor Guest) that in 19th century Paris, some girls were drawn to the ballet because there they could be free. You were "owned" by your father until you were given away, as it were, to your husband, who then owned you. BUT if you got enrolled on the lists at the Opera, then the state, in theory, owned you, which meant you were free to live your own life more or less as you wanted it. So ballet attracted rebels as well as second and third generation dancers.

There's another medieval tradition that kept dancing in the family and I don't know when it stopped; I think it continued through at leasdt part of the 19th century. This was that an actor (or dancer or singer) could not receive the sacraments -- could not be buried in consecrated ground, could not be married in the church. This meant that no one outside the theater would consider marrying an actor/dancer/singer and they tended to marry each other. There were some theatrical families that went back 400 years (like the Prices, who began in England and traveled all over Europe before landing in Denmark). Marian Hannah Winter's wonderful (and out of print) "The Pre-Romantic Ballet" writes of these families. A large part of the research of her book was spent in the graveyards of Europe (since these people died outside of church records) tracing tombstones, names, dates.

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There's another medieval tradition that kept dancing in the family and I don't know when it stopped; I think it continued through at leasdt part of the 19th century. This was that an actor (or dancer or singer) could not receive the sacraments -- could not be buried in consecrated ground, could not be married in the church.  This meant that no one outside the theater would consider marrying an actor/dancer/singer and they tended to marry each other.

Anyone interested in these matters should really read Balzac's Illusions perdues (Lost Illusions), particularly pertaining the life of the adorable actress Coralie, who obviously did quite a bit of dancing, too, in 1830s Paris.

In Coralie's case, too, the whole modern idea of having options never really enters the picture. She's not even hugely talented; she's just vivacious and pretty and she's got one or two powerful backers.

The Balzac novel is also an excellent source for understanding the seedy side of the 19th theatre. Pretty much every actress / dancer had one or two wealthy / old protectors who paid for their apartments and upkeep, and in this rather heavy schedule they also had to mix their real lovers, who typically were from the same artistic bohème - actors, musicians, writers, journalists.

Please, do yourself a favor, and read Illusions perdues. It's a magnificent, heartbreaking novel.

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One reason that ballet training in Europe was attractive to many parents is that in some countries (Russia and Denmark certainly, I'm not sure about France), if a child was accepted into the state ballet school, his or her education was free. That lifted a substantial burden off the shoulders of the parents, especially if they had several children to educate.

That was why Balanchine wound up at the Maryinsky. His mother took him and his sister to Petersburg in an attempt to get Georgi into the Naval Academy (another state school that would have provided him with a free education) and Tamara into the Maryinsky. They were too late for the Naval Academy, and Tamara didn't get into the ballet school, but someone casually suggested that Georgi audition. He was accepted, and the rest, as they say . . . :)

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This is a bit off topic, but I agree with Herman Stevens about the fascinations of Lost Illusions and its sequel, Splendeurs et miseres des courtisanes, oddly translated in the Penguine edition, as A Harlet High and Low.

I don't recall, actually, that Coralie was a dancer, at least insofar as Balzac discusses her performances. There is a minor character named Tullia who is specifically refered to as a dancer.

Balzac was greatly interested in the nature of journalism and the theater (most of it private, profit-oriented, and without any scruples). This commercial theater was very dependent on the Parisian newspapers, and Coralie and other actresses were intimately involved in the business of bribes, subsidies, subscription-peddling, etc., in order to assure favorable publicity in the press.

Perhaps the state-supported Paris Opera Ballet was somewhat insulated from this need for constant money grubbing.

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In Britain - and specifically London - in the first half of the 19th C, female performers were rarely only 'ballet dancers' - they were dancers, but usually also singers and actors as well. The theatre as an industry didn't really separate out into wholly stage play/ballet/opera/ repertoires until the middle of the century, when certain theatres became identified with particular genres of performance.

And performers were certainly not anywhere near middle-class! It was a sure way to lose class status for a woman to adopt the stage as a profession, although the connection between 'chorus girl' and 'prostitute' was one of legend rather than fact - msee Tracy Davis, Acresses as Working Women (Routledge 1991) for a good scholarly discussion of this.

That is not to say, however, that performers - male or female - could not enter into respectable society, particularly if they were part of some of the great performing dynasties (Fanny Kemble is a good example here). For a more commercially-oriented family doing theatre - including dance - at a much more populist level in London, the Conquest family is worth looking at. They ran theatres and the companies which played in them, and combined family-raising (to provide the next generation of performers!) with a dancing school which trained the chorus for their oantomimes and so on. There's a good (if rather old-fashioned) biography by Frances Fleetwood, Conquest: The Story of a Theatre Family, (London: W. H. Allen, 1953).

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Yes, London would be totally different from Paris or St. Petersburg because there was no opera/ballet company and school. And all over Europe there were the "fairgrounds entertainers" that Parmenia Migel documents so lovingly in her book, "The Pre-Romantic Ballet."

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In situations where dancers and other theater people emerged from "theatrical" families -- when and how did the process start? Presumably someone in the family was the first.

Where there were court theaters, did the first performers emerge from families which had a history of serving royalty in other, non-theatrical ways? I can imagine, for instance, a time when Louis XIV and his nobility either got bored with organizing dance spectacles, or got too old to do them. Where did they turn for replacement casts? Footmen and chamber maids? I can't imagine them recruiting from the Parisian lower classes.

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The first court theater schools were established by Royal Charter and the students were.....children of palace servants, sometimes specifically orphaned children of palace servants. (They weren't ALL bad, those kings!)

The fairgrounds dancers.....try to get ahold of Winter's book (which is terminally out of print, but in some libraries). The Price family, which is still at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen (!!!) was English and has been a theatrical family for 450 years. Can you imagine that? The first were probably those entertainers who went from village to village on market day -- the central charactes in Bergman's "Seventh Seal." Later, some of the fairgrounds in major cities had temporary theaters, and they danced (acted/sang) there. Not forgetting the rope dancers, who just slung a rope between two trees and went at it. Redbookish mentioned that they sang as well as danced -- like musical comedy people turned "straight" actors today. There were several dancers in the 19th century who had to choose between singing and dancing for a career. (Bournonville was one. He had a "pleasing tenor" if he did say so himself, and chose ballet because he wanted to make productions and ballet was rarely censored, as there were no words.)

Another thing, redbookish's post reminded me, were the actor/managers, in British theater, at least. Repertory companies directed by their leading actor -- he chose the rep and starred in everything. That became too expensive, I would imagine, when the unions came in, and the current model -- one theater, one play, one specified length of time -- became a necessity.

Back to the theatrical families -- I think I posted above that one reason "show business" remained in the family is because performing artists were excommunicated by the church and not allowed to be buried in consecrated ground. Even someone as eminent as Moliere was buried under cover of darkness by order of Louix XIV; he couldn't allow his friend to lie in unconsecrated ground and no one was going to tell Louis he couldn't. But most people were, like Giselle, buried in a forest. Who would marry into a family like that? And it was a difficult, insecure life. Winter (author of "The Pre-Romantic Ballet") spent most of her life tracking these families by reading tombstones in Europe's graveyards. She dedicated her book to those families -- there are dozens of them.

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Last semester I wrote a brief (10 page) paper on the artwork of Degas inspired by the ballet of the Paris Opera.

Here's a bit on how\why many entered:

"Most of the girls came from parents of the poverty-sticken lower-middle class who enrolled their daughters at ages seven and eight with the hope that they would be hired by the company in a few years’ time and help bring money into the household. For three years these children, underfed and in cut-down clothing, would attend lessons from nine o’clock in the morning until four in the afternoons in the hopes that at age ten or eleven they would be good enough to begin earning an annual salary for their work. Sadly, most of the members were expelled with no other words while only a few from each class were hired by the Opera."

I also found that after the girls were hired it was actually their mothers who would find "gentlemen protectors" for their daughters. So not only were these girls exposed to forced labor in order to (hopefully) help support their families one day, but they were pushed into prostitution by their mothers.

"Unfortunately the families of the dancers were not the only ones to rely on the money of these wealthy patrons, but the Opera relied on them for financing productions as well, giving them a great deal of power. They bought their way into anywhere they chose to be in the Opera house (even changing rooms) at any time, could have scenes added to operas and ballets, and had a say in what would be chosen for the season."

How I viewed Degas's work was totally changed after I learned those dark, looming figures were not actors or managers... :) Poor little girls.

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Thank you, nouvelle. I definitely see what you mean about the "dark, moving figures." When you think about the dark side of the performing arts throughout so much of its history -- the poverty, insecurity, exploitation and desperation -- it's astounding that so much beauty was created. I hope that those poor, exploited "rats" felt some joy as they danced and pride in what they were able to achieve on stage.

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