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Marie Sallé

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I’m interested in women who are in decision making positions in ballet, which is why I read Bronislava Nijinska’s Early Memoirs and posted about it.  Recently I have been researching Marie Sallé and having found information I decided to write this post.  However, in regard to the history of ballet I am an amateur, so I don’t claim that I know more about this subject than others on this website.  Actually I am hoping that others would be able to add to this post so I can learn more.  I seem to remember that there is a thread on “women in ballet,” but I can’t find it now. I also searched for information on Marie Sallé, but did not find anything. If someone could help me locate that information I would appreciate it.  

Born in 1707 Marie Sallé is described as the first woman to choreograph a ballet in which she danced.  She choreographed the ballet “Pygmalion” in which she danced the role of Galatea.  This work premiered at Covent Gardens in London on February 4, 1734.  The following is a contemporary description of the action of the ballet:

“‘Pygmalion enters his studio accompanied by his sculptors, who execute a characteristic dance, mallet and chisel in hand. Pygmalion bids them throw open the back of the studio which, like the forepart, is adorned with statues. One in the middle stands out above all the others and attracts the admiration of everyone. Pygmalion examines it, considers it, and sighs. He puts his hands on the feet, then on the body; he examines all the contours, likewise the arms, which he adorns with precious bracelets. He places a rich necklace around the neck and kisses the hands of his beloved statue. At last he becomes enraptured with it; he displays signs of unrest and falls into a reverie, then prays to Venus and beseeches her to endow the marble with life.

“Venus heeds his prayer; three rays of light appear, and, to the surprise of Pygmalion and his followers, the statue, to suitable music, gradually emerges from its insensibility; she expresses astonishment at her new existence and at all the objects which surround her.

“Pygmalion, amazed and transported, holds out his hand for her to step from her position; she tests the ground, as it were, and gradually steps into the most elegant poses that a sculptor could desire. Pygmalion dances in front of her as if to teach her to dance. She repeats after him the simplest as well as the most difficult and complicated steps; he endeavours to inspire her with the love which he feels, and succeeds.’”

The above was published in the Mercure de France for April 1734.  See  https://danceinhistory.com/tag/marie-salle/, under the heading “The First Ballet at Covent Garden” near the bottom of a long article. 

According to another article (see here: https://londonhuawiki.wpi.edu/index.php/Marie_Sall%C3%A9) “She [Marie Sallé] has dared to appear in this entree [Pygmalion] without pannier, skirt or bodice and with her hair down, she did not wear a single ornament on her head.  Apart from her corset and petticoat she wore only a simple dress of muslin draped about her in the manner of a Greek statue.”  Panniers were hoops worn in order to extend a women’s gown at the sides during the 18th century.  Also, the corset that she wore may not have been like the ones worn during the late 19th century.  The word “corset” comes from the French and means small body (cors = body), so it was a garment that was smaller than the stays worn at the time.  Also, it would not have been as tightly laced since the eyelets through which the laces went were sewn and not made of steel as later was the case.  It appears to me that a bodice would have referred to stays which would have been fully boned and laced up.  

The following information on Marie Sallé can be found at this link: https://peoplepill.com/people/marie-salle.  “As a choreographer she [Marie Sallé] integrated music, costumes, and dance styles of her ballets with their themes, thereby anticipating the reforms made by choreographer Jean-Georges Noverre in the late 18th century. She argued that costumes should reflect and represent the character, a novel idea at the time. This engendered a sense of ‘realism’ that had been largely ignored up to this point in the evolution of ballet and also allowed for greater physical freedom among the female dancers, especially, allowing them more opportunities without the restrictions of unwieldy and elaborate clothing on stage. She changed the costume from heavy long dress to muslin flowing material which caused shock and delight. She often performed without a skirt or bodice(sans-panniers), rebelling against the traditional costume and accepted gender norms of a very regimented era. She also worked in collaboration with composers such as George Handel and Christoph Gluck, commissioning compositions from them for her choreography, which helped to garner more respect for ballet as its own distinct art form.”  


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This link goes to a webpage entitled “6 female choreographers you might not know” (https://www.lafabriquedeladanse.fr/2018/evenements/6-femmes-choregraphes-que-vous-ne-connaissez-peut-etre-pas/).  (If you have trouble using the linke kindly let me know.)  The page is in French, but can be translated into English, although some meaning may be lost in the translation.  For example in the first paragraph is the line “Les critiques de journaux (eux aussi des hommes) consacraient des colonnes entières pour un danseur, contre quelques lignes pour une danseuse,” but the English is “The newspaper critics (also male) devoted entire columns to a dancer, against a few lines for a dancer.” 

The female choreographers are:

Françoise Prévost, b. 1680, 

Marie Sallé, b. 1707

Marie Taglioni, b. 1804

Mariquita, b. 1840

Madame Stichel, b. 1856

Bronislava Nijinska, b. 1891

Particularly of interest is this in the entry on Marie Taglioni, “Coming from a family of dancers and choreographers, we realize that in addition to being a magnificent first dancer of the Paris Opera Ballet, Marie Taglioni most certainly co-choreographed with her father Filippo Taglioni. We can cite in particular the creation of La Sylphide in these speculations…”   In addition the dancer also choreographed “Le Papillon” for Emma Livry who was Marie Taglioni’s pupil.  

Françoise Prévost choreographed her own dances in the ballet “Les Caractères de la danse” described as “a ballet presenting itself as a small study of movement with a series of fast, slow, cheerful, lively, graceful noble dances.”  The Oxford Reference website states that in this work Françoise Prévost “. . . danced and mimed the parts of eleven different lovers, both male and female,” see here: https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100344443.


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