Romantic ballet

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A style of ballet which was extremely popular in Europe during the 1830s and 1840s, and which paralleled the vogue for exotic, escapist fantasy which dominated Romanticism in all the other arts. One of its earliest manifestations was F. Taglioni's ‘Ballet of the Nuns’ created for Act II of Meyerbeer's opera Robert le diable (1831). A major element of Romantic ballet was a fascination with the supernatural. The plots of many ballets were dominated by spirit women—sylphs, wilis, and ghosts—who enslaved the hearts and senses of mortal men and made it impossible for them to live happily in the real world. Women dancers were dressed in diaphanous white frocks with little wings at their waist, and were bathed in the mysterious poetic light created by newly developed gas lighting in theatres. They danced in a style more fluid and ethereal than 18th-century dancers and were especially prized for their ballon as they tried to create the illusion of flight. Sometimes this was literally achieved through the use of flying harnesses and wires, but more significantly it was achieved by the new technique of dancing on pointe. Though female dancers did not yet wear the solidly blocked pointe shoes of the later 19th century—their slippers were stiffened only by lines of darning—ballerinas like M. Taglioni succeeded, by means of considerable muscular effort and control, to rise and dance on the tips of their toes, looking to audiences as if they were hovering just above the stage. A group of St Petersburg balletomanes are said to have celebrated their devotion to Taglioni's art by cooking and eating a pair of her shoes. The great surviving works of the period are La Sylphide (F. Taglioni, 1832) and Giselle (Perrot and Coralli, 1841). The second dominant element in Romanticism was a fascination with the exotic, which was figured through gypsy or oriental heroines and the use of folk or national dances from ‘foreign’ cultures (such as Spain, the Middle East, and Scotland). Such dances were considered highly expressive both of character and of exotic local colour, though in some countries, such as Italy, indigenous dances were featured in ballets whose plots reflected that region's surge of nationalist feeling. Male dancers were frequently relegated to the role of porteur in Romantic ballets with much less scope for dramatic or technical display, though in Italy and in Denmark their virtuosity was still prized. The general decline of male dancing in much of Europe, however, may have influenced the short life-span of Romanticism, as ballets were so weighted towards the feminine and the febrile. Although the era saw ballet develop into a truly international art, with European ballerinas travelling to Russia and the Americas, and individual works being staged by companies around the world, it lasted only two decades. In the main European centres it then degenerated into formulaic spectacle, and fashionable audiences drifted away from ballet to opera.

Subjects: Dance.

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