Arthur Saint-Léon


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(b Paris, 17 Sept. 1821; d Paris, 2 Sept. 1870)

French dancer, choreographer, ballet master, and teacher. He studied with his father, a ballet master, in Tuscany and Stuttgart and made his stage debut as a violinist in 1834 and as a dancer in Munich in 1835. He subsequently danced all around Europe, including Milan (1842) and London (various seasons, 1843–8). In Rome (1843) he choreographed his first ballet, Vivandiera ed il postiglione (mus. E. Rolland), which starred Cerrito. He married her in 1845 and they toured extensively together. In 1847 he created La Fille de marbre (mus. Pugni, after Costa) for her debut at Paris Opera and after its success he remained in Paris becoming teacher of the Class of Perfection and choreographer in 1851 and also mounting many ballets and divertissements including La Violon du diable (mus. Pugni, 1849) in which he himself played the violin. He separated from Cerrito in 1851 and left the Opera a year later. He worked as choreographer in Paris (Théâtre Lyrique) and Lisbon and in 1859 became Perrot's successor as ballet master of the St Petersburg Imperial Theatres where he staged many of his earlier works and created several new ones, including The Humpbacked Horse (mus. Pugni, 1864). Between 1863 and 1870 he also worked as ballet master at Paris Opera where he revived La Fille mal gardée in 1866 and in the same year choreographed La Source (mus. Delibes and Minkus). In 1869 he left Russia for good and in 1870 choreographed his last and most successful ballet, Coppélia (mus. Delibes).

He was acclaimed as a prodigiously talented dancer, with unusually high elevation and control though he was sometimes criticized for indulging in gratuitously acrobatic display. He was also considered a virtuoso on the violin and composed over 70 pieces of music, including scores for his own ballets, such as Saltarello (Lisbon, 1855). His choreography reflected his accomplishment in both fields. Though some of the librettos he used were thin or derivative, the ballets themselves featured brilliantly crafted, musical choreography, usually with passages of folk and national dance colourfully adapted for ballet. He also invented his own pin-figure system of dance notation which he published in 1852 as La Sténochorégraphie ou Art d'écrire promptement la danse. This was part of his endeavour to strengthen dance training, improve performance standards, and so halt the decline in ballet's popularity. The exercises and sequences he recorded give a clear indication of the advanced point to which dance technique had developed by the mid-19th century, though, ironically, he recorded none of his own major works for posterity.

Subjects: Dance.

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