(orig. Gaetano Apolline Baldassare Vestris, b Florence, 18 Apr. 1728 (or 1729); d Paris, 23 (or 27) Sept. 1808)
Italian dancer and choreographer. Father of Auguste Vestris. He studied in opera houses in Italy and Germany and with Louis Dupré in Paris. After dancing at various opera houses in Italy, he made his debut at the Paris Opera in 1748 and was appointed premier danseur in 1751. He performed in works by Rameau and Lully, and danced in court spectacles with his sister Teresa and his brother Angiolo (1730–1809). In 1754, however, he ran foul of the ballet master Lany whom he challenged to a duel on behalf of Teresa. The duel never took place, but Vestris was briefly imprisoned. Once released, he worked in Berlin and Turin, where he was ballet master for a short time. Returning to the Paris Opera in 1755 he continued to enjoy enormous popularity for more than thirty years, dancing leading roles in more than 70 ballets and operas. From 1761, on leave from the Paris Opera, he also danced with Noverre in Stuttgart, the latter exercising a great influence over Vestris's style. He created leading roles in Noverre's Admète et Alceste (1761), La Mort d'Hercule (1762), Médée et Jason (1763), and Orpheus und Eurydice (1763). In 1761 he was appointed co-choreographer (with Dauberval) of the Paris Opera and in 1770 he succeeded Lany as chief choreographer, a post he held until 1776 when Noverre succeeded him. As chief choreographer, he introduced the ballet d'action to the Paris Opera. In 1781 he danced with his son Auguste at the King's Theatre in London, a venue he returned to over the years. Their appearance there caused such a sensation that Parliament suspended its sitting to see them dance. He continued to perform at the Paris Opera until 1782, although he devoted much of his time to running the Paris Opera Ballet School and furthering the career of his son Auguste. Tall, long-legged, noble, and very dignified (in contrast to his small and athletically virtuosic son), he was considered a modernist and was one of the first dancers ever to appear on stage without a mask. He was also vain, once declaring that there were only three great men in Europe: Frederick the Great of Prussia, Voltaire, and himself. Still, there were those who would agree with him: he was often referred to as ‘Le Dieu de la danse’—the god of dance.