Page:A Dictionary of Music and Musicians vol 1.djvu/143

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BALLET.
131
 

was recruited from the cathedral choirs, but for the ballet there were only the dancing masters of the capital and their pupils of the male sex to select from. There were no dancing mistresses, and ladies would not under any circumstances have consented to dance in public. On this point, however, the fashion was destined soon to change. Nymphs, dryads, and shepherdesses were for a time represented by boys, who equally with the fauns and satyrs wore masks. But at last ladies of the highest position, with Madame la Dauphine and the Princesse de Conti amongst them, appeared by express desire of the king in the ballets at Versailles; and about the same time several ladies of title taking advantage of the royal permission, joined the opera in the character of ballet-dancers. The first professional ballerina of note at the Académie was Mlle. Lafontaine, who with three other danseuses and a befitting number of male dancers, formed the entire ballet company. It is not necessary to relate the stories, more or less scandalous, told of various ballet dancers—of the Demoiselles de Camargo, of Mlle. Pélissier (who, expelled from Paris, visited London, where she was warmly received in 1734); of Mlle. Petit, dismissed from the opera for misconduct, and defended in a pamphlet by the Abbé de la Marre; of Mlle. Mazé, who, ruined by Law's financial scheme, dressed herself in her most brilliant costume, and drowned herself publicly at noon; or of Mlle. Subligny, who came to England with letters of introduction from the Abbé Dubois to Locke. The eminent metaphysician, who had hitherto paid more attention to the operations of the human mind than to the art of dancing, did honour to the abbé's recommendation, and (as Fontenelle declared in a letter on the subject) 'constituted himself her man of business.' We now, however, come to a ballerina, Mlle. Sallé, who besides being distinguished in her own particular art, introduced a general theatrical reform. In the early part of the 18th century—as indeed at a much later period—all sorts of anachronisms and errors of taste were committed in connection with costume. Assyrian, Greek, and Roman warriors appeared and danced pas seuls in the ballets of the Académie Royale, wearing laced tunics and powdered wigs with pigtails a yard long. The wigs were surmounted by helmets, and the manly breasts of the much-beribboned warriors were encased in a cuirass. Mlle. Sallé proposed that each character should wear the costume of his country and period; and though this startling innovation was not accepted generally in the drama until nearly a century later, Mlle. Sallé succeeded in causing the principles she advocated to be observed at the opera at least during her own time, and so far as regarded the ballet. Mlle. Sallé's reform was not maintained even at the Académie; for about half a century later Galates, in Jean Jacques Rousseau's 'Pygmalion,' wore 'a damask dress made in the Polish style over a basket hoop, and on her head an enormous pouf surmounted by three ostrich feathers.' It has been said that Mlle. de Subligny brought to London letters from the Abbé Dubois to Locke. Mlle. Sallé arrived with an introduction from Fontenelle to Montesquieu, who was then Ambassador at the court of St. James's. This artist was, indeed, highly esteemed by the literary society of her time. She enjoyed the acquaintance not only of Fontenelle, Montesquieu, and our own Locke, but also of Voltaire, who wrote a poem in her honour. In London Mlle. Sallé produced a 'Pygmalion' of her own, which, at least as regards the costumes, was very superior to the 'Pygmalion' of Rousseau brought out some forty or fifty years afterwards. In representing the statue about to be animated, she carried out her new principle by wearing not a Polish dress but simple drapery, imitated as closely as possible from the statues of antiquity. A full and interesting account of Mlle. Sallé's performance, written by a correspondent in London, possibly Montesquieu himself, was published on March 15, 1734, in the 'Mercure de France.' 'She ventured to appear,' says the correspondent, 'without skirt, without a dress, in her natural hair, and with no ornament on her head. She wore nothing in addition to her bodice and under petticoat but a simple robe of muslin arranged in drapery after the model of a Greek statue. You cannot doubt, sir,' he adds, 'the prodigious success this ingenious ballet so well executed obtained. At the request of the king, the queen, the royal family, and all the court, it will be performed on the occasion of Mlle. Sallé's benefit, for which all the boxes and places in the theatre and amphitheatre have been taken for a month past.'

Madeleine Guimard, a celebrated danseuse at the French opera during the Gluck and Piccinni period, is frequently mentioned in the correspondence of Grimm and of Diderot. Houdon, the sculptor, moulded her foot. Fragonard, the painter, decorated her rooms, until presuming to fall in love with her it was found necessary to replace him by Louis David—afterwards so famous as a historical painter in the classical style; Marie Antoinette consulted her on the subject of dress, and when by an accident on the stage she broke her arm, prayers were said at Notre Dame for Mlle. Guimard's injured limb. Marmontel, referring to her numerous acts of charity, addressed to her a flattering epistle in verse; and a popular divine made her munificence the subject of a sermon. The chronicles of the time laid stress on Guimard's excessive thinness, and she was familiarly known as the 'Spider,' while a wit of the period called her la squelette des Gráces. The French Revolution drove numerous French artists out of the country, many of whom visited London. 'Amongst them,' says Lord Mount-Edgecumbe in his Memoirs, 'came the famous Mlle. Guimard, then near sixty years old, but still full of grace and gentility; and she had never possessed more.'

Gaetan Vestris, the founder of the Vestris family, was as remarkable for his prolonged youthfulness as Mlle. Guimard herself—who, however, instead of being 'near sixty,' was not