Saturday, June 4, 2016

Romantic era ballerina-choreographers


OK, so this evening I was reminded by a loyal SFB patron and balletomane that I have not posted in a long time! Thank you, Jeremy, for nudging me back - AND for actually reading this blog! 
Recently I’ve been interested in two Romantic era ballerinas who also choreographed ballets - Therese Elssler, Fanny Elssler’s sister, and Fanny Cerrito. Therese Elssler created many divertissements for her and her more well-known sister, whom Therese frequently partnered en travestie (Therese as the male, Fanny as the female) - Therese was quite tall, 5'6" for a ballerina at that time. Therese also produced a full-length ballet, La Voliere for her sister, whose plot is highly suggestive when you look at the two sisters’ biographies. In the ballet, a woman who has been abandoned by a man (Therese) brings up her sister (Fanny) without any knowledge of the male sex. Of course, a man does gain access, and falls in love with the innocent sister; madcap adventures ensue, and all comes right in the end with a marriage and a reconciliation. Given the complications that various male suitors introduced into the Elssler sisters’ lives - pregnancies and illegitimate children, for one - and the necessity of accepting high-ranking male protectors in the early stages of a career - it seems fitting that Therese created a ballet that fulfilled a wish-fantasy, perhaps, of a self-sufficient world for two sisters who only had to rely on one another. 
Fanny Elssler also choreographed one of her most popular solos, the Cachucha, which was frequently excerpted from the ballet it originated from, Le Diable Boiteux. Elssler’s cachucha was one of the most popular dances of the Romantic era, and it was created by a woman. 
I’m also intrigued by the career of Fanny Cerrito. Cerrito was from Naples, trained at La Scala, and enjoyed her greatest success in London, where she reigned as one of the leading lights of the Romantic era. She was married for six years to Arthur Saint-Leon, the eventual choreographer of Coppelia (1870). Together they created the ballet La Vivandiere, which today survives as an excerpted divertissement (a pas de six) now credited solely to Saint-Leon, who worked in Russia for a time. Cerrito also worked with Theophile Gautier on the libretto for a full-length she choreographed for the Paris Opera, Gemma, in 1854, where she also danced the title role. 
I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for the negotiations that led to these productions. How did these women get their full-length ballets produced - at great expense - at the most prestigious theater in Europe? OR, perhaps it wasn’t that big of a deal after all? Perhaps their reputations, their work as dancers gave them a platform of respect? I’m so curious about what gender politics were at work when a woman created a ballet at this time. The view that has gotten a lot of airtime in the past 30 years is that Romantic era ballerinas were dominated by voyeuristic males and lacked a voice, quite literally. I think this is an oversimplification. Yes, the Foyer de la Danse was potentially exploitative (a backstage mistress market for the man-about-town), particularly of younger dancers who lacked prestige and means. (But what was the alternative for some of these women? Frankly, outright prostitution. ) And female dancers gained respect as artists, teachers, AND choreographers at a time when women were meant to be invisible in the public sphere. In fact the salaries for men, no matter how accomplished, at the Paris Opera were capped at 10,000 francs, while women could go from 10,000 to even 30,000 or 40,000. Saint-Leon was earning a relatively embarrassing 24,000 francs for choreographing AND dancing while ballerina Carolina Rosati raked in 60,000! 
If only Therese Elssler or Fanny Cerrito left us a memoir, so that we could understand their working conditions, their motivations, and their thought processes. But I think it is nevertheless worthwhile just to be reminded that Romantic era ballerinas DID choreograph. 
(originally published January 2015)

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