With their themes of love, loss and longing for spiritual transcendence – not to mention their iconic white tulle costumes – The sylph and Giselle came to define the ballet of the romantic era. Almost two centuries since their first Parisians – that of Filippo Taglioni The sylph in 1832 and that of Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot Giselle in 1841, mostly during the Romantic period of ballet and coinciding with the period of the first Romanticism in music – they still capture our imaginations and break our hearts.
Giselle and The sylph define romantic ballet for a modern audience. However, they only represent two of the many ballets created between 1830 and 1845, a traditional range of the time; new story ballets have been choreographed and performed across Europe, usually telling tales of adventure, historical events, young loves and the lifestyles of the rising bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, Giselle and The sylph beautifully illustrate how earthly materials and mechanical technologies of the time captured and embodied the romantic zeitgeist. And an examination of the materials and musical instruments of the time provides wonderful insight into how the ballets were performed and what their experience may have been for the audience of the time.
The costumes of Act II of Giselle provide an archetypal example. Act II takes place in a dark forest in Germany, where the Wilis, the spirits of young girls betrayed by men and dead before they can get married, rise after dark to hunt down and kill all the men enough. madmen to venture into the forest at night. Giselle and her sisters Wili wear flowing white tulle skirts, which create an airy, soaring effect as they dance and a spectral translucency which is enhanced by dark stage lighting. Emblematic of the aesthetic of the Romantic era and staged in essentially the same way today, the scene embodies the era’s emphasis on popular beliefs, spirituality, connection with nature, desire and grief, as well as a touch of neo-gothic horror.
These evocative skirts made their ballet debut a decade earlier, at the Académie Royale de Musique (aka the Paris Opera) in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s 1831 opera. Robert the devil. In Act III, the questing knight Robert visits the ruins of a cloister at night. The spirits of the deceased nuns, represented by dancers from the corps de ballet wearing tulle skirts and illuminated by innovative gas lamps (in one of their first uses on stage), come out of their graves to tempt and taunt him . They created a sensation among theatergoers, ostensibly due to their spectacular weirdness as well as the reveal of their legs silhouetted through the illuminated semi-opaque fabric.
It was an invention from the 19th century to the turn of the 19th century that tulle could be produced efficiently and affordably enough for large-scale theatrical use. Before that, tulle lace was hand-woven on spools, a laborious and time-consuming process that made the fabric valuable and extremely expensive. Customers today use 25 to 30 yards of tulle to make a single romantic style tutu, so an Act II cast that includes Giselle, Myrtha the queen of wilis and a body of, say, 24 wilis, would require 650 to 780 meters – although the costumes from the original production of Giselle were made with, say, half the diapers, they would require a lot more fabric than what could be done by hand on a short order, a lot less at a reasonable cost. But in 1808, John Heathcoat invented the bobbin machine, which could produce net fabric much faster than human hands. Technical improvements over the next two decades allowed for larger-scale production in time for romantic clients to design the characteristic look of the time.
The emerging advanced technique also contributed to the magical effects of both ballets. While today’s pointe shoes are made with stiff uppers and hard, locked toes that provide solid support for tiptoe dancing, such shoe technology did not exist in 1832, when The sylph created in Paris with the principal dancer Marie Taglioni in mind. Taglioni wore the typical ballet shoes of the time, made of soft satin with semi-rigid leather soles, and simply darned at the sides and toes to create a bit of padding for his toes. Her brief pointe poses emphasized the ethereal quality of the main character, a flirty, winged pixie who tempts a young Scotsman named James away from his fiancee, Effie, on the eve of their wedding.
EA Théleur 1831 Letters about dance, depicts women posing on tiptoe in flexible shoes, and several books describe exercises to build instep strength to allow for tiptoe movements. Previously, the dance of the feet on stage consisted primarily of virtuoso tricks intended to dazzle the public; what made Taglioni’s point work in The sylph revolutionary was that it was used to express the essence of the Sylph’s character rather than simply to dazzle the eye. In 1841, Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi would employ cutting-edge work similar to that of the very first Giselle, to the same effect.
Ballet music was also evolving, with the early composers of Romanticism beginning to write original scores for ballets rather than simply reusing familiar tunes from operas. The music is so evocative and colorful that today it is sometimes performed in instrumental concert venues without dancers; musicians and audiences just have to imagine how dancing could enhance the experience and expression of music. Student musicians sometimes learn famous pieces from early Romanticism without even realizing that they are based on dance forms. But it is quite possible to get an idea of the quite sensible and dynamic collaboration between musicians and dancers of the beginning of the 19th century by probing a treasure of historical material.
The soundscape of early Romanticism was created by instruments that were constructed differently and sound different from those commonly used in ballet orchestras today. Modern innovations in the design of solid arches were not yet standardized; overall, the arches of the day tended to be more flexible and articulated than the arches of today. Until about World War I, ropes were made from cleaned, dried and stretched sheep gut (or metal wrapped around this material); gut strings are generally more flexible and responsive than modern metal strings. Manufacturers of wind instruments began to experiment with the size and shape of the bore, or the number and function of the keys. Design experiments for horns, such as adding valves, were just beginning. The magnificent balance of these wind and stringed instruments produced a brilliant variety of sound colors, and the versatility of a true early Romanticist instrument set complements the dramatic qualities of dance in different ways than an orchestra does. playing the same score on modern instruments is able to do this. .
One can also draw on abundant collections of original musical manuscripts which reveal the kinesthetic relationship between dancers and musicians. Specific examples of shorthand from the time show us exactly how dance and music align: here an opera or popular concert piece can be reused as a pivotal moment in a ballet of stories; there, a familiar (and difficult!) study for solo violin becomes a warm-up exercise in a ballet class. By playing the original music for dancers familiar with early 19th century ballet technique, we can see how a dance class was structured, follow the sequence of the dancer’s training regimen, and imagine how professional dancers moved on. scene to the rhythm of the music. A living line between music and dance takes shape before our eyes.
The rich collection of manuscripts is complemented by the erudite and well-documented personal stories of famous dancers, choreographers and musicians of the time. The ballet master again provides a useful example. From the 15th century until the 19th century, the dance master was a musician, or at least a violinist competent enough to accompany class exercises and preside over the junction of music and dance in the court and in the theater. Arthur Saint-Léon embodied this type of multi-talented professional. Virtuoso violinist, famous ballet dancer and choreographer, and ultimately dance master of the Imperial Russian Ballet, he was celebrated throughout Europe. In a scene from his 1849 ballet The Devil’s Violin (The Devil’s Violin) – a two-act Faustian tale of a violinist who sells his soul, with an original score by Cesare Pugni – Saint-Léon danced the lead role, in partnership with his wife at the time, the famous ballerina Fanny Cerrito, and was playing the violin. It’s a shame that so little of Saint-Léon’s work survives – a no six romance in one act of 1844 La Vivandière and the libretto for the complete 1870 comedy Coppelia – so thorough was his mastery of the performing arts of his time.
Although we live in a very different time, both culturally and technologically, with a historical legacy so rich in materials and research at our fingertips, we can invoke the appearance, sound, emotional qualities and beliefs under -adjacent to the romantic era ballet performance. Exploring the context in which ballets were born offers insight into their complexity and helps us to question contemporary assumptions about the choreography, libretto and music that have survived. By combining imagination and historical awareness, we can rediscover the experiential aspects of dance and music and better understand these arts as we practice them today.
* The authors would like to thank Sandra Noll Hammond for her scientific review.