Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Apollo's Angel

I am currently reading APOLLO'S ANGELS: A HISTORY OF BALLET by Jennifer Homans.

When I tell someone, they glaze over a bit because Ballet of course has a reputation for um..a kind of staid quality.. In the beginning portions of this book it is clear the author (an ex-ballerina) is going to lay some heavy details on the reader. Homans cannot and should not go around these details ( the monotonous ins and outs of french court life and it's rules, both artistic and political WITH vintage diagrams) because obviously they paint a larger picture.
The book's title hails from the early French court performances in which Kings and later, professional men dramatically ( and literally) likened themselves to the God Apollo. In essence, ballet afforded these ''french gods'' a way to express their privilege and divinity to the masses.

Gratefully homans soon discuses the Iconic Ballerina, whom in the beginning phases of ballet were prohibited since any important court ritual was taken solely by men. Woman's bodies moving and expressing virtuosity was too much to withstand for the time. When the female ballet figure did come along, it folded in the essential ingredients for what would become modern classical ballet. Sex, Grace, Mystery, emotion AND virtuosity. Not to say men cannot imbue those elements, but the ballerina would secure it's place within the art. ( partly due to obvious character restrictions on females... partly due to obvious biological advantages).

I was intrigued to learn per usual, the tastiest part of any art form mimics ( in this case quite literally) the street. There is too much to reiterate , but to put it plainly, the first ballerinas of note Marie Sallé ( French) and Carmargo ( Italian/Spanish) turned the french noble style into a distinctly feminine direction with a contemporary taste for eroticism. Interesting too, Ballet is a tradition who's rules and styles are primarily passed down through word of mouth, due to it's lack of text to support Ballet's many shifts and progressions.

I learned (To no surprise) early female ballet dancers were often also esteemed courtesans. .....While not exactly what we generally accept as 'femisism', it did afford them financial , moral ( often corporal) freedom from their husbands and parents since their employ fell under the king. Unprecedented female Independence.

Still, choosing an unorthodox path, the successful ballerina had to be cunning, beautiful, artistically talented and lucky to travel from one end of her life to the other without financial and social ruin. Which makes my favorite example Marie Sallé .....born in 1707.

Despite Marie Sallé's great beauty, she boldly refused the courtesan route... Voltaire once called her " the cruel prude" :) She hailed from a ''lowly'' social position in France as a fairground performer and rose to prestige ( In London) by proving dance could express essential human truths at times better than the printed word. She tossed aside masks and requisite court clothing of the time ( masks and hoop skirts), dressing plainly ( but revealing) in draped chiffon. , .

She hiked up her dress ( gasp !) to reveal her ankle , showcasing fine and fancy foot work ( oh the cheek on that girl!!). She was the first to instinctively meld sex and ballet. With unconventional virtuosity, she displayed great emotion, which for the time was stark and disarming. She used natural gesture to add sugar to sometimes unpalatable court artifice and structure.

After a long, successful career Marie Sallé returned to Paris and lived a quiet life with an Englishwoman named Rebbecca Wick, to whom upon her death in 1756, left all her worldly possessions.

Below are some sculpture I found online in her likeness at a French estate ... they are so beautiful and mysterious and perfectly Marie in a way .. objet d'art .