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Société Auguste Vestris - “The Regent of Purity within Harmony”
  Auguste Vestris


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23 janvier 2011, neuvième soirée : Carlotta Zambelli

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Carlotta Zambelli « Régente de la pureté dans l’harmonie »
“The Regent of Purity within Harmony”

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“The Regent of Purity within Harmony”
by K.L. Kanter

23 January 2011

Printable version / Version imprimable   |  383 visits / visites

Born at Milan in 1874, Carlotta Zambelli was educated at the School of La Scala. There, she was taught by Cesare Coppini who became head of the School in 1883, and by the no-less illustrious Inspector Adelaïde Viganò.

As premier danseur, Cesare Coppini had created roles in divertissements to operas by Donizetti, Verdi … and had been the pupil of Giovanni Lepri, perhaps even of Carlo Blasis himself and certainly of Auguste Huss, who headed the School at La Scala from 1853 to 1868. Enrico Cecchetti would refer to him as "my celebrated master" ?

Amongst Coppini’s pupils were a galaxy of ballerinas renowned for their powerful technique in tours, batterie and pointes, notably Pierina Legnani who was about to create a sensation at Saint Petersburg.

Posterity is fortunate in that Coppini has left class notes, some published under the title Méthode de Cesare Coppini copiée pour l’élève Pierina Legnani (1887). Like Blasis, Cecchetti or Gustave Ricaux, Coppini’s method was based on Days of the Week. As for Adelaïde Viganò, she belonged to the dynasty of dancers established by Salvatore Viganò, who choreographed for Beethoven The Creatures of Prometheus.

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Théâtre de La Scala à Milan au XIX siècle

In 1894, Carlotta Zambelli and Clotilde Piodi (the latter was to quit the stage almost immediately thereafter), left Milan to join the Paris Opera. Then nineteen years of age, these two were the only graduates of La Scala selected by the Paris Opera’s director, Pedro Gailhard (1848-1918).

At Paris, Mademoiselle Zambelli met up with her compatriot Rita Sangalli, and with the great Spanish artist Rosita Mauri (1849-1923), who taught at the Opera until 1920 and advised Zambelli. In 1894, Mademoiselle Zambelli made her début at Paris in Gounod’s Faust, as première danseuse in the Pas du miroir.

In 1898, when Mauri left the stage, Mademoiselle Zambelli was appointed soloist, and was henceforth the queen of the Opera until she herself retired in 1930. A little later, a slightly-younger contemporary from the School at La Scala, Aïda Boni (1880-1974), was to become soloist at the Opera (1908 to 1922).

In 1896, the fouetté first dazzled the Paris balletomanes – fifteen, to be precise. They were executed by Mademoiselle Zambelli in a divertissement from the opera La Favorita. Unlike many Italian ballerinas of the day, however, Mademoiselle Zambelli’s reputation rested upon her vivacity, brio, grace and musicality, rather than on circus tricks - of which she was perfectly capable.

Circa 1919, the composer Camille Saint-Saëns thus wrote: "Prodigious in her virtuosity, Mlle Zambelli strikes me as the most astonishing dancer I have ever seen insofar as rhythm, and the intertwining of dance and music are concerned. In my ballet Henry VIII, these qualities are shewn to the most wonderful effect, and lend their true character to the Scots and Irish airs that abound in the divertissement."

Mlle Zambelli was Léo Staats’ muse in his ballets Namouna (Lalo), Javotte, España, Sylvia, Taglioni chez Musette and Cydalise et le chèvre-pied, and in Nijinska’s Impressions de music-hall (1927). She created Les deux pigeons in Albert Aveline’s version (after Mérante), and appeared in the reprise of Mérante’s La Korrigane. As Swanilda in Coppélia, she was showered with praise by the exile Russian historian André Levinson.

Apart from a brief passage in 1901 at the Maryinskii Theatre in Saint Petersburg where she danced Coppélia, Giselle and Paquita, Carlotta Zambelli reigned on the Opera’s stage from 1894 to 1930.

From 1930 to 1955, she taught the Grands Sujets at the Opera, and founded a private dancing school, the Académie Chaptal, that exists to this day.

Of all the French dancers, Carlotta Zambelli’s preferred partner was Albert Aveline (1883-1968), who shared her pedagogical beliefs and was to become her closest associate: the classical vocabulary was to be preserved in all its fullness. The strict, pure forms of the school of Blasis were to be defended both against Lifar’s innovations, and against what we would now call hyperextensions. She was wont to say that the dance would otherwise become the circus, and the circus, the dance.

Although Carlotta Zambelli’s personality was scarcely everyone’s cup of tea – very reserved, she appeared to be devoid of all empathy for her pupils – this "icy" objectivity was a strategy.

In the words of the ballerina Lycette Darsonval: "It was from Mlle Zambelli that so many of us learnt to be something other than a mechanical doll, but rather to enter into the spirit of a ballet and observe the play of feeling (…). Some may have found her rather severe, unbending in her instructions, and never reluctant to make an example of a pupil. Practice has shewn (…) that ‘Mademoiselle’ was right. To her, harmony was not a mere word. Although she was, so to speak, the apostle of academic tradition, she was a born "man of the theatre", a master of every kind of character dance and its roots in folklore. And as for her knowledge of every step, every style, every epoch – was this not far broader than her modesty would lead one to imagine? (…). Indeed, and above all, Mlle Zambelli remains in our eyes, the regent of purity in harmony."

A woman of few words and still fewer compliments, Mademoiselle Zambelli nonetheless found time to tell La Revue de la danse (15th November 1947): "The artist himself must be sensitive to that harmony, in other words he must acquire a real knowledge of art. And most especially, of music, without which the essential aspect of that complex entity, a ballet, will ever remain a closed book. Aware of that fact, virtually every pupil at the Opera has chosen to study music. And despite the burden of classwork and rehearsals, some of my pupils have even been awarded medals by the Conservatoire."

Finally, one should note that although the theatre was, in her youth, a sea of courtesans, Mademoiselle Zambelli set her pupils the example of moral independence as well. She stood for the artist of modern times, who intended to live from his work, rather than from his liaisons. Her influence was very considerable on several generations of ballerinas, including Suzanne Lorcia, Paulette Dynalix, Lycette Darsonval, Christiane Vaussard, Christiane Vlassi, Claire Motte, Jacqueline Rayet … as well as on the danseurs Michel Dussaigne, Daniel Franck, Serge Golovine, Jacques Touronde, Attilio Labis, Pierre Lacotte…

January 2011