Auguste Vestris


Critiques de livre / Book Reviews

Dans la même rubrique
In the same section

Alexander Pushkin, Master Teacher of Dance
Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus
’Reconstruction of the Stylistic Features of Carlo Blasis’
Mime in Ballet
Mind over Body
Henning Kronstam : Portrait of a Danish Dancer
Danser avec le Troisième Reich

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All sections :


’Reconstruction of the Stylistic Features of Carlo Blasis’
(Monograph by Professor Flavia Pappacena, in Chorégraphie, published by Meltimi at Rome, 2003)

August 2004

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Do NOT be put off by the dull blue dustjacket and non-descript typeface of Chorégraphie, that, as its name does not suggest, is not a French journal, but rather an Italian one.

Nothing is dull, nor is there anything non-descript about this particular monograph, published in 2003 by Meltemi. Entitled "Reconstruction of the Stylistic Features of Carlo Blasis" (Ricostruzione della linea stilistica di Carlo Blasis), it is by the journal’s chief editor, Professor Flavia Pappacena.

An institution in the Italian dance world, Flavia Pappacena is Professor of Theory at the National Academy at Rome, author of several books on teaching, including an innovative work on the role played by rhythm in classical technique (Tecnica della danza classica : Il ritmo). As readers of the Blasis monograph will swiftly gather, Professor Pappacena is no dried-out academic raising clouds of paper dust over long-dead issues. She organises teaching seminars (in 2002, a three-day seminar on Bournonville, and in 2004, one on the Vaganova School), and in 1999, led a seminar called "Recovering, reconstructing and preserving the Italian choreographic School of the Nineteenth Century".

This may be practical stuff, but in Italy, "practical" means beautiful, original, effective, and insightful. Which in a nutshell, defines Professor Pappacena’s monograph.

Carlo Blasis (1795 ? - 1878), was born at Naples, grandson to a naval officer who fought Nelson in 1799 during the short-lived Neapolitan Republic. Blasis’ father fled to France, and there Carlo was educated in several disciplines besides the dance, notably music, at which his family excelled, mathematics and letters. He studied the dance at Marseilles with Dutarque, at Bordeaux with Blache, and at Paris with Gardel, Milon and Vestris.

Although the Academy attached to the Scala Theatre had been founded in 1812, it was only at the point Blasis was appointed to lead it (1837-1851), that it rose to fame. He was manoeuvred out of La Scala by intrigants, turned to choreography, and then, between 1861 and 1864, lived at Moscow, where he choreographed at the Bolshoi Theatre. Noted for his musical and literary ability, in 1871 he wrote a book on Leonardo.

The Traité Elémentaire

Professor Pappacena’s study is based upon a work of Blasis youth, the Traité Elémentaire, published in 1820 when he was but twenty-five. As Blasis allowed the Traité to be reproduced in all his later works almost without change, it can be taken as an authoritative statement of his views.

In writing the Traité, Blasis intended, expressly, to record the precepts of those he considered to be the masters of the "Modern" or "Neo-classical" School, notably Jean Dauberval, Auguste Vestris and Antoine Bonaventure Pitrot, although he also places Pierre Gardel of the "Conservative" School amongst his models In a manner new to the day, Blasis illustrated his technical points by drawings from his own hand.

As Professor Pappacena notes in a "caveat", Blasis’ text is dry and laconic, while the drawings cannot be said to be the work of an exceptionally-skilled draughtsman. To elucidate Blasis’ views, the Professor has been led to compare his precepts to those of Noverre, Gennaro Magri, Despréaux, Michel Saint-Léon, Théleur (actually an Englishman, named Taylor !) and others.

What ever did Blasis mean by "modern" ? It so happens that at the Marseilles, Bordeaux and Paris Theatres, the centre of the classical dance in the early 19th Century, one school of thought, the "Conservatives", proposed to remain within the mind-set of what is now known as "Baroque" dance: a four-square, face-on presentation of the body, strict adherence to the rules of opposition (opposite hand to leg), terre-&agrave-terre dance, a narrow ambitus of articulation, and a repertory of gesture dictated entirely by theatrical convention. Amongst the Conservatives, were Maxilimian and Pierre Gardel, Jean-Jacques Deshayes, and Jean-François Coulon, inter alia.

On the other hand, the Modern School - what one would call today an Experimental School - referred to the Renascence and to its "imitation of nature", to Leonardo’s enquiry into anatomy, the laws of motion, and the painterly arts, and to Raphael’s own work on that basis. It called itself Neo-Classical, for the same reason that the Renascence had examined the principles underlying the achievements of Ancient Greece in philosophy, the natural sciences, and art.

Essentially, a SCIENTIFIC world outlook, as opposed to the traditionalist outlook represented by Coulon and Deshayes.

From a hobby, to a métier

What were the features of this Modern School ? Professor Pappacena describes it as "vigorous, and competitive", and highly technical it was, to a degree never since surpassed, as one can see from Bournonville’s Conservatoire. The high demi-pointe (an innovation that makes anatomical sense), the multiple pirouette in all poses, the taut knee, the strongly-supported arm in, for example, bras en couronne, and the jumps we now call Grand Allegro, were all developed in the very early part of the 19th Century.

Such virtuosity could be attained only by daily study: the classical dance was to become a true profession, a métier, and no longer a hobby for mignons et mignonnes. The very idea of daily lessons was not accepted at the Paris Opera until in 1799, and became official policy only in 1829, following a protracted battle by Auguste Vestris and Albert.

In the 1960s, the scholar André Meynieux published a monograph entitled "Alexandre Pouchkine et le metier d’écrivain", where he discussed the emergence - in the wake of the American Revolution - of a new type of artist, who pressed for Copyright law, sold his work against royalties, and broke the chain of aristocratic patronage. The writer no longer had to bob and curtsey to a patron, and be "charmant". Had he, like Pushkin, the stomach for it, he could devote his metier to changing society.

Meynieux’s point is, I believe, relevant to the emergence of the Modern School of classical dance from the baroque form, which was essentially a manifestation of Court life and patronage, and thus always remained within the realm of the "charmant". The American Revolution, the work of people like Pushkin, Beethoven or Schubert, all of whom were Republicans, had made the old type of artist, the Court lackey, obsolete.

"Vigorous" because this is a bold statement by the individual, of his competence and sense of identity in his métier, and "competitive", because an independent being, can dare to challenge both himself, and others.

Le naturel

However, as Professor Pappacena shews, the Modern School, precisely because it referred to the ancient Greek and to the Renascence models in the plastic arts, aspired to a specific quality known as le naturel, which did not - how quaint ! - mean taking a pee or exposing one’s body parts on stage. Le naturel meant that for art to imitate the restless grace of nature, all effort must be hidden, and all artifice, disguised. That, in turn, traces the frontier of what is anatomically acceptable: an artist who is in pain, straining and cracking his articulations out beyond their ambitus, will not convey le naturel to his public. Accordingly, from le naturel would arise the quality both of "lightness" and "gaiety" (gaiezza), and that higher quality of joy (gioia), that made the dance an expression of the ideal of mankind, celebrated by Schiller in his Ode to Joy.

Le naturel was understood, equally, as the organising principle that allowed the artist to dispose the body in accordance with the classical principles of Unity, which meant achieving balance and harmony, and a fresh approach to the principles of contrast, perspective, and structural elements such as tracing a dynamic/oblique line in space.

(As for what we call "lightness" today, well, we have made not only the woman, but also the man, to be so excessively slender, with such etiolated limbs and brittle, bird-like bones, that the appearance of "lightness" on stage, is actually a misnomer - what we’ve got, is not lightness, but transparency. The dancers might as well be transparent ! )

Another important principle Flavia Pappacena stresses, is that of a firm central axis, around which the limbs form a sinuous contour; this concept was known as le moelleux.

Taken as an artistic whole, an artistic thought-object, these principles lead up to the notion of plastique, or as Blasis puts it in the Traité,

"to know whether a dancer be good (…) let the eye as it were hold the artist in the very instant in which he move (…) and if he be within the true principles… and a worthy subject for the artist’s pencil, then, this is a accomplished dancer (…).

This "overall grasp" of the figure is seen as being integrated into what Professor Pappacena calls a "compositional project" or draft.

By drawing a comparison between the figures in Blasis’ Traité, and myriad sketches, paintings, frescos, friezes and so on from ancient, Renascence and contemporary sources, Professor Pappacena, who collaborated in drafting her monograph with archaeologists, art historians and antiquarians, shews that the notion of plastique was a concern as central to the great dancers of Blasis’ day, as it is scorned by most of our own contemporaries, a notable exception being Roger Tully in London. Over a half-century of teaching, Professor Tully has developed a dynamic concept of plastique, that he has described as a "channel" that allows the onrushing stream of otherwise-inchoate energy, to clothe itself with form.

Another important aspect Professor Pappacena emphasises, is the notion of vaghezza, or a kind of indefinite charm, that can only be achieved by an artist endowed who is "fully aware and sensitive" to the significance of what he is doing. Claudina Cucchi, a student of Blasis, wrote:

"The School of Blasis had none of that severity and rigidity proper to M. Huss, who took over from him… it was a school of grace, of brio, where one sought to bring forth the dance’s effects throughvaghezza (…). M. Blasis was a very knowledgeable man, a splendid writer (…) who knew the art of the dance in most wonderful detail and in the very finest shading, the which, made it an art of the intellect (…) He would not be satisfied with a well-executed pirouette or entrechat, but required that each movement be lent that characteristic feature of grace and lightness, a feature that will not appear unless there be a serious education of both the soul, and the intellect."

Although Carlo Blasis’ school was known as the nursery (pépini&egravere) of European ballerinas, including Amalia Ferraris and Sofia Fuoco, for whatever reason he taught few men, and in point of fact, only instructed Cecchetti’s own Professor, Giovanni Lepri, for one year, 1847. There are other reasons, however, that lead Professor Pappacena to doubt that Cecchetti might be described as a direct descendant of Blasis’ school: her thesis is that from the 1870s on, "the dancing of the man was strongly contaminated by the influence of the Italian grotesque genre", which is where, she believes, Cecchetti may have taken the that phantastical bent knee in batterie and jumps, and also, where the pirouette with retiré at the knee rather than at the cou de pied may come from.

Under the impulse of Haydn and Beethoven, one sees in Flavia Pappacena’s study how the Modern School swept away the effete and trivial effects of the Aristocratic Age, and turned to clean, clear and sound principles, expecting that the classical dance would emerge as a great art form, a new type of Sheakespearean theatre. Unfortunately, that has not happened. We have deliberately reverted to every flaw and weakness the Modern School laboured to do away with: the weak broken wrist and elbow (thank you SO much, Mr. Balanchine), the rigid, unsupported arm, the four-square, face-on shallowness of the Baroque ethic, to which we have added our own little piglet’s squeal: the ugliness of shameless nudity, and the cracking open of the articulations, as indecent, as it is cruel.

Also fascinating, the study Flavia Pappacena has made of Blasis’ use of the foot: "from its dorsal area to the toe, the foot lies exactly along the line of the tibia, and accordingly, the toes are not bent under like the claw or beak of a parrot, but rather, as Bournonville later wrote, look like the nib of a quill pen". Thus, in tendu, one sees the foot delicately placed against the floor, not weight-bearing and screwed into the ground as we do today, which practice quite destroys the sense of aplomb. On pointe, the "Blasis method" gives a ramrod-straight foot, quivering like a spearhead in the ground, without any spilling out of the shoe. As studies of photographs until the mid-1960s shew, we were until very recently using the foot precisely like that - until, that is, the Balanchine-driven foot fetish, and the obsession with the pointe shoe, drove the little that was left of anatomical sense out of our heads.

A noted professor has just drawn to my attention that if one curl the toes under to give that photogenic "big arch" effect so sought-after today, the Achilles tendon is actually pinched or cramped, and one is no longer using the under-side of the foot properly, whereas those are precisely the muscles one needs to take contact with the floor on landing from a jump. One would also need to look at how the "big arch" disorganises the calf muscles - but that would take us too far afield for our purposes today.

There are many intriguing ideas in Professor Pappacena’s study that cannot be discussed here, either for space reasons, or because we cannot reproduce the drawings that illustrate them, such as a study of the difference between ballon and elevation. However, one should not omit her exposé of the development of the arabesque and attitude figures (bearing in mind, incidentally, that another Professor at Rome, Francesca Falcone, has written a monograph solely on the development of the arabesque).

We are so used to dealing with these figures, that one forgets that they did not grow on trees, but were invented by an individual human mind, at a precise moment in time. In the early Nineteenth Century, a small group of dancers and professors actually sat down, or rather stood up ! and worked them out. We find in her monograph dozens of variations on the arabesque and attitude form. None are the same, though all rest upon the same principles: no broken lines, no broken wrists, and never a leg raised above la hauteur (hip level). While in our own day, we are, poor things, satisfied with but one or two common-garden forms, differentiated only by how high we can haul up that leg !

Finally, Professor Pappacena discusses the emergence of the concept of épaulement, and how it came to be distinguished from the earlier notion covered by the term effacé, that comes to us from the art of fencing. In fencing, one uses effacé to "eclipse" the torso, and thus put out of harm’s reach the vital organs. In the very early years of the 19th Century, the terms effacé and épaulement were used almost as interchangeable. However, as the Modern School broke with the old, four-square and frontal approach, épaulement was increasingly understood as a rotational displacement of the entire torso in space, in steps requiring impetu, while effacé described a more "decorative" effect of the upper torso in adagio and port de bras. Flavia Pappacena stresses that this was something quite new; that is how Bournonville also viewed it, going by his letters of the 1820s. One example that everyone will straightaway recognise, is that moment in the Flower Festival at Genzano where the woman steps onto arabesque effacé, and then suddenly shifts the entire torso towards the audience, changing épaulement not once, but several times ! If one have the strength to hold it, that is …

The Third, the Fourth, the Fifth

Amongst the issues that remain vexed down to our own day, is the question of the Third, Fourth and Fifth position. From Blasis’ Traité, it is clear that all three were used by the Modern School, and that the Fourth is an open Third, not an open Fifth as it is today. (Incidentally, for those whose memories go back further than what they had for dinner last night, I’ve got a book called Foerste Trin with photographs of the great Danish ballerina Toni Lander, dating from the early sixties. Her Fourth is plainly an open Third.)

Professor Pappacena reproduces two sharply-contrasted and almost contemporaneous pen-and-ink drawings: one by Blasis himself, shewing an épaulé Fifth in the position known to us today as the "Cecchetti" Fifth: the heel of the fore-foot, crosses only so far over the hind-foot, as to the joint of the big toe. Next to it, a pen-and-ink by Théleur, from his Lettres, shewing the Fifth as it is generally taught today, i.e. crossed heel-to-toe, with the characteristic, remarkably ugly diamond-shaped gap between the calves. Théleur has, so to speak "cheated", by shewing the fore-knee perfectly straight.

In Blasis’ text, he nevertheless refers to the Fifth as a "fully-crossed" position. Professor Pappacena notes this as quite a problem, and so do I, because - let’s face it - who, today, really wants to know what the Fifth position actually is, whether it actually exists at all, as a STATIC position, in the human body, or whether perhaps it may only truly exist in movement, crossed in the air in batterie ?

Only last week, another professor of note said the following (paraphrase):

"The Third position is the opening of the hip-joint, knees and feet, as that will come naturally, in other words, such as will allow one to dance turned-out, without harming the body, and without distorting the central equilibrium.

"The Fifth is not a true position. It is anti-natural, nor does it allow one to do any more, than what one could using the Third. Visually, it is most unattractive, lending the body a bizarre aspect by close-packing or settling on the bones(tassé), while the behind sticks out. It is, moreover, very hard to achieve, unless one were born with an unusual degree of turnout.

"Olga Preobajenskaya forbad use of the Fifth, owing to the fact that one must bend the knee to close it; she considered that this led to a clenching, a gripping, that is quite superfluous.

"To my mind, the only true use of the Fifth is for petite batterie dite &agrave l’italienne: to be light, the knee must be slightly softened; one collects oneself more easily, and then one can cross in Fifth, the more so, as the Fifth gives one a better push-off from the floor (….) but in any event, the Fifth should never be crossed beyond the joint of the big toe. Beyond that, it is both ridiculous, and quite anti-anatomical.

"In the Fifth, the ankle will tend to roll, and if one over-cross, the ankle will twist, the arch of the foot will tend to sink, and so forth."

And this is Gabriela Taub-Darvash, speaking to Gretchen Ward Warren:

"I was interested to hear Darvash instruct students to use Third, instead of Fifth, position when doing a fast series of tendus jetés (dégagés). "You have no time to put the foot in Fifth each time it comes in", she said, "If you try to do so, you will compromise the speed and precision of the working leg, including the ability to form a perfectly pointed toe. Also, if you close Fifth, you’re already sitting in your supporting hip (this is the only way anyone, even someone with perfect turn-out, can get into Fifth: it’s how the bones are). You don’t want to do this. You want to be able to move fast and never lose your placement on the supporting leg." She also notes that most dancers must bend their front knee slightly in Fifth position and "we don’t want that in fast dégagés &agrave la seconde because here we are practising the sideways leg action for beats. And we don’t bend our knees in beats, do we ?

"Dervash admits that her use of Third position is unusual, and I have never seen it used in any other advanced ballet class….But, as Darvash says (…) ’We have five positions in classical ballet. What for, if not to use all of them ?’"

(In The Art of Teaching Ballet, 1996, Univ. Press of Florida)

On stage - proof of the pudding - when things really get rockin’ and rollin’, the Fifth disappears altogether.

However, in a Hungarian textbook (Vaganova) of collective authorship, entitled Methodik des klassischen Tanzes, dating from 1964, and reprinted in 1981 by Heinrichshofen’s Verlag (ex-DDR), we read, without further ado or explanation, that the Third position will not be taught, not even to nine-year-olds, and that it is a matter for Historical and Character Dance alone. In most of the great academies in the world today, this is, I believe, more or less the standard view. What impact that may have on the skeleton as the individual reaches the age of 25 and begins to pile up injury, does not appear to be a worry.

In the August issue of Michel Odin’s " Danse Conservatoire ", Professor Juan Giuliano in his Libre Opinion, poses a string of questions that, as he rightly remarks, few care to ask, and few would even attempt to answer nowadays. Amongst those questions, curiously enough, one finds the matter of the Third and Fourth positions.

By now the reader has probably gathered that the approach chosen by Flavia Pappacena, leads the mind straight to questions quite, quite relevant to us TODAY.

Let the head spin !

Let us now turn, to coin a phrase, to the pirouette.

Professor Pappacena points to a drawing in Blasis’ Traité, of a mid-way preparation in plié somewhere between Second and Fourth position, the arms being slung across the torso, very plainly in the " wind-up " (over-reaching). The " wind-up " was dropped somewhere along the way (So far as I know, Bournonville does not allow it, nor was it admissible in the pre-Revolutionary Russian school). The Second-Fourth preparation was soon to be dropped as well, perhaps because the astonishing variety of pirouettes practised at that time, had to be integrated SEAMLESSLY into challenging choreographic combinations. Squatting down in some non-shape, no matter how much impetu it may give, was just not on.

It is fascinating to look at these drawings, and consider how the great dancers of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century experimented with technique, altering things with a view to both greater purity, and greater power.

As we no longer believe that pirouettes should be seamlessly integrated into anything at all, squatting, bouncing and over-reaching are unfortunately back, and with a vengeance. Again, the work of Roger Tully at London, on how the pirouette must spiral up from the enchaînement as the leaf from the branch, a slight épaulement initiating the rotation, is worth pondering in this context.

The retiré position in pirouette

One aspect that is not discussed in detail here, is the position for the retiré, although we do know that the Modern School introduced the taut knee and the high demi-pointe for the pirouette, and disallowed the hopping and skipping that had earlier been commonplace.

In this year 2004, putting up Abdallah for the first time in a decade at the Danish Royal Theatre, the instructors decided to experiment with the pirouette sur le cou de pied, rather than with retiré at the knee. Although the dancers at first found it very hard, owing to the fact that the retiré at the knee is closer to the centre of gravity, they discovered that to hold the cou de pied position, very different postural muscles come into play, and the centre must be strongly held. The body will thus be as though more " alert ", and the pirouette, fit more easily and fluently upon the phrase. Another feature of the qualit&agrave filantesought after by the Modern School.


Many of these extraordinary pirouettes ended in daring, wildly off-balance poses, that we would not attempt to perform today. How ever did they do it ?

In debating this question, Professor Pappacena devotes several pages to an exposé of the notion of aplomb. Based on Blasis’ study of Leonardo, the concept was a "line of aplomb", being the line joining the cavity below the Adam’s apple (fontanella della gola in Leonardo’s text) down through the space straight between the ankles, having a twofold value as "line of gravity", and "central line of the body".

Following Leonardo’s theories of ponderation and balance, aplomb is the premise for balance, stability and harmony of a figure, the preconditions being equal distribution of the limbs relative to the body’s central line, and, most especially, proper positioning of the hip-joint over the point of support on the floor ("stabilising the centre", to Bournonville). Blasis follows Noverre in making of the centre of gravity, not a point, but rather a part of the body "cintura" or "reni", the girth, or natural girdle of the body where the kidneys lie.

Of course, one cannot see the line, it is invisible, it is a thought-object, and all the more so, as the dance is movement.

Allow me to suggest that the reader take out old books with photographs of people like Tamar Karsavina or Anna Pavlova, in arabesque. Though the body be markedly inclined forward, the arabesque appears to float, suspended above the ground, the torso being completely stable, despite the fact that early photography required that the pose be held for long moments. This was a breakthrough by the Modern School in the very early part of the Nineteenth Century, where its exponents turned away from the notion of balance "along a vertical axis, using the head and thorax as slight counter-weights", to a more technical and demanding notion of balance where the raised arm and leg would, as it were, oscillate against one another as "counter-balance", around the pivot formed by the hip-joint. This could then be applied to virtually all positions, vertical or inclined, and whether on the ground or in steps of great elevation.

Professor Pappacena accordingly shews that the notion of aplomb is relevant to all figures, not just vertical ones. It is a thought-object that must become second nature, an automatisme. We have been chipping away at this magnificent edifice of aplomb over the last thirty years, by the manner in which we now use the foot, screwing the gesture leg into the ground in tendu (see above on the "parrot-claw" foot), and, most especially, by raising the gesture leg above the hip-joint, the effect of which is to eliminate épaulement and thus, in one fell swoop, all of the Modern School’s experiments in counter-balance.

Those are some of the considerations this brilliant monograph gives rise to. In the event this writer may have distorted or misunderstood some of Flavia Pappacena’s conclusions, remarks from persons more knowledgeable than I would be most gratefully received.

K.L. Kanter