Inaugurates Romantic Ballet’s Golden Age

The golden age of Romantic ballet, inaugurated by Filippo Taglioni’s La Sylphide, was a short-lived yet intense period of artistic creation. For close to twenty years, ballerinas reigned supreme at the Paris Opera, delighting their public with authentic folk dances imported from exotic locales and ethereal pointe work set against supernatural backdrops.

Summary of Event

The emergence of ballet d’action, or dramatic pantomime ballet, during the second half of the eighteenth century helped establish professional dance as an independent theatrical art. Performers progressively abandoned the use of masks, cumbersome hoopskirts, and elevated heels in favor of more natural attire and greater freedom of movement. During France’s First Republic and throughout the Napoleonic era, the male virtuoso dancer tended to dominate the stage with dazzling leaps and spectacular pirouettes while pantomime served to advance the plot. Greek and Roman legends were common themes; costumes were elaborate and stage machinery complex. This remained the case until the early 1830’s, when Romanticism invested French Romanticism;French ballet with new vigor, and the ballerina, embodiment of the artist’s quest for the infinite and unattainable, came to the forefront of public attention. Sylphide, La (Taglioni)
Taglioni, Filippo
Ballet;La Sylphide[Sylphide]
Taglioni, Marie
[kw]La Sylphide Inaugurates Romantic Ballet’s Golden Age (Mar. 12, 1832)
[kw]Sylphide Inaugurates Romantic Ballet’s Golden Age, La (Mar. 12, 1832)
[kw]Inaugurates Romantic Ballet’s Golden Age, La Sylphide (Mar. 12, 1832)
[kw]Romantic Ballet’s Golden Age, La Sylphide Inaugurates (Mar. 12, 1832)
[kw]Ballet’s Golden Age, La Sylphide Inaugurates Romantic (Mar. 12, 1832)
[kw]Golden Age, La Sylphide Inaugurates Romantic Ballet’s (Mar. 12, 1832)
[kw]Age, La Sylphide Inaugurates Romantic Ballet’s Golden (Mar. 12, 1832)
Sylphide, La (Taglioni)
Taglioni, Filippo
Ballet;La Sylphide[Sylphide]
Taglioni, Marie
[g]France;Mar. 12, 1832: La Sylphide Inaugurates Romantic Ballet’s Golden Age[1730]
[c]Dance;Mar. 12, 1832: La Sylphide Inaugurates Romantic Ballet’s Golden Age[1730]
Nourrit, Adolphe
Ciceri, Charles
Coralli, Jean
Perrot, Jules
Grisi, Carlotta
Cerrito, Fanny
Grahn, Lucile

Various organizational changes at the Paris Opera helped set the stage for Romantic ballet. Between 1826 and 1831, three of the institution’s leading ballet masters, Pierre Gardel Gardel, Pierre , Jean-Louis Aumer Aumer, Jean-Louis , and Louis Jacques Jessé Milon Milon, Louis Jacques Jessé , went into retirement, leaving the field open to a younger generation of talented choreographers receptive to emerging trends in literature, art and music. Gardel, in particular, had been a mainstay of French neoclassical ballet for more than forty years.

After the fall of the Bourbon monarchy in 1830, the Paris Opera, previously under royal supervision, was transformed into a private enterprise. It was endowed with public funding and placed under the capable financial direction of Louis Désiré Véron, founder of the literary magazine Revue de Paris
Revue de Paris (Paris review). Upon assuming his functions in 1831, Véron promptly hired dancer-choreographer Jean Coralli Coralli, Jean as ballet master and retained Marie Taglioni, daughter of Italian choreographer Filippo Taglioni, as the opera’s star ballerina.

By then, work had already begun on the production of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s grand opera-ballet, Robert le diable (Robert the demon), which premiered on November 21, 1831. Marie Taglioni was renowned for her pointe work (that is, her ability to dance on the tips of her toes), and the third act of Robert le diable incorporated a ballet scene, the so-called Dance of the Nuns, that was designed as a vehicle to showcase Taglioni’s skill at dancing on pointe. The white-clad corps de ballet, dancing in the midnight decor of an eerie graveyard bacchanal, formed an integral part of the opera’s narrative design and revealed to a delighted Parisian audience the direction in which Romantic ballet would evolve. Such scenes are now commonly referred to as ballet blanc, or white ballet, spectacles.

The first major success in Romantic ballet, La Sylphide (the sylph), opened at the Paris Opera on March 12, 1832. (Note that this ballet is not related to Michel Fokine’s 1908 ballet, Les Sylphides.) Adolphe Nourrit Nourrit, Adolphe , who had sung the part of Robert in Meyerbeer’s opera a few months earlier, adapted the libretto for La Sylphide from a popular short story by French novelist Charles Nodier Nodier, Charles . Marie Taglioni performed the title role, and her father, Filippo, provided choreography. The ballet’s narrative was set in two locales, one a material world of daylight and reason, the other a supernatural realm of enchantment and dream. It told the timeless story of a Scottish gentleman lured away from his betrothed by the haunting apparition of a beautiful yet elusive sylph on the day of his proposed marriage. Following the sylph into a dimly lit forest, he attempted to ensnare her in a magic veil yet succeeded only in precipitating her destruction.

Taglioni’s graceful pointe work and diaphanous skirt, innovations linked to the Romantic era, served to underscore the mysterious, ephemeral qualities of the title character, helping make her a central element of the narrative. Costume designer Charles Ciceri Ciceri, Charles , working in collaboration with painter Eugène Lami, designed the ballerina’s virginal white dress, establishing it not only as a standard costume of ballet’s Romantic era, but also as its most conspicuous emblem. The universal appeal of the dress’s neo-Grecian design made it a perfect match for the otherworldly sensation of ballet blanc, allowing it to cross national borders with ease and combine with just about any form of regional decor. The introduction of gas lighting at the Paris Opera, yet another of the era’s innovations, gave designers the ability to create new and convincing illusions on stage. Its cerulean radiance, once perfected by the addition of colored glass media, was particularly well suited to evoke the supernatural ambiance of the Romantic white ballet.

Soon after the premier of La Sylphide, ballets featuring ethnic color, exotic locale, supernatural beings, and human passion became the rage. Austrian ballerina Fanny Elssler, Taglioni’s principal rival for the public’s affection, pioneered the use of authentic national dance in Le Diable boiteux (1836; the lame devil), La Gypsy (1839; the gypsy) and La Tarentule (1839; the tarantella). The Italian Carlotta Grisi Grisi, Carlotta achieved no less fame in ballets by master choreographers Jean Coralli Coralli, Jean , Jules Perrot Perrot, Jules , and Joseph Mazilier, notably in Giselle (1841), La Péri (1843; the peri), Esmeralda (1844), and Le Diable à quatre (1845; the devil to pay). Fanny Cerrito Cerrito, Fanny , renowned for her shadow dance in the ballet Ondine (1841), later shared the stage with Marie Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi, and Lucile Grahn Grahn, Lucile in Pas de quatre (1845; dance for four), produced by Perrot at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London.

Driven by theatrical success, Romantic ballet promoted the ballerina by placing its emphasis on technique, buoyancy, and grace, rather than spectacular leaps and bounds. To an ever greater extent, male dancers served on stage as mere porteurs (lifters) whose primary function was to raise the ballerina to greater heights. Leading female dancers toured Europe and distant continents, performing to enthusiastic crowds in Paris, London, Milan Milan , Vienna, Vienna;ballet Copenhagen, Saint Petersburg, Moscow, and the Americas. A significant number of them also attained recognition in the field of choreography. Thérèse Essler Essler, Thérèse
Essler, Fanny , the Austrian ballerina Fanny Essler’s elder sister, stands out for her production of La Volière (the aviary) at the Paris Opera in 1838. Fanny Cerrito Cerrito, Fanny staged performances in Vienna, Rome, and London during the 1840’s and danced the title role in Gemma, one of her own creations, before a Parisian audience in 1854. Marie Taglioni’s oriental fantasy Le Papillon (the butterfly), written for her pupil Emma Livry, premiered at the Paris Opera in 1860.


By the late 1840’s—once choreographers and dancers had thoroughly explored the finite variations that ballet blanc and national folk dances could offer—the golden age of Romantic ballet came to an end, at least in France and England. A steady decline in box-office receipts and the rising popularity of dance and music halls in the post-Romantic era indicated that the creative artistic fever first displayed in La Sylphide and perfected in Giselle had run its course. The only truly remarkable success in French ballet during the Second Empire was Arthur Saint-Léon’s comic ballet, Coppélia (1870), based on a short story by E. T. A. Hoffmann.

During the last decades of the nineteenth century, St. Petersburg under the artistic direction of Marius Petipa surpassed Paris and London as the undisputed capital of classical dance. Placing greater emphasis on the unity of music and dance and relying less on pantomime, Petipa not only breathed new life into old favorites such as Coppélia, Giselle, Le Diable à quatre, and La Sylphide but also cast exciting new ballets in the familiar Romantic tradition of lyric fantasy and national dance (Sleeping Beauty in 1890, The Nutcracker in 1892, and Swan Lake in 1895). Romantic ballet, refined to the tastes of modern audiences, has demonstrated over and again the depth of its artistic vision and its vitality as an independent theatrical art.

Further Reading

  • Bremser, Martha, Larraine Nicholas, and Leanda Shrimpton, eds. International Dictionary of Ballet. 2 vols. Detroit: St. James Press, 1993. Contains detailed biographies and iconographic resources on major figures in nineteenth century ballet.
  • Cohen, Selma Jeanne, ed. International Encyclopedia of Dance. 6 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Biographies on important figures; articles on ballet technique, scenic design, lighting, music, notation, libretti, costumes, prints, and drawings.
  • Foster, Susan Leigh. Choreography and Narrative: Ballet’s Staging of Story and Desire. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. Discussion of narrative ballet from Marie Sallé’s Pygmalion (1734) to the first staging of Giselle (1841).
  • Garafola, Lynn, ed. Rethinking the Sylph: New Perspectives on the Romantic Ballet. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1997. Articles by thirteen specialists.
  • Guest, Ivor. Ballet Under Napoleon. London: Dance Books, 2002. Discussion focused on the first two decades of the nineteenth century.
  • _______. The Romantic Ballet in England. London: Phoenix House, 1954. Examines the development of ballet in England during the first half of the nineteenth century.
  • _______. The Romantic Ballet in Paris. London: Pitman, 1966. Essential reading focused on the period 1820-1847.
  • Lee, Carol. Ballet in Western Culture: A History of Its Origins and Evolution. New York: Routledge, 2002. Includes sections on Romantic and post-Romantic ballet in western Europe and Russia.

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Taglioni, Filippo
Ballet;La Sylphide[Sylphide]
Taglioni, Marie