Carlo Blasis (1797-1878)
If Jean-Georges Noverre was the grandfather of ballet then Carlo Blasis was the father. There is a direct link between the two men. Noverre was followed by two disciples, M. Gardel and Jean Dauberval. Vigano carried on the tradition of Noverre through his teacher Dauberval. Vigano was the teacher of Carlo Blasis.
I think that ballet technique is so well thought out, that I often wonder how at the time their knowledge was so far along. When I began to read Carlo Blasis, I immediately understood how ballet we study today is so logical.
Carlo Blasis was born in 1797 to a father who was a well-know musician and composer. He was raised in an atmosphere of the arts and among the leading men of letters. Carlo's father made sure his children were all very well-educated. Carlo was taught music, architecture, drawing, geometry and anatomy. Moreover his dance training was the best of his time.
It is little wonder that such a man could write the books that laid out ballet as we know it today. Noverre's books told us what ballet should be and Blasis wrote on how to do it. As a matter of fact, Blasis felt cheated that Noverre didn't go into the technique.
Since his time there has been many who have added on to the dance, some without credit to their contributions. We know so little about the dancers and choreographers that have preceded our time. The one thing I am learning is that someone or yourself must put into writing what you have given to dance, and what you want future generations to know.
Carlo and many of the dancers of his time traveled the world giving performances and teaching at different academies. We can see how ballet became an international art form because there teachers learned new steps and techniques from every town and country they visited, and left their knowledge of the same.
Carlo spent a number of years in England and France. The picture we have of him suggests that he was robust in body as in mind. In later years, Blasis' personal contacts and direct influence extended to the academies in Warsaw and Moscow.
The dance world has from the beginning been a competitive art form with one dancer trying to outdo another. Many times this competition developed into a hate relationship. This is still true today, which is a sad part of this art form that I love. Many a great dancer has had to quit or dance elsewhere because of politics and temperament in a company. Denying the audience of some great performers. M. Gardel refused to dance with the mask for fear that people might mistake him for Vestris, another great dancer. Blasis had to leave the Paris Opera because the French dancers resented his great popularity. Noverre was disliked by many of his peers and the feeling was mutual. Jules Perrot danced with Taglioni and drew so much applause that she no longer would dance with him, so he left the Paris Opera to tour Europe. It is rumored that Pavlova would not have anyone in her company who could take anything away from her. I am sure that those of you who dance professionally, know of such stories that are happening at this time. Maybe you feel as I do, that dance, like Caesar's wife, should be above reproach. I do think the audiences should have more say in who dances than some person in the board room.
Carlo Blasis would have been a conspicuous figure in whatever age or land he had lived. Clearly his spiritual home was Renaissance Italy but I can see him, too, in our generation taking full advantage of all the mixed blessings modern society has to offer. A versatile artist, steeped in classical scholarship, he was nonetheless an astute observer of his fellow men and the possessor of a keen analytical mind. We are told by his contemporaries that he was a universal genius and could have won recognition as writer, painter or musician. Fate decreed, however, that he should be born in the nineteenth century and that his channel of influence, which during his lifetime spread throughout Europe, should be in the sphere of dancing.
Carlo could trace his origins to patrician Rome, where under Augustus Tiberius it was know as Blassi. Carlo's ancestors distinguished themselves in the country's service and his grandfather was an Admiral who served in the Navy in his youth under the well-known Carracciolo, a notable adversary of Nelson. Carlo's father, Francesco. was expected to follow the family tradition for the Navy. Francesco felt that the Navy was not for him and, against his family's wishes, decided to follow his love of music. He became a well-known composer of his time. Francesco surrounded himself with the most learned men in all of Europe. Because of his own frustration he was determined to be the ideal parent and he made sure that his three children, two girls and one boy, be given the very best education available, so that each of them could decide on their own future. (I bet that many of us wish that we had such a parent.) Carlo's love for his father was expressed in the dedication of his first book.
It is believed that Carlo was born in Naples on November 4, 1805, and when still very young the family moved to Marseilles. His father by this time was well established in the music world, and because of his contacts with men of letters Carlo grew up in an atmosphere very favorable to his artistic development. His eager and enquiring mind was particularly receptive to these influences and assimilated all he saw and heard.
Carlo was provided with eminent instructors in architecture, drawing, modeling, etc. Geometry was taught by Ferogio, Wronski and Sabbato de Mauro and later Dutrouille was his tutor in anatomy, whereas his literary studies were in the hands of Guimot. His father took upon himself the musical education of his son and daughters. The best dance masters were available to him and he showed great promise. It was decided that he should become a dancer.
While his education was still in progress, he made his first public appearance at the principal theatre in Marseilles. This was followed by a successful tour of the provincial towns and some years later he made his debut in Bordeaux as a full-fledged dancer. He had the good fortune to come into close contact with Dauberval. His two sisters, Teresa and Virginia, were preparing for stage and operatic careers, respectively, and Carlo himself was already trying his hand at ballet composition in his spare time.
He was invited to dance before the Royal Academy of Music in Paris and that brought him to the Paris Opera. While at the Paris Opera, jealousy and intrigue interfered with his work there and he was obliged to leave. (Let me bring to your attention, that, to this day, this is still going on, and is the sick part of ballet.) Before he left, however, he had come under the influence of Gardel, whom he held in the highest esteem. He went to Milan to fulfill an engagement at La Scala and laid the foundation of his long and distinguished association with the traditional home of Opera and Ballet.
The ensuing years brought him to all the principal cities of Italy and back to France where he published a book called "De l'Origine et des Progres de la Danse Ancienne et Moderne". This book brought him recognition in French literary circles. In 1826 (100 years before I was born), Blasis came to London as premier danseur at the King's Theatre, now the Haymarket, where he was given a triumphant reception. He remained in London for some time and wrote "The Code of Terpsichore." Before the book could be published the company went bankrupt. A handful of his books had been bound. A few found their way to Paris and were translated into French. This book is the codifcation of ballet as we know it.
In 1830 Blasis accompanied his sister Virginia, by now a celebrated prima donna, to Genoa where he met and married Annunziata Ramaccini, a talented and ambitious dancer. With his tutoring she became an accomplished dancer and the two of them danced together until an injury to his foot led Blasis to abandon the stage. He could still dance in minor roles, but he never did anything by halves. He had said that he would leave dance before dance left him. In 1837, Blasis was made Director of the Imperial Academy at Milan, with his wife as co-director. Here Blasis had great opportunity to put his ideas to practical use. The Academy was connected with La Scala he sent teachers all over the world to spread his ideas. You must know that his teacher at La Scala was Vigano. Carlo believed in the theories of Noverre. His only complaint about Noverre was that he had not codified all the movements of ballet. Blasis wrote a new book on the technique every year. Some day I hope to be able to read them.
On every holiday he returned to England while his wife continued to oversee the Academy. He wrote a friend in Italy "The Englishman is a deep thinker, he has given the world excellent philosophical works together with the steam boat, the railway engine and gas light--so what more could one ask."
Taglioni and Blasis were contemporaries but there is little reference in his works to any of the leading names associated in our minds with the romantic movement in ballet. One is tempted to conclude that his leaning towards classicism led Blasis to look askance at the flood of German moonlight enveloping northern Europe.
To sum up Blasis' achievements, it was his indefatigable industry almost as much as his natural talents that brought him success. Indeed his life was a shining example of his own favorite maxim, that a person who knows how to use time always has plenty. Blasis' influence in Warsaw and Moscow was great. The Italian's techniques in dance had much to do with the development of ballet in Russia, and don't you forget it.
"An Elementary Treatise Upon the Theory and Practice of the Art of Dancing" was published in Milan in 1820. It is of interest as being Blasis' earliest literary effort. It is, in fact, the first comprehensive book on dancing technique, as we understand it today, to appear in print.
And there is no doubt that Blasis was extremely human and not always above the tempting practice of a convenient rearrangement of the facts to suit his own purposes. He lied about his age and I must say that even I have done that. He let the world think that he invented the attitude, but he later admitted that he took it from the statue of Bologna's Mercury. He was the first to do a pirouette en attitude. From Catherine de Medici to our time, Carlo Blasis is one of the strongest and most essential links in the chain to interest the present generation of dancers.
Carlo's relationship with his father was one we all could envy. He admitted that his father's encouragement and guidance allowed him to seek and be successful in the field of dance. Carlo's dedication of his book to his father is full of love and respect. Many parents could learn a lot from father Blasis.
Blasis never stopped honing his ideas on ballet technique. Until his death in 1878, and even now, his books on technique are our bible on teaching. As a teacher he taught Cerrito, Rosati, Maywood (an American), Andreyanova and Lepri (Cecchetti's teacher.)
I am sure that ballet would have evolved in some form had not Blasis codified it. Who knows in what direction it would have taken. His influence was felt in all of Europe and Russia. I have great respect for this man who is the father of the art I love so much. It is a shame that we allow personalities to dictate where ballet is going. We in America have such little faith in our own that we let other countries direct our course. I may stand alone in this, but it is time we let Americans have a free hand and then stand behind them.
(first published June, 1988)
Next: Nicole Blondy (Blondi) (1677-1747)