Jean-Georges Noverre, (1727-1810)
Jean-George Noverre was known as "The Shakespeare of the Ballet." None of his 150 ballets has been handed down to us. His influence on the art gives him the title "The Grandfather of the Ballet" as we know it today. In 1754 he produced his first ballet and in 1760 published his book, "Letters on the Dance." This book set out his ideas: Although to day much of their content is taken for granted, when they were written and indeed until the beginning of the twentieth century, were revolutionary. . . . Prior to Noverre, a critic of the period wrote that "dancing had become so little expressive of anything dramatic that puppets and machines might easily replace the dancer."
The history of ballet consists of periods of intense technical discovery and development and then a pause during which some mastermind codifies these discoveries and shows their true use as an art form.
I have been asked by many students just what was Jean Georges Noverre's ideas that were so revolutionary. According to Dorothy Samachson in her book "Let's Meet The Ballet" I quote, "The introduction of drama into ballet was greatly hastened by the work of a choreographer, Jean Georges Noverre (1727 - 1809), who in 1760 published a book in which he laid down important rules and principles of the ballet. Among other improvements, Noverre introduced the pas d'action, the step of action, of pantomime used to advance the story of the ballet. This and other innovations helped break the rigid formula of court dances, and led to the development of the dramatic possibilities of the ballet. Noverre helped change the ballet from a divertissement, a mere pastime, into a ballet d'action, a ballet of action that told a story of human emotions.
Noverre also championed reform in costumes, and he showed
that musician, choreographer and designer must work together
in creating a ballet. Many of the principles that he was first
to state still hold good today."
After I read the letters I feel that every teacher, choreographer, dancer and critic should read these letters time and time again.
Due to the fact that ballet is an art of tradition, what we know of the past has been handed down, dancer to dancer, teacher to students. Therefore, what we see may have been changed dozens of times. Balanchine said, "So, if a few years go by and I won't be here it will be my ballets, but will look different." New directors, rehearsal personnel and dancers would all have a part in changing the original choreography.
Noverre's protege Dauberval (1742 - 1806) is remembered for
two reasons. First, he choreographed "La Fille Mal Gardee" in
1786. It was the first ballet to be based on the life of the
people, thus breaking away from the mythological ballets. It
is the oldest ballet in present repertoire. As you are reading
this, someplace in the word this ballet is in rehearsal or performance.
Second, he was a great influence in the career of Salvatore
Vigano. Under Vigano's direction the Italian ballet had its
greatest period, and after his death came the decline of the
Italian ballet. We owe Vigano a great deal, for he was the teacher
of Carlo Blasis.
Noverre was greatly influenced by Marie Salle and her ideas of freedom in dance, and the importance of emotion. He felt that technique alone wasn't enough for a dancer to master, but to bring alive the story or theme of the dance. (I am sure that my students hear this in almost every class I teach.) He studied with the Great Dupré. As a dancer he made his debut at the Paris Opera Comique in 1743. He went to Berlin in 1744, Dresden in 1747 and Strasburg 1749 where he met his wife, actress Marguerite Sauveur. After dancing in Marseilles he went to Lyons where he danced with Camargo and choreographed his first ballets. Dancing through Europe he finally settled in London, but at that time anything French was not accepted. Garrick thought of Noverre as the SHAKESPEARE OF THE DANCE. He stayed in London, secretly working as ballet master. It was there that he wrote his famous LETTRES SUR LA DANSE, published simultaneously in Lyons and Stuttgart. He returned to Lyons where his theories about the ballet d'action gave rise to his work. His theories were very controversial. In Vienna he was thought to be the greatest choreographer of all time and he was also an excellent teacher. Finally, he was accepted in Paris as ballet master. He was bitterly opposed by M. Gardel and Jean Dauberval who thought they would get that position after G. Vestis retired. The appointment was made due to the influence of Marie Antoinette, whose teacher he had been in Vienna. He remained until 1780. After the French revolution he had to flee to England. At London King's Theatre he formed an excellent company with P. Gardel, Antoine Bournonville and later with Marie Guimard, A. Vestris and Didelot. He returned to France before his death and edited a new edition of his Letters. He died in a modest retreat at Saint-Germain. During his life he choreographed more than 150 ballets. None of his ballets have survived, but his theories are with us to this day. When we look at ballet today it is dificult for us to understand what went before. I have a feeling that if alive today he would love Anthony Tudor and hate George Balanchine. I wonder what Balanchine thought of Noverre's theories or if he ever read Noverre's "Letters." Personally I don't want to discuss this matter. I am sure many of you know what I look for in a ballet or a dancer.
Noverre's Letter on Dance is out of print and I suspect that the only copy available to you would be at the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts.
Noverre believed in a flawless technique, but it was to be used to further the story or theme of the ballet, not as a circus performer. It is difficult for us to understand that when seeing Swam Lake what ballet was like before Noverre. His idea of dance was to tell a story in the most direct way possible. He is credited with Ballet d'Action. Although there was evidence that others had tried it before. Noverre did write the book on the subject of the use of pantomine. He also encouraged the set and costume designers not to over power the choreography. (Think what he would have said seeing the revival of ABT's GAITE PARISIENNE or the tasetless NYCB's SLEEPING BEAUTY.) I am ready to argue the last statement. You see I am as outspoken as Noverre, and proud of it. I want to give you some of his quotes.
(First published March 1988)
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