The Vestris Dynasty

A famous Italian - French family of dancers originating in Florence. Tommaso Maris Ippolito Vestris had seven children, 3 of whom contributed to ballet. Theresa (1726-1808), Gaetano (1728-1808) and Angiolo (1730-1809). Gaetano was the father of Auguste (1760-1842) who was the father of Armand and uncle of Charles.

Theresa studied in Naples and made her debut in Palermo. She danced in Vienna and there became the mistress of Prince Esterhazy. The Empress Maria Theresa became jealous and ordered her immediate transfer to Dresden. She appeared there and in Florence before she went to the Paris Opera in 1746. There Theresa became the mistress of Jean Lany and prepared the groundwork for her brothers. She was in great demand as a sololist until 1766. She shared the meteoric career of her brothers.

Angiolo danced at various Italian theatres: he studied in France with the great Dupré. He apeared as a guest artist at the Opera and many European countries. He became Noverre's princpal dancer during his stay in Stuttgart. Angiolo returned to Paris in 1767, where he became an actor at the Comedie Italienne. Later he married the actress Rose Gourgaud.

Gaetano Apolline Baldassare Vestris studied with the great Dupré as did his brother in Paris. He made his debut with the Opera in 1748, and was appointed Premier danseur in 1751. He was conceited beyond belief, which may have been a family trait. Gaetano said of his son, "Auguste is cleverer than I, as is natural enough; after all he had Gaetano Vestri for a father, an advantage nature had denied me." He went to Turin and Berlin in 1754-55 and returned to Paris in 1755 where he enjoyed one triumph after another.

Gaetano was appointed co-choreographer with Dauberval in 1761. {The following statement appears in two different encyclopedias; Geatano was the first to appear on stage without the traditional mask. And yet in the same two encyclopedias they credit Maximilian Gardel as the first to appear without a mask, to prove to the audience that he was not Vestris who was slated to dance that night.] Who really was the first? You may ask, and I answer, who cares?

Gaetano fathered his famous son Auguste with his mistress Marie Allard. He later married his female rival Anna Heimel in Stuttgart. Gaetano was so famous and considered to be one of the great dancers of all time, that when he was to appear in London with his also great son in 1781, Parliament interrupted its sessions so the members could attend all of the performances at Covent Garden. Gaetano retired a national hero in 1782.

Marie Allard (1742-1802) was born in Marseilles. Although she was not a Vestris she was the mother of Auguste Vestris, the greatest dancer of his time, while she was the mistress of Gaetano. As a dancer she excelled in comic and character roles. She made her debut in Marseilles, danced in Lyons and then went to the Paris Opera from 1761 to 1782. She appeared in the first production of Mozart's and Noverre's "Les Petit Riens in 1778. Noverre played a part in all of the lives of the Vestris. I know many of you will feel a kinship with Marie when you hear that she had to retire from the stage when she became too fat to dance.

Anna Friedrike Heinel (1753-1808) was a German dancer. She studied with Lepy and Noverre, making her debut in Stuttgart in 1767 and in Paris in 1768, where she was called the "Queen of the Dance." She was a fierce rival of G. Vestris because of her exceptional virtuosity (it is said that she invented the pirouette a la seconde). Noverre admired the nobility of her style. She dance in London in 1772. In later years she returned to Paris, where she ended her quarrel with Vestris. She became his mistress and had a child by him named Adolphe in 1791. A year later they were married. I can't find anything about Adolphe. He may have danced but never received any notoriety.

Auguste Vestris, (1760-1842,) studied dance from his famous father. He was called Vestr'Allard. He made his debut in a divertissement "La Cinquantaine" in 1772. He was immediately recognized as extraordinarily gifted, he became a soloist in 1776 and Premier Danseur in 1778. He retained that position for 35 years. Auguste danced in the first production of Noverre's and Mozart's "Les Petits Riens". He became the favorite male dancer of Gardel's ballets from 1781-87. He, like his father, was very conceited, although he was short and knock-kneed; but he also had sensational elevation and such a dazzling virtuosity that he was soon considered Europe's greatest dancer. After the French Revolution he fled to London where he danced in many of Noverre's ballets. He returned to Paris in 1793, and had to fight for his place in the Opera against a very young Louis Duport. He even went to prison for his financial debts. He later became a great teacher, his students included Didelot, Perrot, Bournonville and Marie Taglioni anf Fanny Elssler. In 1835 he danced a minuet with his famous student Marie Taglioni. He was 75 at the time. His contribution to ballet is considerable. A vain and dificult man, he left his wife a few days after the birth of their son Armand. The directors of the Opera suffered his bad manners because his talent was so great. Armand and Charles Vestris were cousins and danced for a short time circa 1800.

Jean-Barthelemy Lany (1718-1786), a French dancer, choreographer, and ballet master, was the son of the ballet master Jean Lany. He became a solo dancer with the Paris Opera in 1740. He went to Berlin in 1743 where he choreographed many ballets. Noverre was one of his dancers. In 1747 he returned to Paris and became very popular as a comic dancer. He was made ballet master and choreographed until 1760. Later he worked in Turin and London. When he returned to Paris he became a respected teacher. Some of his students included M. Gardel and Dauberval. Therese Vestris was his mistress. Her brother Gaetan challenged Jean-Bartelemy to a duel. Lany withdrew and was later jailed for a short time.

Louise-Madeleine Lany (1733-1777) sister to Jean Barthelemy, began her training with her father. She made her debut at the Opera in 1744 and remained there until 1767. She was admired as one of the outstanding virtuosos, and is said to have been the first danseuse to execute the entrechat six and huit. Noverre called her "the greatest dancer in the world, who has eclipsed all others by the beauty, precision, and boldness of her execution." She was, however, overshadowed by Marie Salle.

By decree of His Majesty, any French female (young girl, unhappy wife, widow, a girl who wanted to get away from her parents or was in service as a domestic) could escape her fate by officially entering the rolls as a music or dance student. Whether they finished or ever performed didn't matter, they were forever free. Their protectors, who found themselves at the door of the dancing school or backstage at the Paris Opera from Rameau's time and even before, made life backstage far more interesting than what the audiences saw onstage.

(First published June 1991)

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