French Ballet At The End of the 19th Century

From ballet's beginning in 1581, Paris was the dance capital of the world, but nothing stays number one forever. The popularity of ballet in France began to wane in the second half of the nineteenth century. Even Saint-Leon's "Coppelia" in 1870 was not enough to restore the glory of ballet. Louis Merante (1828-1887), was a student of Lucien Petipa tried another effort in 1876 with his "Sylvia" at the new, splendid Palais Garnier.

Giuseppina Bozzacchi (1853-1870), a 15 year old dancer from Milan, fit exactly what the role of Swanilda in "Coppelia" needed. She was an overnight success. But since male dancers were often replaced by female dancers, Franz was danced by Eugenie Fiocre (1845-1908), in one her many travesty roles. Travestry roles were one of the reasons that ballet was losing its Parisian audiences. Ballet in Paris might have had a rebirth, but in mid-July 1870 the Franco-Prussian war started. By August the Opera closed, and also, in September, Saint-Leon died. In that same month the Germans besieged the French capital. During the siege Bozzacchi died of hunger and pneumonia.

The Siege ended, in January 1871, but the difficult times caused the monies for the arts to be cut back. The Opera managed to survive because the building was not destroyed as were many other public buildings.

Leontine Beaugrand (1842-1925) was a ballerina who, during the siege of Paris organized groups to collect food and money and worked in the soldier's hospital in the basement of Comedie Francaise. After the siege she revived "Coppelia" with herself in the title role, and Eugenie Fiocre repeating her role of Franz.

In 1873 the old opera house burned down, and the present opera house was built. It opened in 1876, with the presentation of Merante's Sylvia.

The powerful ballerinas overshadowed the male dancers, the music, and the choreographers. Some of the best talent left and went to Russia and any other country that would take them. Paris Opera ballerinas like Rita Sangalli (1850-1909), Rosito Mauri (1849-1923), Carlotta Zambelli (1875-1968), and Aida Boni (early 20th century) tried to keep ballet alive in Paris, but no matter what they did the center of ballet moved to Russia.

It wasn't until 1909 that ballet began to re-emerge in Paris, largely because of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Diaghilev brought with him some of Russia's greatest dancers. The dancers always returned to Russia after their Paris seasons until World War I and the 1917 revolution in their homeland caused most of the dancers to remain in western Europe. Ballet in the West was comprised mostly of the BalletsRusses, but the company that Diaghilev created never danced in Russia, but became the forerunner of ballet in America.

(First published November 1993)

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