After studying the Romantic poets, who talked about imagination and fantasy and were fascinated by the supernatural, I asked myself what influence this movement had on the beautiful world of ballet.
Indeed many of the works of the Romantic ballet focused on the conflict between man and nature, society and the supernatural, with stories of spiritual creatures like sylphs and the wilis – souls of girls who had died before their marriage.
The Romantic ballet era is considered to have begun with the 1832 début in Paris of the ballerina Marie Taglioni in the ballet La Sylphide, a supernatural creature of the winds and the woods who is loved and inadvertently destroyed by a mortal man who, with a magic scarf, wants her to become a real woman but, on the contrary, makes her loose her wings and her strength.
During this period the figure of the “ballerina” – whose prototype is Marie Taglioni- is born: a female dancer who takes the centre of the scene, while the male dancer begins to decline and to have secondary parts in the ballet, especially roles in which he had to prove his strength, lifting the ballerina.
The movement style for Romantic ballerinas was characterized by soft, rounded arms, a forward tilt in the upper body and more elaborate leg movements, for a fluid and ethereal dance. Important Romantic ballerinas included, in addition to Marie Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi, the first “Giselle”, Lucille Grahn, Fanny Cerrito and Fanny Elssler.
Moreover, the development of the technique of dancing on points, although it was still very basic, increased the importance of the dancer, seen in her lightness and gentleness, as if she were floating just above the stage.This idea of a supernatural and spiritual creature was given also by the typical Romantic tutu, worn by the ballerinas: it was a long white skirt made of tulle, which was multi-layered but also diaphanous, with a white bodice and little wings at the waist.
In the second acts of Romantic ballets, representing the spiritual realm, the chorus appeared on stage in Romantic tutus, giving rise to the term “white act” or “ballet-blanc“. Other elements introduced on the stage were wires, used to make the dancers fly, trap doors and the new gas lighting, whose soft gleam enhanced the mysteriousness of the atmosphere.
But the spiritual theme is not the only taken from the Romantic tradition and applied to ballets.
According to the fascination for the exotic typical of the period, choreographers created works to display exotic cultures: Fanny Elssler, Marie Taglioni’s biggest rival, had the characteristic of theatricalize folk dancing with a ballet base. She appeared on the Paris Opera stage in 1834, with her fiery performance of a Spanish dance, La Cachucha, in the ballet Le Diable Boiteux.
Fanny Elssler is in fact remembered for her sensuality and Marie Taglioni for her spirituality.
With the successive ballet, Giselle, there is a fusion of these two characteristics of the Romantic ballerinas.
Giselle is the story of a girl who dies for her love and is transformed into a wili: Carlotta Grisi debuted in the dual title role of this ballet that still represents a challenge to ballerinas today: the sensual and playful peasant girl of the first act and the ghostly spiritual wili in the second act.