- Fanny Elssler's Russian Seasons
Many romantic notions surround
the name of Funny Elssler. One of the most famous dancers of
the Romantic age, she indeed became one of its greatest legends.
The daughter of a head butler and
a gold embroideress, Elssler studied in Vienna. The renowned
Jean Aumer was among her teachers. Gifted and natural, the girl
first appeared before the public at the age of seven with great
success. At 17, Elssler departed for Italy, where she performed
on the Neapolitan stage. In the following years she was applauded
in Vienna, Berlin, Paris and London.
Fanny Elssler appeared in Russia
unexpectedly. As legend purports, Tsar Nicholas I met her in
Vienna and invited her to appear in St. Petersburg. In 1848 she
accepted that invitation, to the complete surprise of the Directorate
of the Imperial Theatres. However, the Tsar's desire to see the
dancer at a court performance in Tsarskoye Selo (The Tsar's Village)
overruled any possible objections.
During the intermission between
presentations by Russian and French companies, Fanny Elssler
performed her famous Cachucha, a Spanish-influenced dance. The
public gave her an enthusiastic welcome, and the newcomer's fate
decided. The Directorate of the Imperial Theatres signed a contract
with her. During three seasons Elssler appeared on the stages
of Moscow and St. Petersburg in Giselle, La Fille mal Gardee,
Le Delire du Peintre, La Esmeralda, Catarina, La Fille du Bandit,
La Filleule des Fees among other ballets.
In addition to capturing the attention
of theatre-goers, the tours of Fanny Elssler and her contemporary
Marie Taglioni tremendously influenced the development of professional
ballet criticism in Russia. Their performances stimulated interest
in dance history; Russian newspapers and magazines began to publish
articles dedicated to the history of dance from antiquity through
the middle of the 19th century. Furthermore, these two ballerinas
were considered to embody the height of choreographic art. The
Russian critics were unusually objective in judging their respective
talents, although personal opinions, necessary in the assessment
of contemporaries when definite aesthetic and human ideals are
involved, can also be found in their writings. The critics determined
that the sphere of Taglioni's talent lay in the realm of fantasy.
They defined Elssler's art as the personification of earthly
passions and joy. Preference was not given to one dancer over
the other. In fact, these dancers were considered to reflect
the two different but complementary principles, or characteristics
of Romanticism in art. But while the press refrained from favoritism,
the Russian public preferred Taglioni. It was not that Russian
audience were impressed by Taglioni simply because they had not
seen Elssler. Indeed, those spectators who had previously seen
Elssler in Europe tended to place her on a par with dancers who
are not as well remembered today. But in the intervening tears
since the Russians had first attempted to characterize her art,
Elssler's talent had developed and been perfected. She came to
Russia close to the end of her career and, by this point, they
welcomed her enthusiastically. Due to changes that evolved in
the aesthetic ideals of the public during previous decade, Russian
critics and audiences of the 1850's applauded Elssler with all
their hearts. Man's rich connections with reality, his relationship
to his surroundings, and the variegated meanings of his emotions
all became subject matter for art and literature. The art of
Fanny Elssler became the apex of the expression of these ideals.
The heroines portrayed by Elssler loved passionately, suffered,
fought and struggled to attain happiness. All the same, they
never lost their most important characteristics: femininity,
charm and beauty.
Descriptions of Elssler's dancing
written by her contemporaries provide a definitive idea about
the nature of this change in the character of classical dance,
from the time of Taglioni to that of Elssler. Not only had characteristic
changed - from ethereal weightlessness to earthly stability -
but even the choice of movements had changed. This, above all,
was evidenced in the dancer's jumps.
As one observer noted, Taglioni's light and weightless jump appeared
unnecessary for Elssler's heroines: «Madame Elssler offered
a sunny, precise, natural and simply elegant type of dancing;
ennobling it, she freed the theatre from the former showy jumps».
Another theatre critic declared that Elssler paved the way for
terre a terre dancing. This particular style was eventually developed
by the great dancers of the second half of the 19th century,
who continued in this manner until ethereal dancing was, once
again, exalted by Anna Pavlova.
The Russian public was particularly
impressed by Elssler's dramatic talent. This is easily understood,
since the tastes of her admirers had been shaped primarily through
literature. Literature occupied the place of honor in 19th century
Russian culture, defining the demands placed upon the ballet
theatre. An understanding of a ballet's content was clearly linked
to the elaboration of the literary subject which had been used
as a basis for its development.
Similarly, the understanding of
the artistic shaping of any ballet character was linked to the
art and mastery of pantomime. In the mid-19th century, the critic
for one of the most significant literary journals Otechestvennye
Zapiski (Homeland Notes) wrote categorically about ballet: «The
most important and basic component of this type of performance
is pantomime...Music, scenery, corps de ballet - these are only
needed additions.. Dance itself is only another type of pantomime».
Elssler's mime was uncommonly expressive.
«With her eyes, gestures and body movements she explains
everything as clearly as others do with words», wrote the
reviewer of the journal Moskovityanin (The Moscovite). During
Elssler's performances, the public laughed or cried depending
on the circumstances of the role that she performed. She was
particularly successful in those scenes with subtle nuances,
where she was able to move from one mood to another. In Jules
Perrot's ballet La Esmeralda she brought about the spectator's
admiration in the opening scene, and his sadness at the conclusion.
Elssler always remained in character
while performing, even when she took her bows. She broke this
rule only once, during her final performance in Moscow. Dancing
the part of Esmeralda, she allowed herself an unexpected freedom.
In the scene where the heroine traces the name of the man who
was dear to her heart, instead of writing Phoebus, she traced
Moscow. With this gesture, the great ballerina demonstrated the
love she felt for this audience. The Russian public, for its
part, kept the memory of her performances alive for a long time.
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- by Natalia Godzina
- This article first appeared in «Sovietsky
Balet», issue No.1, 1986