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.

by Natalia Godzina
This article first appeared in «Sovietsky Balet», issue No.1, 1986

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