Arthur Saint-Leon

 

     Saltarello, or Passion for Dance premiered in October, 1859 at the St. Petersburg Bolshoi Theatre and marks the Russian debut of a famous dancer and choreographer, Arthur Saint Leon.
     The simple subject of his new ballet was not noted for dramaturgical integrity or psychological depth. The main hero was Saltarello - a court teacher of dance. This one, a typical dreamer fanatically devoted to art, is far from the cares of everyday life. Therefore, his foster-child cannot in any way obtain his permission to marry her beloved. The young people decide to ask the duchess for help.
     The duchess appears to Saltarello in the form of Terpsichore, goddess of the dance, and carries him away to a celebration with a scene plotted by the young couple. Finding himself among ancient goddesses and sylphs, Saltarello believes he is in the kingdom of Terpsiphore herself. Only when he signs the young people's marriage agreement do they reveal the deception. On returning from the fantasy world to everyday realities, Saltarello plunges into sad melancholy.
     Saint-Leon's production immediately demonstrated his many-sided talents to the audience and to the Directors of the Imperial Theatres, who had invited him. He appeared simultaneously as librettist and performer of the main role. The most unexpected thing proved to be that Saint-Leon was also composer of the music for Saltarello. A professional musician (in childhood he was a violin child prodigy), he also performed two violin solos during the performance.
     In the ballet the accomplishments of Saint-Leon the musician did not take away from Saint-Leon the dancer, «who masters his legs just as well as the strings», wrote a reviewer. Critic also noted «strength... and dexterity», «great flexibility and elasticity», considered that «his dance is distinguished for correctness and at the same time elegance». They pointed out that «he mimes splendidly, and his dance is accompanied by clever, animated play acting».
     However, as contemporaries recall, «Saint-Leon himself danced little». In the first part of the production two dancers stepped forward, Martha Muravyeva in the role of Saltarello's foster child and Anna Prikhunova in the role of the duchess. As testified by famous artist, Yekaterina Vazem, Saint-Leon was a «brilliant author of solo variations».They «could be considered a model of beauty for their choreographic designs and musicality» and «were always in strong agreement with the canons of classical schools». Moreover, «before choreographing variations he considered the talents and possibilities of individual performers».
     It is evident that this ability of Saint-Leon when choosing his dancers to fully reveal an artist's individuality, allowed the dancers to shine brightly in the new production.
     In addition, as eyewitnesses wrote, «both of them are airy beings, both of them embodied grace». Looking at Prikhunova «one is carried off, willy-nilly to an elevated starry sphere and finds oneself under the influence of a peculiar aesthetic feeling». Muravyeva «fascinates with her fire, facial expressiveness and passion. From her eyes sparkle light, a light that strikes you somehow as pleasant, delightful».
     Special place in the production was taken by character dances, which critics found «lively», «captivating», «original». They were performed by the leading dancers: Muravyeva - Tarantella, Prikhunova - Scottish, as well as soloists. Among these Anastasia and Nadezhda Amosova and Lyubov Radina stood out.
     However, even though they noted the beauty of the character dancers and overall success of the performers, critics were restrained toward the ballet. Audiences missed a certain cohesive action and seriousness of content. «Saltarello, essentially is not a ballet, but a great divertissement», - such were common opinions. The production with its rather shallow subject, seemed a vehicle for demonstrating the dances of Saint-Leon, a cascade of character compositions alternating with virtuoso classical variations for the leading ballerinas. Moreover this was a surprise to audiences, accustomed to the contextually rich, romantic dramas of Perrault with their unfolding action, dramatized pantomime scenes and significant drama within the dance action.
     But the romantic era of ballet was receding into the past. The fact that a new ballet art was emerging on the stage in the second half of the 19th century, is testified by Saint-Leon's ballet, Saltarello or Passion for Dance. In addition to this new art, Saltarello revealed the strong side of Saint-Leon's creativity...
 
by Lyudmila Linkova, Ph.D.
This article first appeared in Sovietsky Ballet, Issue No.1, 1985

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