Session 3A: Staging the New II: Gendered Perspectives

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3A. Staging the New II: Gendered Perspectives

Jane Moody (York, England): "Performance as Sensation"
Sarah McCleave (Queen's, Belfast): "The Shaping of Galatée: Imagery and Passion in the Life and Career of Marie Sallé"
Daniela Garofalo (Maryland): "Byron's Sardanapolous: a New Era of Peace and the Anachronism of Martial Leadership"

"The Shaping of Galatée: Imagery and Passion in the Life and Career of Marie Sallé"
Sarah McCleave
Queen's University, Belfast

Is it possible to recognize the beginning of a new artistic age? Need its origins spring from obvious and all-encompassing changes in approach or attitude, or can endeavours or persons whose influence is perhaps more difficult to trace also play their part in shaping the "new"? In this retrospective consideration of Romanticism, I seek to establish links with its distant past by exploring the life and career of the dancer Marie Sallé (1707-1756), who was performing in London and Paris nearly a century before the full flowering of Romantic ballet.

Although many aspects of her career are well documented, Sallé remains an enigmatic figure, a theatrical reformer who left no writings concerning her work, an independant woman whose private life, although subject to continual speculation, is shrouded in mystery. It is the nature of her reforms and the reception of her private life which suggest links with the Romantic era. Indeed, contemporaneous reception of both her life and career reflect preoccupations of this later age.

Reknowned for her expressive and passionate dancing, her performances as Galatea (Pygmalion, 1733) and Ariadne (Ariadne and Bacchus, 1733) in her own pantomime entertainments were recognized as convincing displays of her acting talents. For dance entertainments produced in London in the mid 1730s, her performances received an unprecedented amount of recognition, and there is evidence to suggest that her work was emulated in London and on the continent. But her influence can best be described as occasional, for the bulk of her repertory and that of her contemporaries remained rooted in the comic and noble traditions of dance.

Yet Sallé's reforms were nothing short of amazing, when put in the context of the time in which she worked. She was the choreographer of two innovative and successful entertainments, _Pygmalion_ and _Ariadne and Bacchus_ , in an age when women were not normally given the opportunity to display their own creations (on this scale) in a public arena. All writings on dance from her time were created by men, and men held the influential artistic positions at court, and in the theatre. To measure her significance in appropriate terms we must fully appreciate that her restrictive environment severely reduced the probability of her having an overtly direct and immediate impact on stage entertainments, particularly in tradition-bound Paris, where she spent most of her career.

The images she created - that of an unobtainable object of desire in _Pygmalion_, and of an abandoned, despairing lover in _Ariadne_, arguably have strong resonances with the passionate yet unattainable sylphs of Romantic Ballet. Indeed, the study of Sallé's career affords the opportunity to examine how we detect continuities and changes in artistic endeavour, for Hanna's claim that "19th-century ballet ushered in the image of the unattainable woman who is a supernatural or enchanted being" perhaps overlooks the significance of both the supernatural and the unattainable in earlier dance theatre. The technical means of expressing these univeral topos did, however, change with time, for by depicting the unattainable as a statue, Sallé was reflecting contemporaneous interest in the links between dance and sculpture while also exploiting an image which contemporaneous dance and mimic techniques were equipped to explore. The Romantic identification with the sylph has been linked with the then-new pointe technique, a purely female mode of dancing which literally elevated ballerinas to an ethereal status while simultaneously exalting an image of female frailty, for this technique rendered the female totally dependant on the male for any actual movement (Hanna, Garofola). Thus this paper will explore the relative roles of thematic and technical aspects in tracing continuities and changes in artistic endeavour.

The possible identification of Sallé with Romantic preoccupations extends beyond her stage life, for her personal image as an unattainable virgin was so entrenched that it earned her the sobriquet of "La Vestale" in an age when many of her contemporaries were viewed as discardable mistresses. Earlier writings unite in their praise of her virtue, which is seen as the explanation for her chosen chastity. Having reached her mid-twenties with no record of a heterosexual attachment, and also having demonstrated a certain independant streak in her professional life (which was filled with fraught encounters with management), Sallé's contemporaries then chose to explain her unattainability as a symptom of perverse sexual predilections, on the basis of much rumour and no known solid evidence. Indeed, throughout her active stage career, Sallé's personal image preoccupied her contemporaries more than did her artistic reforms. Although her image shifted dramatically from that of a vestal virgin to a lusty lesbian (a contemporaneous newspaper report suggested she took women to bed as a matter of course), all reports are unified in their concern to "explain" her avoidance of heterosexual liasons, feeling the need to reconcile her personal life with her (frequently) acknowledged "voluptuous" and sensual style of dance.

Critics and patrons in the Romantic era demonstrated a marked continuity with the preoccupations which shaped Sallé's reception in the press. Sexual speculation continued, while an easy yet pragmatic attitude to sexual liasons between poor yet pretty ballerinas and their rich "protectors" were part and parcel of stage life in the nineteenth century (a reality which many of Sallé's contemporaries also experienced). In Sallé's time, her male contemporaries could not reconcile her actual aloofness with her voluptuous dance style. In the Romantic age, the unattainable woman was celebrated, but only on the stage, for her real life generally took a rather different course. And as her unattainability was a product of her supernatural or enchanted status, it was therefore rather neatly "explained" or justified. The ballerina's sexual image, on stage and off, continued to be directed and controlled by her male peers, much as Galatea was shaped by the sculptor Pygmalion.

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Last updated May 26, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell