Petipa’s partner in Spain and her ethereal friends of the Romantic age – and now

After he was forced to quit his post at the Imperial Theatres in Russia, the great choreographer, Marius Petipa, spent his idle days in retirement writing his memoirs.

He was 88 when they were published in 1906, four years before his death. His memoirs were partly a way to answer his critics and he had every right to be bitter with those who pushed him out of his position as maître de ballet, but he also retained a sense of the fun and the drama of his earlier life when he wrote of his few years as a dancer in Spain before moving to St Petersburg in 1847.

I recently researched those years and learned more about his time in Spain when he embarked on a tour throughout Andalusian townships with the French ballet dancer, Marie Guy-Stéphan, who was known for her Spanish divertissements, among them Las Boleras de Cadiz.

It’s likely that they met at the Grand Théâtre in Bordeaux where she was a premiere danseuse in both 1839 and in 1843 (lithographs of her dancing in Bordeaux in those years prove the dates).

Petipa joined the company in Bordeaux as a premier danseur in 1841.

Soon after, he moved to Spain (in 1843) to dance in Madrid then went on the Andalusian tour with Guy-Stéphan. Petipa made the most of his brief time in Spain. He had more than one torrid romance and maybe one of his flings was with Guy-Stéphan.

The lithograph of her dancing Las Boleras is, of course, an idealised image, not least for the shape of her body – an impossibly tiny waist so out of proportion with her breasts and shoulders. But that was the whole idea of the lithograph – to transform dancers into iconic images for the pleasure of their adoring fans.

The golden age of the ballet lithograph was from 1830 to 1860 but in the 20th century they were published in such books as a biography of Marie Taglioni, by the Russian N. V. Soloviev, Cyril Beaumont’s The Romantic Ballet in Lithographs of the Time (1938) and Edwin Binney’s Glories of the Romantic Ballet (1985).

Many of the lithographs in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Theatre collection in London were bequeathed by Beaumont from his own collection.

When Dance Books was still in Cecil Court, London, I loved to browse through the lithographs for sale and bought a few at a reasonable cost.

Today, the prices have risen considerably. At Christie’s in London a recent lot comprising Jullien’s Celebrated Polkas. No.3 – The Drawing Room Polka, a hand-coloured lithograph by M&N Hanhart;
Taglioni, a lithograph proof by R.J.Lane, inscribed on the mount Margot from Tug & John, February 1958; and three other hand-coloured lithographs of dancers sold for ÂŁ353 although the estimate was ÂŁ150-ÂŁ200.

It’s interesting to compare the ethereal and other-worldly images created so long ago with the way dancers are depicted today.

In an interview to promote a new exhibition Now Is All There Is – Bodies in Motion, to open at The Gallery at The Hospital Club, London, later this month, the photographer, Rick Guest, who took 35 photos of Royal Ballet dancers said:

“Most dance photography is usually only documented for posterity. We wanted to do something different by bringing together portraiture, fashion and dance”. (Scroll down to see some images.)

Both those comments are debatable.

Dance photography is more often used for publicity purposes rather than for a record – posterity – and bringing together fashion and dance has been popular for years, so much so that dancers often pose for fashion magazines and dance companies often use fashion photographers rather than specialist dance photographers as they did in the past.

The main difference between the way dancers were depicted by the artists of the Romantic age and the way they are photographed today is that in the 21st century, dancers are shown as beautiful athletes rather than delicate dolls. But there remains a similarity. In both the 1830s and today, dancers are portrayed as heavenly creatures who inhabit a different stratosphere than the rest of us.

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Marie Guy-Stephan, dancing ‘Las Boleras de Cádiz’, 1844. Originally a drawing by J H Lynch, then a painting and finally a lithograph by C G Lynch, Victoria & Albert Museum

Marie Taglioni as Bayadère, coloured lithograph, 1831, Victoria & Albert Museum

Marie Taglioni as La Sylphide, Alfred Edward Chalon and Richard James Lane, lithograph, coloured by hand, London, Victoria & Albert Museum

Fanny Elssler, in Le Diable boiteux, colour lithograph, about 1836, Victoria & Albert Museum

l to r: Zenaida Yanowsky, Nehemiah Kish, Johannes Stepanek, photos © Rick Guest

Edward Watson, photo © Rick Guest