The ballet became ‘natural’ in Jean-Georges Noverre's hands

In 1982, the International Theatre Institute, an organisation founded under the auspices of UNESCO, declared April 29 to be an International Dance Day, a day designated to celebrate the most primitive and yet the most refined form of expression that has been the rite of passage of every community across the globe.

Dance, in its many garbs, whether celebratory or solemn, as a movement-medium potent with meaning and energy has travelled across centuries, accruing histories of people and lands.

It is only appropriate that there be a special day earmarked in the year to celebrate this all too human force of achievement. April 29 was a deliberate choice as it also commemorates the birth anniversary of Jean-Georges Noverre, widely accepted as the father of modern ballet. It would be fair to say that there has been a transformative figure like Jean-Georges Noverre in the circuitous evolution of every major dance form around the world, that one person whose vision and creativity redefined the way dance is perceived. In India, we have had Rukmini Devi Arundale for Bharatanatyam, Vempati Chinna Satyam for Kuchipudi and Kelucharan Mohapatra for Odissi, and many such examples abound.

A product of his times, Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810), was very much a son of the era of French Enlightenment. He is believed to have been the man who literally took ballet out from the courts where it languished as a pastime or divertissement, as it was called in the day, and turned it into a vehicle of elegant storytelling, thereby helping it gain in stature as an independent art form to be reckoned with known as ballet d’action or ballet of action.

In order to truly appreciate Noverre’s beliefs and his motivation behind his most celebrated work ‘Lettres Sur La Danse (1760)’ it is important to understand the intellectual environment of the times that he lived in. Eighteenth century France was a nation in ferment with new ideas and thoughts, where writers and thinkers like Rousseau and Voltaire wielded much influence in artistic and cultural circles. Rousseau was an advocate of naturalism and in his La Nouvelle Heloise, criticised the ballet of the day, of being devoid of substance and dramatic reason, thereby lacking in purpose. Extending the idea of ‘naturalism’ to ballet, Noverre propounded that artificiality and empty movements be jettisoned in favour of expressiveness and emotionality.

Questioning the norm

Born in Paris, Noverre was a dancer, having trained under the famous Louis Dupre and was also a choreographer of over 100 ballets, none of which, unfortunately, have survived. Even as a young trainee dancer, he questioned the use of cumbersome wigs, heels and masks that he felt impeded movement. While in Britain, from 1755 to 1756, he worked at Drury Lane Theatre with David Garrick, a notable figure in the world of theatre in London at the time and also a proponent of the Rousseau school of ‘natural’ theatre.

It was here that Noverre met Eva Weigel, Garrick’s wife, who had trained under the Austrian choreographer Franz Hilverding. The latter had already choreographed several avante garde ballets that departed from the standard model of ballet at the time and dealt with human emotions. Noverre is believed to have been influenced by Hilverding’s work, so much so that, Gasparo Angiolini, a pupil of Hilverding, maintained that Noverre was undeservedly credited for creating ballet d’action when in fact Hilverding had already introduced pantomimic dancing in the 1740s.

An interesting event that took place during Noverre’s time at London illustrates how ever-changing political climates impacted the work of artistes. A war broke out between France and Britain in 1756, which was part of a bigger conflict between the two nations known as the seven-year war. Anti-French sentiment was at its peak in Britain. During a performance of Noverre’s ‘Les Fetes Chinoises’ in London, English audiences rioted at the theatre, since Noverre was French. He had to flee England, precipitously!

Noverre’s life was marked by political upheavals and his work was often interrupted by the whims and fancies of his benefactors and patrons. He moved several times over the course of his life. He escaped to Lyons in 1757, when the climate in Britain turned unfavourable, where he briefly worked with Mlle Guimard creating new works. In a ballet titled ‘Les Caprices de Galathee’ for instance, he tried out naturalist designs for the costume that won him recognition.

Upon publishing his seminal work, ‘Lettres Sur La Danse, Et Sur Les Ballets (1760),’ he felt his work would find a more conducive environment in Germany and so on invitation, he went to serve in the court of Duke Carl Eugene of Wurttemberg. Here, with a 350- seat theatre at his disposal, Noverre created some of his best works, about 20 of them, the most famous of which was ‘Jason et Medee.’

A few years later, the lure of Vienna, capital of the Holy Empire, took him away from Germany. Under the benevolent gaze of Queen Maria Theresa, he created 38 new ballets. While he was there, he served as maitre de danse of young Mary-Antoinette, a role that would come handy in the future. But fickle as the royalty were prone to be, once he fell from the Queen’s grace, he had to go looking for greener pastures again.

The only other country in Europe that Noverre could hope to find some success in was Italy. However, his innings at the Teatro Regio Ducale in Milan proved to be disappointing. The Milanese who had been conditioned to watch exciting, grotesque dancing that included thrilling jumps and moves, pretty much like the dance culture of today, found his ponderous, mimetic art boring!

In 1776, his fortunes turned when Marie Antoinette, who had become Queen of France, invited him to work at the prestigious Paris Opera. The world of art while refined, sometimes hides an ugly inner world of machinations and yet again, his methods and his manner found disfavour with the who’s who of Paris Opera which included among others Mozart. As if it were poetic justice, after three years at the Paris Opera, Noverre returned to London and Lyons subsequently, where he restaged many of his successful ballets between the years 1781 to 1787.

Another political upheaval was in the offing, as the French Revolution was at the doorstep and Noverre was most affected by it because it was the royalty that had been the biggest benefactor of his work. He spent the next few years in hiding from the revolutionaries who executed every such individual who was suspected to be sympathetic to the royalty.

In 1795, he returned to his home in Saint Germain-en-Laye, almost penniless. He lived there in relative inactivity until his death in 1810 at the age of 83.

Noverre’s core philosophy about ballet came through in his most celebrated work ‘Lettres Sur La Danse,’ which saw several editions over a period of time, where he made an impassioned plea for truth, simplicity, harmony and the imitation of nature. He believed mere virtuosic dancing and technical brilliance could never entirely replace warmth and feeling in a ballet. “It is shameful that dancing should renounce the empire it might assert over the mind and only endeavour to please the sight,” Noverre is believed to have famously said when pleading a case for more meaningful ballets. Perhaps, this International Dance Day, nearly two centuries later, these words that almost appear prophetic could shine the light on the way forward and compel some of us to dwell on what dance means to us.

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Printable version | Jul 26, 2021 12:05:38 AM |

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