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Spotlight: Marie Taglioni

Hi everyone! The technical issues have been sorted so we're back up and running. Today's Spotlight Saturday focuses on Marie Taglioni, a ballerina not so much famous as legendary.

Taglioni, depicted in her most famous role, the Sylph of 'La Sylphide'

Marie Taglioni was born in Stockholm, Sweden, on 23 April 1804. Her parents were the Italian choreographer Filippo Taglioni and the Swedish ballet dancer Sophie Karsten. Marie also had a brother, Paul, who would also become a dancer as well as an influential choreographer.

When Marie was very young, her family moved to Vienna in Austria. She was extremely ill-suited to ballet, with bony limbs and rounded shoulders. Her father's old teacher, Monsieur Coulon, refused to take her on. Instead, her father taught her himself. Filippo was very demanding of his rather frail daughter, devising a teaching regimen that included two hour sessions of adage and allegro combinations, as well as exercises where she was expected to hold a position for 100 counts. While in Vienna, Taglioni starred in her very first ballet, choreographed for her by her father: 'La Reception d'une Jeune Nymphe a la Cour de Terpsichore' (The Reception of a Young Nymph at the Court of Terpsichore). During this early stage of their careers, Marie and her brother Paul frequently danced together.

Taglioni danced in both Munich and Stuttgart before she debuted another of her father's ballets at the age of 23. Entitled 'La Sicilien' (The Sicilian), it started off her career proper. She joined the Paris Opera Ballet as a danseuse - 'principal dancer'. In 1832, her father created another ballet for her, 'La Sylphide'. It has become her most iconic role. Though some dancers had previously risen en pointe during performances, Marie was the first to do so not merely as a momentary trick, but as part of her dancing. For this reason, she is hailed as the first ballerina to actually dance en pointe - previously, the few ballerinas who had attempted the move had done so as a rather ungainly acrobatic stunt.

Taglioni, probably depicted in costume for 'La Bayadere'

Taglioni, however, like her later counterpart Anna Pavlova, had an ethereal quality that was perfectly complemented by her choice to dance en pointe. In the long Romantic tutus that were the costumes of the period, she seemed to float across the stage until it seemed to audiences that the sylph really could fly. The ballet was specifically choreographed to showcase Marie's talents, which were very different from those of her rival at the Ballet of Her Majesty's Theatre, Fanny Elssler, who was a famously vivacious dancer. Marie preferred a more restrained style of ballet - she continued, throughout her career, to be a frail woman unsuited to the tricks of dancers such as Elssler. The critics and the public, for their part, adored her, proclaiming her the most beautiful dancer the world had ever known.

In 1827, Taglioni, tiring of competing with Elssler in London, removed herself to Russia to take up a three-year contract with the Imperial Ballet. Russia at the time was mad with the 'cult of the ballerina'; in 1842, a pair of Marie's pointe shoes were sold for two hundred rubles. According to legend, they were then cooked, served with sauce, and eaten by a group of particularly enthusiastic balletomanes.

In July 1845, she helped to create the original of Jules Perrot's Pas de Quatre. Her companions were Lucile Grahn, Carlotta Grisi, and Fanny Cerrito. Marie retired from the stage in 1847. She was forty-three. Throughout her career, she had kept up her strict regimen of practice under the even stricter eye of her father. The Taglioni name would be carried on by her young niece, Maria.

The original 'Pas de Quatre' - Taglioni in centre

Taglioni, however, as was ill-suited to idleness as she had once been to ballet. She aided in the reformation of the Paris Opera Ballet into a more professional company. Along with the new director, Lucien Petipa, and the choreographer Louis Merante (who had once been Petipa's pupil), she served on the board during the first of the annual competitions for the corps de ballet, held 13 April 1860.

She taught ballroom and social dance in London, even taking on a limited number of ballet students. Her favourite among these pupils was a promising young ballerina named Emma Livry. For Emma, Marie created her sole choreographic work, 'Le papillon' (The Butterfly). The ballet premiered at the Paris Opera Ballet in 1860, and Emma became its star. But three years later, tragedy struck: while rehearsing for 'Le papillon', Emma's filmy skirt brushed against one of the open gas jets that lighted the stage. She burned to death.

More misfortune followed. The investments that Marie had made to provide for her retirement were swept away by the depression which followed the Franco-Prussian War. Marie and her aged father were left penniless. Filippo soon died, and Marie, now aged sixty-seven, was left alone. Though she had briefly been married Comte Auguste Gilbert de Voisins, the marriage had lasted a mere four years, leaving her with a daughter, Eugenie-Marie Edwige.

Instead of despairing, Marie made her way to London, where she set up a school of dance and deportment. It barely attracted enough students to scrap a living; the London crowds which had once idolised her had moved on to newer idols. Nevertheless, she carried on undaunted until the day she died, a day before her eightieth birthday on 22 April 1884, in France. The change in style which she pioneered in La Sylphide influenced the many fairy tale ballets which are now classics of the ballet world, such as Swan Lake and Giselle. Many were devoted to her ethereal grace, and many have tried to emulate it. Her decision, prompted by her father, to perform entire routines on the tips of her toes fundamentally changed the appearance of ballet forever.

Thanks for reading! Next week the Spotlight will be on George Balanchine.

- Selene

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