Modern histories of ballet usually name Mlle de la Fontaine as the first ballerina, citing her appearance in Lully’s Le Triomphe de l’Amour of 1681 as marking the advent of the female professional dancer. In fact, the history of the ballerina starts some years before then.
Another contender for the title of the first ballerina, although she was most definitely not a professional dancer, is Madame – Henriette-Anne, Princesse d’Angleterre, duchesse d’Orleans. She was the sister of Charles II, king of England, and married Monsieur, the brother of Louis XIV, in 1661. Her first appearance in a ballet de cour was in April 1654, at the age of nine, when she danced in the first entrée of Les Nopces de Pélée et de Thétis as Erato, at the head of the other Muses.
Madame’s brief ascendancy as the leading female noble dancer at the French court began in 1661, just a few months after her marriage, when she danced the role of Diane in the second entrée of the Ballet des Saisons accompanied by a corps de ballet of court ladies. The verses written to celebrate her appearance, published in the ballet’s libretto, began:
‘Diane dans les bois, Diane dans les cieux,
Diane enfin brille en tous lieux,
Elle est de l’univers la seconde lumière,
Elle enchante les coeurs, elle ébloüit les yeux.’
If they are careful to describe her as ‘la seconde lumière’ to her brother-in-law the Sun King, the lines still suggest the idea of her as a ballerina, the leading dancer of the company.
In 1663, Madame appeared in the Ballet des Arts, dancing alongside Louis XIV as a Bergère (Shepherdess) to his Berger. In the final entrée she danced as Pallas Athene with a group of Amazons personified by court ladies. In 1665, she danced as Venus in the first entrée to the Ballet de la Naissance de Vénus, given in her own apartments. According to the libretto, she made her appearance on a throne of mother-of-pearl surrounded by twelve Nereides (danced by court ladies) ‘qui l’admirent, la reverent, & dansent avec elle’. In the sixth and final entrée Louis XIV appeared as Alexander the Great with Madame as his mistress Roxane. The following year, 1666, Madame reached her apogee as the court’s ballerina when she danced in the Ballet des Muses. Her first appearance was alongside Louis XIV, again as a Bergère and Berger, in the fourth entrée. She and the King led troupes of female and male dancing Spaniards in the sixth entrée and in the eleventh entrée she led a group of Pierides (daughters of Pierus) against the Muses. This entrée took the form of a contest, with ‘ces deux troupes aspirant avec mesme ardeur à triompher de celle qui luy est opposée’. The Ballet des Muses ended with an Entrée des Maures, in which Louis XIV and Madame again danced together as a Maure and a ‘Mauresque’.
Madame’s career as a ballerina ended with the Ballet des Muses. She had been prevented from appearing in earlier ballets by pregnancy and she was unable to participate in the Ballet de Flore, created for her in 1669, because she was again expecting a child. Just fifteen months later, in 1670, Madame unexpectedly died at the age of twenty-six. The Ballet de Flore was probably the last time that Louis XIV danced in public. Would he have danced again, and would the ballet de cour have survived for longer if Madame, the court’s ballerina, had not died so tragically early?