If Madame was the source of the ballerina’s refined and sophisticated style, the latter may owe her virtuosity of technique to Mlle Verpré. She, too, has a claim to be the first ballerina. She may have been the daughter of the Verpré who danced in court ballets from 1648 to 1661, and was one of several girls from professional dance backgrounds who appeared in these entertainments. These first female professional dancers have been written about in recent years by a handful of dance historians.
Mlle Verpré first came to notice in the Ballet d’Alcidiane of 1658. In the very last entrée of the ballet she danced a chaconne as a Princess Maure with the King and seven other male dancers. The libretto sets the scene:
‘Une Princesse de Mauretanie que le hazard a fait aborder en l’isle inaccessible avec sa suite, tesmoigne par une Chacone, dont les Maures ont esté les premiers inventeurs, la part qu’elle prend à la satisfaction des deux Amans [Alcidiane and Polexandre]; & conclud tout le Ballet par cette dance si agreable; …’
Mlle Verpré unquestionably took a starring role in this ballet.
The following year she appeared in the closing entrée of the Ballet de la Raillerie as ‘L’Espagnolle. … dansant avec Castagnettes, accompagnée de huict Guitarres’. She was the sole female Spaniard among the pairs of French, Italian, Turkish and Indian ‘Gentilhommes’. Louis XIV danced as one of the French gentlemen. The nine danced a chaconne together. In the Ballet de l’Impatience of 1661, she appeared in the first entrée with eleven men, including the King. Louis XIV performed as ‘un Grand amoureux’ and she may have been his ‘Maistresse’. She returned to the stage for the third entrée of part 3 as ‘la Dame’ with the King and seven other men as ‘Chevaliers de l’ancienne Chevalerie’ all of whom were rivals for her favour. Two other female professional dancers, Mlles Girault and de la Faveur, appeared in the final entrée of this ballet.
The ballerina in the 1661 Ballet des Saisons was Madame, but Mlle de Verpré appeared in the seventh entrée dancing a saraband with seven men (nobles as well as professionals). The ‘de’ added to her name, usually an indication of nobility, suggests that her dancing skill had been rewarded with higher status. 1662 perhaps marked the high point of her career, when she appeared in the Ballet d’Hercule Amoureux as part of the celebrations for the King’s marriage. Both the King and the Queen danced in this ballet. In the sixteenth entrée Mlle de Verpré danced alone as Aurora, heralding the appearance of Louis XIV as le Soleil in the following entrée.
Mlle de Verpré did not appear in the Ballet des Arts of 1663, in which Madame took pride of place. The advent of Madame as the court’s ballerina seems to have pushed the professional dancer to one side. Even in the Ballet des Amours Déguisés of 1664, in which Madame did not appear (but the King did), Mlle de Verpré danced only in the second entrée as ‘La Gouvernante’ albeit alongside the duc de Saint-Aignan as ‘Le Gouverneur d’Egypte’ with a supporting group of eight men (four of whom danced as women). She made her final appearance in 1665 in the Ballet de la Naissance de Vénus, dancing only in the second entrée of part 2 as Daphne, alongside the marquis de Beringuen as Apollo. Thereafter she disappears from dance history.
In his verse gazette La Muze Historique, Jean Loret mentions Mlle de Verpré and her performances in ballets de cour several times. He repeatedly refers to her ‘caprioles’. Of her appearance as an ‘Espagnolle’ in the Ballet de la Raillerie, Loret wrote of the gentlemen of various nations and their female companion:
‘Accompagnez d’une Espagnole,
Qui sçait frizer la capriole,
De la mesme sort et façon
Que feroit un joly Garçon,
By ‘frizer la capriole’ did Loret mean that she could execute a cabriole, a jump with a beat in the air? In any case, Mlle de Verpré evidently had a professional level of technique and the skill to keep up with (if not challenge) the young men she danced alongside.
There is no known portrait of Mlle de Verpré.