La Camargo and the Entrechat-Quatre

Popular histories of ballet often tell us that Marie Anne Camargo was the first female dancer to perform the entrechat-quatre. Where does the story come from? Is it true?

I have been looking at pas battus in the notated stage dances for women in a series of other posts. These choreographies record them regularly performing assemblés battus as well as demi entre-chats and even demie cabrioles. There are hints, if no clear evidence in the notations, that female professional dancers performed entrechats-quatre long before Mlle Camargo made her debut at the Paris Opéra.

The story was examined by the publisher, bookseller and dance historian Cyril Beaumont in his Three French Dancers of the 18th Century: Camargo, Sallé and Guimard, published in 1954. He identified the originator of the story as Louis de Cahusac, citing his ‘La Danse et les Ballets’. I thought at first that Beaumont meant Cahusac’s La Danse ancienne et moderne of 1754, but I didn’t find it in the modern edition I have of that text and I couldn’t track down another work by Cahusac with the title Beaumont cites. Cahusac contributed many articles on dance topics to the famous Encyclopédie edited by Diderot and d’Alembert and published in the mid-18th century. Volume 5 of this great work has an entry for ‘Entrechat’, written by Cahusac, which includes the following paragraph:

‘J’ai vû naître les entrechats des danseuses; mademoiselle Salley ne l’a jamais fait sur le théatre; mademoiselle Camargo le faisoit d’une maniere fort brillante à quatre; mademoiselle Lany est la premiere danseuse en France qui l’ait passé au théatre à six.’

This could form the basis of another whole blog post on the topic of female batterie, but is it the source of the story of La Camargo and her ‘first’ entrechat-quatre? Note that Cahusac does not actually say she was the first, although this may perhaps be inferred from his words.

La Camargo’s virtuoso technique was certainly immediately recognised. Her debut at the Paris Opéra on 5 May 1726, was reviewed thus in the Mercure de France:

‘ … la Dlle Camargo, Danseuse de l’Opera de Bruxelles, qui n’avoit jamais paru ici, dansa les Caracteres de la Danse, avec toute la vivacité & l’intelligence qu’on peut attendre d’une jeune personne de quinze à seize ans. Elle est Eleve de l’illustre Mlle Prevost, qui la presenta au Public. Les Cabrioles & les Entrechats ne lui coûtent rien; & quoiqu’elle ait encore bien des perfections à acquerir pour approcher de son inimitable Maîtresse, le Public la regarde comme une des plus brillantes Danseuses qu’on sçauroit voir, surtout pour la justesse de l’oreille, la legereté & la force.’

There is no suggestion here that cabrioles and entrechats were new to female dancers, Camargo’s ease and brilliance of execution are noted but her vocabulary excites no comment.

In 1733, in Le Temple du Goût, Voltaire included the lines:

Legere & forte en sa souplesse,

La vive Camargo sautoit,

A ces sons brillans d’allegresse,

Et de Rebel et de Mouret.

Voltaire placed Camargo between Marie sallé ‘D’un pas guidé par la justesse’ and the actress Adrienne Lecouvreur ‘avec cette grace divine’. A footnote to the lines declares ‘Mademoiselle Camargo, la première qui ait dansé comme un homme’ without further elaboration. It seems to refer to the ‘attack’ in her dancing and not to her actual steps, contrasting her with the performers either side in the verses.

Marie Anne Camargo retired from the Paris Opéra twice, first in 1734 or 1735 (both dates are given in different sources and I haven’t yet found a contemporary reference) only to return in 1740 and then retire, finally, in 1751.

When she died in 1770, obituaries recalled Camargo at the height of her powers. Les Spectacles de Paris pour l’année 1771 included a biography of her with an appraisal of her dancing:

‘ … exécuta-t-elle tous les genres possibles de la dame noble, les menuets, les passe-pieds d’une manière bien supérieure à Mlle Prévost, et elle y conserva ce je ne sais quoi de piquant qu’elle avoit pris de sa maîtresse, ainsi que dans les entrées de pures grâces. Les gavottes, les rigaudons, les tambourins, les loures, tout ce qu’on appelle les grands airs étoit rendus dans leurs caractères, par la variété des pas qui y étoient propres, car elle les avoit tous dans la jambe et si elle n’a pas fait usage de la gargouillade, c’est qu’elle la croyait peu convenable aux femmes. Elle y substitua le pas de Basque dont elle seule et Dumoulin ont fait usage. Jamais personne qu’elle n’a fait ces beaux pas de menuet sur le bord des lampes, d’un côté du théâtre à l’autre, d’abord de gauche à droite et ensuite en revenant de droite à gauche.’

This text was transcribed by Émile Campardon in his L’Académie Royale de Musique au xviiie siècle, published in Paris, 1884 (pp. 88-89). It provides a more nuanced view of La Camargo’s dancing than is usually given, although allowance must be made for the developments in style and technique  since her retirement which may well have influenced the writer.

As late as 1804, in the last edition of his works, Jean-Georges Noverre wrote of having seen Camargo dance:

‘J’ai vu danser la Dlle. Camargo. C’est à tort que quelques auteurs lui ont prêté des graces. La nature lui avoit refusé tout ce qu’il faut pour en avoit; elle n’étoit ni jolie ni grande ni bienfaite; mai sa danse étoit vive, légère et pleine de gaieté et de brillant. Les jettés battus, la royale, l’entrechat coupé sans frottement, tous ces tems aujourd’hui rayés du catalogue de la danse et qui avoient un éclat séduisant, la Dlle. Camargo les exécutoit avec une extrême facilité, elle ne dansoit que des airs vifs, et ce n’est pas sur ces mouvemens rapides que l’on peut déployer de la grace: mais l’aisance, la prestesse et la gaieté la remplacoient; …’

The steps he mentions are those we today associate with the male dancers of the period, but Noverre talks only of her facility, thereby suggesting that they were routinely performed by women.

The various accounts of La Camargo’s dancing need more detailed analysis, as they surely provide us with important information about the style and technique open to some (if not all) female professional dancers of her time. The story of the entrechat-quatre masks a far more compelling picture of the dancer Marie Anne Camargo, whose brilliance of technique convinced audiences that she danced with the virtuosity of a man.

Camargo Wallace Collection

Nicolas Lancret, Mlle Camargo Dancing, 1730

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