Tag Archives: Henriette-Anne duchesse d’Orleans

A Year of Dance: 1665

In 1665 the most significant event by far for England was the great plague of London, which took hold during the summer months and lasted until early 1666. The court moved to Salisbury in July 1665 and only returned to London the following February. The country was in the midst of the second Anglo-Dutch War, which began in March. (The first Anglo-Dutch War had been as long ago as 1652-1654, under the Commonwealth). An equally important event was the birth of a second daughter to the Duke and Duchess of York – Princess Anne would become Queen in 1702. Charles II’s third illegitimate son George Fitzroy, by Barbara Villiers Countess of Castlemaine, was born on 25 December 1665. He would later become Duke of Northumberland.

The diarist John Evelyn recorded a masque at court on 2 February. Samuel Pepys provided some additional details in his diary entry for the following day:

‘Then Mrs Pickering … did, at my Lady’s command, tell me the manner of the masquerade before the King and court the other day. Where six women (my Lady Castelmayne and Duchess of Monmouth being two of them) and six men (the Duke of Monmouth and Lord Arran and Monsieur Blancfort being three of them) in vizards, but most rich and antique dresses, did dance admirably, and most gloriously.’

There are no mentions of dancing in the theatres up to their closure, because of the plague, on 5 June 1665. They did not reopen until the autumn of 1666.

In France, Louis XIV’s mistress gave birth to two sons during 1665, one on 7 January (N.S.) and the other on 27 December (N.S.). Both babies died during 1666. The ballet de cour for 1665 was the Ballet de la Naissance de Vénus, in which the King’s sister-in-law Madame appeared as the goddess in the first Entrée with her husband as the Morning Star. She made her second appearance in the final Entrée as Roxane, with Louis XIV as Alexander the Great. The professional ballerina Mlle de Verpré appeared in the second Entrée of Part 2 as Daphne with a noble dancer, the Marquis de Beringuen, as Apollo. Another comédie-ballet by Molière and Lully, L’Amour Medecin, was given at Versailles on 15 September (N.S.) as an entertainment for a hunting party. It was later performed before the public at the Palais Royal in Paris.

 

 

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Dancers in Ballets de Cour, 1648-1669

Between 1648 and 1669 the dancers in ballets de cour were predominantly male. More than 300 male dancers appeared during this period. Around 90 of them, not quite one-third, were professionals. About 100 men, mostly courtiers, appeared in only one or two of the ballets. Of those who appeared in a significant number of ballets, i.e. at least half of the productions, around two-thirds were professional dancers. These men were the core performers in the ballets de cour. They ensured that the performances were the spectacular events they were meant to be.

Among the most important of the professional dancers were:

Louis de Mollier (c1615-1688). He took 48 roles in 18 ballets and was the most prominent dancer up to 1660.

Pierre Beauchamps (1631-1705). He took an astounding 93 roles in 23 ballets. His significance for the development of ballet cannot be overestimated, not least because of his dominant position as a performer over the whole period.

François Hilaire d’Olivet. He took 46 roles in 18 ballets and like Beauchamps was active throughout the period.

These men were also leaders of the profession of dancing masters. D’Olivet was a founder member of the Académie Royale de Danse, established in 1661. Beauchamps became Director of the Académie in 1680.

Two other men were, if anything, even more important to the ballet de cour and dancing:

Louis XIV, the monarch around whom these entertainments were created, was the subject of an earlier post. His regular appearances alongside professional dancers, as well as the range and extent of his repertoire, suggest that reports of his dancing skills were not simply hyperbole.

Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), composer and dancer. He took 45 dancing roles in 11 ballets. He made his dancing debut in 1653 in the Ballet de la Nuit. He began to compose music for the ballets de cour in 1655. His involvement as a dancer diminished as his role as a musician and composer expanded.

Ballets de cour did include female dancers. Around 120 noblewomen and female professionals appeared in 15 out of the 26 ballets performed over the period. Six of these ballets involved only professional female dancers. The number of female professionals is uncertain, because they are difficult to identify from the sources, but there seem to have been about 15 of them. Of the other nine ballets, five were closely associated with Louis XIV’s sister-in-law, the English Princess Henriette-Anne, known as Madame, also the subject of an earlier post.

However, so many male dancers and the irregular appearance of female dancers meant that female roles were often danced by men. This is a topic I will return to.

Mlle de Verpré, the first female professional dancer?

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.

 

Madame. The first ballerina?

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?

Madame, Duchesse d'Orleans.Nicholas de Larmessin after Pierre Mignard? c1661-1670. © Trustees of the British Museum

Madame, Duchesse d’Orleans. Nicholas de Larmessin after Pierre Mignard? c1661-1670. © Trustees of the British Museum