Tag Archives: Mlle de Verpré

A Year of Dance: 1664

Socially and politically, 1664 seems to have been a quiet year with no events of importance in either France or England.

In London, there are two tantalising references to dance performances. In January 1664, the play Pompey the Great was given at court. ‘After which a grand Masque is Danc’d before Caesar and Cleopatra, made (as well as the other Dances and the Tunes to them) by Mr John Ogilby’ (quotation from The London Stage, Part 1, which provides no source). The lack of further information is frustrating. Ogilby is now more widely known as a cartographer, but in his early years he had been a dancer and a dancing master and he seems to have plied his old trade alongside newer ones as a translator and a publisher. Pepys continued to be on the lookout for dancing actresses. On 10 September 1664, he saw Davenant’s The Rivals at Lincoln’s Inn Fields ‘which is no excellent play, but good acting in it; especially Gosnell comes and sings and dances finely’ adding (as an admirer of good music) ‘but for all that, fell out of the key, so that the musique could not play to her afterwards, and so did Harris [Henry Harris the actor, who took a leading role in the play] also go out of the tune to agree with her’. Was her dancing better controlled than her singing (and would Pepys have known whether it was or not)?

In Paris, one cultural event was the first performance of Le Mariage forcé a comédie-ballet by Molière and Lully given in the apartments of the Queen Mother at the Louvre on 29 January 1664 (N.S.) and then in the public theatre at the Palais Royal a couple of weeks later. The production featured Mlle Du Parc, a dancing actress, as Dorimène a young coquette. In the Ballet du Roy, which was scattered throughout the play, Louis XIV danced in the third Entrée as an Egyptien (a Gipsy). On 13 February 1664 (N.S.) the Ballet des Amours Deguisés was given at the Palais Royal. Louis XIV danced as Regnaut in the seventh Entrée, and the ballet included not only the Queen as Proserpine in the fourth Entrée but also Mlle de Verpré as Gouvernante d’Egypte in the second Entrée. The presence of the Queen in the cast presumably precluded Mlle de Verpré from dancing alongside the King.

The event of the year was the fête Les Plaisirs de l’Ile Enchantée given at Versailles over several days in May 1664. The entertainments included the Ballet du Palais d’Alcine with Mlle Du Parc as the sorceress Alcine. The King did not take part, so Mlle Du Parc danced the final Entrée with Pierre Beauchamps as Roger. The performance ended with a spectacular firework display depicting the destruction of Alcine’s palace.

Alcine's Palace

Les Plaisirs de l’Ile Enchantée (1664), Plate 9

 

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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.