The majority of general public does not really know that ballet was not the invention of the French or Russian dancers but appeared much earlier. In fact, all ballet specialists conclude, that first ballet originated in Italy in the times of Renaissance. Naturally, ballet slippers, tutus or complex ballet positions and moves had not been invented yet.
First ballet or “ballo” as it was called in Italy, was the dancing performance designated for special occasions. It was not the entertainment of poor people, of course, it was the privilege of aristocrats. Only the highest nobility could organize ballo for lavish court pageantry, big weddings, or festivals.
All Renaissance ballet dancers – ballerinas - dressed according to the fashions of the times. But the choreography gradually was getting more complex – from simple dances to all kind of adaptations of court dance steps. This probably allowed the evolution of the ballo into more sophisticated type of dance in the end.
Female dancers of those times were not supposed to show their legs or even ankles to the public. All ballet dancers used masks without showing their faces to the public. Their artistic expression was supposed to agitate and excite the audience to such degree that it would join the participants in the end of their performance.
Ballo got big exposure when future French king Henry the Second married Catherine Medici who was surrounded by the patrons of the Renaissance art and culture since her birth. New bride replaced old Medieval dances with vivacious and extravagant dances of her native Italy. Ballo instantly became fashionable, and first famous ballet dancers became recognizable figures at the French court
In 1729 when a boy was born in the popular theatrical family in Florence. They named him Gaetano Appolino Baldassare Vestris. Nobody in the family could even dream that one day this boy would become the most famous French male ballet dancers of the 18th century. However, even as a teenager Gaetano Vestris showed so many talents in ballet that he got a chance to study dance at the Royal Academy in Paris. There he shortened his Italian name to Gaetan Vestris.
His dancing debut took place when he was only some twenty years old at the famous Paris Opera. Soon Gaetan Vestris became the favorite dancer of the French royal family and went up the career ladder even further. He was promoted to the title of the king’s dancing master and was teaching his technique to Louis XVI.
Gaetan Vestris entered the history of ballet not only because of his excellent dancing abilities. He was also the first ballet dancer who discarded the mask that traditionally was worn by European dancers. After he removed the mask he made another historical innovation – Vestris started using his face in mime and succeeded in it as he was not only great dancer but an excellent mimic as well.
In the middle of 18th century nobody could compete with his popularity as well as with his ego. His contemporaries claimed that not once Gaetan would say that his was one of three greatest men in Europe, comparing himself to the king of Prussia and Voltaire.
Gaetan Vestris was also lucky in marriage. He married German actress Anna Heinel and who had a brilliant career as a opera singer of European prominence. His children followed his steps. For example, his illegitimate son Auguste Vestris was the leading dancer of French Opera for 36 years.
As the years rolled by he became the First Ballet master and was also composing ballets but, eventually retired in 1776 and died quietly in 1808. Another great ballet master Jean Georges Noverre took his place and worked on creating famous ballet d’action.
If you could ask any Russian ballet fan of the 19th who is his favorite male ballet dancer, there would come up only one name – Paul Gerdt. He spent fifty six years on the ballet stage and performed in the roles of nearly every lead male character of famous Russian ballets. For his extraordinary ballet technique and dancing Paul Gerdt received the mot prestigious title of the Premier Danseur of all three significant theaters in the tsarist Russia: the Imperial Ballet, The Bolshoy Kammeny Theater and Mariinsky Theater.
Gerdt had the unusual longevity for any male ballet dancer: he was born in 1844, started performing very young and retired one year before his death in 1917. Public loved and worshiped him. In addition, to his brilliant career and titles, audience nicknamed him Blue Cavalier. Admiring public also awarded him with another title: the Prince of Saint Petersburg stage. This was true enough because Paul Gerdt was the first to dance Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake, Prince Desire in Sleeping Beauty, and Prince Coqueluche in The Nutcracker.
His mentors and teachers that helped him start his amazing career of a dancer were also the best that Russian ballet could offer. Gerdt’s first teacher was Alexander Pimenov who himself was a student of the Father of Russian ballet – Charles Didelot. His next teacher was Jean Petipa, famous ballet dancer, father of probably the second person of importance after Didelot for Russian ballet – Marius Petipa. Old Jean in his youth underwent extensive training by the giant of the French ballet Auguste Vestris.
Paul Gerdt was quite an eccentric, nobody at the theater knew how old he was. When asked, he would give one and the same response, claiming that he was 23 years old. He excelled not only in dancing but in teaching as well. He left after himself the whole brilliant team of students among which there were Anna Pavlova, George Balanchine, Michel Fokin, Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky. It is interesting to note that Michel Fokin trained Gerdt’s daughter – great ballerina Elizaveta Gerdt. And Vaslav Nijinsky was Elizaveta’s partner in ballet dancing.
Paul Gerdt in 1890
Avdotia Istomina was one of the most famous ballerinas of the Russian ballet in the 19th century. Having said that, I must add that her origin and place of birth remain unknown. My intense web analytics search did not reveal any of her ancestors. Supposedly, she was born in 1799. She was brought to the ballet school by a flutist in an Army orchestra when she was just six years old. She was the best student of the First ballet master Charles Didelot who managed to pass to her the best techniques, artistic methods and progressive ballet moves and positions.
She debuted in the Russian Imperial Ballet when she was only sixteen. Charles Didelot was very proud of her. None of his other female dancers appeared on stage as often as Istomina, nor danced as many roles as she did. For a long time Istomina, as a a prima ballerina had no equal in the Russian and, possibly, European ballet.
All young noble Russian aristocrats and courtiers were in love with Istomina. Famous writer Alexander Pushkin dedicated her beautiful lines in Eugene Onegin. Noblemen were competing for her heart. These dangerous competitions led to dueling during which several of them were killed. Among those who died for her was influential young Count Sheremetev. Even Russian famous playwright and diplomat Alexander Griboedov was shot through the palm during one of those dangerous competitions.
The contemporaries describe her as a medium built, well-shaped brunette. She had black, fiery eyes veiled by long eye-lashes, great strength in her feet, aplomb on the stage, and together with that, grace. Lightness and speed in movements; her pirouettes and her elevation were astounding.
She was on the peak of her fame when suddenly famous Didelot left the theare after a conflict with theater administration in 1829. It all went down the hill after Father of Russian ballet left. Many romantic leading roles were taken away from Istomina and she played older characters on stage as the years rolled by. Her salary was lowered twice and in the end she requested her retirement from ballet and it was officially given to her by the emperor Nicholai I. Her days ended in relative obscurity in 1848.
Russian Ballerina Avdotia Istomina