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