The Good, the Bad, and the Aesthetic: Ballerinas and Celebrity during the Regency
Alter, Megan Early, Studies in the Humanities
During its heyday from the 1820s well into the 1840s, the Romantic ballet featured some of the most famous ballerinas the dance world has ever produced. Marie Taglioni, Fanny Cerrito, Carlotta Grisi, and Fanny Elssler were among the first dancers to be renowned internationally, and they remain heralded in the annals of ballet today for their early virtuosity and expressive capacities. However, during much of the nineteenth century, ballerinas in general were subject to derision because of their perceived immorality and indecorousness. Quite simply, they represented an art form that was designated by denizens of the nineteenth century as immodest female public display catering only to lascivious male admirers. Indeed, even during the pinnacle of Romantic ballet's popularity during the late Regency period and the early Victorian era, professional dancers were considered by most to be little more than courtesans to monied or titled patrons. Such an attitude became the master narrative for these cultural icons as the century matured.
In part, this characterization by Victorians was due to ever-present stories of backstage--so-called Green Room--assignations held over from the days of the Regency period, where dancers and their suitors would carry on their affairs with the blessing of the theater managers. Published as gossip in society magazines like Age, The Satirist, and the Town, dancers' love lives were as notorious as our own tabloid tarts. On the one hand, the salacious, often infamous reputations of dancers' sexual and actual avarice provided ready entree into aristocratic society for those dancers seeking patronage. On the other hand, this same reputation attached itself to practically all ballerinas at some point in their careers, and accordingly, became associated with the art form itself. Indeed, that these artists showed off their legs, bare arms, and shoulders as part of their trade "confirmed" ballerinas' immodest natures and willingness to be ersatz courtesans. In sum, theatrical dance was an immoral and indecent entertainment, as one writer to the editor of the Theatrical Times proclaimed sternly: "[Ballet] panders to depraved taste and to idle sensuality, without raising the mind, as the pure intellectual drama, or soothing the heart like beautiful music.... [I]t is monstrous that dancers should be paid so enormously for distorting their limbs and exposing their person, in such a manner, to the necessary degradation of themselves, and of those who are their patrons...". (1)
Not surprisingly, these kinds of judgments colored the overall reception of even the internationally renowned ballerinas like Elssler and Taglioni. (2) At the same time they were heralded as elite artistes, they also warranted off-color ribbing because of their medium and purported lifestyles. In 1840 the popular Illustrated London News waxed enthusiastically
We perfectly recollect admiring the emotion of several ancient aristocrats in the stalls on the recent appearance of the legs of Fanny Elssler. We thought that we observed an aged and respectable virtuoso shedding tears; another fainted ...; one appeared to go mad, and bit his neighbor's pit-tail [sic] in half in sheer ecstasy. Oh! The legs of Fanny displayed a vast deal of propriety, and frightened sober men from their prescribed complacency. (3)
While intentionally hyperbolic, the News offered an example of the dynamic between dancer and audience that the Theatrical Times' letter-writer later referenced. Fanny's main attraction was her sexual attractiveness and practically incited a collective sexual frenzy with little interest in the dancer's artistry, this reaction despite the world-renowned acclaim she enjoyed.
What the gossip and the only barely tongue-in-cheek commentary above ignored, however, and is the focus of this examination, was that audiences of ballet and opera in the Regency and early days of the Victorian period also saw--and applauded--female agency in the form of artistic mastery. …