Category Archives: Dance

Poor little rats: Les Misérables… de l’opéra

‘Friquette’ by Raoul Schubert, published by E. Demets (Paris, s.d.). Illustration signed ‘Gebo’.

The gesture of a wealthy man patronisingly lifting the chin of a ballerina hides a grim and sordid truth.

‘Ballerine’ by Hermann Devries, published by L. Grus (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Dola.

In the 19th century most ballet dancers of the Parisian Opera came from poor and deprived families. They were also often illiterate. Sometimes a family’s hope for a better future rested on the frail shoulders of a daughter with dancing skills. These young ballerina’s were commonly called Les Petits Rats, or the little rats of the opera.

‘Petits Rats’ by Henri Christiani, published by Durand (Paris, 1907) and illustrated by Clérice Frères.

Around 1830 Louis Véron, a short corpulent man, became the new administrator of the Parisian opera. Véron was a trained physician turned businessman who had made fortune from cough drops (Pâte pectorale de Reginauld Ainé). He had arranged a lucrative deal that yielded two-thirds of the profits to him without having to work.

Left: Louis Véron, 1855. Right: publicity for Pâte Pectorale de Regnauld.

Véron devised several strategies to make the opera profitable. One was to create the Foyer de la danse, an exclusive and lavishly decorated backstage salon. Véron, the shrewd entrepreneur, offered to the well-heeled season ticket holders or abonnés not only a private theatre box, but also secluded access to this backstage. There the wealthy male abonnés enjoyed a kind of droit de seigneur over the little dancers.
Astonishingly to modern standards, these men in top hats had obtained the right to prowl the corridors and meet the (very young) ballet dancers in the lavishly decorated Foyer de la danse. They could enjoy informal performances and hold private parties with the danseuses. In the corridor leading up to the Foyer, they could negotiate with the ‘mothers’ the right fee to get an ‘introduction’ to a pretty dancer.

Valse Caprice‘ by Georges Piquet, published by Charles Morice (Paris, s.d.). Illustration signed with monogram CAB.

The most affluent of these abonnés were the members of the Jockey Club. This club was the epitome of exclusivity, its elite members solely being aristocrats. They were connoisseurs of horses, cigars and women. Their preferred part of the opera was the ballet. At that time the ballet was often nothing more than a choreographic interlude performed during the second part of an opera. The members of the Jockey Club used to dine during the first act. They then arrived at the opera just in time to admire their protégées on the gaslit stage, and —immediately after the ballet— left quickly for the Foyer… (*)

‘Les Vieux Gagas de l’Opéra’ by Eugène Oustric, Edouard Jouve & François Tier, published by Edouard Jouve (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Faria

Another strategy of Véron was to decrease the wages of the dancers, thus forcing the girls to find a wealthy protector. In this way Véron set up a patronage system for the opera’s corps de ballet based more or less on sexual services. The opera had become a place where there was art on the one hand and prostitution on the other.

Two young dancers from the Parisian Opéra (1878-1895) Source: Gallica, BNF.

But the story becomes even more Dickensian or Zolaesque. The opera also housed the ballet school. Girls as young as ten had to work up to twelve hours a day, six days a week, dividing their time between lessons, rehearsals and shows. Arriving too late or faults were fined. They had to live close to the Opera, because with their meagre pay they couldn’t afford the tram or omnibus. Only a minority of these young dancers would become famous and earn a salary sufficient to support their family. Meanwhile, some mothers hunted for a rich protector for their (underage) daughters.

The most famous of these girls was Marie Van Goethem. She was of Belgian descent and stood model for the beautiful Degas statue of a 14-year-old dancer.
“La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans” by Degas.

At first Marie was a respectable dancer of the corps de ballet. But a year after the Degas statue was exhibited (1881) she went off the rails. Marie’s older sister Antoinette, had robbed a man in Le Chat Noir. She was arrested and put in prison for three months. The evidence at the trial made it clear that her mother was prostituting her. It is supposed that Marie was also on the game because she started to miss her appointments in the Opera until at last she was sacked.

Degas: illustration from ‘Les petites Cardinal’ by Ludovic Halévy.

Degas also illustrated the short stories Les Petits Cardinal written by his friend Ludovic Halévy. These stories tell, slightly veiled, about the obvious similarities between life at the Opera and scenes in a brothel where the abonné is the client, the dancer is the prostitute, and the mother is the madam.

‘C’est le charme de Florence’ from ‘Les Petites Cardinal’ by Jacques Ibert, Arthur Honegger & Albert Willemetz, published by Choudens (Paris, 1938) and illustrated by Würth.

The Musée Grevin, the Parisian wax museum, understood that the Foyer de la danse captured the public imagination and made it into a tableau. It was exhibited from 1890 on, for eleven years. It offered the visitor a voyeuristic peek behind the scenes on how the rich abonnés got entertained. The representation of the Foyer de la danse was Grévin’s greatest success after the famous crime scenes.

It was only from 1927 on that the director of the opera, Jacques Rouché, tackled the problem of the excesses at the Foyer de la danse. His newly nominated Ballet Master, Serge Lifar, supported him fully. Under the dramatic protests of the abonnés they banned the backstage access to the Foyer de la danse, and made from the ballet in the opera a real art form. The film The Ballet of the Paris Opera, featuring Serge Lifar, dates from that period.


(*) When Wagner broke with the tradition and included a ballet in the first act of Tannhauser instead of in the second act, the members of the Jockey Club arrived too late to ogle their young protégées. They booed during the 1861 Parisian premiere and for the next two performances of Tannhauser, they disturbed the performances to such an extent, distributing whistles and rattles to the audience, that Wagner was forced to withdraw the opera after three performances.

Merry Christmas, Sir Roger de Coverley

‘Sir Roger de Coverley’ (Gigue Anglaise) published by Emile Gallet (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Hyacinthe Royet.

Sir Roger de Coverly is an intriguing name for a dance. Some say its name refers to a fox. Surely, the wiggly dance steps suggest the jumpy flight of a hunted fox. As early as 1685 John Playford included the instructions for the country dance in his manual The Dancing Master.

dancing master 1
The Dancing Master, the 5th edition published by John Playford in London in 1675.

The subsequent popularity of the dance gave rise to the creation of a fictitious character, the debonair country squire Sir Roger de Coverley. In 1711 The Spectator started to daily publish the gentleman’s hapless adventures. These short pieces were entertaining portrayals of early 18th-century English life: “The first of our society is a gentleman of Worcestershire, of ancient descent, a baronet, his name is Sir Roger de Coverley. His great-grandfather was inventor of that famous country-dance which is called after him.” (The Spectator of March 2, 1711)

Fiction of course, but it led to ‘Sir’ being added to the dance previously simply named the Roger of Coverley. Moreover the Spectator articles described the gentleman as a philanthropist who always kept open house at Christmas and sent “a string of hog’s puddings to every poor family in the Parish“. Sir Roger de Coverley was thus a paragon of Christmas benevolence and charity. Possibly by association the homonymous dance became a typical Christmas dance. Often it was the closing dance of the ball: “this dance should be the finishing one, as it is calculated from the sociality of its construction, to promote the good humour of the company, and causing them to separate in evincing a pleasing satisfaction with each other.“

The Sir Roger de Coverley knew a revival in the 19th century and also became a success in the French ballrooms.

Christmas in a Country House – Sir Roger the Coverley, wood engraved print from The Graphic, 1885

Perhaps it is this print in The Graphic that inspired Hyacinthe Royet to draw the sheet music cover that started this post. A polite image of country gents and ladies who stiffly move around under the mistletoe, wearing bored expressions. No foxy ladies and no fun at all, if you ask me.

We found a more lively rendition of the dance in a cover drawn by Barbizet. An annotation in this copy indicates that the French preferred a more vibrant dance: “In England, the jig is concluded by a lady’s chain, but the length of the dance in that case renders it monotonous and for this reason, the finale has been suppressed in France.” Strangely, the Sir Roger de Coverley was in this case sold as a Danse Américaine.

‘Nouvelle Danse Américaine de Sir Roger de Coverley’ by Ph. Stutz, published by Au Ménestrel (Paris, 1875) ans illustrated by Barbizet.

Did you wonder how to dance the Sir Roger de Coverley? The 1951 film Scrooge might give you a good idea. It is an adaptation from A Christmas Carol, the book that Charles Dickens wrote 175 years ago. The fragment begins with the spirit showing to Ebenezer Scrooge the annual Christmas party thrown by his former employer, old Mr. Fezziwig.
Just tap your feet in time to the music and enjoy the Yuletide dance. Beware, this version is danced at a very swift pace.

Interestingly, in 1922 the English composer Frank Bridge arranged the folk song for a string quartet. To enhance the Christmas mood the composer mixed in the Auld Lang Syne melody (at around 3’50”).

I, for my part, will blithely put on my skates and dance the Sir Roger de Coverley on Ice. Merry Christmas!

Sir Roger de Coverley on Ice‘ from The Graphic, 1889. Illustrated by Arthur Hopkins.

Salomania

‘Salome’ by Richard Strauss, published by Adolph Fürstner (Berlin, sd) and illustrated by Max Tilke.

This German cover lusciously portrays the infamous Salome, femme fatale par excellence. Salome is the title of an opera by Richard Strauss, based on Oscar Wilde’s play. Wilde wrote the play in French in 1891, and it was thus published in France two years later. An English translation was published in 1894, with iconic illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley.

The eyes of Herod‘ – Audrey Beardsley’s masterly illustration shows Salome’s lecherous stepfather, Herod with his shifty eyes.

The London premiere of Salomé, with Sarah Bernhardt as the lead, was banned on the pretext that it was legally not allowed to put biblical stories on stage. As a result Salomé was first performed in Paris in 1896. Oscar Wilde was then in London serving his two-year prison sentence for gross indecency.

For his play Wilde elaborated on a bible story: Salome is the teenage stepdaughter of king Herod. All the men at the court —including Herod himself— are overwhelmed by lust for her. However Salome only has eyes for Jochanaan (John the Baptist) who is kept captive in Herod’s prison. John the Baptist, a denouncer of sin who has committed his life to God, obviously rejects her and starts to preach about the Son of God. Salome is so furious about  his prudery that she plots to get him killed. It is with an erotic dance (the Dance of the Seven Veils) that the deranged teen plans to make her stepfather promise to fulfil her most outrageous desire.

Whatsoever thou shalt desire I will give it thee,
even to the half of my kingdom,
if thou wilt but dance for me.
O Salome, Salome, dance for me!

Indeed, after Salome’s dance Herod is in ecstasy and makes his foolish promise. Salome asks for only one thing:

I would that they presently bring me in a silver charger . . .
the head of Jochanaan.”

Such a salacious play, with its shocking representation of female lust, of course caused an enormous scandal all over Europe. And it caught the attention of Richard Strauss. He wrote the libretto himself based on a German translation of Wilde’s play. Strauss completed his opera in 1905. Both the operas of Berlin and Vienna refused to show Strauss’s scandalous work so he had to premiere it in the more progressive Dresden.

Left: Marie Wittich as Salome in the first performance of Salome in Dresden, 1905. Right: Aino Ackté as Salome in 1907.

The first interpreter of Salome at Dresden, the matronly Frau Wittich, a singer with Wagnerian power, refused to perform the Dance of the Seven Veils. As Strauss understood that a ten-minute striptease would boost the ticket sales, he hired a body double for the scene. Kaiser Wilhelm remarked at the time: “I really like this fellow Strauss, but Salome will do him a lot of damage.” In his Recollections and Reflections published in the year of his death, Strauss dryly retorted: “The damage enabled me to build me my villa.”  The Finnish Aino Ackté was the first Salome singer to dance the Dance of the Seven Veils herself. That was in 1907.

Listen to Strauss’ hauntingly beautiful Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst. In this necrophiliac scene the obsessed teenage girl Salome passionately makes love to the death body of John the Baptist and kisses his cold lips: “You wouldn’t give your lips to me, well I will kiss them now.”

Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst, Jochanaan.
Ah! Ich habe ihn geküsst, deinen Mund.
Es war ein bitterer Geschmack auf deinen Lippen.
Hat es nach Blut geschmeckt?
Nein! Doch es schmeckte vielleicht nach Liebe. . .
Sie sagen, dass die Liebe bitter schmecke. . .

Oscar Wilde’s play and Strauss’ opera and Wilde’s play fuelled a Salome craze. The rage spread throughout Europe and America at the beginning of the 20th century.

‘Vision de Salomé’ by Archibald Joyce. Left: published by Max Eschig (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Sidney Kent. Right: published by Ed. Bote & G. Bock (Berlin, sd)

These two sheet music of Vision of Salomé by Archibald Joyce, both show us Maud Allen, a dancer who stunned (or unsettled) the audiences with her erotic dancing. She became a controversial sensation with the performance of her own production Vision of Salome in London in 1908 (loosely based on Wilde’ original play). She is drawn here in her typical risqué costume consisting of a beaded bustier and jewel-encrusted transparent skirt.
But the pictures of Maud Allan on these covers are misleading. Archibald Joyce, known as the English Waltz King, wrote for a bourgeois clientele: popular dance orchestras and amateur pianists. His Vision of Salome was a popular simple waltz published in 1909, triggered by Maud Allen’s success but absolutely not composed for her titillating performance, which was already launched in Vienna three years earlier.

Postcard of Maud Allan as Salome.
Postcard of Maud Allan as Salome.

The American publisher of Archibald Joyce’s Salome almost copy-pasted the original drawing by Max Tilke for Richard Strauss’ opera, perhaps to give the popular waltz a more highbrow character.

‘Vision of Salome’ by Archibald Joyce published by Harms, Day & Hunter (New York, 1910).

The (real) music for Maud Allan’s performance was composed by the Belgian bohemian and anarchist Marcel Rémy, a journalist, composer and amateur of the ancient arts. Rémy was introduced to Maud Allan in Berlin and quickly became her agent-manager. During some years they created dances based on poses found on ancient Greek amphorae. He played the piano while she practised her dancing. Just before he died of syphilis, Rémy wrote Vision of Salome for Maud, the work that would make her world-famous. He did not live long enough to attend its premiere nor to participate in its success.

Marcel Rémy, portrait by his friend Henri Evenepoel. Source: gallica.fr

Another Vision of Salome, this time a Fantasie Characteristique by Bodewalt Lampe, found its way in our story.  The indefinite article ‘A’ in the title A Vision of Salome confirmed our suspicion that the dancer on the cover is not Allan Maud. Instead it is a somewhat naive rendition of the copy-cat dance by Gertrude Hoffmann.

‘A Vision of Salome’ by J.Bodewalt Lampe, published by Jerome Remick (New York, 1908) and illustrated by De Takacs.

Gertrude was an American chorus girl who went to London to study Maud Allan and came back to offend the public decency with her version of the Salome dance (she threw in a bit of cancan) in an identical outfit.

Photograph of Gertrude Hoffman as Salome. (source: Broadway Photographs)

In 1912 Archibald Joyce was financially inspired to compose a sequel: The Passing of Salome. Although Maud Allan was still hot at that time, Roger de Valerio did not need her lascivious pose to draw this striking  cover for the Salabert publication.

Passing of Salomé‘ by Archibald Joyce, published by Salabert (Paris, 1912) and illustrated by de Valerio.

It would be the last song from the Salomania which had started in 1908. The rage would revive for a short while when Robert Stolz, the celebrated and prolific Austrian composer, created Salome, together with lyricist Arthur Rebner in 1922.

‘Salome’ by Robert Stolz. Left: published by Maillochon (Paris, 1920) and illustrated by Coulon. Right: published by Wiener Boheme Verlag (Vienna, 1920) and illustrated by Ferenchich.

The Stolz fox-trot was published in the States as Sal-O-May to promote the German pronunciation. I’m sure everyone will know this song.

A song that Petula Clark took into the charts in 1961 as Romeo.

And now the frivolous sexy dance! In a silent film version from the 1920s, Alla Nazimova performs the Dance of the Seven Veils. The film uses minimalist sets and elaborate stylised costumes. It might look a little bit tame by today’s standards but at that time it must have been raunchy and shocking.