Marie Sallé: First Female Choreographer of the Ballet

Marie Sallé Dancing in Costume. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Marie Sallé was the first female choreographer of the ballet, having started her life as a ballerina. In fact, Sallé became one of the two most popular female dancers of the 18th century. The other popular ballerina was Mademoiselle Marie Camargo. Because of their dancing abilities Voltaire immortalized the pair in the following couplets:

“Ah! Camargo, que vous êtes brillante!
Mais que Sallé, grands dieux! est ravissante.
Que vos pas sont légers, et que les siens sont doux!
Elles est inimitable, et vous êtes nouvelle:
Les Nymphes sautent comme vous.
Et les Grâces danset comme elle.”[1]

Mademoiselle Prévost as a Bacchante by Jean Raoux, c. 1723. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

During the 18th century, the ballet grew in popularity not only in France but also throughout Europe. Part of the reason for the ballet’s increased popularity was because of Jean-Georges Noverre, the man known as “the Shakespeare of the Dance.”[2] He had improved and elevated the idea of the ballet.

Sallé was the daughter of a tumbler, but soon found herself studying dance with the ballerina Françoise Prévost. Prévost had helped establish dramatic dance in the early times of classical ballet in an expressive, light, and dramatic way. She had also gained fame in what was called a showcase of characters (Les caractères de la Danse), a series of dances she performed solo but dances that illustrated both female and male lovers of varying ages. 

Also studying with Prévost was Camargo. Both Camargo and Sallé performed in Les caractères de la Danse, and each showcased different strengths and skills. For instance, Sallé was particularly strong in pantomime and extremely skillful in her dance steps whereas Camargo had stunning technique and spirited energy.

In 1734, Sallé introduced the ballet to England when she appeared at Covent Garden. There she danced in Terpsichore (sometimes referred to as Terpsicore), a prologue to a revision of Handel’s Il pastor fido, and in the premieres of the same composer’s Alcina and Ariodante. She also choreographed and performed in the mythical Pygmalion. In her role, she appeared in Greek robes with her hair down. She also wore sandals to give her character a more realistic feel. Her appearance in Pygmalion was proclaimed by the following announcement:

“At the THEATRE ROYAL COVENT GARDEN, On Monday, 11th March, will be performed a Comedy, called ‘The Way of the WORLD,’ by the late Mr. Congreve, with entertainments of dancing, particularly the Scottish dance by Mr. Glover and Mrs. Laguerre, Mr. le Sac, and Miss Boston, M. de la Garde and Mrs. Ogden.

The French Sailor and his Lass, by mademoiselle Sallé and Mr. Malter. … With a new dance, called Pigmalion, performed by Mr. Malter and mademoiselle Sallé, M. Dupré, Mr. Pelling, Mr. Duke, Mr. le Sac, Mr. Newhouse, and M. de la Garde.”[3]

Sallé’s success with Pygmalion was highlight by a London correspondent:

“Mddle. Salle … without considering the embarrassing position in which she places me, desires me to give you an account of her success. I have to tell you in what manner she has rendered the fable of Pygmalion … and of the applause with which these two ballets of her composition have been received by the Court of England. Pygmalion has now been represented for nearly two months, and the public is never tired of it. … You cannot doubt … of the prodigious success this ingenious ballet, so well executed, obtained.”[4]

Sallé’s performance in Pygmalion shot her to fame. She traveled to Paris to dance for King Louis XV and his Queen. Whether dancing for kings or commoners, however, Sallé was a tremendous hit. Audiences had never before seen any dancer like her:

“She appeared without hoop-petticoats, with no ornament on her head, and wearing, beside her corset and her short skirt, a simple muslin robe. Her success was so great that, at a benefit performance, seats in the house were taken by force, and a hail of guineas wrapped in banknotes fell upon the stage, the receipts being over £8000.”[5]

Marie Sallé. Public Domain.

Part of Sallé’s popularity had to do with her style. Sallé’s contemporaries considered her a highly sensual dancer, and she was often described with words such as “lascivious” or “ravishing.” Moreover, Sallé was the first to choreograph ballet integrating music, costumes, and dance styles with their themes.

Despite Sallé’s reputation for being sensual on stage and in dance, she was said to be cold and reserved when it came to love. In fact, she was acquired the nickname “Vestal.” It was also reported that she founded an order against love in Paris in 1836. The order was named the “Indifferents,” and both men and women were admitted to it. According to one newspaper report:

“Mademoiselle Salle is the President of the Order, and upon the Introduction of every members, makes a nice Scrutiny into their Qualifications. There are likewise certain Rites perform’d, which, after the Manner of the Free Masons, no one must ever disclose. The Badge of the order is a Ribbon, strip’d black, white and yellow, and the Device affix’d to it, something resembling an icicle. They take an oath to fight against Love, whose Power they renounce, and defy his whole Quiver of Darts. They allow all Freedom amongst themselves where every Thing is to be in common; but the Hour any of the Parties grow particular, he or she is to be excluded with Infamy.”[6]

Sallé’s oath to the Indifferents did not last long because less than a year later, another paper printed the following story claiming that Sallé must now be ready to surrender her title as “Vestal”:

“[A young English nobleman] brought about his Design by the following Strategem. He having seen La Salle dance at the Opera, became most furiously in Love with her, and at the same time being informed of her uncommon Coldness and Indifference to the Male Sex, thought of a Project which nature had altogether formed him for; for having a beautiful Person, and a Redundancy of Wit and Humour, he dressed himself in Woman’s Apparel, and by means of an acquaintance of la Salle’s, was introduced into an Assembly where she often frequented: By a singular Address he so artfully insinuated himself into her Favour, that he soon was permitted to take part of her Bed. She there, though too late, discovered her Error; but, ’tis said, is perfectly well reconciled to the Cheat, and perhaps, by means thereof will be so to the Sex.”[7]

Marie Sallé in 1741. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Another snippet less than two weeks later provided more information on her love affair:

“We are told from Paris, that Mademoiselle Sallé, the Dancer, has admitted of several visits from the young Gentleman heretofore mentioned, but always obliges him to come in Woman’s Apparel, being still willing to keep up the Appearance of a Vestal.”[8]

Sallé retired in 1740. However, she continued to practice her dancing at home every day. Between 1745 and 1747, Sallé came out of retirement and performed sporadically at Versailles. She again came out retirement in 1752 and performed four ballets at Fontainebleu.

Beginning in 1745, Sallé lived with her friend Rebecca Wick, and five years before Sallé died, she named Wick her sole heir and “amiable amie.” Sallé died on 27 June 1756. She was buried at the Church of Saint Roch of Paris (built between 1653 and 1754) that also holds the French philosopher Denis Diderot and the famous landscape architect André Le Nôtre.

References:

  • [1] Exhibition of Works by the Old Masters, and by Deceased Masters of the British School, 1889, p. 101.
  • [2] The New American Encyclopaedia, Volume 2, 1865, p. 538.
  • [3] Edwards, Henry Sutherland, History of the Opera From Its Origin in Italy to the Present Time With Anecdotes of the Most Celebrated Composers and Vocalists of Europe, 1862, p. 101.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 94.
  • [5] The Cosmopolitan, Volume 18, 1895, p. 455.
  • [6] “London June 1,” in Ipswich Journal, 29 May 1836, p. 2.
  • [7] “London. Jan. 28,” in Caledonian Mercury, 1 February 1737, p. 2.
  • [8] “From Several London Prints,” in Newcastle Courant, 12 February 1737, p. 2.

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