‘To grace learned works and crown them with glory’
Marie Sallé in London
The French ballet dancer, Marie Sallé (1707-1756), was still a child when she made her first appearance on stage in London during the 1716-1717 season at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields theatre. Subsequently, she returned to Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1725-27, and 1730-31. Sallé managed to combine these guest appearances in London with her career at the Paris Opéra, where she joined the ballet troupe in 1727, with more visits London for performances during the 1730-31 season at Lincoln’s Inn and 1734-35 season at the Covent Garden Theatre when she danced in several productions of Handel’s operas. These early examples of what would now be called ‘artistic residencies’ are just one example of what continues to make the beautiful and enigmatic Sallé remarkable as a dancer and as a woman. It was not unusual for female performers, particularly opera singers who could obviously sing in Italian opera anywhere where it was performed – London, Venice, or in the court theatres of German principalities – to have international careers, but it was unusual for a female ballet dancer to work in the same way.
In November 1734 Sallé appeared in the dance sequences that Handel composed for her and a small company of dancers in his ‘Scottish’ opera, Ariodante. This was the first new work he wrote for his inaugural season at the Covent Garden Theatre, and the cast of Ariodante formed an exciting international group: the castrato Giovani Carestini sang the role of Ariodante (‘a vassal prince’), whilst Maria Strada del Pó took the role of Ginevra (daughter of the King of Scotland). A few months later, in April 1735, the same two singers appeared in another of Handel’s new operas, Alcina, with Maria Strada as the malign yet tragic sorceress Alcina, and Carestini as her beloved Ruggerio. Again, Sallé led the dancers music in Handel composed especially for them (or ‘recycled’ from Ariodante); all the dance music is and vital, a synthesis of French grace and Italian zest, and the sequences in Act II which include the ‘Entrée des songes agréables’ and ‘Entrée des songes funestes are particularly beautiful. Here Handel’s music is especially exquisite and dramatic by turns, demonstrating his capacity for creating wordless eloquence.
The inclusion of special dance music in Ariodante and Alcina was not only an aesthetic delight for the audience, but also a rather cynical move for Handel. His opera company, based at Covent Garden, was in direct competition with the rival ‘Opera of the Nobility’ which Frederick, Prince Wales, and a coterie of other nobles established and funded. In the end, both companies were unsustainable, but in his 1734-35 season, Handel was determined to be a success, and he needed every possible novelty (outstanding singers, extravagant staging, and French dancers) to attract audiences. The Opera of the Nobility’s greatest draw card was the castrato Farinelli, whose renown eclipsed that of Senesino (Francesco Bernardi from Sienna, who had formerly worked for Handel, but then defected to the Opera of the Nobility), and Carestini.
For the opening of the 1734-35 season, Handel also revived his 1712 pastoral opera Il pastor fido, having written an allegorical prologue Terpsichore for it. This was partly a nod towards the French practice of prefacing their tragédies lyrique with prologues or divertissements, and Handel’s Terpsichore provides a beautiful and eloquent introduction to Il pastor fido. In Terpsichore Maria Strada del Pó as Erato, the muse of song and poetry, calls upon Apollo (Carestini) – the god of poetry, music, truth, and light – to descend from the heavens and bestow his benevolence (and that of the other deities and muses) upon Il pastor fido. Sallé’s role in this prologue was central. Once Apollo arrives, and all have praised the union of words and music, he enquires ‘Mà, Terpsicore snella dov’è? perchè non vien a misurar co’ passi suoi loquaci le tue note vivaci?’ (‘But, graceful Terpsichore, where is she? Why does she not come to match, with her eloquent steps, your lively notes?’) From the point at which Sallé appears, the rest of the text is one of praise for the eloquence of dance and Apollo and Erato sing of how it is dance which can best express the joy and pain of love:
Pingi i trasporti d'un amator,
che si promette l’amato ben.
Depict the rapture of a lover,
when the beloved loves in return.
La speme e cura d’un fido amor,
che la ferita prova nel sen.
The hopes and fears of a faithful lover,
as their wounds he feels in the heart.
Apollo & Erato
Tuoi passi son dardi,
col mezzo de’ sguardi
discendono al seno,
e piagano il cor.
Ma prova diletto
ferito anche il petto,
perchè sente appieno
i vezzi d’amor.
Apollo & Erato
Your steps are darts,
which, by means of the eyes,
descend to the breast
and wound the heart.
But the heart finds
the wound pleasing,
for through it, it feels fully
the sweetness of love.
Despite Sallé’s expertise in depicting the delights and sorrows of love through dance, her own life off-stage remains mysterious. The reputation of women who ‘exposed’ themselves to the public gaze on stage was of course questionable, as it was a contravention of the modesty, discretion, and chastity which were the ideals of decorous eighteenth-century womanhood. Furthermore, Sallé appeared on stage in daring costumes, and disdained the masks with which female dancers had formerly carried and worn. In London in 1734 Sallé danced the role of Galatea in the ballet-pantomime Pigmalion wearing a costume of alarming naturalism: she appeared on stage ‘without a pannier, without a skirt, with her hair all dishevelled, and no ornament on her head; dressed neither in a corset nor a petticoat, but in a simple muslin robe, arranged as a close fitting drapery, in the manner of a Greek statue.’ In Handel’s Alcina the following year, Sallé appeared as Cupid, and chose – authentically enough – to dance in ‘male attire’, which apparently ‘suited her very ill and was … the cause of her disgrace.’ There was, in reality, no disgrace, as Sallé, who began her professional life when she was still a child, must have been acutely aware of the association between professional dancers and prostitution and thus she endeavoured to develop a public persona that was beyond reproach. As a dancer she specialised in performing as an allegorical representation of Virtue, and Nicholas Lancret painted her in 1732 in the role of chaste Diana. In 1730, the French writer Louis de Boissy (1694-1758) immortalised Sallé in verses which emphasise her moral character:
‘For a decent and noble air,
A light and elegant dance style,
For a decent and noble air,
[Salle] is a charming example.
A prodigy of our age,
She is both witty and sage:
Applaud her well!
Dances at the Opéra.’
However, Sallé’s efforts to counter the reputation of female dancers for lasciviousness, and her resistance to male attention, made her the subject of other rumours. In January 1737, London’s Universal Spectator and Weekly Journal published a story claiming that a young British nobleman (possibly Lord Cadogan) had succeeded in seducing Marie Sallé. Knowing her fabled ‘uncommon Coldness and Indifference to the Male Sex’, the young man dressed as a woman, paid her court and was “permitted to take Part of her Bed.’ The article went on to say that the dancer was “perfectly well reconciled to the Cheat”, and that this encounter with British aristocratic masculinity, would alter her rumoured preference for women. Gossip that Sallé had a female lover, a dancer called Manon Grognet, had circulated since 1735, but there was no material proof, and Sallé herself remained aloof from these stories. Instead, she continued to devote herself to her art, earning the nickname ‘La Vestale’ in a reference to the inviolable and independent Vestal Virgins of Ancient Rome.
Now, all that remains of the ‘tender, voluptuous, but always modest’ Sallé are a few paintings and engravings, the verses of Voltaire, de Boissy and other admirers, and the recollections of witnesses who may or may not be reliable. Before the age of photography and film, the artistry of the dancer was entirely ephemeral: even though we know the dances she performed, and may even have records of their choreography, the actual physical presence and unique style of Marie Sallé and her colleagues are lost forever. Thanks to the efforts of scholars, we now know more about Sallé’s career and achievements as a performer, choreographer, dance reformer, and teacher. However, the most tangible ‘living’ record of Sallé’s artistry exists in the music written for her to dance, and she can still live through the mesmerizing Chaconne of Rameau’s Dardanus, or in the Sarabande and Gigue of Handel’s Terpsichore.
1 Quotation from Vol. 4 of Noverre’s Oeuvres, Letter 14, p. 77, reproduced in Sarah McCleave’s ‘Marie Sallé, a Wise Professional Woman of Influence’, Women’s Work: Making Dance in Europe before 1800, ed. L. Matluck Brookes, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007), p. 166
2 Quotation from Mecure de France, April 1734, reproduced in McCleave (2007), p. 166
3 Quotation reproduced in McCleave (2007), p. 162
5 McCleave (2007), p. 163
About the Author
Corrina is currently a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University, where she is researching the ways in which Johann Strauss's operetta Die Fledermaus articulates aspects of masculinity. She writes programme notes for a number of music venues, including the Spitalfields Festival and she has contributed programme notes on a range of eighteenth-century repertoire to the London Handel Festival since 2011. As a musician, Corrina regularly plays the music that Handel wrote in London, and she has presented research papers at the Music in Eighteenth-Century Britain Conference and the annual British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Conference.
Written content of this post copyright © Corrina Connor, 2015.