Origins: from the Royal court of Louis XIV to neoclassicism.

 The Paris Opera Ballet company has a long-standing History, dating back to 1662, and the establishment of the Académie Royale de Danse by Louis XIV. At the time, the Academy’s mission was to develop the theatrical dance style performed in court, which noblemen and the King himself took part in.

 With the establishment of the Académie Royale d’Opéra in 1669, dance went from being performed at court to a professional art performed on stage. A divertissement as part of larger opera-ballets, dance had a symbolic, sometimes even allegorical purpose, often representing divinities, and alluding, also, to a form of idealism. The trio formed by Jean-Baptiste Lully (composer), Pierre Beauchamp (ballet master) – who codified the five positions of the feet  – and Philippe Quinault (librettist) laid the foundations of the French technique. Set with precision, elegant, and noble in style, French technique was representative of the classicism of the time.

During the early 18th century and the reign of King Louis XV, classicism gave way to Baroque (or, commonly, early dance): varied forms of dances flourished in opera-ballets: the gavotte, the minuet, the chaconne, the jig… Whilst it diversified and evolved significantly, ballet remained a divertissement. Jean-Baptiste Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes (1732) a masterpiece of the time, characteristically embodies the baroque style of the period. Choreographically, two schools opposed themselves: La Camargo was technical, and virtuous, la Sallé, in contrast, was expressive and graceful. It's the latter that took over from 1760, favoured by prominent choreographer and theorist Jean-Georges Noverre, who would become director of the ballet in 1770. Noverre took dance from its opera-ballet form into an expressive genre, the action -ballet. Not altogether abandoning the noble style of the court, dance evolved significantly, as the choreographer weaved dramaturgy and pantomime into choreography. Costumes also evolved significantly, revealing more of the dancers’ bodies and face (thus technique and expression). 

Under Noverre’s directorship, the Opera’s ethos and outlook became more spiritual, in line with the contemporary Enlightenment movement. From 1781, three directors succeeded each other as artistic directors of the Opera. The third, Pierre Gardel (who directed the company until 1820) took inspiration from the neoclassical artistic movement, embodied by artists such as Jacques-Louis David and Antonio Canova). Despite the political instability of the period in France, from the French Revolution (1789) until the mid 1800s, the Paris Opera continued to develop. Building on Noverre’s foundations, pirouette and allegro technique developed, and dancers’ legs started to lift higher in adagio. 

The Romantic age 

As the Romanic movement washed over literature and visual art, artists who didn’t adhere to the codes of the long-established classical convention looked for inspiration elsewhere : in nature, the early medieval period, as well as German and Northern European mythology. From 1827, Italian ballerina Marie Taglioni was a game changer at the Paris Opera. Her ethereal grace and her outstanding ability to raise herself up on the very tip of her toes (Taglioni is actually,  perhaps exaggeratedly so, credited with the invention of the pointe shoe) facilitated the development of romantic ballet. Jean Coralli, director of the Paris Opera from 1831 to 1850 named Maria Taglioni danseuse étoile, and  encouraged choreographers such as Philippe Taglioni (Marie’s father), Jules Perrot and Joseph Mazilier. Philippe Taglioni created (for his daughter Marie) the first ballet blanc (white ballet), La Sylphide, in 1832. Nearly ten years later, in 1841, Coralli and Jules Perrot choreographed and staged Giselle, on a libretto by famous poet and art critic Théophile Gautier. Giselle was young Italian dancer Carlotta Grisi’s first steps on the Paris Opera stage, where she reigned over the ballet company for many years thereafter performing in romantic romantic ballets. She also shone in character roles, most notably perhaps in Joseph Mazilier’s Paquita (1846). 

Marie Taglioni in Zephire
© Public domain

During the second half of the 19th century, St Petersburg took over from Paris as the epicentre of dance, where Tchaikovsky and Petipa’s ballets were a triumph. Despite notable choreographies by Joseph Mazilier (Le Corsaire - 1856) and Arthur Saint-Léon (Coppélia - 1870) Paris was overshadowed by the great Russian ballets and the Italian technique (which, ironically, most of the Paris Opera’s étoiles of the time trained in: Carolina Rosati, Giuseppina Bozzacchi, Rosita Mauri, Carlotta Zambelli). 

The 20th Century: Influence and Contemporary outlook

The inaugural season of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, in 1909 at the Théâtre du Châtelet created a storm in Paris. Innovative, bold choreography (Michael Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky) and unsurpassed virtuosity, notably, from male dancers (Nijinsky) exposed the archaic style of the Paris Opera. Thankfully, the Ballets Russes also sparked Paris’ appetite for dance again.

At the death of Diaghilev in 1929, the Paris Opera hired one of his dancers, Serge Lifar, to direct its ballet company. His directorship spanned three decades during which the aura of the Paris Opera was restored. Virtuosity and lyricism became staples of the French technique, and many French masterpieces (such as Giselle) were revived in a modern fashion. Lifar gave Albrecht (Giselle’s masculine lead) a deeper psychological dimension, which in turn gave male dancers a chance to develop artistically and well as technically. Casting himself as the lead in most of his ballets, Lifar allowed, nonetheless, other dancers to shine: Serge Peretti, jean Babilée, Yvette Chauviré. His choreographic signature became resolutely neoclassical (Suite en Blanc, 1943).

He was forced to leave the Paris Opera in 1945, as he was accused of collaborating during the Occupation period. Lifar came back to the Paris Opera in 1947, with one of his most important works: Les Mirages.

In the meantime, a Russian dancer was brought in to stage some of his ballets: George Balanchine (Serenade, Apolon Musagète

In 1983, Rudolf Nureyev took the lead at the Paris Opera. Twenty years after defecting from Russia, he was the most famous idol of the ballet world. His most precious gift to the Paris Opera, unarguably, is the legacy he leaves in the repertoire. During his tenure as artistic director, Nureyev revived Raymonda (1983), Romeo and Juliet (1984) Swan Lake (1984) and La Bayadère (1991). He also pushed centre stage a group of young emerging dancers who would become the stars of their generation: Isabelle Guerin, Sylvie Guillem, Laurent Hilaire, Manuel Legris, Elisabeth Maurin, and Nicolas Le Riche.


Source : Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, 2001, Ivor Guest

This article was orignally written in French by Laurine Mortha, and has been translated into English by Alexandra Desvignes