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On pointe or not on pointe?

In Amsterdam, in the early 19th century, dance and drama flourished. The theatre, the Schouwburg, housed both a drama and a ballet company. The French dancer, Marie Polly Cuninghame (1785-1837), who had studied with Pierre Gardel, was immensely popular. She became known, through marriage, as Polly de Heus gracing the Schouwburg stage from 1801 until her retirement in 1823. A contemporary writer, on seeing her perform in Paris, described her as a very pretty dancer, having a bright expression, excelling in multiple entrechats and jumping with astonishing lightness, vivacity and daring.* Polly de Heus together with the actress Johanna Cornelia Ziesenis-Wattier (1762 – 1827), were the most adored artists of the Pre-Romantic era.

Christiaan Andriessen (1775-1846) a draftsman of some renown captured the petite dancer in two of her famous dances. Fortunately for dance historians, the artist has furnished both images with the dancer’s name, the title and the date of the performance. The charming image of Pas de Tambourin raises no questions, but Andriessen’s second sketch of Polly de Heus in her most famous dance, the Pas de Schwale, all the more. Did she really wear a costume so scanty as to completely bare one breast? The artist has unmistakably accentuated her nipples and explicitly exposed the shape of her legs. How transparent was her dress? The contemporary writer and critic Abraham Barbaz, who idealized the beautiful dancer, revealed that she, dressed in transparent drapery, appeared to be naked. I wonder how accurate Barbaz’s description is. Having written this I must mention that there is a marvellous caricature (1796) of the French ballerina Mademoiselle Parisot, her right breast brazenly bare, dancing a pas de trois with the famous choreographer Charles Didelot and his wife Madame Rose. Andriessen’s sketch of Polly de Heus, however, is not a caricature. Would audiences in the early 19th century, though admittedly less prudish than in the Victorian era, admire a ‘naked’ dancer performing on the legitimate stage? That question will probably remain undecided, leaving me even more curious about yet another distinctive detail. Pointe work, the dancer’s technique of standing on the tips of the toes, was not in general practice when Andriessen drew this sketch (1805.) Polly de Heus, however, is shown balancing confidently on the very top of her toes. Is she merely poised high on the tips of her toes, or is she actually standing on pointe? Has the artist caught her in a transitional movement? Or has the artist granted himself artistic licence to create an illusion?

In 1812, The Köbbler Family, an Austrian-German theatrical family, appeared in the Amsterdam Schouwburg, for a short season of guest appearances. They were a triumph. The remarkable Johannes Jelgerhuis, painter, designer, actor, teacher and writer of a valuable textbook on gesture and mime drew four drawings of the two Köbbler (or Kobler) sisters, which, the artist informs us, were drawn ‘at the theatre while the memory was still fresh in my mind‘. The above image of the immensely popular pas de deux de Shawl, shows one of the sisters, Jeanette or Nanette, dancing on the tip of her toes. In various texts, this illustration is considered to be one of the earliest examples of an illustration showing pointe work.

Jelgerhuis clearly states that he drew the sketches whilst at the theatre; this, one would surmise, ensures that the illustrations give a fairly accurate representation of the performance. Feasible as that seems, I am still puzzled by the shoes that the dancer is wearing. I am not forgetting that the original pointe shoes closely resembled, were even derivative of, fashionable ladies shoes. Even so, without some type of fastening or lacing, neither of which Jelgerhuis has drawn in any of his drawings, sustained pointe work would be very difficult. Contrarily, momentarily stepping onto the tip of the toe would be a viable possibility. The question lingers on. Has Jelgerhuis drawn a strong dancer during a transitional movement or is this image truly one of the first images to illustrate, the new phenomena, pointe work?

Johannes Jelgerhuis – Köbbler Sisters in ‘pas de deux de Shawl'(1) & Garland Dance (2&3) – dated October 1812 – Theatercollection University of Amsterdam..

The Köbbler Family, generally billed as ‘I Grotteschi‘ or ‘Les Grotesques‘, were a highly trained theatrical group. The Grotteschi were technically dynamic artists combining acrobatics, high extensions, multiple pirouettes, dance and other spectacular tour de force. The Köbbler sisters were no doubt technically strong and could pose momentarily, with ease, on the tips of the toes. During the last years of the 18th century and early 19th century, dancers, circus artists and acrobats were known to stand on their toes for a brief moment. Especially innovative was Didelot’s ballet Flore et Zéphire (1796) where wires were fastened to the ballerina’s costumes, raising them, by means of a flying machine, to the tips of their toes, giving the impression of weightlessness. This moment, though spectacular, is not dancing on pointe; not in the way that Marie Taglioni, the ephemeral ballerina, embraced pointe transforming a mere mortal into a fleeting spirit.

The Köbbler Family performed in Amsterdam for just under a month. The group danced different ballets on consecutive nights; the pas de deux de shawl was danced only a few times. By some great stroke of luck a second artist, Bartholomeus Ziesenis, architect, draftsman and sculpture, husband of the revered actress mentioned above, Johanna Cornelia Ziesenis-Wattier, painted two works of which one, the Pas de Shawl danced by Annette Köbler (spelling shown on the painting). Ziesenis, like Jelgerhuis, writes that his drawing is ‘ Dessiné d’après nature.’ It is possible that the actor Jelgerhuis and the architect, Ziesenis, both men of the theatre, may have seen the same performance or performances. Their images, however, differ distinctly. The dancer, Annette Köbler, as inscribed under the image, shows similarities to the dancer in the Jelgerhuis image. Annette has curly hair, wears a classical gown and dances with a long red shawl, but, most notably, she is wearing totally different footwear. No fine, tapered shoes, but Greek sandals, laced around her ankles with plaited braids displaying her bare toes. The lifted right foot clearly shows the flat under surface of the shoe. Ziesenis’s image gives no indication of pointe work. The two artists, though both having declared that they drew from nature, give a very different rendering. Which artist has drawn the more accurate image? It seems highly unlikely, that two different versions of the pas de shawl were danced by the same dancers within that short season in October 1812.

The beginnings of pointe work is almost unrecorded. Early images include those of the French ballerinas Geneviève Gosselin and the very uncomfortable Fanny Bias. It was not until Marie Taglioni danced in La Sylphide (1832), transforming a technical skill into an artistic accomplishment, that pointe work, the means to express the spiritual world, a world of sylphides, dryads, naiads, wilis and nymphs, ushered the ballet into the Romantic Period.

I raised the question earlier about the role of artistic licence in interpreting an artwork. Artists are creative, inventive, original even visionary; their objective is not primarily to reproduce reality. Therefore, every art work, even those apparently genuine, needs to be looked at with a certain amount of reservation. Take for example this extraordinary lithograph, by a French artist, of Marie Taglioni floating without ballet slippers in La Sylphide . A totally incredible situation; Taglioni would never appear barefoot in La Sylphide. A wonderful example of artistic freedom.

Marie Taglioni. – print early 1830’s La Sylphide – Achille Devéria (drawing) Cattier (Lithograph) – Taglioni is dancing barefoot. (click on image to enlarge)

In comparison to Paris and London, images of early 19th century ballet in the Netherlands are unique. The three artists, Christiaan Andriessen, Johannes Jelgerhuis and Bartholomeus Ziesenis have given a precious glimpse into the Pre-Romantic ballet in Amsterdam. Images by Andriessen and Jelgerhuis show a ballerina standing high on her toes. If these images are actual representations of a stage performance, they record a technical tour de force, without evoking, so essential to early pointe work, the metaphysical world of the Romantic Ballet.

* Ivor Guest – Ballet under Napoleon p.139-140

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