Dancing women : female bodies on stage by Sally Banes

By Sally Banes

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Coppélius’s workshop, zestily attacking the patriarchal control of the father-figure and flaunting her indocility. When she is disguised as Coppélia, her dancing metaphorically embodies an emancipatory movement from total restriction, dependent on the alchemist’s authority, to autonomy, signified by her full range of motion and her impetuous, untameable actions. Yet this sense of freedom is recuperated in the final act, when Swanilda achieves her goal of marriage and reins in her riotous behavior.

The character Giselle, of course, hails neither from the French urban working class nor from the bourgeoisie; she is a German peasant. But in the binary established by the ballet, she is “not-aristocratic,” and therefore, for the Opéra’s audiences, could stand for French bourgeois womanhood. She is not precisely an old maid, since she was engaged to marry in life and died prematurely. Still, the heart of her tragedy is that she could not marry, and that is certainly analogous to the mundane misfortune of the bourgeois spinster.

And after the performances, dandies gathered backstage in the Foyer de la Danse to toast and seduce the ballet girls, in a manner even more flagrant than during the 1830s and 40s. Contemporary observers depict “the man of fashion” in the audience as interested only in the dancer’s body, not in the dance. Charles Yriarte, for instance, described the Opéra milieu of 1867, in which even the tragedy of Giselle was reduced to frothy “fairylike effects…and ethereal pirouettes”: The man of fashion at the Opéra, with his box or his stall, his favourite dancer, his opera-glasses, and his right of entry backstage, has a horror of anything which remains on the bills for a long time, of anything artistic, THE ROMANTIC BALLET 39 which must be listened to, respected, or requires an effort to be understood….

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