From Resilience To Invention: Ballet After The French Revolution

Document Type


Publication Date


Published In

Resilient Europe?: 23rd International Conference Of Europeanists


The Enlightenment action ballet, a highly narrative type of performance featuring mime interspersed with dancing, was founded on the premise that dance needed to conform to Aristotelian poetics. A need for each character to play a unique role in ballet’s narrative emerged as part of this new form. Alongside a distaste for symmetry, this understanding of character in turn affected the construction of dances for groups and individuals. Although group dances regularly occurred in ballets, individual members of the corps de ballet represented clearly demarcated characters and could thus break free of the group and act as individuals—each character played a unique role in telling the story. A dramatic shift took place following the French Revolution of 1789. The Paris Opéra became a symbol of the Ancien Régime, its opulence and aristocratic past. Dancers, who represented the aristocracy through their bodily comportment, were scapegoated, and many fled the country. During this transitional moment, however, the resourceful Pierre Gardel, alongside the celebrated painter Jacques-Louis David, arranged dances and created tableaux vivants for the Revolutionary fêtes. Although the goal of the fêtes was fundamentally at odds with the original goal behind producing ballet, Gardel and his collaborators demonstrated resilience—they retained employment within their profession—and even more critically, innovation. This use of the collective body in the fêtes, originally a tool for propaganda, and in contradiction to the conception of Enlightenment theater and dance, ultimately gave rise to the ballet blanc, or the famous white scenes from the Romantic ballet.


23rd International Conference Of Europeanists

Conference Dates

April 14-16, 2016

Conference Location

Philadelphia, PA

This document is currently not available here.