Today is the birthday of French painter Edgar Degas (1834-1917), often associated with, but not quite of the impressionists. Over half of the paintings in Degas’s oeuvre depict female ballet dancers hard at work: stretching, rehearsing, performing. You might think that irrelevant to the usual themes of this blog, but you’d be wrong!
Robert C. Allen, in his terrific book Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture, makes an excellent case for early incursions by ballet into American theatre in the 1820s and 30s as an important precursor to burlesque. Early tours of America by French ballerinas Madame Francisque Hutin and Madame Celeste and Austrian dancer Fanny Elssler helped pave the way to grudging acceptance of the partially unclothed female form because it was cloaked in “art”. Some protested, but the majority accepted the shocking spectacle of female legs in this context. A few decades later when Ixion hit the American stage, it was that much harder (in fact, impossible) for Puritanical elements to close it down. Where was the firm line between light entertainment and “art”? There was none! And the Rubicon had already been crossed.
Ballet had thus originally been seen by the masses in the U.S. as en’tractes and such at legit plays. In later years on occasion high brow ballet would make it to the stages of low brow vaudeville, and we have written about some of the prima ballerinas who toured the big time: Anna Pavlova, Lydia Lopokova, Vera Fokine, and Adeline Genee among them. Look for at least a couple more in the coming months!