She taught Queen Mary of England how to curtsy. Victor Hugo dedicated a book to ‘her feet, to her wings.’ Yet her French ballet teacher complained: “Will that little hunchback ever learn to dance?” He also called her an ‘ugly duckling’ and rejected her at the age of six. Certainly Marie Taglioni was not a beauty – she was very plain – yet she became one of the most famous Italian ballerinas.
She did have a head start, however. The Taglioni family founded by Carlo and his wife, Maria, in the late 1700’s was a well-known dancing family. Two of his sons, Filippo, whose wife was Swedish, and Salvatore, became choreographers. Filippo had two children, Marie and Paul.
After her unfortunate rejection by her Parisian teacher, Filippo decided to train his young daughter himself. He put her through six hours of rigorous practice each day and at night she was reportedly so exhausted that someone had to undress her and put her into bed!
At the age of twenty, in 1822, Taglioni made her debut as a dancer in Vienna to great acclaim. She soon became famous across Europe, especially for her starring role in La Sylphide, set in romantic Scotland. She performed this at the Paris Opéra. The ballet’s fey story about forest fairies and witches appealed greatly to audiences in theRomantic age of Keats and Byron. Choreographed especially for Marie by her famous father, Filippo, it originated the style of romantic ballet.
Marie in her long, white tutu dancing lightly on her pointe shoes became the new image of the romantic ballerina and began a new fashion, replacing the classical style. The transparent fairy wings that she wore were to help her bewitch her audience even more. Women copied her hairstyle, and little girls bought La Sylphide dolls. Even Queen Victoria had a La Sylphide doll.
In London, Taglioni commanded £100 a performance; she filled the St. Petersburg Bolshoi Theatre to capacity when she played in La Sylphide. The Russians loved her so much that they named cakes and caramels after her. A group of her fans even ate a pair of her ballet shoes after her last performance in 1842. These were cooked, garnished, and served with a special sauce so one hopes that they tasted good!
According to another legend about the great Taglioni, in the snowy Russian winter of 1835 her carriage was held up by a highwayman. He ordered her to dance for him on a panther’s skin spread over the snow in the moonlight. After that, she would place a piece of artificial ice in her jewelry box so that she could remember when she danced underneath the stars.
The prima ballerina found a younger rival in Fanny Ellsler: she is said to have cried when she first watched her dance at the Paris Opera House. Furious at Ellsler’s engagement by the manager of l’Opera, Taglioni must have been very pleased when the strong and athletic dancer’s performance in La Sylphide proved to be an abject failure and Ellsler chose to go to America because of her humiliation.
In spite of her great success on the stage Taglioni had a sad personal life. She married Could Gilbert de Viosins but the marriage only lasted three years. She was left with two small children – a son and a daughter.
After the ballerina retired in 1848 at 44, she started a teaching career in Paris. However, she found it difficult to overcome grief when her favorite pupil, Emma Livry, died after her skirt brushed against a gas jet near the stage and it caught fire. She had choreographed the ballet La Papillon (The Butterfly) for Livry to score written by Offenbach – the only ballet score he wrote. In that ballet, Livry played a butterfly who perished in flames which must have made her death seem even more horrific to Taglioni.
Although she and her father were careful investors, their fortune was wiped out during the Franco-Prussian war. The Romantic ballerina then lived in London, where she taught classical dance and social dance to middle and upper-class pupils. She found it difficult to make much money from this, so she had to teach almost until the day she died at 80 in 1884.
In Pendennis Thackeray asked: “Will the young folks ever see anything so charming, anything so classic, anything like Taglioni?”
The answer is probably not.
By Lisa-Anne Sanderson