‘I’ve never trained as a dancer besides the obligatory two to three years as a kid, but I’ve always been interested in ballet.
My love of history and performing arts led me to complete my PhD on ballet in a social context during the period of 1770 to 1800. Previous studies had only focused on the performance. I spent hours rolling through microfilm readers in the library, scanning newspapers for anything of interest. It was a long process, but from reviews to gossip columns, it gave me a clear insight into what people were talking about at the time. The common belief is that ballet in Britain rose to popularity in the twentieth century. Strong associations are drawn to this period, when several all-British companies like the Royal Ballet and the International Ballet companies formed.
‘Dancers were seen as available mistresses who could be bought off for sexual favours.’
But there is greater evidence to support that the change in audience perception of ballet occurred in the late eighteenth century rather than the Romantic period of the nineteenth century.
This has much to do with the development of women’s patronage, which through the course of my research emerged and became central to understanding and appreciating ballet as we know it today.
For a very long time ballet had been associated with the ‘gentlemen spectator’. Dancers were seen as available mistresses who could be bought off for sexual favours.
A contemporary painter of the time, Edgar Degas, would show ballerinas on stage alongside a shadowy figure in a top hat, lurking in the background. This view has tended to colour ballet’s history going back.
A real buzz period happened for ballet in Britain in the 1780s that effectively transformed the social and cultural perspectives of the dance.
Fashionable women began to develop an interest in ballet, stemming from their desire for ‘theatricalized sociability’.
This meant that women didn’t just come together in a social way but were looking for events such as masquerade balls and concerts, anything that could have a theatrical overlay to it.
That evolved into ballet coming in as a way of theatricalizing events.
You’d have a marvelous masquerade ball and you’d invite the dancers to perform, with pageantry inserted into the event.
The combination of those events, the theatricalizing of sociability and Vestris’ celebrity status kick started a boom in ballet interest and brought it into public discourse in a way that it never had.
An entrepreneur of London society, Theresa Cornelys, cottoned on to this new trend and realized this was a great way to make money by attracting elite women.
Around 1780 London’s opera house at the time brought out a dancer called Auguste Vestris who was a young prodigy that everyone thought was just fabulous.
Ladies flocked to the performances and even the men were impressed with him. People talked about “Vestri-mania” because it was the hottest topic of conversation and gossip.
‘Today’s dancers owe the much-improved conditions that they’re working under to women’s support and interest in the art form.’
Women’s interest in ballet wasn’t something that people had previously thought about but my research brought that forward and emphasized how incredibly important it was on cultural level.
Women didn’t want to go to a performance and know that they were seeing girls surviving on the smell of an oily rag and who were selling sexual favors to gentleman backstage.
It reinforced that we need to value women’s patronage as a crucial factor in making ballet socially acceptable. Today’s dancers owe the much-improved conditions that they’re working under to women’s support and interest in the art form.
They wanted to come to something that was respectable, knowing the people they were watching were healthy and earning a reasonable income.
By the 1790s ballet had cemented its appeal in Britain strongly enough that it weathered the political impacts of the French Revolution as well as attacks by evangelical religious affiliates.
Now that my thesis is finished I’m freelancing for The Australian Ballet, writing blogs and program notes. I’m hoping to launch a new website called Vintage Pointe. It changed the way we view ballet today and through my research the cultural shift that occurred earlier than initially thought has been brought into light.
Up until now there hasn’t been a really successful and dedicated dance history website so Vintage Pointe will take that ground.
I’d like people to value the sense of liveliness of ballet in the late eighteenth century and to get away from any notions that ballet history has to be stuffy.
There are so many interesting stories throughout the history of ballet just not being told but I’d like to make them known.’
Caitlyn Lehmann’s PhD is titled: “Fashionable Society, Ballet and the King’s Theatre, 1770-1800”
*My PhD is an irregular series in which The Citizen speaks with recent Melbourne University PhD graduates.