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The origins of the pirouette


Carlo Blasis

In a surge of admiration and respect for the Paris Opera, Carlo Blasis (1795-1878) attributes the invention of the pirouette to the two great French dancers Pierre Gardel (1758-1840) and Auguste Vestris (1760-1842), but he fails to specify that in the mid-eighteenth century, although the dancers wore bulky costumes and shoes with heels, the male technique already included three consecutive laps on one foot.


In fact, the lap technique developed mainly in the last two decades of the eighteenth century and Auguste Vestris, son of the great Gaetano, will be the promoter of the most spectacular forms of pirouettes. The eighties are a very lively period for the French ballet, a period that is a prelude to the great reform that will give life to new technical experiments (the ascent on tiptoe, the upper momentum of the body in the jump and the arabesque). The new generation of dancers, intolerant of academic constraints and reaching out for the new, enthusiastically welcomes the reckless proposals of the young Auguste and appropriates them by challenging each other in a race of skill and chance. And this is how the pirouettes, the banner of the "new" dance of the Paris Opera, become the main attraction of an audience hungry for emotions and novelties.



Thanks to an exhausting training and an iron balance study, in the early nineteenth century the pirouettes reached such a speed and duration (they reached up to 12 laps), to be compared to the tops or the endless laps of the Turkish priests Dervisci. In addition, in this era they do not end, as now, by "going down", but are suddenly stopped keeping the position of the body, arms and legs unchanged and in perfect balance, as if the dancer were able to overcome the physical laws.


Auguste Vestris was not only the inventor and promoter of the pirouettes, but he was also the creator of an executive method that spread throughout Europe through his followers Carlo Blasis, August Bournonville, Arthur Saint-Léon and others. According to this method, the turn had to be performed with continuity and smoothness, avoiding hops, jolts or, even more regrettable, blows from the heel to the ground. The heel had to be completely detached from the ground in order to create the impression that the dancer was flying. In the base pirouette the body was stretched upwards, but there were other forms that provided for further, however very difficult, body structures, such as the arabesque with the body tilted forward. There were also other forms of pirouettes - the compound pirouettes - in which the dancer during a whirling tour changed the position with an imperceptible device, impossible to grasp with the naked eye. An example reported by Carlo Blasis on his Traité élémentaire théorique et pratique de l'Art de la danse (Milan 1820) is the tour en dedans started with four laps with the leg at the second position at 90 degrees and, subsequently, continued with four others in an arabesque with the body "hanging" up to almost horizontal.


Carlo Blasis, a skilled pirouetteur, passed on his experience to his students who over time managed to merge it with the traditional Italian technique revitalizing it with new inventions. The current tours chaînés, déboulés, staged by Enrico Cecchetti in 1870, are nothing more than the Italian "strolls", while the tour en l'air is the academic version of the "round jump" that the Italians practiced already in the eighteenth century arriving to do three laps in the air.


Thanks to an exhausting training and an iron balance study, in the early nineteenth century the pirouettes reached such speed and duration (they reached up to 12 laps), to be compared to the tops or the endless laps of the Turkish priests Dervisci. In addition, in this era, they do not end, as now, by "going down", but are suddenly stopped keeping the position of the body, arms and legs unchanged and in perfect balance, as if the dancer were able to overcome the physical laws..ate the impression that the dancer was flying. In the base pirouette, the body was stretched upwards, but there were other forms that provided for further, however very difficult, body structures, such as the arabesque with the body tilted forward. There were also other forms of pirouettes - the compound pirouettes - in which the dancer during a whirling tour changed the position with an imperceptible device, impossible to grasp with the naked eye. An example reported by Carlo Blasis on his Traité élémentaire théorique et pratique de l'Art de la danse (Milan 1820) is the tour en dedans started with four laps with the leg at the second position at 90 degrees and, subsequently, continued with four others in an arabesque with the body "hanging" up to almost horizontal.

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