La Camargo

Grand Ballet in three acts and nine scenes
Music by Ludwig Minkus
Libretto by Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Marius Petipa
Décor by Andrei Roller (scenes 1, 3, 7 and 9); Heinrich Wagner (scenes 2, 4, 5 and 6) and Mikhail Bocharov (Scene 8)
Costumes by Evgenii Ponomarev

World Première
19th December [O.S. 7th December] 1872
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre, Saint Petersburg

Original 1872 Cast
Marie Camargo
Adèle Grantzow

Madeleine Camargo
Anna Kuznetsova

Vestris
Alexandra Simskaya

The Comte de Melun
Lev Ivanov

Plot
La Camargo was based on a true story about the great 18th century ballerina Marie Camargo. Camargo has two daughters – Marie, who adores dancing, and Madeleine, who adores the Comte du Melun. The Comte de Melun adores not only both the Camargo sisters, but also a Spanish noblewoman. Marie Camargo unravels this intrigue, however, scaring Melun with the Spanish lady’s jealous husband, Don Hernandez, and with the aid of King Louis XV, she gets her sister married to the irresponsible Comte. She, herself, under the guidance of the Ballet Master Vestris, joins the Royal Ballet troupe and becomes a famous dancer.

Pierina Legnani as Marie Camargo and Sergei Legat as Vestris (1901)
Pierina Legnani as Marie Camargo and Sergei Legat as Vestris (1901)

 

History
La Camargo was created by Petipa and Ludwig Minkus and unlike many of Petipa’s ballet, this was a historical ballet as it told the story of a real event. It was also a tribute to two of the most gigantic figures of ballet – Gaétan Vestris and Marie Camargo, both of whom played significant roles in the history of the art form in the 18th century.

Gaéton Vestris
Gaetano (Gaétan) Apolline Baldassarre Vestris was born on the 18th April 1729 in Florence, Italy into the famous theatrical Vestris family. Gaétan Vestris studied at the Royal Academy in Paris with Louis Dupré and joined the Paris Opéra in 1749 at the age of 20. Vestris had trained as a burlesque dancer before adopting the noble style upon joining the Paris Opéra and his experience of the burlesque saw him adding something new to the danse noble. Vestris gave the danse noble a different flavour from that of his teacher Dupre, for, as described by Ivor Guest, “Dupré had performed his entrées with an emphasis on the purity of the movement, but Vestris added a sensual quality and an expressiveness that made the style much more acceptable for his generation.” Vestris was hailed as the greatest male dancer of his time and justly earned the title “le Dieu de la Danse”, but it was not just his technical abilities that earned him praise.

Gaetan Vestris, painting by Thomas Gainsborough (1781)
Gaétan Vestris, painting by Thomas Gainsborough (1781)

Vestris also developed strong acting abilities and played an important role in gaining acceptance for the new genre, the ballet d’action, founded by Jean-Georges Noverre in the 1760s. After succeeding Lany as compositeur et maître de ballets at the Opéra in 1770, Vestris presented Noverre’s dramatic ballet Médée et Jason to the French capital. At the time, a traditional feature of ballet was the use of masks for, in the words of Ivor Guest, the delineation of character and the expression of strong emotions had not yet entered the dancer’s domain and the audience only found pleasure in the movement and style of the performers. For the Opéra première of Noverre’s Médée et Jason, however, Vestris, who performed the role of Jason, famously broke with tradition by performing without a mask and acted with his facial expressions. This break in tradition was what gave way to balletic mime and entered into the dancer’s domain the expectation of being a great actor and true interpretive artist as well as a great technician. Vestris resigned from the Paris Opéra in 1776 and was succeeded as maître de ballet by Noverre. He died in Paris on the 23rd September 1808, aged 79. He had several children, the most famous of whom was Auguste Vestris, who, like his father, came to be known as the greatest male dancer of his generation in his own right.

Marie Camargo
Marie Anne de Cupis de Camargo was born in Brussels, Belgium on the 15th April 1710 into an artistic family. She began dancing at the age of 5 and at the age of 10, she became a student of Françoise Prévost, who was Première Danseuse of the Paris Opéra at the time. Camargo made her public début at the Opéra in May 1726 when she was 16 years old in a ballet solo called Les Caractères de la danse, which had been created for Prévost to the music of Jean-Ferry Rebel. She taught it to her young student, clearly to showcase her versatility. The young Camargo immediately captivated the audience for what she presented had not been seen before; as described by Ivor Guest, she performed her cabrioles and entrechats without the slightest effort and gave an indefinable artistry with a lightness of touch that concealed her strength and a sensitive ear attuned to the slightest nuances in the music. The sensation stirred by the young dancer’s debut was undeniable and a new star was born, but it had not been something her teacher Prévost had been prepared for. The success only stirred up jealousy in the aging danseuse and instead of naming her as her successor, she had Camargo relegated to the corps de ballet. However, Prévost’s attempts to hold her student back proved to be in vain. One night, the danseur David DuMoulin was meant to perform a solo in a dance of demons, but when the orchestra started to play the music for his entrée, he was nowhere to be found. Seizing an opportunity, Marie Camargo rushed on stage and improvised a solo to the music, which enraptured the audience and was met with thunderous applause. Prévost, however, was not pleased and refused to teach the girl an entrée that had been requested by the Duchesse de Bourbon. Luckily, Camargo was given the breakthrough she needed when the Ballet Master Nicolas Blondy invited her to study under him instead.

"Mademoiselle de Camargo Dancing" by Nicolas Lancret (ca. 1780)
“Mademoiselle de Camargo Dancing” by Nicolas Lancret (ca. 1780)

Under a male teacher, Camargo enhanced her grace, lightness and gaiety and soon surpassed Prévost, though she never lost or forgot what Prévost had taught her. A contemporary recalled of Camargo:

She performed gavottes, rigaudons, tambourines, loures, all that were known as “les grands airs”, in their correct manner, with all the range of steps proper to them, for she had it all in her legs, and if she eschewed the gargouillade, it was only because she considered it unsuitable for women – quoted in The Paris Opera Ballet by Ivor Guest (p. 17)

Marie Camargo was the first true virtuosa ballerina to appear at the Paris Opéra. When the Opéra was founded in the 17th century, it had been the male dancers who had ruled the art form with an uncontested supremacy, but with the arrival of Camargo, that supremacy was finally challenged by a female dancer. With Camargo’s influence, the ballerina was given her place in the art. It was also during the early years of Camargo’s career that ballet costumes were evolving, for it was during the 1720s that pannier dresses with lighter materials than those in the 17th century were introduced to society fashion. This new type of dress became the standard wear for professional danseuses, with the exception that the skirt was raised a few inches higher off the floor so the danseuse’s ankles and feet were fully visible. This gave Camargo and her successors the advantage to fully show their beaten steps and encouraged them to emulate their male counterparts and jump. Camargo has often been credited as being the first ballerina to perform the entrechats quatre and in terms of the danseuse’s costume, has been credited for popularising the shortened skirt and for changing the heeled shoes that danseuses wore at the time to flat slippers. Camargo appeared in seventy-eight ballets and operas before her retirement in 1751. She died in Paris on the 28th April 1770, aged 60.

Pierina Legnani as Marie Camargo and Sergei Legat as Vestris (1901)
Pierina Legnani as Marie Camargo and Sergei Legat as Vestris (1901)

 

Petipa’s La Camargo
Petipa’s ballet La Camargo was one of several that he created especially for Adèle Grantzow during her tenure in Saint Petersburg. This would be the last ballet that would be created for a foreign ballerina for a decade as Grantzow’s departure from Russia was followed by the rise of some of the greatest Russian ballerinas of the 19th century. The libretto, however, had been written by Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges years before in 1864, with Maria Surovichshkova-Petipa in mind as Marie Camargo, but the ballet did not come into fruition until 1872. Unlike many of his ballets, La Camargo not only told the story of a real historical event, it was completely devoid of the supernatural. This was a ballet that paid homage to another era in ballet history, an era that was of great importance in the art form’s evolution.

Although there were no supernatural elements, the ballet did contain an entertainment in scenes 5 and 6 that was perhaps a reference to Petipa’s famous vision scenes. The entertainment was a Summer divertissement and a Winter divertissement; in the Summer dances, Adèle Grantzow as Marie Camargo appeared as a sylph and Pavel Gerdt danced the Spirt of the Air; in the Winter dances, Grantzow appeared as the Queen of the Glaciers. The Winter scenario of the two divertissements would later be seen again in The Daughter of the Snows and The Nutcracker.

La Camargo made its world première on the 19th December [O.S. 7th December] 1872 at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre. After Grantzow’s departure from Russia, the role of Marie Camargo was inherited by Ekaterina Vazem, though by the 1880s, the ballet seems have been no longer active in the Imperial Ballet repertoire. Though excerpts of La Camargo would be performed at gala performances throughout the 1880s and 1890s (Vazem chose an extract for her farewell benefit performance in 1884), the full-length ballet was not seen again until 1901 when it was revived by Lev Ivanov for the farewell benefit performance of Pierina Legnani.

After a very successful eight-year tenure with the Imperial Ballet, Legnani left Russia in 1901 after giving up on her one-sided rivalry with Matilda Kschessinskaya. For her farewell benefit performance, Legnani chose to dance the lead role in La Camargo. This was a perfect choice as Legnani has been labelled by many as the greatest ballerina of the 19th century, so it was more than appropriate that for her farewell benefit, she should dance in a ballet about the greatest ballerina of the 18th century. In accordance with customs at the time, Riccardo Drigo composed a new pas de deux for Legnani’s performance, which included a harp variation for her. Ivanov’s revival of La Camargo for Legnani’s farewell benefit took place on the 30th January [O.S. 17th January] 1901 at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, with Legnani’s performance going down as legendary in the annals of ballet history, proving on that very night why she was the first to obtain the rank of Prima Ballerina Assoluta.

La Camargo was among the many ballets to fall into obscurity after the 1917 Revolution. Today, the only piece from the ballet that is still performed is the harp variation composed by Drigo for Legnani in 1901. Throughout the 20th century, this variation was used in several modern stagings of the Paquita Grand Pas Classique, for which it was revived by Pyotr Gusev for his 1952 staging for the Maly/Mikhailovsky Ballet and it was retained in Nikita Dolgushin’s 1974 staging. The variation is currently used in Natalia Makarova’s staging for American Ballet Theatre and in Yuri Burlaka’s respective stagings for the Bolshoi Ballet, the Vaganova Academy and Yuri Smekalov’s 2017 production of Paquita for the Mariinsky Ballet. The choreography that is danced for this variation, however, is not by Petipa or Ivanov, but is very likely to be by Gusev.

A scene from La Camargo; in the centre is Pierina Legnani as Marie Camargo and Sergei Legat as Vestris (1901)
A scene from La Camargo; in the centre is Pierina Legnani as Marie Camargo and Sergei Legat as Vestris (1901)

 

Sources

  • Meisner, Nadine (2019) Marius Petipa, The Emperor’s Ballet Master. New York City, US: Oxford University Press
  • Guest, Ivor (2006) The Paris Opéra Ballet. Alton, Hampshire: Dance Books Ltd
  • Letellier, Robert Ignatius (2008) The Ballets of Ludwig MinkusCambridge Scholars Publishing