Finding Creativity on the Popular Stage

Finding Creativity on the Popular Stage: The Ballets of Belle-Époque Boulevard-Theatre Spectacles
Principal investigator: Sarah Gutsche-Miller
The ballet divertissement was a ubiquitous form of entertainment in late nineteenth-century Paris, and it was incorporated into nearly every type of large-scale dramatic production.  As is well known, the Opéra routinely staged operas that included danced divertissements, as did the Opéra-Comique, though on a smaller scale. Less well known today are the divertissements choreographed for extravaganzas staged by the popular spectacle theatres that dotted Paris’s trendy grands boulevards: the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin, the Théâtre de la Gaîté, the Théâtre du Châtelet, and the Théâtre des Folies-Dramatiques. Boulevard-theatre spectacles—féeries, opérettes à grand spectacle, drames à grand spectacle, and comedies à grand spectacle—were massive productions, with multiple dramatic tableaux, dazzling stage effects, and as many as four 15- to 20-minute ballets. Choreographed by the preeminent dance artists of the day, the ballets were performed every night for months and were, according to reviews, often the high point of the spectacles for audiences and critics alike.
This project has three primary objectives. The first is to recover the vast repertory boulevard-theatre ballets and, when possible, reconstruct what they might have looked and sounded like.  The second is to establish connections between boulevard-theatre ballets and the broader dance culture of fin-de-siècle Paris, looking for thematic and stylistic connections between boulevard-theatre, music-hall, Opéra, and Opéra-Comique ballets. This segment of the project will include tracing the trajectories of now obscure, but formerly illustrious, boulevard-theatre/music-hall/Opéra/Opéra-Comique choreographers such as Henri Justamant and Madame Mariquita, whose careers provide evidence of a fluid and extensive network of dancers, choreographers, ballets, and, consequently, of overlapping choreographic styles and thematic material in commercial and state theatres. My third objective is to study connections between popular ballets and the broader theatrical, musical, and visual context in which they circulated. Ballet is now considered a relatively isolated art form with a negligible impact on contemporary music, literature, or art. In late nineteenth-century Paris, however, it held a central place in the cultural imagination.
This research is funded by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada.