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Jules Perrot, choreographer


(Compiled February 2001)

If you have seen the Degas paintings of the Paris Opera in ballet class, then you will have seen Jules Perrot. He is the man who is teaching in those pictures.

Born August 18, 1810 in Lyon, France, his father was a machinist in the theatre. It seems it was he who decided that Perrot should become a dancer. He began training at 9 but achieved early recognition by performing a parody of a famous entertainer of the day. At 10 he went to Paris where he worked as a page by day and appeared as a super on stage at night. He also obtained engagements in the vaudeville houses performing his parodies. Eventually Perrot decided to put his talents to work in classical ballet.

He studied with Vestris who, on account of the unideal look of Perrot's body, instructed him "Jump from place to place, but never give the public time to study your person." He was later described thus: "Perrot is not handsome, he is extremely ugly. From the waist upward he has the proportions of a tenor; there is no need to say more; but from the waist downward he is delightful to look at. It hardly accords with modern views to discourse on a man's physical proportions; however, we cannot keep silent regarding Perrot's legs…The foot and knee joints are unusually slender, and counter-balance the somewhat feminine roundness of contour of his legs; which are at once soft an strong, elegant and supple; the legs of the youth in red hose, who breaks the symbolic wand across his knee, in Raphael's painting, The Marriage of the Virgin, are in the same style."

Perrot combined the best of Vestris' teaching of classical dance technique with his own knowledge of theatricality gained from his vaudeville experience. After performing in many places he finally danced at the Paris Opéra in La Musette de Portico in 1830. He partnered often with Marie Taglioni who eventually severed the partnership, as she feared Perrot would outshine her.

Perrot left the Opéra in 1835 to tour European dance centers such as London, Milan, Vienna and Naples, where he met and noticed the talent of Carlotta Grisi. He coached her and presented her to the world as the next great ballerina in an 1836 performance in London with himself as her partner. In that same year Perrot began to experiment with the art of choreography.

Following the success of his contributions to the choreography of Giselle, Perrot went on to choreograph Alma ou la Fille du Feu (1842 in London) for Fanny Cerrito, which was hailed as a major choreographic success. For the next six years he choreographed regularly at Her Majesty's Theatre in London, including Ondine (1843), La Esmeralda (1844) Le Jugement de Paris (1846) and the famous Pas de Quatre of July 12, 1845. For this ballet he not only negotiated the intricacies of persuading the four leading ballerinas of the day to appear on stage together, but also created a choreographic masterpiece.

Perrot was engaged first as a dancer, and then in 1851 as ballet master in St. Petersburg, where he remained until 1858. While there he married Capitoline Samovskaya, a pupil at the Imperial Theater School, with whom he had two children. Uncommitted about whether to remain in Russia or return to Paris, his mind was made up by an incident in his apartment. Without any apparent cause a large mirror fell from the wall and crashed into many small pieces. He returned to Paris to a life of comparative leisure. Perrot died on holiday in Paramé August 29, 1892.


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