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Arthur Saint-Léon, choreographer


(Compiled February 2001)

Charles-Victor-Arthur-Michael Saint-Léon was born in Paris, September 17, 1815, although the year of his birth has been argued to have been 1821. His father, Léon-Michael Saint-Léon, a dancer and director of fight scenes at the Paris Opéra, encouraged his son to study music and dance. The boy studied violin with Mayseder and Paganini and made his debut as a violinist at age 13 in Stuttgart, Germany, where his father was employed as dance master to the royal court. One year later he made his dancing debut in Munich in a pas de deux in Joseph Schneider's ballet Die Reisende Ballet-Gesellschaft.

By 1837, at age 16, Saint-Léon was back in Paris, studying dance and giving violin recitals. One year later he debuted as a principal character dancer at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. He went on to Anvers and Vienna, performing as a violinist and a dancer. Dancing engagements followed in Turin, Milan and, eventually, London.

He was reviewed by The Times in London thus: "his dancing is the sport of a young Hercules…. So amazing were his tours de force that he at once won the acclaim of a public which in general abhorred the presence of male dancers…. We cannot surmise how many times he goes round in a single spin."

While in Vienna Saint-Léon had the opportunity to partner with the great ballerina Fanny Cerrito for the first time. In London the couple partnered on numerous occasions, and in time Saint-Léon fell in love with her; the two became regular partners, on and off stage. Together they traveled to Rome, Florence and Parma, and back to London, where Saint-Léon staged la Vivandière. The success of the ballet led to tours in England and Italy. The couple paused long enough in Paris to marry, on April 17, 1845, at the Église des Batignolles.

In 1847 Saint-Léon was commissioned by the Paris Opéra to stage a new ballet, with Cerrito performing. He essentially restaged Alma, ou La Fille de feu¸ a work created in 1842 by Cerrito and André Deshayes, under the title la Fille de Marbre. The ballet was a big success. Théophile Gautier wrote, in La presse, "Saint-Léon caused astonishment by the taut boldness of his dancing and the strength of his jump. He succeeded in winning applause for himself, not an easy thing at a time when male dancing is out of favor."

Cerrito and Saint-Léon went to Venice and created three new ballets at the Teatro La Fenice there, followed by more new works for the Paris Opéra and tours all over Europe. In March of 1851 the couple began quarrelling, and they agreed to separate. Saint-Léon accepted the post of principal ballet master and teacher of the classe de perfectionnement at the Paris Opéra. The couple danced only one more time together, at a gala in October of 1851. When the Opéra engaged Cerrito in December 1852, Saint-Léon gallantly left before his contract there expired, but remained in Paris to choreograph and compose music for the Théâtre-Lyrique.

In 1856 Saint-Léon decried the lack of appreciation for ballet in the France of his day, blaming the situation on the discontinuation of dance training as a part of general education - a view we might well reflect upon today.

After a season in London, Saint-Léon moved to Lisbon, Portugal, where for three years he presented a repertory of old and new works at the Teatro de São Carlos. He was also named professor of the Lisbon Conservatory and awarded the Cross of the Order of Christ by the king of Portugal. Financial difficulties at the theater caused Saint-Léon to tour Europe once again, for eighteen months, until he was appointed ballet master of the Imperial Theaters in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1859 - a position he retained until his death. It is interesting that Saint-Leon, a Frenchman, was the first to produce a ballet - The Humpbacked Horse - based on a Russian theme. Because he was only required to be in Saint Petersburg six months out of the year, Saint-Léon had time to travel, specifically to Paris. He was thus able to choreograph and restage many works in each city during the following years.

In 1865 Saint-Léon rediscovered the young German dancer Adèle Grantzow, who he had first seen dance in Hanover in 1858. He recommended her for the position of prima ballerina at Moscow's Bolshoi Theater, and she became his muse in Russia. On November 11, 1866, Saint-Léon's ballet La Source premiered in Paris. Adèle Grantzow was to have starred in this production, but was called back to the Bolshoi by its management. The leading role went to the Italian Guglielmina Salvioni. Interestingly Mme. Grantzow was also replaced by an Italian for the Paris premiere of Coppélia, although that time it was occasioned by her ill health.

Saint-Léon's successes in Paris were not matched in Russia, where his new works were poorly received: he went so far as to challenge one critic to a duel. He thereafter put considerable energy into the completion of Coppélia, which was commissioned by the Paris Opéra in 1868. Before the ballet was finally presented, on May 25, 1870, years had gone by because of Saint-Léon's travels between Russia and Paris; but it can be argued that the protracted time allowed for the strengthening potentially weak spots in the work. Coppélia was an immediate success.

Saint-Léon, however, had been suffering ill health since 1866, and he went to Weisbaden seeking a cure. He returned to Paris and died there, of a heart attack, on September 2, 1870, just three months after the premiere of Coppélia.

Saint-Léon originally gained fame as a great male dancer at a time when only women were truly appreciated on the stage, but he later became known as an adept arranger of divertissements. His ability to flatter theater directors garnered him a reputation as self-serving, ambitious and egomaniacal, but clearly he earned many of his opportunities. He considered himself unrivalled in choreographic talent; he was jealous of rivals, and he often succeeded in holding them back.

Saint-Léon was the last of the great European choreographers of the 19th century, but he also presaged the technical virtuosity demanded by choreographers of the Classical period to follow. Incorporation of national dances in ballets (for which he was criticized in his day) became a mainstay of the Petipa ballets that followed. Traveling as a guest choreographer from city to city, Saint-Leon often staged the same ballets under different titles; thus Nemea in Paris became Fiammetta in St. Petersburg and Salamander in Moscow. He choreographed adeptly, musically, and with a view to please the audience. Although he often included some avant-garde ideas while planning his ballets, he ultimately deleted them to placate his audiences.

Although he choreographed many ballets, only his ballet Coppélia is performed today.

Apart from his choreographic achievements, Saint-Léon was an respected violinist on the salon circuit, and he composed over seventy musical works, mostly for the violin. He even danced and played violin in one work, Tartini il Violinista.

Additionally Saint-Léon invented a system of dance notation that he explained in a book, La Sténochoréographie, ou Art d'écrire promptement la danse, published in 1852. His system used a five-line staff for leg positions, with a single line above it for head and arm positions - over which were notated modified stick figures. This system of notation was matched to the score by being printed above the music and aligned with its musical bars. His was the first system to record movements of the upper body. Although he notated the pas de six from La Vivandiér (and included it in the book), part of the peasant pas de deux from Giselle, and Il Basilico, it's believed that no other notation of Saint-Léon's works exists. He was no doubt too busy creating works to devote the painstaking time required to preserve them for the future.


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