Before professional sports figures, movie stars and rock bands captivated the public’s attention, the great ballerinas of the mid-19th century were among the first “stars” to achieve celebrity.
“Splendor and Spectacle: Images of Dance from Court Ballet to Broadway,” a new exhibition at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art, illustrates the evolution of ballet from the 18th-century courts of Europe, through the great 19th-century Romantic Ballet, to the arrival of the art form in America in the 1860s.
The exhibition will be on view in the Warren & Alice Jones and Paul & Betty Boshard galleries on the museum’s lower level from Friday, July 6, through Tuesday, Jan. 1. It will feature 65 prints and 33 objets d’art from the private collection of BYU faculty members Madison and Debra Sowell.
An opening reception will be held Thursday, July 5, from 7 to 9 p.m. in the J. Herbert Milburn Gallery on the museum’s lower level. Light refreshments will be served, and the BYU community is welcome to attend.
“This exhibition traces the development of one of the great genres of classical entertainment that has come down to our time,” says curator Paul Anderson. “Since most of these developments in ballet history took place before photography was in wide use, especially for documentary purposes, this collection of prints and objets d’art is particularly valuable in preserving the history and the personalities of this period.”
The introductory section explores the precursors to the Romantic Ballet in the 18th century. During this period, dance was an important part of life in the royal courts of Europe. Many social events attended by the upper classes were marked by spectacular formal dances where everyone was expected to participate. Professional dancers also performed for aristocratic audiences in a more formal setting.
Among the works on view in this section are engravings of various dancers who performed in royal courts across Europe. The second section of the exhibition focuses on the development of the Romantic Ballet in the 19th century.
Social and economic changes in Europe around the beginning of the 19th century gave rise to a wealthy middle class and led to the construction of opera houses in large cities across Europe where opera, drama and dance could be performed for growing audiences. But it wasn’t until the 1830s that ballet reached the height of its popularity with the evolution of a new technique — dancing en pointe.
“The dancer who really revolutionizes ballet is Marie Taglioni who appears in ‘La Sylphide,’ which is a pivotal production in the history of ballet,” Anderson says. “Taglioni dancing on her toes in a diaphanous costume representing an other-worldly spirit must have caused a sensation. No one had ever seen a person dance with such an illusion of weightlessness or in a way that created such an ethereal feeling. She became one of the first international celebrities.”
Taglioni and other famous ballerinas of the time were immortalized in lithographs, etchings, and engravings, and their likenesses were reproduced on decorative objects such as candelabras, porcelain vases and statuettes, soap and cigar boxes, paper dolls, and bronze medallions. Examples of many of these items will be on view in the exhibition.
The final section of the exhibition examines the arrival of ballet in America in the mid-1800s. Prior to the American Civil War, a few European ballet troops toured the United States. Nathanial Currier of Currier and Ives fame created lithographs of some of these famous ballet stars in connection with their visits, three of which will be in the exhibition. However, it was the serendipitous New York production of “The Black Crook” in the mid-1860s that jumpstarted the popularity of ballet and musical theater in America.
“A French ballet troupe arrived in New York to find the theater they were scheduled to perform in had burned down and their performances had been cancelled. The leaders of their group teamed up with a producer from Broadway who was in the process of producing what promised to be a rather dull, melodramatic play. And they came together to produce ‘The Black Crook,’” Anderson says.
“It was an enormous hit. ‘The Black Crook’ was revived over and over again through the end of the century and was seen by a large audience.”
The works in this exhibition are drawn from the collection of dance scholar Debra H. Sowell and her husband, BYU Honors Program Director Madison U. Sowell. For the past three decades, the Sowells have collected antique prints, rare books and objets d'art that document and illustrate approximately 400 years of the history of Western theatrical dance.