Carlotta Grisi 
Prominent Istrians 


arlotta Grisi, whose real name was Caronne Adele Giuseppina Maria Grisi, was born in Visinada, Istria, on June 28, 1819. Her mother's name was Maria (born Boschetti), and her father was Vincenzo Grisi, who came to Istria from Cremona to work for the public surveyor's department.
Playing: theme from "Giselle"
.
ballerina and court dancer

born in Visinada
1819

The Grisi family was involved in opera. Carlotta's older sister, Ernesta (1816-95) was a contralto. Cousins Giuditta Grisi (1805-40) and her sister Giulia Grisi (1811-69), were a mezzo-soprano and soprano, respectively, with Giulia being famous in her own right. An aunt was also a singer, and an uncle was one of Giulia's voice teachers.

Although Carlotta Grisi was said to have a beautiful singing voice, too, she chose to dance and was enrolled in the famous La Scala Academy at the early age of 7. By age 10, she was already a dancer in the corps de ballet of La Scala. She appeared in child's roles in ballets such as Ipermestra in which she played Piety and as a peasant girl in Le Mine di Polonia. At 14, she accompanied her sister Ernesta, on a tour of Italy. Ernesta sang in the opera while Carlotta was hired as a dancer. 

Marie Taglione

In 1834 while in Naples as a part of this tour, she met the dancer-choreographer Jules Perrot (1810-1892) who was at that time still officially working at the Paris Opera with his Swedish-born Italian partner, Marie Taglioni (1804-1884), daughter of the Italian choreographer Filippo Taglione who in 1832 had created what is considered the first Romantic ballet. Starring in her father's ballet, Marie changed ballet fashion by dancing the role of the fairy-like being dressed in a lightweight, white, calf-length skirt and a top that bares her neck, arms and shoulders. Taglioni's dreamlike dance style was later rivalled by Austrian Fanny Elssler's strength as well as by fellow Italian Carlotta Grisi in her 1841 Giselle performance.

At the time of his meeting with Carlotta, Taglioni was Perrot's lover, but he left Taglioni and took Carlotta as his protégé. (Marie later married a count.) He brought Carlotta to Paris, coached her, and choreographed her dances, and she also became his lover. but contrary to some accounts, there is no record of a formal marriage between Grisi and Perrot despite the fact that Carlotta assumed the name Madame Perrot in 1836 and appeared in Paris for a while under that name. In 1837, she gave birth to Jules Perrot's daughter, Marie-Julie, the first of two which she bore out of wedlock.

Grisi and Perrot danced together at her London debut in 1836. She then appeared in Paris in 1836 and 1837. A year later, Perrot resigned from the Paris Opera, and together they began to tour other parts of Europe. Through Perrot's contacts, the pair worked in Paris, London, Vienna, Munich, and Milan where she sang and danced. Of her two talents, however, it was her dancing that became recognized alongside Perrot's choreography which at that time was receiving great attention.

Carlotta Grisi and Jules Perrot

Her Paris debut came at the Théâte de la Renaissance in 1840, where she sang and danced in Le Zingaro. The intervention of Grisi's family led to her engagement at the Paris Opéra in 1841 where she had her professional debut in Donizetti's La favorita which Perot choreagraphed. Shortly after that came Giselle, a ballet created in Paris long before other famous ballets such as Swan Lake). Giselle was expressly designed to be a showcase for the talents of this young ballerina. The ballet's creaters were all French: the music was composed by Adolphe Charles Adam (1803-56); the scenario by drama critic and poet Théophile Gautier (1811-72) in collaboration with the dramatist Vernoy de Saint-Georges (adapting an old legend in Heinrich Heinene's 1835 work De l'Allemagne which was based on the German legend of the Wilis1); and the choreographers Jules Perrot in collaboration with the ballet master of the Paris Opera, Jean Coralli Perecini (1779-1854) who is usually referred to as Coralli and born in Paris of Bolognese parents. The scenery was by Pierre Ciceri and costumes by Paul Lormier. [History and background notes on Giselle.]

Giselle (1841)
Left: BNF - Tableau Alfred Edward Chalon
 (à noter que la jupe de Giselle était à l’origine jaune et non bleu comme la tradition l’a perpétuée depuis lors)

The world premiere of the two-act Giselle was on Carlotta's 22nd birthday, June 28, 1841 at the Theatre de l'Academie Royale de Musique, Paris. The part of Albrecht was danced by Lucien Petipa (1815-1898) , the brother of Marius Petipa (1819-1910), the "father of classical ballet", and Adele Dumilatre was Myrtha. The stage design was by Pierre Luc-Charles Cicéri and the costumes by Paul Lormier. The reviews proclaimed Giselle to be the greatest ballet of its time and a triumphant successor to La Sylphide. As such, it immediately established Grisi as as star in her very first full-length ballet in Paris. Her salary grew from 5,000 francs to 12,000 in 1842 and 20,000 by 1844, with additional performance fees on top. It also marked the beginning of a change in her relationship with Perrot.

Gautier, who coined the famous phrase "art for art's sake", described Carlotta's dancing as having a childlike artlessness, a happy and infectious gaiety. He wrote:

"son pied, qui ferait le désespoir d'une maja andalouse...supporte une jambe fine, élégante et nerveuse, une jambe de Diane chasseresse (...) son teint est d'une fraîcheur si pure, qu'elle n'a jamais mis d'autre fard que son émotion...."

(her foot, which would make an Andalusian maja run mad with jealousy (....) rises to legs that are slender, elegant and alert, the legs of Diana the huntress (...) her complexion is so fresh, that she uses no paint, other than her sentiments ....)

Gautier fell in love with Carlotta, but she could not return his affections, so he went on to marry her sister, Ernesta [Ernestina], remaining a close friend of Carlotta for the rest of his life. [Letter from Grisi and letters from Gautier.] 
Theodile Gautier family

Théophile Gautierr, his wife Ernesta Grisi-Gautier (Carlotta's sister), and their daughters, Estelle and Judith. Photograph was taken around 1857. (Cliché Richebourg. B.N.)

The initial success of Giselle led to international performances, beginning in London in 1842 with Grisi and Perrot, and Milan in 1843. Before the London performance, just one year after the Paris premiere, the ballet had already been mimicked on stage in London as "A Dramatic, Melodramatic, Choreographic, Fantastique, Traditionary Tale of Superstition," under the title of Giselle or the Phantom Night Dancers. The year after its premiere Giselle was given in a cribbed version at the Mariinsky Theatre of St Petersburg, Russia, most probably in a musical version re-orchestrated from the Meissonnier piano score - and this production remained in their repertoire for many years. In the United States an all-American version was produced in New York in 1842, with the original version being staged in Boston in 1846. 

Although Perrot had choreographed all the solo numbers for Carlotta for her title role as Giselle, he was given no credit for his work in the ballet. Instead, all the credit went to Corelli. One explanation for his not being given credit was because of  the backstage intrigues which led Perrot to leave Grisi. A more traditional story is that Grisi left her common-law husband for Gautier in gratitude for the part that he had created for her. Regardless of whether or not she had actually betrayed one man for another, Carlotta soon proved that she could make it on her own without Perrot. She continued to star in many successful ballets with her dancing partner, Lucien Petipa.

Giselle La peri
Giselle, 1841
La Péri, 1843

After Giselle, Grisi danced the title role in the first performance of the Jolie Fille of Gand (Paris, 1842), La Péri (Paris, 1843), in which she became notorious for her daring leap from a high platform into Petipa's arms. Critic Edwin Denby notes that Carlotta Grisi used wires in the second act of Giselle to "amplify" her leaps2, so perhaps the same technique was used in La Péri.

Rosignol poster Esmeralda poster

Le Rossignol, with Jules Perrot.

Esmeralda, with Jules Perrot.

From 1842 to 1851 Grisi was a regular visitor to London during her holidays from the opera, and she enjoyed great popularity in London society. She became a favorite at Her Majesty's Theatre where her working relationship with Jules Perrot had resumed. In 1844, she performed Perrot's Esmeralda  in London.

Grisi and Perrot in EsmeraldaThen came "Polka Mania". The polka - which traces back to 1822 Czech, not Poland - was introduced into the ballrooms of France and England in 1843 and became an instant hit. There are many known variations of the Polka, such as the Heel and Toe Polka, Polka-Waltz, Pulka (1840), Polka-Valse, Polka-Coquette (1860), Scottische-Polka, Polka-Redowa (Slow Polka) etc., each being an obvious mixture of the named dances. Princess Marie Nicolaewna is credited with creating the Polka-Mazur (Polka Mazurka) in 1830 which was basically a waltz. Later on, Irene and Vernon Castle would "invent" a dance called the "Half & Half", which was one half of one dance and one half of another. The Berlin dance was a mix of the Polka and Galop dances.

With so many variations to choose from, Grisi and Perrot performed their selected version of "La Polka" at Her Majesty's Theater on April 11, 1845. The London critics reviewing the performance reported that Grisi's and Perrot's rendition was "not the thing", whereas that of Fanny Cerito and St. Leon was acceptable. Oddly enough, the debate still continues today among certain Europeans as to which of the many variations of the Polka is the most authentic, especially the Polish who wrongfully claim to have initially introduced it!

Grisi and Perrot's "La Polka"Back at the ballet, the opera season of 1845 stands out for its many important engagements by Benjamin Lumley, the Director of Her Majesty’s Theatre, among them being for the appearances of four great danseuses of the ballet in a command performance for Queen Victoria on July 12. Perrot made it possible and he also provided the staging for Marie Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerito and Lucile Grahn. Of the great dancers of that time, only Fanny Elssler didn't participate. With such great talents at his command, Lumley had conceived the daring plan "To unite them all in one striking divertissement. The Government of a great state was but a trifle compared to the government of such subjects as those subjects who considered themselves far above mortal control or, more properly speaking, each is a Queen in her own right - Alone, Absolute, Supreme!"

Marie Taglioni, who is often credited with being the first woman to dance en pointe, was known for her long lines and her great balances. Lucile Grahn, the youngest and a rising star, danced with vigor and breadth. Carlotta Grisi, an established performer, had a piquant, coquettish style, and Fanny Cerito was vivacious and a true crowd pleaser. "No one," Mr. Lumley confessed, "could be more aware than myself of the difficulties I should have to encounter."

Pas de Quatre

Pas de Quatre
(1845)

Carlotta Grisi
Marie Taglioni
Lucile Grahn
Fanny Cerito

Pas de Quatre

The first performance of Pas de Quatre sent critics into a frenzy. Perrot had the difficult task of making each ballerina look her best: if she could turn, he had her turn, if she jumped, he had her jump. There was also the problem of the order in which they were to appear. The last solo was the best spot. Thus, Pas de Quatre created tremendous excitement at its premier as the rivalry and jealousy among the dancers precluded their appearance on the stage together. Lumley solved the problem by suggesting that they dance according to age - the youngest first and the oldest last. Suddenly everyone wanted to be first, but it was decided that Grahn would lead, followed by Grisi, then Cerrito and, finally, Taglioni. Only four performances were given with the original cast, and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert attended the third one.

Grisi then created the title roles of Paquita (Paris, 1846) in Paris and Griseldis (1848). Paquita, with music written jointly by Ernest Deldevez and and ballet composer/violinist Ludwig Minkus (1826-1917), and choreography by Joseph Mazilier, had its world premiere on April 1, 1846 at the Theatre de l'Academie Royal de Musique, Paris, and it co-starred Lucien Petipa. This ballet was a vehicle created expressly for Carlotta from a story that was set in Spain during the Napoleonic occupation. The tale is of the love between a Spanish gypsy and a French nobleman, where the lovers are prevented from being together because of their different social stations. As the gypsies and local government try to rid  themselves of the French, the gypsy discovers that she is of noble blood. She saves the life of her nobleman and all ends happily.

Grisi's last appearance in Paris came in 1849 in the ballet La Filleule de fées with music composed by Adolphe Charles Adam (1803-1856), the composer of Giselle. The choreography was once again by Perrot, and it is often considered to be his finest work.

In honor of her artistry, the Paris Opéra placed a bust of Grisi alongside those of the first and foremost ballerina of the Romantic period: Maria Taglioni and Emma Livry (1842-1863) a very talented and promising dancer, who died prematurely after eight months of suffering from the terrible burns she suffered on stage when her tutu caught on fire.

Grisi's last performance in Europe was in Les Metamorphoses (1849). In 1850, she joined Perrot in St. Petersburg (now Leningrad), Russia, where he had been appointed ballet master, and there she danced Giselle at the Bolshoi Theatre. The first Giselle in Russia had been danced by Fanny Elssler, and so the initial reaction to Grisi's "new" interpretation of the role was not enthusiastic. However, over time the Russians grew to appreciate her talents. She was ballerina of the Imperial Theaters in Russia from 1850 to 1853, working not only with Perrot but also Joseph Mazilier who staged for her La Jolie Fille de Gand and Vert-Vert.

Portraits of Carlotta Grisi

Ballerinas were wined and dined by kings and emperors and carried through the streets by their fans in those days. Poems were written about these women celebrating their many talents, and Grisi was certainly no exception. In 1854 she left Russia for Warsaw, where she intended to continue dancing, but she became pregnant by Prince Léon Radziwill who then persuaded her to retire from ballet at the height of her fame.
 
Theophile Gautier (center, rear) in the salon of Victor Hugo
 

Theophile Gautier (center, rear)
 in the salon of Victor Hugo

Grisi gave birth to her second daughter, Léontine Grisi and, at the age of 34, she settled near Geneva to spend the next 46 years of her life in peaceful retirement with family and friends. During that time, she kept in touch with her beloved Gautier (she was his last great passion). On August 30, 1872, Theophile Gautier wrote for the last time to Carlotta of "ces desirs de m'envoler a Geneve [...] comme un instinct voyageur. Cet instinct a une telle force qu'il produit une nostalgie dont on peut mourir" (70). Within two months, he passed away.

Carlotta Grisi died in St. Jean, Switzerland, on May 20, 1899, a month before her 80th birthday, unmourned by the thousands who once adored her.


Notes::

1Meyer's Konverations lexikon defines Wiles or Wilis as female vampires, the spirits of betrothed girls who are jilted before their wedding night. According to Heine, wilis came from a Slav legend of maidens who are engaged to be married but die before their wedding. They are unable to rest in their graves because they could not satisfy their passion for dancing when they were alive. They therefore gather on the highway at midnight to lure young men and dance them to their death. There is a Slav word 'vila' which means vampire. The plural is vile, and wilis is probably a Germanic pronunciation of that word as a 'w' in German is pronounced like a 'v'. (Puccini's first opera is based on the same legend, in Italian Le Villi.) In Serbia they were maidens cursed by God; in Bulgaria they were known as samovily, girls who died before they were baptized; and in Poland they are beautiful young girls floating in the air atoning for frivolous past lives. [back to text]

2Julie van Camp, The Identity of Works of Art in Dance (Chapter IV), p. 201, note 21. [back to text]

Bibliography:

 
  • Giselle portrait - http://www.danser-en-france.com/repertoire/prodgiselle/giselle.htm
  • Andros ballet - http://androsdance.tripod.com/biographies/grisi_carlotta.htm & and http://androsdance.tripod.com/history/pas_de_quatre.htm
  • Ron's Ballet Site: Gallery. The page is copyright © 2000 by Ronald M. Isaacs. The text may be copied, in whole or part, for non-profit use, provided that the source is credited - http://www.educ.u-net.com/balletga.htm
  • History & biographies: Giselle, Notes on the ballet - http://www.artslynx.org/dance/gisnot.htm (no longer available)
  • Balance (Giselle) - http://www.freewebz.com/ballet/giselle.html
  • Streetwings Dance History Pages - http://www.streetswing.com/histmai2/d2grisi1.htm
  • http://www.xrefer.com/entry/172686 and http://www.xrefer.com/entry/359888
  • BalletNotes - http://www.balletmet.org/Notes/Giselle.html
  • Allison de Larue Collection, Gallery - http://libnt6000.princeton.edu/visual_materials/delarue/htmls/printsfj.html  (no longer online)
  • Tufts Daily Online - Giselle - http://www.ballet.org.uk/reference/notes/giselle/composer.html (Adolphe Charles Adam) and http://www.ballet.org.uk/reference/notes/giselle/story.html
  • Back Bay Guide - http://www.backbayguide.com/profilearchives.htm
  • Dancewear - http://saksmovingwear.com/Dance_Wear_Ballet_The_Ballerina.html
  • http://www.edanz.com/main/ballet/ballethistory.htm (no longer online)
  • Dance History Archives - http://www.streetswing.com/histmain/z3polka.htm
  • http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-87350381.html
  • http://auguste.vestris.free.fr/Reviews/Giselle.html

Playing: Theme from "Giselle".


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Created: Tuesday, July  31, 2001. Last Updated: Sunday, October 21, 2012
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