Thinking About My Ballet Lineage -Giuseppina Bozzachi
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be posting several posts about lineage, particularly my artistic lineage. Part of this is simply due to the fact that these spirits have been strong and very present in my devotions of late, and partly to something one of my friends told me.
Apparently, (this is what my friend told me – she watches Ukrainian, Russian, and English news about the war) pro-Russian propagandists are using the reputation of the imperial ballet and the ballet russe as justification for Russia invading and torturing Ukrainians (and anyone else – give it time). The argument is something like, look at the glory that only Russia has produced. Let me just say that the modern Russian ballet is a caricature of its glory days. Even Soviet era ballet was better formed, with better technique and far, far more artistry (though not choreography) than what we see now (1). Imperial Russian ballet had phenomenal dancers from all over what was then the Russian empire (not all of whom were ethnically Russian), and its core came from a French pedagogue and choreographer Marius Petipa (March 11, 1818- July 14, 1010) and an Italian dancer and pedagogue Enrico Cecchetti (June 21, 1850 -November 13, 1928–he was the first to dance the bluebird in Sleeping Beauty). The latter’s skill and style were essential parts of the artistic formation of every iteration of both the Imperial Ballet AND the Ballet Russe pretty much through Alicia Markova – who was actually English (2). It continues to form the core of British ballet training. Ballet is and always has been an international conversation. Without the Italian and French influence, there wouldn’t be modern Russian ballet. The artistic torch inevitably makes the rounds from generation to generation, prima to prima, pedagogue to pedagogue, country to country and no one country can lay claim to that artistic prize without bowing its head to the weight of the multi-national lineage that comes with it.
Now, yesterday a piece of ephemera arrived for my ancestor shrine. This is meant for the section of my ancestor shrine given to my artistic lineage (and lately I sort of just roll castrati, ballet dancers, artists, and writers all into the mix – gaudeamus igitur and all that – but this particular person is part of my ballet lineage).
This is an image of Giuseppina Bozzacchi (November 23, 1853-November 23, 1870 – yes, she died on her 17th birthday). Bozzacchi was an Italian ballerina who created one of the most beloved comedic roles in classical ballet: Swanhilda in the ballet Coppelia (3). Bozzacchi actually has the shortest ballet career on record. She lived during the Franco-Prussian war and died technically of smallpox or possibly an unspecified “fever” (4) but more likely of war-time starvation.
At the time she was dancing with the Paris Opera ballet, she was “discovered” by choreographer Arthur Saint-Leon (September 17, 1821 – September 2, 1870). Saint-Leon was ballet master of the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg for a decade. He had studied music with Nicolo Paganini (October 27, 1782 – May 27, 1840) and ballet, most likely with his father who had danced with the Paris Opera. Saint-Leon danced with one of the last great romantic ballerinas Fanny Cerrito (May 11, 1817 – May 6, 1909) He even married her, though they later divorced. While Saint-Leon was a gifted dancer, he has become even better known as a teacher and choreographer. He is responsible, along with Marius Petipa for creating the scaffolding of what became a pedagogical system that turned out some of the greatest dancers in the history of the Russian Imperial Ballet who in turn traveled west with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe and helped create English and American ballet.
Bozzacchi danced Coppelia eighteen times before she died. Here is a lengthier article about her, Saint-Leon, and this ballet.
- The ability to raise one’s legs beyond a split does not artistry make. It’s a grotesque twisting out of true, in classical ballets – the core of the art – at least. There is also a simple fact that having a great artistic history doesn’t give you the right to go into a neighboring country and start killing people there—and I’ll forgive a lot in service to art, but there are limits even for me!
- Her birth name was Lillian Alicia Marks but in those days, because of the influence of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe, and also dancers like Anna Pavlova, it was common for English girls to take Russian names if they were ballet dancers. I’ll be writing about Markova later this month.
- I danced this ballet – in the corps. I played one of Swanhilda’s friends who help her break and enter a dollmaker’s shop. It’s a fun ballet to dance. It tells the story of a dollmaker, who makes a doll so lifelike that a stupid young peasant boy, Franz, falls in love with it, thinking it a living girl. The toymaker, you see, would set the doll in the window, with a book in her hands, where she could be seen from the street. His sweetheart, Swanhilda, isn’t having it and after a small act of breaking and entering (lol), hides the doll and takes its place. The toymaker is initially none the wiser, and eventually, of course, it all works out. Her lover Franz gets his come-uppance and realizes he’s been an idiot, the toymaker is amused and forgives all, and Swanhilda and Franz go off into the sunset. It’s quite a charming ballet and the only one I can think of that’s anywhere close to it (though for whatever reason, it’s not performed very often these days) is La fille mal gardee (I believe it was first performed in the mid 18th century). The Royal Ballet has an updated ballet version choreographed by Frederick Ashton.
- The accounts note smallpox and fever. Today we have a vaccine for smallpox but up until the middle of the twentieth century, smallpox was considered one of the “deadliest diseases known to humans.” See here and here for more info. As of today, it has largely been eradicated via vaccination. The vaccine was created by Edward Jenner in England in 1796 and there was a vaccination drive in France throughout the mid-nineteenth century. Bozzachi had grown up in Italy however and it wasn’t until the latter half of the nineteenth century that there was a significant push for vaccination in that country. The methods of vaccine creation were hotly debated as the technology was fairly new.