The conception of a scholarly dance, based on a technique and a "vocabulary" so precise that all steps are named, was born during the reign of Louis XIV, when, thanks to him, court ballet was at its peak. This "dancing king" created the Royal Academy of Dance in 1661, as did the Academies of Sculpture and Painting, elevating dance to the rank of major art.
This institution's role is to "correct the abuses" and mediocrity of professional dancers who now appear on the stage of royal performances. A college of "thirteen Elders" is responsible for "educating on how to dance, and showing both the old and the new dances that will have been or will be invented by the said thirteen Elders, so that those who want to learn from it, can make themselves more capable of showing and avoiding the abuses and bad habits they might have contracted" (according to one of the king's letters patent for the establishment of the Royal Academy). It could not be clearer about the instruction's purpose and the vision of dance defined there, with its excellence, standard, and measurement values.
Pierre Beauchamp (1631-1705), Louis XIV's master of dance, is an essential figure of this institution. This brilliant dancer was appointed ballet master at the Opera from 1669 to 1687, before taking over as head of the Dance Academy from 1680. He is a fine theorist and a remarkable teacher. Beauchamp established the dance codes and invented a writing dance system at Louis XIV's request, even if he had the publication stolen by his pupil Raoul Auger Feuillet. In Beauchamp, in particular, we owe the five basic positions from which classical dance is still developed today. Nevertheless, in 1713, the famous "abuse and bad habits" seem to have regained ground. To put an end to it, Louis XIV promulgates a series of decrees, including January 11, 1713, which officially created the Conservatory of Dance. This learning structure is designed to perfect the artists' talent and technique of the Royal Academy of Music and Dance.
At its creation, this school does not welcome children, even if some artists' sons or daughters are exceptionally accepted. On the other hand, it definitely signs the recognition of dance as a profession and marks the requirement of regular training by emphasizing the notion of progress and effort. She also has the concern to "keep" a style, which implies a professionalization of teachers, teachers to dance who, little by little, will become masters of ballet or teachers. This conservatory's original free of charge will facilitate foreign talent's arrival and endow French dancers with a European reputation.
It was not until 1780 that a regulation (the king's judgment of 17 March) attested to the entry of children into this school, which became exclusively dedicated to them. It specifies the essential points that Louis XIV had wanted: free, the selection at the entrance, professional level of teachers, fees, and salaries. In 1784, Louis XVI fixed the courses between nine and thirteen hours and created a class for children under twelve. The French Revolution did not call into question the school and even increased its numbers to sixty. Under the Empire, recruitment and selection were perfected at the entrance. The teaching was then taught in three classes: elementary, upper class, and then, for the best, the "special to be perfected" class, foreshadowing the refresher class set up by Marie Taglioni in 1860. Napoleon added rules: dancers could not stay in school beyond the age of eighteen. It introduces rankings and exam juries. All of these changes are still in effect today. A refined technique In addition to the order and rigor it instills, the French dance school is also, and perhaps, first of all, a style, teaching, which does not prevent the evolution of the technique.
From its beginning, it favored elevation, sovereign ease, the nobility of the port, the erasure of effort..., all the qualities supposed to be the mark of the aristocratic innate. Beyond these values, the French school is characterized by the refinement of a technique.
There are texts from the 18th century that teach "disdain for prowess" without banishing virtuosity. The latter is never privileged as such. This is the time of Descartes, of Cartesianism, and historically, teaching is laid down, defined according to specific rules. The arms and feet' positions are precisely determined, and the shoulders avoid any anarchic occupation of space. There is no drift. The French school is also a model of balance. The teaching is almost anatomical insofar as it follows the alignment of the joints. The en dehors for example, the foundation of all classical dance, is not exaggerated, while the arms follow a line slightly lower than the shoulders. The teachers will continue through the centuries to transmit this school's spirit, always demanding the finish of the movement, the eloquent agility of the lower leg, and artistic intention's rigor.
A reference throughout Europe until the mid-19th century (the teaching of classical dance still said to be french throughout the world), French dance then went through a crisis that extended until the early 1930s. She was saved only by the obstinacy of stars and great teachers of the Opera such as Marie Taglioni, Caroline Lassiat (called Madame Dominique), Rosita Mauri, Carlotta Zambelli, Léo Staats, and Serge Lifar.
Transmission, from dancer to dancer, is oral and physical, not theoretical. Thus, one still works on the "brise Telemaque" - a figure consisting of "beating" the legs by jumping - although the eponymous ballet (Telemaque in the island of Calypso) of Pierre Gardel for which it was invented in 1790, has fallen into oblivion for a very long time. And Raymond Franchetti (1921-2003), a great teacher and director of dance at the Opera from 1972 to 1977, still taught "the adage Vestris" (of the great dancer Auguste Vestris [1760-1842], one of the first directors of the Opera), passed down by generations of teachers since 1820. With its signature, this dance school, its "French" elegance, and its refusal of demonstrative physical feats has a solid frame that allows the body to go further. She is part of the evolution of ballet technology and has always adapted to innovations such as the invention of "points," for example. Let's not forget that the repertoire of the Paris Opera is composed of successive creations. Will this French school withstand a dance that tends to globalize under the pressure of globalization that gradually erases differences? Let's bet her old age will preserve her from fashions that pass faster than history.
Agnès IZRINE, « ÉCOLE FRANÇAISE DE DANSE », Encyclopædia Universalis [en ligne], consulté le 24 janvier 2021. URL : https://www.universalis.fr/encyclopedie/ecole-francaise-de-danse/