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Vestris, père et fils
From "Memoirs and Period Pictures"
in My Theatre Life, by Auguste Bournonville,
translated by P. MacAndrew. Published at London, A & C Black, 1979.
For the time being, we shall hold to the description which Noverre gives of the elder Vestris, with the Christian name Gaétan, a native Florentine and endowed with such an extremely handsome appearance that, at his first performance in Paris, he won the epithet “L’Apollon” or “Le Dieu de la Danse”. His serious dancing consisted mostly of picturesque poses, beautiful arm movements, and slow pas – in short, of performances which emphasized the external merits he possessed. Therefore he was sought after by all the Courts as a model of dignity and manly grace, not only on the stage, but in higher circles, where his elegant toilette and tasteful coiffure became the rule for current fashion. Considerable sacrifices were made to secure his talents both for the golden halls of Versailles, and for the ballet of the Théâtre de l’Opéra, where all the deities and Homeric heroes, which figured exclusively upon the French lyric stage at that time, found a worthy representative in Gaétan Vestris – who also profited by the great costume reform which Noverre brought about by banning masks, tonnelets, and the enormous plumes which were up to then inseparable from the shepherds and shepherdesses of Arcadia. Thus, while the famous balletmaster wrote his instructive Lettres sur la Danse (1760), the elder Vestris defined the nature of dancing as “the art of beautifying the human form”.
For example, he is said to have designated the following as his great contemporaries : Voltaire, Himself, and the King of Prussia.
In his admiration for the beauty of the Duke of Devonshire, he is said to have cried : “Were I not Vestris, I would be Duke of Devonshire !”
(....) Finally, when General Bonaparte astonished the world by his first Italian campaign, Vestris is said to have been beside himself with enthusiasm and cried out : “The man deserves to have something striking done for him....He shall see me perform again !”
(...) It is inevitable that in his youth, such an Apollo, just like that deity in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, must certainly have had several gallant adventures. Among others is mentioned the light-footed Mlle. Allard, whose pas de deux pastoral is found depicted in an excellent engraving, but the celebrated danseuse Mlle. Heinel (a German by birth) was just as sérieuse in character as in style, and by her, our Apollo was locked in the chains of Hymen. This well-assorted marriage was not blessed with children, and the want of them had begun to feel oppressive, when one day, while inspecting the ballet school directed by Trancard (....), Vestris’ gaze lighted upon a nine-year-old boy with most unusual ability, and an almost fully-developed talent. Astonished, he asked the teacher to whom this child belonged. The answer ran : “That is the little Allard !” “But surely not a son of Mademoiselle ?” “Precisely of Mlle. Allard !” “But, my God ! Then he must certainly be my son ! Do you know what, my clever lad, upon my honour, it appears that you take after your father !”
From that moment, Vestris took the little Auguste home with him, gave him a careful upbringing, and within two years brought him so far, that in the year 1771, though only eleven years old, he made his début with the greatest bravura. Just like Mozart, he was a Wunderkind, and was shewn round at the Courts, where he was kissed and regaled with sweets. In the beginning, he went under his Christian name ; later he was called Vestrallard, but it was not long before M. and Mme. legally adopted him as their only son, and lawful heir. His artistic career was an unbroken series of triumphs and, more fortunate than that immortal composer, he saw himself richly rewarded and appreciated in his native land.
Since he was only of average height and had neither his father’s fine facial features, nor his classical physique, his style of dancing was demi-caractère, to which his astounding elasticity and speed, combined with his expressive countenance and lively spirits, made him excellently suited. Emancipated from his father’s strict school, he created a completely new genre, which bore the same relation to the preceding one as a painting of brilliant hue does to a marble sculpture displaying classical perfection. In all of Gardel’s ballets, he developed a mimic talent that was recognised by the greatest actors of the day, and his performance of The Prodigal Son in particular, is said to have been a true masterpiece. Even in his old age, when during classes he rehearsed some scenes from the aforesaid ballet with us, he often allowed himself to be so carried away that the illusion became complete, and we imagined that we saw before us, in the flesh, a youth of nineteen, with all of his follies and aberrations, with his despair and repentance.
(...) He ought to have become, if not an extremely rich, then at least a rather wealthy man. But a high degree of improvidence, poor economy, and the desire to play a role amongst the aimable roués of his time, were responsible for the fact that not only his rich emoluments, but also his paternal inheritance, slipped through his fingers. Age appeared, and with it young and talented rivals, among whom Louis Duport in particular distinguished himself by a marvellous technique. Vestris had to put up with being called “Grandfather of Zephyrs”, and finally it was only his mimic talent, and the direct protection of the Emperor, that upheld his old renown. But with the fall of Napoleon, the aura which had surrounded the great dancer’s name for so many years disappeared. To be sure, the Allies inquired after him, for those foreigners too, had heard him mentioned among the glories of Paris. But he avoided appearing before the arrogant enemies of France. He could look back with sadness upon the brilliant career whose material profits he had wantonly squandered, and he was now a pensioner, with the supplement to his modest income that the lessons in his classe de perfectionnement could earn him.
But even in this diminished state he was still Vestris ! His gay spirit deserted him as little as his light tread and youthful bearing. With violin in hand, he inspired both himself and his pupils, and with the exception of a single sigh, in allusion to his unforgettable Emperor, one never heard him complain of the losses that time had brought him and – mirabile dictu ! – never discuss his own talent, or the triumphs he had celebrated in his prosperity.
For pupils who were already more or less trained, his instruction was invaluable, although as good as finished artistes, Marie Taglioni, Fanny Elssler, and Carlotta Grisi, often turned to his school in order to learn something lovely, or to “grind off” possible defects. Firm in his demands with regard to taste and character, he was mild in his judgment, not at all prejudiced, and furthermore, willing to acknowledge any sort of ability. At the same time as he knew how to arouse the spirit of competition to a fever pitch in the rest of us, he was good nature personified, and never allowed himself to be tricked into displays of temper.
From amongst his finest male pupils he himself singled out three ; namely, his eldest son Armand (who died at Vienna in 1825), Jules Perrot, and – one must forgive me for not concealing the fact – Auguste Bournonville, as the ones who have best comprehended and most successfully disseminated his choreographic principles. At the moment, unfortunately, there are on the Continent very few danseurs who have not been reduced to being lifting machines and props for equilibristic groupings, while the danseuses outdo one another in tours de force. The ballet is hereby losing its importance as artistic performance, and degenerating into something that ought to be relegated to the carnival tent.
For six years, I enjoyed the benefit of his excellent instruction ; he enjoyed teaching me. Under his aegis, I presented myself for my début, and he faithfully went through my entire youthful repertoire with me. I also became attached to him with a son’s affection, and through the years, every time I visited Paris, I went to practice in his school – naturally, in return for the payment of a suitable fee, which would always be paid in advance, for the beloved master was always in financial straits, and one of his worst creditors was his former valet, who had now advanced to the position of landed proprietor and – moneylender !
The younger Vestris died the same year as my father (1843). They were the same age, and reached their eighty-third year. He still appears before me in my dreams, and if one can believe it, I am then assailed by a feeling of uneasiness, as if I had forgotten to pay him the last hundred francs !
(See http://www.tate.org.uk/research/tateresearch/tatepapers/05autumn/postle.htm for excellent reproductions of portraits of Vestris père et fils, and an essay by Martin Postle, former Curator at the Tate.)