Fanny Elssler was one of the most brilliant stars of the nineteenth century stage, but her significance lies not in her ephemeral fame, but in the mark that she left on the development of ballet as an art form that is not merely beautiful, but also has the capacity to convey the deepest dilemmas of the human condition. Théophile Gautier famously characterised Elssler as a ‘pagan’ dancer, in contrast to the ‘Christian’ Marie Taglioni, and Elssler’s style, which is beautifully evoked in the many descriptive passages quoted in Ivor Guest‘s biography, was rooted in human emotion and experience.

Elssler had great technical gifts: she was graceful, light and precise, gliding across the stage with fast footwork, attack and buoyancy, dancing on ‘steely points’ with ‘marvellous equilibrium’. However, it was her sense for dramatic coherence and her intelligent understanding of narrative that are her greatest legacy. Her interpretation of Lise in La fille mal gardée developed logically from beginning to end, giving the character a timeless significance, and the ballet new meaning; of her Giselle, the Morning Herald said, ‘Such a complete expression of a dramatic sentiment has never before been evolved by the merely imitative means of the ballet’; the critic Angelo Lambertini wrote of her Catarina that, as in La Esmeralda, her natural and realistic style ‘opened up … a new field in acting’.

If this new approach anticipated the great dramatic narrative ballets of the twentieth century, her astonishing travels were precursors of the extraordinary journeys of Pavlova and Markova that took ballet to new audiences all over the world. From her Viennese birthplace, Elssler went on to dance in England, France, Germany, Italy and Russia, and she brought ballet to many in North America and Cuba for the first time.

Ivor Guest’s impeccably referenced book is a remarkable work of scholarship grounded in meticulous research and consultation of primary sources and archives. He tells the story of Elssler’s life well, but for me the particular importance of this book lies in the selection and incorporation of contemporary descriptions that convey a sense of how Elssler danced, what she was like on stage and why she was different from other dancers. The book is liberally illustrated with small reproductions of paintings, drawings and prints, but it is the text that gives a sense of her jump, speed, lightness, wit and charm. Elssler was a great learner, who despite a lack of formal academic schooling was open to being educated by her admirers, notably Friedrich von Gentz, and whose dance teachers ranged from the aged ballet master Auguste Vestris to Nikita Peshkov, with whom she studied Russian folk dance. As she grew old, the ballets in which she had danced were gradually forgotten, and although she in her turn was occasionally sought out for dance coaching she seems to have felt more affinity with actors, on whom she impressed the importance of sincerity and deeply felt emotion. It was these qualities that made Elssler far more than ‘the embodiment of all that was graceful, beautiful, ravishing’; she was a fully rounded artist of the theatre who brought a new dramatic meaning to her art, and was the forerunner of today’s great interpreters of narrative ballets.

Maggie Watson

8 February 2015

Fanny Elssler can be ordered from Dance Books