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. (more…)