The Gardel Brothers
By Luis Alposta
eading again Gastón Leroux’s book The Phantom of the Opera, on its first page I notice the following paragraph:
«...The Sorelli’s dressing room showed an official and trivial elegance. A dressing table, a divan, a mirror with three sections and some closets were the necessary furniture. Some engravings on the walls, reveries of her mother who had known the beautiful days of the old Opera on Le Peltier Street. Portraits of Vestris, Gardel, Dupont, Bigottini...»
Taking into account that this story took place by the end of the nineteenth century, and that its author died in 1927, the fact of finding in it the Gardel family name aroused my curiosity leading me to further my research.
So I came to know that ballet is a form of theatrical dance that developed in Italy at the time of the Renaissance; that the court ballet reached its peak in France during the kingdom of Louis XIV, whose sobriquet Le Roi Soleil (The Sun King) derived from a role he played in a ballet; and about many other things.
But the research after the family name Gardel, which was what I was interested in, derived into the discovery of two brothers who stood out at the ballet of the Paris Opera at the times which span from Louis XVI to Napoleon. About them, with scarce and scattered biographical data, I have only written the page I did not find in the encyclopaedias.
Maximilien Gardel was born in Mannheim on December 8, 1741 and died in Paris on March 11, 1787. Son of a ballet instructor in the court of Stanislaw II (1732-1798), last king of Poland, Maximilien studied dancing with his father and, later, with Jean-Barthelemy Lany (1718-1786), French dancer, choreographer, and master of the classical ballet.
He made his debut at l’Opéra de Paris in 1759 and five years later, when he reached the level of star (he did not stood out as choreographer), he became a soloist and master of the Académie Royale. At the Opera of Paris he formed a school. A dancing school which would give birth to the one in the nineteenth century in France. He is thought, together with Auguste Vestris, to be the creator of the rond de jambe (a step that makes half circles on the floor with the pointed foot ).
Maximilien Gardel was the first one in discarding the traditional mask that was born then by the dancers. He took it out in 1772, during the performance of Rameau’s Castor et Polux, to show the audience that it was him who was dancing and not his rival Auguste Vestris, as it was in the program. Together with Jean Dauberval he was first dancer of l’Opéra de Paris. He composed numerous ballets regarded as classical, among them: La chercheuse d'esprit (1778); Ninette à la cour (1778); Le déserteur (1786), and was one of the creators of the ballet-pantomime.
Maximilien Gardel was the only dancer that stood out in the opera “Persée”, an unfortunate show during the celebrations of the wedding of Marie Antoinette and the Dolphin Louis; and he became, time later, dancing instructor of the couple when Marie Antoinette succeeded in transmitting to Luis XVI “a rather unexpected liking for dancing”. And Gardel was her choice among the other artists. He died in 1787 due to an infection in his toe.
Pierre Gardel (Pierre-Gabriel) was born in Nancy on February 4, 1758 and died on October 18, 1840 in Paris. Ballet dancer, teacher, choreographer, and first figure. He studied along with his brother Maximilien. Pierre became a soloist in 1780, and succeeded his brother as director of the Ballet of the Paris Opera in 1787. One of his most famous disciples was Carlo Blasis. He was married to the famous dancer Marie Miller (of l’Opéra de Paris, circa 1790), whom Noverre called “Venus de Medicis de la danse”.
The day Louis XVI was beheaded with the guillotine in the Place de la Révolution, the Ballet of the Paris Opera was performing the play "The trial of Paris" (Helena of Troy’s lover), with choreography by Pierre Gardel. It was amazing that this ballet, with its suggestive title, succeeded to be onstage at that time. Pierre Gardel, then director (maître de ballet in the old days) of the company, was a very cautious man; with cleverness he avoided offending the politicians, and Robespierre himself, and agreed with them on what was “obligatory”. In exchange, he kept a certain freedom in his options, and was allowed to keep in the repertoire the ballets whose themes had nothing to do with propaganda and which aesthetically were part of the "Ancien régime" (then, the dancers, as State employees, had to participate in festivities of revolutionary propaganda).
When the terror of the guillotine was over, the frenzy of the Parisian society unleashed a "dansomanie" (this used to take place on the streets and houses of Paris) and so was entitled one of the most noteworthy Gardel’s ballets of that period.
The passion for dance then unleashed, included the bloodthirsty "dances of the victims", influenced the Pierre Gardel’s creation. His ballet "Dansomanie" was premiered on June 14, 1800, at the Paris Opera, with music by Étienne Méhul (the players: Madame Gardel, Auguste Vestris and Filippo Taglioni).
This was the first time in the scene of the Paris Opera that a ballet whose protagonists were bourgeois and not noblemen was staged.
Gardel’s "Dansomanie", at the time when en pointe shoes were born, maybe has been the title with wider impact. A hundred years later the phenomenon of “tangomanie” would take place and the surname Gardel would be heard again.
Pierre Gardel was also a reliable man for Napoleon who always kept him in the "Grand Jury" of the Opera. In a letter written by Gardel to Napoleon, dated in 1805, the choreographer explained to the emperor that all the plays in the Opera needed ballets as "divertissements" because that was the way to develop the dancers. Gardel insisted on the importance of the dance itself.
His main ballets were the classic ones: Télémaque (1790); Psyché (1793), danced 564 times between 1790 and 1829; Le jugement de Pâris (1793); Dansomanie (1800); L’étendard de Grenade (1813), the latter with music by Cherubini and choreography by Pierre Gardel. He quit in 1820 and died twenty years later.
At the ballet of l’Opéra de Paris the brothers Maximilien and Pierre Gardel established a significant artistic and choreographic hegemony, contributing to consolidate the technique of the dancer and to encourage the stage virtuosity.
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