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The fate of French ballet in the nineteenth century is a familiar story: following a golden age of Romantic ballet-pantomime at the Paris Opéra—a creative era that included such imaginative works as La Sylphide, Giselle, Le Corsaire, and Coppélia—French ballet suffered a period of stagnation and decline until Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes conquered Paris in a flash of brilliant colour, with glamorous and [End Page 303] transgressive productions that reinvigorated French ballet culture and restored it to its former glory. Or so the conventional histories of ballet would have us believe.
The mythic narrative of the Ballets Russes's redemption of a moribund art form has long been propagated by dance scholars and cultural historians. Tellingly, Jennifer Homans's best-selling survey of ballet history (Apollo's Angels (New York, 2010)) features the section heading 'Part Two: Light from the East', and in a recent study of early twentieth-century French ballet as a testing ground for emerging ideologies of nationalism, modernism, and gender identity, Ilyana Karthas alleges that the arrival of the Ballets Russes inspired a 'new fervour for ballet' among Parisians, who had essentially lost interest in the genre (When Ballet Became French (Montreal, 2015), 303). A notable exception is Jane Pritchard, who has criticized traditional 'masterworks' histories that readily shift from the premiere of Coppélia in Paris, 1870, to the ballets of Marius Petipa in late nineteenth-century Russia ('Collaborative Creations for the Alhambra and the Empire', Dance Chronicle, 241 (2001), 55–82).
Musicologists have also adopted the Russian redemption myth, so attractive because it fits neatly with the Ballets Russes's significance to music history: by collaborating with many of the leading modernist composers of their day, the troupe commissioned innovative scores that elevated the aesthetic and intellectual status of ballet music. (Though, as Davinia Caddy points out in The Ballets Russes and Beyond (Cambridge, 2012), an important, if overlooked, aspect of the Ballets Russes's legacy was their choreographic appropriation of pre-existing concert music.) Among musicologists, the Russian redemption myth has had its most forceful proponent in Richard Taruskin. In his monumental Oxford History of Western Music, Taruskin proclaims that by the end of the Second Empire, 'ballet d'action was dead' in France—though fortunately kept 'alive' in Russia and ultimately returned to Paris via the Ballets Russes (Music in the Early Twentieth Century (New York and Oxford, 2005), 138). Taruskin even makes the sweeping assertion that '[b]y the late 1870s, Russia was the only country where one could regularly see "pure" ballet—that is, ballet as a separate entity rather than as an adjunct or appendage to an opera or a play' (p. 139).
Yet as Sarah Gutsche-Miller's important book demonstrates, standalone ballet was far from dead in fin de siècle Paris. As she explains in prefatory remarks, her project stemmed from scepticism that Diaghilev's Ballets Russes would have been so successful if Parisian ballet culture had been truly defunct. And, indeed, Gutsche-Miller's work not only illuminates the supposed 'Dark Ages' of French ballet, but also provides a vital corrective to conventional wisdom about the cultural context into which Diaghilev launched his troupe.
As it turns out, scholars had been looking in the wrong place for French ballet culture, operating under the assumption that narrative or 'story' ballet using classical technique could have thrived only at the elite state-sponsored Paris Opéra. Prior to 1864, this would be a fair assumption, for under the Napoleonic system of theatrical licences (the complex effects of which are detailed in Mark Everist, 'The Music of Power: Parisian Opera and the Politics of Genre, 1806–1864', Journal of the American Musicological Society, 67 (2014), 685–734), only the Opéra was legally permitted to perform full-length ballet-pantomimes with detailed libretto plots and complete staging.
The relaxation of French theatre laws in the mid-1860s, however, opened the door for...