En Pointe, in Print: Dance and the Early Nineteenth-Century Press




Hung, Anne

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This project examines the portrayal of ballet dancers in the nineteenth-century periodical press, specifically illustrations that depict female dancers as spirits. Romantic ballets like La Sylphide and Giselle feature sylphs (flirtatious air spirits) and wilis (vengeful maiden ghosts), respectively, reflecting the nineteenth-century fascination with the sensational. These ballets are visually striking in part due to theatrical gas lighting, which gave directors control of a scene’s mood through dimmable light, and the development of the pointe shoe, which allowed dancers to traverse the stage and balance with near-supernatural grace. However, these ethereal dancers also evoked the taboos of unsatiable desire and dangerous sexuality, dancing seductively out of reach of both their male partners and the audience. In my JCURA project, I will analyze the figure of the sylph in the periodical press as a metonym for curiosity around female sexuality in the nineteenth century. Ballet dancers were often viewed as sex workers, and their athleticism on stage only furthered their allure offstage. Furthermore, La Sylphide’s sylphs and Giselle’s wilis enchant the audience by inhabiting a space between the impossible and the real with the aid lighting and costuming; likewise, the printed figures—real dancers depicted as supernatural creatures—flirt with readers from the pages of periodicals. Thus, these images, and the performances they reference, critically reflect not only the evolving stage technologies of the period but also the sexual excitement that the Victorians publicly rejected.



ballet, nineteenth century, culture, romantic, english, periodical, pointe, dance, sylph