Tarot & Dance: Queen of Swords, Marie Taglioni "La Sylphide"
(c) Cheryl Lynne Bradley 2005
Marie Taglioni was born April 23, 1804 to an Italian father, Phillippe, and a Swedish mother. Ballet had been a part of the Taglioni family tradition for generations and her father was her teacher and her taskmaster. At the tender young age of 6, Marie had been rejected by a ballet teacher with a long connection to the Taglioni family, who felt she was too unattractive to be a great dancer and to carry on the Taglioni family tradition. She had a pale complexion, was very thin and had unattractive features, stringy hair, long, thin, bony arms with rounded shoulders. The teacher, M. Coulon, called her an ugly duckling and a hunchback. Her father was angered by the rejection of his young daughter and took on her ballet education himself vowing that she would become the most beautiful dancer the world had ever seen.
For 12 years under the grueling tutelage of her father, Marie practiced and practiced. His criticism of her was harsh and his approval impossible to obtain. During those 12 years, war had raged in Europe, Napoleon had risen, been defeated, exiled and died. Marie and her family had lived in many places - Stockholm, Vienna, Milan and Berlin. So much moving around had prevented Marie from establishing friendships and the lack of a settled home increased her insecurity and dependence on winning her father's approval. In 1822, Marie made her debut in the ballet "The Reception of a Young Nymph at teh Court of Terpischore" which had been carefully arranged by her father to show her strengths and avoid the steps which would show her thinness and her long arms. Her father had taight her to dance on the very tips of her toes, while other dancers had been en pointe before, it had only been for a few steps, none had been able to sustain the painful position for as long as Marie Taglioni or were able to move with her ethereal, gliding grace. She is credited with being the first dancer to dance en pointe. She struggled with her nerves on the night of this performance but was well received, in one instant she was no longer merely a student, she was a star of the ballet.
Marie danced in many cities all over Europe and was increasingly acclaimed and critically well received. Her brother joined her in 1825 and two years later they made their debut at the Paris Opera. They were well lauded and the following season Marie became a regular member of the corps of the Paris Opera. Her grace and her lightness were continually praised. Some of her success can be attributed to the ballet slipper with a reinforced toe coming into common use. En pointe was almost an accidental discovery, dancers discovered that slippers that had the worn out toes darned, made them stiff which made being on tiptoe much easier. It is likely that Marie Taglioni was the first one to wear this new type of ballet slipper. By the age of 28, Marie was at the top of the ballet world and her father was offered an intriguing new ballet.
Ballets were most often based on characters and stories from Classical Greek and Roman mythology. The characters were often deities and nymphs. This new ballet was a fairy tale set in Scotland. It was a risky venture trying something so different in the ballet world but Phillippe Taglioni thought it would be perfect for his daughter, Marie. On March 12, 1832, Marie danced "La Sylphide" for the first time - it was to become her signature dance. She played a frail, supernatural creature with wings who fell in love with a mortal. Her costume was designed in white with a tight bodice and a full skirt - this design was the inspiration for the tutu which we are all familiar with. Playing such a fragile spirit was a superb role for Marie, her physicalt ype was perfect and added to the illusion of her remoteness and unattainability.
The ballet was a hit and inspired a real fashion craze. Designers created gowns, young women had to wear their hair the "La Sylphide" way. "La Sylphide" turbans became the rage as did "La Sylphide" dolls. Queen Victoria had a doll as a small child. This ballet breathed a new creative life into the ballet and this new romantic style replaced the old classical style.
At the height of her success, Marie married Count Gilbert de Voisins, a close friend of the director of the Paris Opera. The marriage was not apparently a happy one and ended after three years leaving Marie alone with a two small children, a son and a daughter. Marie had been a good business woman all along but after her divorce she became quite obsessed with money. She haggled over contracts and demanded ever increasing fees for her performances. She was receiving more money than any other dancer ever had. If she was refused, she was an ultimate diva, refusing to take the stage until her demands were met even if an audience was waiting. The director of the Paris Opera was worn out by her and started looking for a replacement which he found in a dancer named Fanny Ellsler who was a polar opposite to Marie Taglioni in both style and appearance. The rivalry became intense. The end of this stressful situation came when Marie was offered the opportunity to dance in Russia and the money offered was more than she had ever received. She accepted the offer and was an outstanding success in Russia. She stayed for four years and left as an idol. Some of her most devoted fans cooked and ate a pair of her ballet slippers to demonstrate their devotion.
Although now past the age of forty, Marie still practiced daily under the strict supervision of her father. In 1847, her niece Marie, was ready for her debut and the elder Marie and her father retired to Switzerland with enough money to take care of their needs for the rest of their lives. Used to being a busy woman, Marie started to teach and found a young protege whom she carefully nurtured. Her name was Emma Livry and she was well suited to carry on the Taglioni dancing tradition. Marie created a ballet for her called "The Butterfly" which was performed in 1860 at the Paris Opera. Tragedy struck when Emma's skirt was set on fire by one of the open gas jets lighting the stage and she was burned to death. Marie was crushed. She was crushed further when her niece retired three years later and there were no more dancing Taglioni's. Her investments were all wiped out during the Franco-Prussian War and she and her father were left penniless.
Marie made her way to London and opened a school for ballet and deportment but, despite her reputation, command of several languages and her education, pupils were scarce. She carried on and continued to teach until she died, one day before her 80th birthday. She is buried at Cimetiere de Montmartre in Paris, France.