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"The origin of the second and fourth arabesques"

Updated: Nov 24, 2020

The publications on the archaeological finds of Herculaneum and Pompeii, produced from the fifties of the eighteenth century, had returned a repertoire of dancing Maenads and Centaurs in vigorous attitudes, representing them in a fantastic dimension with abstract backgrounds and positions of bodies suspended in the air. Other dancing figures and characters from theatrical scenes also showed themselves in the most disparate attitudes, including some with their backs to the viewer.

If already Raphael, following the excavations carried out at the end of the fifteenth century in the Roman imperial villas, had widely drawn on this heterogeneous ancient repertoire to historicize the Vatican Lodges, Antonio Canova had made classical documents a model of variety and taste. His dancers painted in tempera in Possagno between 1796 and 1798 in Pompeian style, in many cases show turned back positions, most often moved by doing between the polite and flirtatious, others by the ostentation of elegant grace. These attitudes are generally carried out with acrobatic torsions of the torso while the body is balanced on the toes of one foot (currently three-quarters of a toe) and the other leg is raised backwards, in a sort of attitude, or forward with a straight knee. The arms are always arranged in an attitude that, using the modern terminology of the Russian School, we would define "great pose".

Going through the tables of the Traité élémentaire théorique et pratique de l'Art de la danse by Carlo Blasis (Milan, 1820) and observing the image of Louis Duport reproduced nearby from a book from 1806, one is surprised by the resemblance to the Canovian dancers so much to take direct inspiration for granted. Observing, moreover, the 1838 print that Blasis' pupils of Scaligeri dedicated to the Master by being portrayed immersed in poetic clouds, we note how this repertoire of attitudes with the back turned remains unchanged in the romantic ballet and how it is gradually enriched with inclinations of the bust implemented from the hip.

Then comparing the Blasian arabesques à dos tourné ("with back turned away") and the book by E.A. Théleur Letters on Dancing (London, 1831) with photographs of pupils of Agrippina Vaganova dating back to the 1930s-1940s, there is evidence of the profound link between the French school transmitted to Russian artists in the early 19th century by Blasis, Charles- Louis Didelot and then Jules Perrot and Arthur Saint-Léon, and the aesthetic line institutionalized by the great teacher in the St. Petersburg Theater. In the original Vaganova style, the second and fourth arabesques are in fact made, as in the nineteenth-century sources, with the bust stretched forward and have their gaze turned towards the viewer as in Canova's neoclassical Dancers.

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