No city in the world speaks the language of ballet as well as Paris.
Although ballet’s origins were in the Renaissance courts of Italy, it’s Paris that can lay claim to being the birthplace of classical ballet from the 16th century.
The elegance and exactitude of ballet is reflected in the architecture of Paris itself, a city that in the 19th century was transformed into a harmonious assembly of avenues, parks, boulevards, arches and bridges and magnificent buildings such as the neo-Baroque Palais Garnier, home of the Paris Opera Ballet.
Both inside and out, the Palais Garnier is a monument to the performing arts. The most famous sculpture on its façade is La Danse, sculpted by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. His depiction of naked male and female dancers shocked Parisians when the building was opened in 1875.
The theatrical building represents the heart of ballet in Paris, but the city’s links with dance reach out to every part of the city, from Montmartre, where the cemetery is the final resting place of Marie Taglioni, Vaslav Nijinksy, Edgar Degas and the can can dancer, La Goulue.
Paris is the setting for films that have retained their charm since their release many decades ago - Funny Face, starring Audrey Hepburn (a ballet dancer before her acting career) and an American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly dancing with Leslie Caron, another former ballet dancer.
The Palais Garnier is the diamond centerpiece of a necklace of boutiques and hotels around The Avenue de l'Opéra, among them the Repetto boutique that sells its own brand of ballet flats. The brand was launched in 1947 when Rose Repetto, mother of the French dancer and choreographer, Roland Petit, first made ballet shoes in a workshop in the Rue de la Paix, a street that connects the Place Vendome with the Garnier. Later, the jeweller, Cartier, opened its own boutique in the street.
I wonder if George Balanchine visited the Cartier store in 1947 when he choreographed Symphony in C (originally called Le Palais de cristal)for the Paris Opera Ballet. Twenty years later he choreographed his triptych, Jewels, based on the emeralds, rubies and diamonds he admired at Van Cleef and Arpels in New York.
Paris has seen the premiere of numerous ballets, from La Sylphide to Giselle and Coppelia in the 19th century, to Rite of Spring and William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated in the 20th century.
The reason that French is the language of the ballet studio has its origins in the 16th century when Catherine de Medici, an Italian noblewoman who married the French king, Henry II, funded opulent spectacles in a courtroom setting. Her passion for dance culminated in 1653 with one of the greatest spectacles that Paris had ever seen, Ballet de la Nuit, whose performers were dressed in extraordinary and elaborate costumes. Illustrations of the dancers show them standing in what we can recognise as balletic positions but with limited turnout and wobbly looking legs.
Ballet de la nuit, a marathon lasting 12 hours, featured the future king of France, Louis XIV, in the role of Apollo, the Sun King. Early in his long reign he founded the Royal Academy of Dance (Académie Royale de Danse) whose director became Pierre Beauchamp who is credited with setting the five basic positions of ballet.
France carried the flame of ballet for centuries, with French dancers, choreographers and ballet masters taking the art form to a new level in Russia, but eventually it was a Russian troupe with a French name, Ballets Russes, that brought ballet in it most exciting form back to Paris.
Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes first appeared in Paris at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 1909. The riveting performance of the star dancer in the company, Vaslav Nijinsky, marked “the conquest of Europe by Russian dancing” in the words of Diaghilev’s biographer, Richard Buckle.
Now the centres of ballet are as far apart as St Petersburg and New York, London and San Francisco and Sydney and Tokyo, but Paris remains as the heart of the art form.
One of the most famous lines in any movie comes near the end of Casablanca –“we’ll always have Paris”. Well, for five centuries, ballet has always had Paris. The love affair seems destined to last forever.