In the name of Auguste Vestris


Essais / Esssays

Who was Auguste Vestris?

Vestris, père et fils

December 2002

From "Memoirs and Period Pictures"
in My Theatre Life, by Auguste Bournonville,
translated by P. MacAndrew. Published at London, A & C Black, 1979.

Portrait of Auguste Vestris by Adèle Romanée
Reproduced by courtesy of Sotheby’s London.
Sold at the New Bond Street auction, 5th July 2007,
to a private collector


From My Theatre Life, by Auguste Bournonville, published at London, A & C Black 1979.

Be not astonished, when you discover that for me there was no more glorious dream than this : to be able to soar while dancing, without touching the ground. In my youth, I was always haunted by the thought of unsuccessful performances, weak memorisation, and incomplete costume, and I awakened as from a nightmare. Now, as a pensioner (....) (in dreams) I am borne on the wings of Time back to my earlier pursuits. The journey usually carries me to Paris, where I come a halt in the Ballet Foyer, before the three mirrors which, during the years 1824-1830, reflected my diligent exercises.

To the astonishment of my onlooking comrades, I easily overcome all the difficulties that had formerly given me the worst trouble. I stand as if rooted to the spot in attitude, turn with complete security (...) and need only hold my breath in order to ascend to the rafters like an aerostat, or by stretching my feet behind me like the birds in their flight, to sail through space and soar from the stage out into the auditorium. One can hardly imagine the exhilarating feeling of excitement and satisfaction these fantastic results produce. It is the ecstasy of victory, the loosing of earthly bonds - freedom ! Then I say to myself (for reflection imperceptibly creeps up on imagination) : "this time it is no longer a dream ! Now you have got it ! Just make sure you do not forget the technique (...) !"

And so I am embraced by my old father...together we go to compliment Vestris.... Balletmaster Gardel renews my contract, and Nivelon, that friend of my father’s youth, invites us to visit his country estate in Normandy ! To be sure, I feel disappointed upon awakening, like Jeppe after his journey to “Paradise”, but I soon encounter those friendly images once more, and if, in my fleeting wanderings, I am not stopped by friends and well-wishers long since gone to rest (...) then I am certain to land at the dancing school in Paris.

Many will no doubt be surprised that a sensible old man’s thoughts might revolve around such – according to general notions – a frivolous subject as dancing. But, without repeating what I have so often stated in justification of this art form, and the activity to which I have devoted my talents out of love and conviction, I shall consider myself fortunate if, until the hour when I shall be awakened from my final slumber, I be visited by no visions other than those that hover about me from Terpsichore’s airy regions. Amongst the host of deceased personalities who appear before me in dreams, and, like the ghost in Hamlet, call out to me “Remember !”, the three mentioned above stand foremost as those who, in real life, set for me the goal to which I have until this day aspired.

VESTRIS is a name that has become as much identified with the art of the dance as that of Garrick with drama and Mozart with music. Since it has attracted such great attention, it follows a matter of course that in its time, it was bound to arouse opposition, and though it can never be effaced from theatrical history, anecdote collectors and vaudevillists have known how to fuse Vestris père et fils into a single figure, which bears not the slightest resemblance to those conscientious artists who, in their continuous striving for the ideal of Beauty, gladdened and instructed their contemporaries.

For the time being, we shall hold to the description which Noverre gives of the elder Vestris, with the Christian name Gaétan, a native Florentine and endowed with such an extremely handsome appearance that, at his first performance in Paris, he won the epithet “L’Apollon” or “Le Dieu de la Danse”. His serious dancing consisted mostly of picturesque poses, beautiful arm movements, and slow pas – in short, of performances which emphasized the external merits he possessed. Therefore he was sought after by all the Courts as a model of dignity and manly grace, not only on the stage, but in higher circles, where his elegant toilette and tasteful coiffure became the rule for current fashion. Considerable sacrifices were made to secure his talents both for the golden halls of Versailles, and for the ballet of the Théâtre de l’Opéra, where all the deities and Homeric heroes, which figured exclusively upon the French lyric stage at that time, found a worthy representative in Gaétan Vestris – who also profited by the great costume reform which Noverre brought about by banning masks, tonnelets, and the enormous plumes which were up to then inseparable from the shepherds and shepherdesses of Arcadia. Thus, while the famous balletmaster wrote his instructive Lettres sur la Danse (1760), the elder Vestris defined the nature of dancing as “the art of beautifying the human form”.

On reading Molière’s Bourgeois gentilhomme, through the comical jockeying for position amongst the fencing, dancing and language masters, one will be able to form some idea of the scandal such arrogance in the field of aesthetics was bound to arouse, amongst the opponents of choreography, and with his insuperable Italian accent and his lofty feeling for the importance of his calling, Vestris was certain to become a target for the joke-hunters’ arrows. There have been attributed to him a number of boasts which have become proverbs, and should be preserved for their oddity alone.

For example, he is said to have designated the following as his great contemporaries : Voltaire, Himself, and the King of Prussia.

In his admiration for the beauty of the Duke of Devonshire, he is said to have cried : “Were I not Vestris, I would be Duke of Devonshire !”

(....) Finally, when General Bonaparte astonished the world by his first Italian campaign, Vestris is said to have been beside himself with enthusiasm and cried out : “The man deserves to have something striking done for him....He shall see me perform again !”

(...) It is inevitable that in his youth, such an Apollo, just like that deity in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, must certainly have had several gallant adventures. Among others is mentioned the light-footed Mlle. Allard, whose pas de deux pastoral is found depicted in an excellent engraving, but the celebrated danseuse Mlle. Heinel (a German by birth) was just as sérieuse in character as in style, and by her, our Apollo was locked in the chains of Hymen. This well-assorted marriage was not blessed with children, and the want of them had begun to feel oppressive, when one day, while inspecting the ballet school directed by Trancard (....), Vestris’ gaze lighted upon a nine-year-old boy with most unusual ability, and an almost fully-developed talent. Astonished, he asked the teacher to whom this child belonged. The answer ran : “That is the little Allard !” “But surely not a son of Mademoiselle ?” “Precisely of Mlle. Allard !” “But, my God ! Then he must certainly be my son ! Do you know what, my clever lad, upon my honour, it appears that you take after your father !”

From that moment, Vestris took the little Auguste home with him, gave him a careful upbringing, and within two years brought him so far, that in the year 1771, though only eleven years old, he made his début with the greatest bravura. Just like Mozart, he was a Wunderkind, and was shewn round at the Courts, where he was kissed and regaled with sweets. In the beginning, he went under his Christian name ; later he was called Vestrallard, but it was not long before M. and Mme. legally adopted him as their only son, and lawful heir. His artistic career was an unbroken series of triumphs and, more fortunate than that immortal composer, he saw himself richly rewarded and appreciated in his native land.

Since he was only of average height and had neither his father’s fine facial features, nor his classical physique, his style of dancing was demi-caractère, to which his astounding elasticity and speed, combined with his expressive countenance and lively spirits, made him excellently suited. Emancipated from his father’s strict school, he created a completely new genre, which bore the same relation to the preceding one as a painting of brilliant hue does to a marble sculpture displaying classical perfection. In all of Gardel’s ballets, he developed a mimic talent that was recognised by the greatest actors of the day, and his performance of The Prodigal Son in particular, is said to have been a true masterpiece. Even in his old age, when during classes he rehearsed some scenes from the aforesaid ballet with us, he often allowed himself to be so carried away that the illusion became complete, and we imagined that we saw before us, in the flesh, a youth of nineteen, with all of his follies and aberrations, with his despair and repentance.

(...) He ought to have become, if not an extremely rich, then at least a rather wealthy man. But a high degree of improvidence, poor economy, and the desire to play a role amongst the aimable roués of his time, were responsible for the fact that not only his rich emoluments, but also his paternal inheritance, slipped through his fingers. Age appeared, and with it young and talented rivals, among whom Louis Duport in particular distinguished himself by a marvellous technique. Vestris had to put up with being called “Grandfather of Zephyrs”, and finally it was only his mimic talent, and the direct protection of the Emperor, that upheld his old renown. But with the fall of Napoleon, the aura which had surrounded the great dancer’s name for so many years disappeared. To be sure, the Allies inquired after him, for those foreigners too, had heard him mentioned among the glories of Paris. But he avoided appearing before the arrogant enemies of France. He could look back with sadness upon the brilliant career whose material profits he had wantonly squandered, and he was now a pensioner, with the supplement to his modest income that the lessons in his classe de perfectionnement could earn him.

But even in this diminished state he was still Vestris ! His gay spirit deserted him as little as his light tread and youthful bearing. With violin in hand, he inspired both himself and his pupils, and with the exception of a single sigh, in allusion to his unforgettable Emperor, one never heard him complain of the losses that time had brought him and – mirabile dictu ! – never discuss his own talent, or the triumphs he had celebrated in his prosperity.

For pupils who were already more or less trained, his instruction was invaluable, although as good as finished artistes, Marie Taglioni, Fanny Elssler, and Carlotta Grisi, often turned to his school in order to learn something lovely, or to “grind off” possible defects. Firm in his demands with regard to taste and character, he was mild in his judgment, not at all prejudiced, and furthermore, willing to acknowledge any sort of ability. At the same time as he knew how to arouse the spirit of competition to a fever pitch in the rest of us, he was good nature personified, and never allowed himself to be tricked into displays of temper.

From amongst his finest male pupils he himself singled out three ; namely, his eldest son Armand (who died at Vienna in 1825), Jules Perrot, and – one must forgive me for not concealing the fact – Auguste Bournonville, as the ones who have best comprehended and most successfully disseminated his choreographic principles. At the moment, unfortunately, there are on the Continent very few danseurs who have not been reduced to being lifting machines and props for equilibristic groupings, while the danseuses outdo one another in tours de force. The ballet is hereby losing its importance as artistic performance, and degenerating into something that ought to be relegated to the carnival tent.

For six years, I enjoyed the benefit of his excellent instruction ; he enjoyed teaching me. Under his aegis, I presented myself for my début, and he faithfully went through my entire youthful repertoire with me. I also became attached to him with a son’s affection, and through the years, every time I visited Paris, I went to practice in his school – naturally, in return for the payment of a suitable fee, which would always be paid in advance, for the beloved master was always in financial straits, and one of his worst creditors was his former valet, who had now advanced to the position of landed proprietor and – moneylender !

The younger Vestris died the same year as my father (1843). They were the same age, and reached their eighty-third year. He still appears before me in my dreams, and if one can believe it, I am then assailed by a feeling of uneasiness, as if I had forgotten to pay him the last hundred francs !

(Click here for excellent reproductions of portraits of Vestris père et fils, and an essay by Martin Postle, former Curator at the Tate.)

K.L. Kanter