Marie Taglioni: Muse or
Agent to Her Father?
A star ballerina in white, dancing on pointe in a ballet choreographed by… a man. This enduring stereotype contributes to the negation of female dancers’ creativity and agency. The relationship between Marie and Filippo Taglioni shows that even in the 19th century, women could break free of the role of the passive muse.
From the 1830s to the early 1840s, Filippo Taglioni choreographed many ballets for his daughter Marie that went on to triumph in Europe, including La Sylphide, La Fille du Danube, La Gitana and L’Ombre. Yet Filippo Taglioni’s total control over his daughter’s repertoire didn’t sit well with all their contemporaries. Other artists wanted to choreograph for the star of Romantic ballet, whom Théophile Gautier described as “a living poem” in La Presse in 1844. Filippo Taglioni was also considered to be a poor choreographer, and said to have modeled his daughter to become his muse – a creature as brilliant as she was obedient, whose talents he shamelessly exploited.
Born to a family of dancers and ballet masters in Italy, Filippo Taglioni made his daughter go through a short and intensive training program in Vienna in 1822, after she’d been working for several years with ballet instructor Jean-François Coulon in Paris. Her father’s lessons gave Marie Taglioni a perfect mastery of ballet technique. When she started appearing on stage, Filippo Taglioni negotiated a number of contracts for her in Vienna, Stuttgart, Munich and, in 1827, at Royal Academy of Dance in Paris. He remained by her side constantly, and became her official ballet master, tailoring roles to his daughter’s significant artistic potential.
In return, Marie Taglioni heightened the emotional resonance of her father’s characters. Her contract with the Paris Opera, signed in 1831, also testifies to her creative potential: if her father ever left the institution, the ballerina was to choreograph her own roles. However, this clause in the contract was never enacted. Filippo Taglioni guaranteed his daughter’s respectability: his presence meant that her success was due to the huge amount of work she put into her job – and not to the intervention of a lover-patron. Still, his omnipresence was detrimental to the acknowledgement of Marie Taglioni’s agency: “I saw Duponchel [the director of the Academy]; he complains about my daughter, and claims she’s the director, not him,” wrote Taglioni in his diary in December 1836, when he came back to Paris after being away for some time. Whenever the ballerina’s demands displeased the company’s administration, they were mocked and compared to a child’s tantrums; the director would ignore Marie Taglioni and go straight to her father.
While Filippo Taglioni was symbolically in charge, his domination was less apparent in the way the pair actually worked together. Along with ballet, the choreographer taught his daughter to become financially savvy so she could profit from her art. As she became more experienced and gained maturity, Marie Taglioni became a real businesswoman, handling her career shrewdly. Her wages were the family’s main source of income, and she negotiated contracts for herself and her family in various European theatres. In reality, Filippe Taglioni depended on his daughter to find work: “Mr. Filippo Taglioni […] will be responsible for all things related to his daughter regarding these performances,” read a March 1838 contract he signed in Warsaw. Marie Taglioni monitored her public image carefully, and she cultivated a flattering image of her father, as she was aware of the criticism directed his way. Her correspondence shows that she promoted his work and her Memoirs highlight his talent.
Was Marie Taglioni her father’s muse, or his agent? Probably both. Once she had completed her training and her international career was launched, the father-daughter relationship was more egalitarian than patriarchal historiography has led us to believe. Their relationship is a helpful case study to revisit the careers of other ballerinas whose creations and activities have been erased to the benefit of a husband, a father or a brother. The Taglionis’ relationship was a collaboration – on both a business and an artistic level. There doesn’t seem to have been major disagreements between them: each put their skills at the other’s service. Their common goal was to work at the highest level and achieve recognition, materially and symbolically. At a time when capitalism started to get hold of the performing arts and inform their organization, the Taglionis embodied an old model, under which artists learned their trade within a family context, and continued to work with relatives afterwards.
Chloé d’Arcy is a PhD candidate with EPHE-PSL, where she is affiliated to the SAPRAT research unit, and works with supervisor Jean-Claude Yon. Her research focuses on balls and shows organized in French thermal cities in the 19th century. Her book Marie Taglioni, Étoile du ballet romantique was published with the Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux; it was adapted from her graduate dissertation, which she defended in the Paris IEP and which received a special mention from the Prix Mnémosyne 2018. D’Arcy was trained in RIDC, and she holds a national diploma for contemporary dance instruction. She also works as a dancer with the Luciérnaga Company.