Noverre in Milan: A Turning Point
When Jean-Georges Noverre left Vienna in the spring of 1774, having agreed to become chief choreographer at Milan’s Regio Ducal Teatro, he was 47 and at the high point of his career. Less than two years later, in late February 1776, he would depart Milan, disillusioned. His residence there marked a clear turning point, for Noverre never again achieved the successes of his earlier years. His following appointment at the Paris Opéra, a goal he strove for during much of his professional life, was aborted when he resigned in November 1779. And during later, intermittent seasons, mainly in London, he relied chiefly on proven works from his Stuttgart and Vienna days. Many years after, in the 1803-4 revised and expanded edition of his famous treatise, Noverre wrote of reaching a barrier that did not permit him to pursue the choreographic path he had set out for himself. The ‘obstacles’ he encountered first became apparent to him in Milan. There, in printed prefaces to the programs of the ballets he staged, Noverre not only reveals his frustrations but also makes some of his most important statements about his later perceptions on the art of theatrical ballet.
In addition to Noverre’s prefaces and other writings, I make use of archival sources, contemporary accounts, and published works in the form of ‘letters,’ pamphlets, and treatises to round out the picture of his Milanese tenure and its significance for ballet history. In Milan, as in all of Italy and foreign theaters holding to Italian traditions (much of Europe except France), independent ballets were performed between the acts of three-act operas, and in some theaters a ballet closed the program as well. The two entr’acte ballets generally had no connection either in plot or music with the operas they accompanied, and as the eighteenth century advanced they became longer and more costly, with complex plots comprising a good deal of pantomime. By 1770 a pantomime ballet might last longer than the opera act it followed. This tendency reached its first zenith in Milan with the arrival in August 1774 of Noverre, who took advantage of this self-contained species, so different from the French tradition of ballet movements integrated within an opera, to promote his strongly unified productions.
Archival documents show that Milan’s theater administration provided Noverre with resources hitherto unparalleled. His dance company was the largest of the era, costumes and stage designs the costliest, ballet scores among the most forward-looking music of the day, and—seeking to counter the Italian traditions of pantomime and the acrobatic grotteschi, which he detested—his principal dancers all brought from elsewhere and ‘trained in my style.’ Both the management and the Milanese public were already partly aware of what his presentations would entail: in the preceding years dancer-choreographers he had trained, such as Jean Favier and Charles Le Picq, prepared the way, staging some of his noted works. Audience reactions to those attempts, revealed in contemporary accounts, were generally favorable. At the same time, however, ardent polemics on pantomime ballet, getting under way even before Noverre’s arrival, had their center in Milan. Fanning the flames were publications responding to his Lettres sur la danse of 1760 and more recent statements, from the pen of his chief rival, the Italian choreographer Gasparo Angiolini, and printed pamphlets by others. They would only increase during Noverre’s tenure in Milan, where his productions came in for increasingly hostile attacks. Contemporary accounts criticizing his pantomime technique and many other aspects are similar to and in some cases anticipate those voiced by dispassionate observers in Paris and London. As he would do later in those cities, Noverre was therefore forced to accede to local taste: in his last ballets for Milan he allowed spectacle and more traditional actions rather than heroic pantomimes to carry them along. He was to lament this turn of events for many years, summing it up in his Lettres of 1803 and again in the 1807 edition.