Jean-Georges Noverre

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Jean-Georges Noverre
(Perronneau, 1764, Louvre)

Jean-Georges Noverre (29 April 1727  – 19 October 1810) was a French dancer and balletmaster, and is generally considered the creator of ballet d'action, a precursor of the narrative ballets of the 19th century. His birthday is now observed as International Dance Day.

His first professional appearances occurred as a youth in Paris at the Opéra-Comique, at Fontainebleau, in Berlin before Frederick II and his brother Prince Henry of Prussia, in Dresden and Strasburg. In 1747 he moved to Strasbourg, where he remained until 1750 before moving to Lyon. In 1751, he composed his first great work, Les Fêtes Chinoises for Marseilles. The work was revived in Paris in 1754 to great acclaim.[citation needed] In 1755, he was invited by Garrick to London, where he remained for two years.[1]

Between 1758 and 1760 he produced several ballets at Lyon, and published his Lettres sur la danse et les ballets (fr). It is from this period that the revolution in the art of the ballet for which Noverre was responsible can be dated. Prior to Noverre Ballet's were large spectacles that focused mainly on elaborate costumes and scenery and not on the physical and emotional expression of the dancers. He was next engaged by Duke Karl Eugen of Württemberg, and later Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, until 1774. In 1776, he was appointed maître des ballets of the Paris Opera at the request of Queen Marie Antoinette. He returned to Vienna in Spring of 1776 to stage ballets there but in June 1776 he returned again to Paris. He regained this post until the French Revolution reduced him to poverty. He died on 19 October 1810 at Saint-Germain-en-Laye.[1]

Noverre's friends included Voltaire, Mozart, Frederick the Great and David Garrick (who called him "the Shakespeare of the dance"). The ballets of which he was most proud were his La Toilette de Venus, Les Jalousies du sérail, La dour corsaire and Le Jaloux sans rival. Besides the letters, Noverre wrote Observations sur la construction d'une nouvelle salle de l'Opéra (1781); Lettres sur Garrick écrites a Voltaire (1801); and Lettre à un artiste sur les flies publiques (1801).[1]

Early life and career[edit]

Noverre was born in Paris on 29 April 1727 to Marie Anne de la Grange and Jean Louys, a Swiss soldier. The couple expected their son to pursue a military career but the boy chose dance, studying with M. Marcel and then with the famous Louis Dupré. Noverre's first professional experience probably occurred at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 8 June 1743 in Le Coq du village. In his middle and late teenage years, Noverre performed at Fontainebleau, and in Berlin before Frederick II and his brother Prince Henry of Prussia. Appearances in Dresden and Strasbourg followed before his return to the Opéra-Comique. In 1747, Noverre became ballet master in Strasbourg and created his first great success, the exotic Les Fêtes Chinoises. In 1748 in Strasbourg he married the actress Marie-Louise Sauveur.[2] In 1750, he became principal dancer in Lyon and created his first ballet-pantomime, Le Jugement de Parisin 1751. Noverre traveled to Vienna, where he worked under Queen Marie- Theresa and became Maître de danse for her twelve-year-old daughter, Marie- Antoinette. Noverre and Marie Antoinette’s relationship grew and they became very close. Marie- Antoinette became a protégé to Noverre. In early 1754 Noverre produced a frightening and moving scene that disturbed the conservative queen and he lost his job. He moved to Strasbourg for one year in 1754, and returned to the Opéra-Comique, where Les Fêtes was staged with great success on 1 July 1754.

In 1755, he went to London with his wife, his sister and brother, and his company. There, he worked with David Garrick of the Drury Lane Theatre, learning new concepts of theatre and the then developing natural style of performance. When the London production of Les Fêtes Chinoises was completely destroyed by rioters on the eve of the Seven Years' War, Noverre and his family were forced to go into hiding. He continued to supervise dance spectacles at Drury Lane but without billing. In 1774 King Louis XV died and Noverre’s dear friend Marie- Antoinette became the Queen of France. Marie- Antoinette did not forget about her dear Dance Master and appointed Noverre to the Paris Opera. This was Noverre’s shining moment but the loyalty and backing of Marie- Antoinette could switch. In 1779 Noverre was unseated from his position because Dauberval, Maximilien Gardel and Mlle Guimard gathered prominent people and poisoned them against Noverre. However, Noverre didn't leave the Opera until 1781.[3] Noverre’s fitting effect on the Paris ballet world would be preserved by the production of his tragic ballet Jason et Médée in 1763. In 1787, Pierre Gardel inherited the throne and Paris Opera and carried out Noverre’s ideas on costume and thoughts on ballet pantomime. (Chazin-Bennhaum) He composed Les Caprices de Galathée, for example, and garbed his dancers in tiger skins and shoes made of tree bark. His naturalist attitude towards costume placed him in the front rank of the French Enlightenment.[4]

Les Lettres sur la danse et sur les ballets[edit]


Noverre's treatise on dancing and theater expressed his aesthetic theories on the production of ballets and his method of teaching ballet. Noverre wrote this text in London in 1756 and published it in 1760 in Lyon, France. He began his research for his essays in Drury Lane, London, where he choreographed for his own troupe of dancers at the Theater Royal under the direction of David Garrick. It was in David Garrick’s library that Noverre read modern French literature and ancient Latin treatises on pantomime. Noverre was inspired by the pantomimes that he thought stirred up the audience's emotions by the use of expressive movement. He proclaimed in his text that ballet should unfold through dramatic movement and the movement should express the relationship between the characters. Noverre named this type of ballet, ballet d’action or pantomime ballet (International Dictionary of Ballet 1032). From 1757 to 1760, he produced thirteen new works with composer Francois Granier at the Lyon Opera. His lighter, colorful pantomime ballets like Les Caprices de Galathée, La Toilette de Venus, and Les Jalousies du Serail, received great success.[5]


Noverre was most immediately influenced by Jean-Philippe Rameau, Marie Sallé and David Garrick. Rameau was a very influential French composer and music theorist and Noverre was inspired by his dance music that combined programmatic and strongly individual elements. Marie Salle and Noverre were both dance students at the Paris Opera Ballet and met early on in their careers. Marie Salle, a Romantic ballerina with expressive qualities, likely influenced Noverre to write about the importance of expression in dance. David Garrick was an actor and theater director at the Theater Royal. Noverre was inspired by his talent for "histrionics" and vivid mime work where Noverre wanted to shake from the traditional forms of Ballet. (The Encyclopedia of Dance and Ballet 695).


Noverre's text demanded an end to repressive traditions peculiar to the Paris Opera Ballet, such as stereotypical and cumbersome costumes, and old-fashioned musical styles and choreography. Noverre also discussed the methods for training dancers such as encouraging a student to capitalize on his or her own talents (The Encyclopedia of Dance and Ballet 699). Most of Noverre's criticisms of dance in his book were directed towards the Paris Opera Ballet[6] because he felt the Paris Opera Ballet created ballets that were an isolated event within Opera lacking meaningful connection with the main theme of the Opera. He criticized the Paris Opera Ballet[7] use of the mask because it restricted the dancer from showing facial expressions that could bear meaning on their characters. Noverre devoted the whole of his Ninth Letter to the subject of masks and wrote, " Destroy the masks and" he argued, "we shall gain a soul, and be the best dancers in the world." Noverre specifically dealt with seven major points in his treatise:

  1. Regarding the training of dancers, he emphasized that correctness in dance technique as laid down by Pierre Beauchamp and others must be held with sensitivity to the individual's anatomy.
  2. Of prime concern, the pedagogical consideration of the dancer's personality and style is prerequisite to artistic development.
  3. Noverre stressed that within a dramatic context, validity and sincerity of gestural expression are of the utmost importance in creating a ballet.
  4. Noverre called for the logical development of plots. According to Noverre, plots should be thematically integrated with movement. Additionally, all superfluous solos and irrelevant dance techniques should be omitted from the ballet.
  5. Noverre was adamant that music be appropriately suited to the dramatic development of the plot.
  6. He insisted that costumes, décor, and lighting be compatible with the introduction, plot, and climax of each act within the ballet.
  7. With the disappearance of masks in his own ballets, Noverre pronounced his advanced ideas on stage make-up for dancers that would allow for the dancer's expression to be seen rather than hidden behind a mask (Lee 111).


Noverre's Les Lettres sur la danse et sur les ballets had lasting impact on ballet ideology as his text has been printed in almost every European Language and his name is one of the most frequently quoted in the literature of dance (Lynham 13). Many of his theories have been implemented in dance classes today and remain a part today's ideology of dance. For example, his idea that a teacher should encourage students to profit from his or her own talents rather than to imitate a teacher or the style of a popular dancer is a present ideology of dance. Noverre did receive criticism from many of his prominent ballet contemporaries, however his theories have survived longer than any of his ballets, which have not been reproduced for at least two centuries (Lynham 127).

Major works[edit]

Noverre: frontispiece of Lettres sur les arts imitateurs, Paris, Collin, The Hague, Immerzeel, 1807

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Public Domain One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Noverre, Jean Georges". Encyclopædia Britannica. 19 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 839. 
  2. ^ Michael Lorenz: "»Mademoiselle Jeunehomme« Zur Lösung eines Mozart-Rätsels", Mozart Experiment Aufklärung. Essays for the Mozart Exhibition 2006, (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag, Da Ponte-Institut, 2006), 423-29.
  3. ^ Guest, Ivor. The Ballet of the Enlightenment: The Establishment of the Ballet D'action in France, 1770–1793. London: Dance, 1996. Print.
  4. ^ Kant 2007, pp. 87–89
  5. ^ Hansell, Kathleen Kuzmick. "Noverre, Jean-Georges." The International Encyclopedia of Dance.:Oxford University Press, 1998. Oxford Reference. 2005. Date Accessed 14 Nov. 2016
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ [2]


  • Burden, Michael (2014). The works of Monsieur Noverre translated from the French: Noverre, his circle, and the English Lettres sur la danse. Hillsdale, New York: Pendragon. 
  • Thorp, Jennifer (2014). The works of Monsieur Noverre translated from the French: Noverre, his circle, and the English Lettres sur la danse. Hillsdale, New York: Pendragon. 
  • Guest, Ivor (2006). The Paris Opera Ballet. Alton, Hamshire: Dance Books. 
  • Kant, Marion (2007). The Cambridge Book of Ballet. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Lee, Carol (2002). Ballet in Western Culture: A History of its Origins and Evolution. Great Britain: Routledge. 
  • Lynham, Deryck (1950). The Chevalier Noverre, Father of Modern Ballet; a biography. New York: British Book Center. 
  • Noverre, Jean-George (2004). Letters on Dancing and Ballet. Alton: Dance Books. 
  • "Jean-Georges Noverre". The Encyclopedia of Dance and Ballet. 1977. 
  • "Jean-George Noverre". International Dictionary of Ballet. 1993. 
  • "Jean-Georges Noverre". Andros on Ballet. Retrieved 26 Jan 2014. 

External links[edit]