April 29th is International Dance Day. And the date was chosen in honor of Jean-Georges Noverre, considered one of the creators of modern ballet and who would have turned 295 years old on that date.
The son of a Swiss soldier in the service of the French Crown, Jean-Georges was born in Paris and studied dance with Louis Dupré, making his stage debut in 1743 at the Paris Opéra-Comique. As King Louis XIV, the Sun King was crazy about dancing, it didn’t take him long to become a ballet master at Versailles. After all, it was there that the first dance school was born, because not only was the King an excellent dancer, but he wanted all nobles to dance well too. After France, Jean-Georges danced and taught in London, Berlin, and Lyon, before returning to Germany.
At the court of Duke Eugen of Württemberg, the choreographer premiered his great action ballet, Médée et Jason, becoming famous and creating almost a hundred works, mainly in Stuttgart and Vienna.
Upon returning to Paris, he returned to assist the French nobles, especially resuming contact with his former student and future queen, Marie-Antoinette. She appointed him Ballet Master at the Académie Royale de Musique, where he stayed until 1781, collaborating with Mozart for Les Petits Riens. He took refuge in London during the French Revolution and did not return until 1760, writing two books with his avant-garde vision of ballet, which he regarded as an art in its own right through the connection of music, scenery, and direction. Jean-Georges is also credited with bringing the mime to dance was the seed of classical ballet and that allowed dance to become an integral part of the action.
Jean-Georges actually followed the path pioneered by dancer Marie Sallé who rejected convention and surprised the audience by bringing drama, realism, and natural gestures to dance. He abandoned the masks that dancers always used to hide facial expressions, and adopted light fabrics for movement. By uniting music, costumes, scenery, and choreography, with narrative ballets with captivating plots and powerful characters, it innovated the market. His greatest pride was to have simplified the allegories in clothing and demanded action, movements in the scene, and expression in dance. Until today we call ballet “action” as ballet-pantomime, a term given by Noverre. So there it is! Happy International Dance Day!