Théophile Gautier, poet, novelist, journalist and dance critic who wrote the libretto for Giselle with Vernoy De Saint-Georges is a contradictory figure.
Richard Holmes delights in the opulent erotic world of his short stories, Felicia McCarren problematises him in research considering the cultural and social politics of the world of the Paris Opéra, Helen Constantine celebrates his radically queer vision, telling us that he was at the centre of many controversies in France taking a key role in literary and artistic circles of nineteenth century Paris. (Helen Constantine, Introduction to Mademoiselle de Maupin, pg xii)
a face like a double bed on a Sunday morning
The photographer Felix Nadar made portraits of him, perhaps like us, drawn to a face described as 'like a double bed on a Sunday morning' (Richard Holmes, Introduction to My Fantoms, pg x)
cross-dressing and duelling
A provocateur, only one of the ways he scandalised Paris was with a novel, Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) where he explored ideas of gender, sex and sexuality as fluid categories in a way that could not be more modern today. The story was based on the life of the woman memorably described in Bust magazine as a '17th-century, cross-dressing, duelling, bisexual opera singer'Julie d'Aubign.
As if Madameoiselle de Maupin wasn't controversial enough, it was embroiled in a literary scandal with respect to the preface. In this writing Gautier, in a dispute with literary magazine Le Constitutionnel and swept up in a wider discourse across all the arts (including in the writing of his colleague Jules Janin three years earlier) crystallised the Romantic artists desire for free expression and 'art for art's sake'. (John G Chapman, Jules Janin and the Ballet, pg 65)
Gautier was writing from the demi-monde, a space that might be described through Michel Foucault's idea of a heterotopia, a temporary space that lies parallel to society where normative rules don't apply, although of course for many of the women of the demi-monde they still did. Virginia Rounding writes about
' ...victims of scandal, divorcees, women separated or abandoned by husband or lover, 'merry widows' or foreign women whom the authorities might deport when it suited them'
The world of the Wilis is such a space, where the Wilis, unmarried, possessed of voracious appetites for dancing, call to mind the declassed women that surrounded Gautier, including dancers. In the world of the Opéra he simultaneously occupied a position outside as a powerful critic and a maker of stars, and inside as an artist and librettist. Felicia McCarren writes about his relationship to Carlotta Grisi and his writing of Giselle 'Just as the librettist constructs a double subject, or two women-in-one, the librettist himself makes a living dancer into two women, a living legend who is both the character she plays and a performer with a mythic past'. (Felicia McCarren, Dance Pathologies, pg 60). McCarren goes on to read Giselle in relation to the privileges and ambiguities of his position at the Opéra:
Taking into account the history and conditions of it s first production, the text can be read as social critique: a state of the art review of the ballet at the Paris Opéra of 1841.
Gautier in this project
We were drawn to Gautier initially through the libretto, we then discovered his letters to Heinrich Heine where his vivid description of the first night of Giselle and his enthusiasm for the world of the ballet infected us. Then we found his essay The Rat where he moves between horror at the flesh markets of Paris where one can buy a child, to a kind of celebration of the system of prostitution at the Opéra that the student dancers will most probably become part of.
where's the party mate?
He has accompanied us through this project, like your dodgy mate who disappears on a night out and then turns up months later. He's in our films, whispering in our ears in our recordings. Then he's off like a dirty shirt. Still hung up on the same girl, still looking to find another party.