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Following major territorial losses in the Seven Years War (1756–63) and the successful Haitian Revolution in Saint-Domingue (1791–1804), France's Vente de la Louisiane in 1803 marked the end of the empire's colonial ambitions in the United States. Nevertheless, America remained a prominent locus in the French cultural imagination through widely circulated novels such as Chateaubriand's epic Les Natchez, the sociological writings of Alexis de Tocqueville (most notably, De la Démocratie en Amérique), and travelogues such as Frances Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans. American settings and characters also appeared on the nineteenth-century Parisian stage in a variety of theatrical works. One of the most immediately popular – if short-lived – of these was Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Hippolyte Monpou's Le Planteur, premiered at the Opéra-Comique on 1 March 1839. Despite its auspicious premiere, heralded as a great success by several papers, Le Planteur did not enter the long-term repertoire at the Comique, closing after a run of forty-six performances in 1839 and two performances in 1840. Le Planteur's impact on Francophone theatrical culture of the late 1830s and early 1840s included numerous productions in the provinces and abroad, but it was not staged in Paris again until its revival at the Théâtre des Fantaisies-Parisiennes in 1867. This essay focuses on the 1839 Comique production.
Le Planteur arrived four years after another popular American-themed opéra comique, L’Éclair, a romantic comedy set in the vicinity of Boston. Writing for La Revue de Paris, Félix Bonnaire cynically declared:
Since the great success of L’Éclair, the Opéra-Comique is crazy about the New World, not that this rich vegetation inspires it, or that it finds in this atmosphere of sun and fecund vapours the subject of more serious compositions; under the palm trees, they continue to sing the little airs they once crooned so well in their powdery grove of roses. The Opéra-Comique is fond of the New World because the little straw hat of the Creoles goes well with the dark eyes of its female singers and above all because L’Éclair has succeeded.
Regardless of the Comique's desire to capitalise on the success of L’Éclair, the creation of Le Planteur shows how the supposedly ‘light’ genre of opéra comique could engage – albeit in a limited and stereotypical way – with contemporary themes of American slavery in a former French territory.
On Saturday evening 19 January 1867, a revival of the play Le Bossu opened at the Théâtre de la Porte-Saint-Martin with new ballet divertissements choreographed by Henri Justamant starring the dancer Mlle Mariquita. Le Bossu, an adaptation of Paul Féval's popular novel, was already well known to Parisian audiences, and the actors Mélingue, Vannoy, and Laurent all reprised their roles from the original 1862 production. The novelty of Justamant's ballets was therefore a key attraction: as Louis Ulbach wrote in Le Temps, ‘the new ballet will bring the crowds back, even those that already applauded Le Bossu’. Justamant created two new divertissements for the reprise: a series of lively ‘gypsy’ dances in the fourth tableau and an elaborate ‘Grand Ballet Indien’ in the eighth tableau, the latter of which featured Native American ‘prairie girls’ and ‘huntresses’ frolicking by the Mississippi River flowing pure gold. Ulbach's review proved prophetic: Mariquita's fiery performance of Justamant's choreography, especially in the exotic ‘Grand Ballet Indien’, came to be one of the most celebrated elements of the show, and Justamant's ‘Indian’ ballet entered the popular imagination, becoming one of the most significant portrayals of Indigenous Americans in nineteenth-century Parisian ballet.
This essay examines representations of Indigenous Americans in nineteenth-century French ballet, focusing on the ‘Grand Ballet Indien’ of Le Bossu as a case study. Although several scholars have written about depictions of Indigenous peoples in European music and dance, most have focused on written texts (libretti, press reviews), iconography (costume designs), and sound (musical scores). Few have studied movement. After all, any discussion of actual movement is difficult, if not impossible, given the ephemeral nature of dance as an embodied oral tradition. For Le Bossu, however, we have Justamant's manuscript staging manual with choreographic notations of his version of the ‘Grand Ballet Indien’ divertissement from the 1867 Porte-Saint-Martin revival. The notations have allowed us to reconstruct what these so-called ‘Indian’ dances would have looked like in late nineteenth-century Parisian ballet – or, at least, how they were envisioned by one of the leading choreographers of the day.
Justamant's distinctive notation system is remarkably clear and explicit, and can be read by any dance scholar well versed in the gestural language of nineteenth-century ballet, making his staging manuals a valuable – if still largely untapped – resource.