How do we define grace?

A divine and romantic dance, with refined and light gestures. Grace carries with it a social and artistic heritage, one which certain artists today willingly renounce.

How do we define grace?
How do we define grace?, © AFP / VLADIMIR VYATKIN / SPUTNIK

When a dancer is described as being graceful, this may refer to the way he or she moves, occupies the space, a form of magnetism, or the charm of his movements… 

But how did a word commonly associated with the spiritual and the sacred (in particular the Christian notion of divine grace) come to find its way into the world of dance? And why do certain artists today prefer to avoid such a notion?

The origins of a graceful body

Béatrice Massin is a renowned specialist of baroque dance, a style of choreography that she has studied at length and one she seeks to reinvent through numerous contemporary creations. Grace? "I never use that word", she explains. "I feel it corresponds to things for which I am not searching". Even in the 17th-century dance treatises, the word does not appear: "they refer primarily to good taste". 

At this time, dancing was a social practice, an art to be mastered by every worthy gentleman, much like hunting and fencing. Though Louis XIV, a passionate and skilled dancer, established the Académie royale de danse [Royal Academy of Dance] in 1661, and Raoul-Auger Feuillet published the very first dance treatise Chorégraphie in 1700, dancing was first and foremost a question of codification and standardisation, so that dancers may dance like the Sun King himself. 

It was not until the Enlightenment that the word "grace" was finally added to the dictionary of the choreographic arts. The art of dancing became a profession, and its artists were now obligated to distinguish themselves from the amateur and occasional dancers. 

"During the 18th century, the legitimacy of the art of dancing grew progressively", explains Bénédicte Jarrasse, associate professor of Modern Literature and doctor of comparative literature. "Certain theorists, notably the balletmaster Jean-Georges Noverre, sought to elevate the choreographic arts to the rank of the dramatic arts, since until that point, dance was a secondary art, a simple form of entertainment."

Dance, one of the Beaux Arts

Jean-Georges Noverre travelled across Europe and published in 1760 his Lettres sur la danse, writings still considered today as the foundations of modern ballet, the first texts to encourage the expression of dancers, creating a distinction between interpretation and simple technique...and amongst the various emotions that the professional dancer should feel and express is precisely that of "grace".

For example, in his lettre X, Noverre wrote: "Forget the cabrioles, the entrechats, the complicated steps, stop simpering and focus instead upon the feelings, the naïve graces, and expression."

The notion of grace contributed to the elevation of art of dance through its expressive dimension, all the while echoing another discpline already firmly rooted in the hierarchy of the arts: painting. The idea of grace was indeed already used to describe the visual arts, and its definition can be found by Dom Pernety in his Dictionnaire portatif de peinture, sculpture et gravure [Portable dictionary of painting, sculpture, and engraving] (1757) : 

"In painting we speak of graceful tones, and graceful contours, to describe those that are pleasing to the eye, and stir within the soul affection, sentiments, and a certain je-ne-sais-quoi."

Les Trois Grâces, représentées par le peintre Raphael, 1503-8, Musée Condé, Chantilly, France.
Les Trois Grâces, représentées par le peintre Raphael, 1503-8, Musée Condé, Chantilly, France., © Getty / VCG Wilson/Corbis

A question of (good) taste

With the rise of the Romantic ideal during the 19th century, dancing soon became one of the favoured fields of artistic and sentimental expression. The performances became increasingly fantastic and magical, with female dancers en pointe perched on the tips of their feet, wearing vaporous dresses: the idea of grace was now an essential part of the dancer's vocabulary.

"A dancer who does not know how to develop herself, to assume attitudes that set off her shape, who is deficient in gracefulness, and void of good taste, can  never afford the smallest delight to the connoisseur and cultivated spectator", wrote the balletmaster Carlo Blasis in 1820. He perceived a distinction not only between the artist and the simple performer, but also the public: "a true dancer [...] will only evoke delight within those with good taste." 

"The serious is the most difficult branch of dancing, it requires a close study, and cannot be duly appreciated but by connoisseurs", explains the balletmaster, deploring the spectators easily led astray "by feats of strength, gambols and ridiculous pirouettes". Grace had now acquired an elitist and exclusive dimension: only a sensitive and learned public could be capable of recognising and appreciating such a quality. 

Grace, a romantic ideal

In accompaniment and as a guide to public good taste, the 19th century also saw the rise of the art critic and the publication of reviews in local newspapers and journals, written by non-specialists. 

The poet Théophile Gautier was a prolific writer about the art of ballet, and grace was one of his preferred linguistic elements: "During the 19th century, the word "grace" was often used by dance critics", explains Bénédicte Jarrasse. "The word was part of a small arsenal of qualifiers destined to describe a dancer. Yet I would qualify this particular discourse as essentialist: we talk less about what the dancer does than what she is."

"Marie full of grace", wrote Théophile Gautier about Marie Taglioni, a famous ballerina at the Opéra de Paris. The poet described the dancer in Le Figaro on 13 August 1827 as "the ideal embodiment of gracefulness. [...] Marie Taglioni is the romantic applied to dance. [...] Her movements are both vaporous and voluptuous."

The notion of grace during the 19th century was therefore an exclusively feminine quality and, according to Bénédicte Jarrasse, "evokes a romantic imagination that surrounded the female figure at the time." There existed different female archetypes: the bourgeoise, the well-fed housewife, and the female dancer on stage, for the public's delight. Traditionally, the latter female archetype was diaphanous, light and almost fragile, as if the public enjoyed believing that she could disappear at any moment.

Représentation de la ballerine Marie Taglioni (1804-1884) dansant dans La Sylphide à l'Opéra de Paris, en 1832.
Représentation de la ballerine Marie Taglioni (1804-1884) dansant dans La Sylphide à l'Opéra de Paris, en 1832., © Getty / Museo Teatrale (Scala)/ DeAgostini

A chaste and modest grace

The romantic and tragic destiny was best embodied by the dancer Emma Livry. In 1863, the ballerina died tragically after her costume caught fire on stage, at the Opéra de Paris. When paying his respects, Théophile Gautier wrote: "She belonged to that chaste school that transformed dance into an immaterial art through her modest grace, her decent reserve, and her virginal transparency."

"Modest" grace, "decent": there remained little ambiguity surrounding the word, at least from a romantic point of view. "I believe that the notion of grace refers to the ambivalence of the dancing body", suggests Bénédicte Jarrasse. "A graceful body is one that offers itself, whilst simultaneously concealing itself. All the beauty of romantic dance resides in this ambiguity."

"It is important for women and young girls to see you dance without blushing", advised the balletmaster Filippo Taglioni to his daughter Marie. And while the male high society of 19th-century Paris rushed to the Opéra, the notion of grace distilled the carnal and seductive aspect of the ballerina, subject of all fantasies and desires. Better yet, the spiritual and celestial quality of grace even encouraged to contemplate and objectively admire the ballerina.

Fanny Cerrito, Fanny Elssler, et MarieTaglioni. "Les Trois Grâces" du ballet romantique représentées par Eugène-Joseph Lejeune.
Fanny Cerrito, Fanny Elssler, et MarieTaglioni. "Les Trois Grâces" du ballet romantique représentées par Eugène-Joseph Lejeune., © New York Public Library

Marie Taglioni, Fanny Elssler and Fanny Cerrito, the three emblematic romantic dancers, were thus portrayed in the depiction of the Three Graces, the goddesses of Greek and Roman mythology symbolising life in all its intensity and creativity. 

Le printemps (La Primavera). Détail représentant les trois Grâces. Peinture de Sandro Botticelli, 1475. Musée des Offices de Florence.
Le printemps (La Primavera). Détail représentant les trois Grâces. Peinture de Sandro Botticelli, 1475. Musée des Offices de Florence., © AFP / Luisa Ricciarini/Leemage

Grace reinvented

Since the famous Swan Lake revisited by Marius Petipa in 1895, the art of ballet has evidently evolved. Male dancers have progressively found their place on stage, the movements have been deconstructed, decomposed, and "grace is no longer simply a question of levity", insists Elisabeth Platel, director of the School of Dance at the Opéra de Paris. "It is also expressed through strength." 

Henceforth, "by associating the notion of grace only to female aspects", adds the dancer and ballet teacher, "we run the risk of clichés and other platitudes. We must not, for example, qualify a male dancer as effeminate when he is deemed agreeable to look at, or graceful. A male dancer's movements may be graceful, and this is not at all pejorative."

Of the handful of great dancers that many have deemed worthy of being described as graceful, two names stand out in particular: Vaslas Nijinksi and Rudolf Noureev. According to the choreographer Béatrice Massin, if both dancers can be said to have possessed the essence of grace, it is in terms of an innate gift, an incredible talent: "Certain dancers have a magnificent presence. When Noureev extended a hand, the whole space was transformed. These are the artists who are truly graceful. They possess something so strong within them that everything grows in proportion as a result. I believe this is somewhat innate... It is a veritable talent, one that has been perfected over time."

Rudolf Noureev en répétition à Londres, en 1961.
Rudolf Noureev en répétition à Londres, en 1961. , © Getty / Terry Disney/Central Press/Hulton Archive

On this point, Elisabeth Platel and Béatrice Massin are in agreement: grace, in the sense of an innate talent, is perfectible. When Elisabeth Platel meets and chooses the next junior dancers of the Opéra de Paris, the director immediately notices those that distinguish themselves and stand out: "It is clear to see that they possess a certain talent even before they begin to dance. They may be wearing jeans and trainers, they nonetheless exude a natural ease by the way they move." However, "a talent that isn't cared for withers over time."

"I believe there are artists who, when walking on stage, are profoundly sincere", explains Béatrice Massin. "They are themselves to head to toe, and this is something that adds a certain...

A certain... An important ellipsis. Ultimately, if grace, talent, or charm, are so difficult to define, it is because they refer to that which art provokes within our deepest selves, our own perceptions and emotions.