Enlightenment

Digital approaches to ballet as an interdisciplinary theatrical form

Olivia Sabee is the author of Theories of Ballet in the Age of the Encyclopédie, the January volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. Emphasizing eighteenth-century ballet’s construction through print culture, Theories of Ballet in the Age of the Encyclopédie examines the shifting definition of ballet over the second half of the eighteenth century, highlighting the role of textual borrowing and compilation in disseminating knowledge during the Enlightenment. In this blog post, Olivia Sabee highlights the role of textual borrowing and compilation in disseminating knowledge during the Enlightenment.


What might the discourse around pantomime ballet tell us about the priorities of Enlightenment aesthetics, and what might a literary study of ballet during the Enlightenment reveal about ballet’s legacies? These are two of the larger questions that I address in Theories of Ballet in the Age of the Encyclopédie, but they also point the reader toward a third question, less obvious from the book’s title but nevertheless situated at the core of the project: how did the rampant textual borrowing that took place during the Enlightenment shape the creation and dissemination of knowledge? Larger projects such as Commonplace Cultures have addressed this question on a macroscopic level. In Theories of Ballet in the Age of the Encyclopédie, conversely, I have used digital tools in combination with close reading to attend to the micro level, focusing on a small number of authors and using paratexts to trace specific borrowings from one publication to the next. 

Although the theorizing of ballet might seem an unusual place to begin to answer a question about textual borrowing, ballet’s disciplinary situation in fact makes it an ideal case study: during the second half of the eighteenth century, during which regional variants of the newly established genre of pantomime ballet flourished across Europe, no one seemed quite certain where to situate the artform. In the Encyclopédie, librettist Louis de Cahusac (1706-1759) crafted an interdisciplinary definition for ballet at the crossroads of opera and dance, with strong ties to the spectacular forms of the past, such as comédie-ballet and fêtes de la cour de France. Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810), the reform-minded ballet master and theorist, made the case in his Lettres sur la danse, et sur les ballets (1760) for ballet as a theatrical form that emphasized its spatial and visual qualities. For Noverre and Cahusac, in other words, pantomime ballet was a narrative, theatrical form that relied on the body to tell a story. Anchoring their writings in the aesthetic theories of Charles Batteux and Jean-Baptiste Dubos, they used ballet’s literary and visual elements to justify its place among the so-called high arts, alongside painting and poetry.

Yet by the last decades of the eighteenth century, when the premise of a narrative ballet had already been widely accepted, editors and theorists of drama and dance would begin to complicate this idea. Charles-Joseph Panckoucke’s Encyclopédie méthodique—which brought together ballet-related texts by Cahusac, Noverre, Rousseau, Marmontel, and others—located ballet within five different subject dictionaries: Grammaire et littérature, Arts académiques. Equitation, escrime, danse, et art de nager, Antiquités, mythologie, diplomatique des chartres, et chronologie, Encyclopédiana, and Musique. Each of these dictionaries’ treatments, siloed away from the others, has the potential to be read as a standalone treatment of the subject; readers may have approached them singly, or worked with just a few volumes at a time, as in the case study of Antonio Piazza, editor of the Gazzetta urbana veneta, in my book’s fourth chapter.

Whether read as a whole or independently, the Encyclopédie méthodique is an ideal case study for demonstrating how knowledge was reordered through textual borrowing and editorial decisions. In the case of ballet, Panckoucke’s editors dissolved many of Cahusac’s original cross-references, nullifying the structure that linked his articles together. At the same time, they created new ways of understanding ballet’s past and future, especially through its inclusion under the rubric of dance, rather than the other way around. In this manner, the textual borrowing in the Encyclopédie méthodique demonstrates one way in which encyclopedic structure, just as much as content, can create and change the meaning of individual articles.

Most of the sources upon which this book’s argument rests are literary texts, which I have examined with attention to their underlying structure and arguments. However, I should underscore that I could not have even begun to approach these questions without access to the digital texts that allowed me to map areas of Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, to connect it to and inventory changes in the encyclopedic structure made in the Encyclopédie d’Yverdon, and to identify textual borrowings across the Encyclopédie and its Supplément, the Encyclopédie d’Yverdon, the Encyclopédie méthodique, and Charles Compan’s Dictionnaire de la danse. In particular, I have relied on the University of Chicago’s ARTFL Encyclopédie and theInventaire de l’Encyclopédie d’Yverdon. Through my circuitous navigation of the ARTFL Encyclopédie,I have endeavored to follow the directive prescribed by D’Alembert in his “Discours préliminaire,” that is, to understand cross-references as representative of the disciplinary links between articles (and not to define one article by another). This approach has allowed me to reclaim an understanding of eighteenth-century ballet not within a field, as the encyclopedists would have deemed any attempt at its categorization to be reductive, but as a complex form of dramatic performance without disciplinary bounds.

– Olivia Sabee (Swarthmore College)


Theories of Ballet in the Age of the Encyclopédie is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford.


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