The Actresses of the Royal Academy of Music are privileged and virtually indefinable beings. They are useless, though unfortunately regarded as necessary, not so much authorized as protected, and tolerated by the political Government, though not by legislation. Isolated at the heart of civil society, they rule in a sphere that is quite apart from any other…They belong neither to parents nor to spouses: in a sense they depend only upon themselves.
It is worth pausing for a moment to consider why it was that women, and not men, were suddenly in the vanguard of ballet. In part, their willingness to strike out may have had something to do with dancers’ social status, which was quite peculiar and vexing. By the turn of the 18th century, most dancers at the Paris Opera were from theatrical, artisanal, or other low backgrounds, and as employees of the theatre, they were servants of the king. For the men, this was fairly straightforward: duties were owed and protections afforded. But for women the situation was more complex. For them, the Opera often served as a haven from overbearing paternal or spousal control, since a women in its employ fell under the exclusive control of the king and the gentilhommes du roi; fathers and husbands were deprived of their customary financial and moral hold.
Thus, in sharp contrast to women in French society at large, dancers at the Opera kept their own earnings and enjoyed an unusual independence, although they were also more vulnerable to slander, abandonment, and financial ruin. Many capitalized on their freedom and beauty by doubling as courtesans, and the cliché of a young dancer taken in by a protector of means who is then bled for all he is worth had real and enduring historical truth. There were others in addition to Prévost and Camargo: Mademoiselles Barbarini, Petit, Deschamps, Dervieux, and Guimard (to mention just the best-known) were all accomplished 18th-century dancers who juggled multiple lovers and often lived in astonishing luxury. As one exasperated police official noted, the Opera was ‘the nation’s harem.’
Thus the social position of women of the Opera did not necessarily make them freer or more secure, but it did seem to give them a certain (sometimes reckless) courage. These women had less to lose and substantially more to gain by stepping out of line or acquiring notoriety, sexual or otherwise. The artistic consequences were not always obvious, and we do not know exactly how eroticism, art and status cohered in the lives of dancers who typically left only the thinnest trails of their own thoughts and motives. But thanks to them, the ways in which dancers slipped between art and a decadent demimonde became a dominant theme in the history of ballet, and the reputation of a ballerina often rested on her private conduct as well as her artistic merits. And it is no accident that many of the most daring performers of ballet in the 18th and 19th centuries were women. Sallé and Camargo set the mold: in calculated ways they used the contemporary taste for eroticism, popular theatre, and sentiment to turn the French noble style in a distinctly feminine direction, expanding the perimeters of the art and opening the way for future developments.
To take a more colourful example, in 1740 the dancer Mademoiselle Petit was slandered for her illicit relations. She retaliated in print, openly admitting that she had taken a position at the Opera with the sole ambition of turning her beauty to social and pecuniary gain. But she insisted that she had always acted ‘as a woman of high birth’ and ought to be treated as such. Her poise, she insisted, was no less real for being instrumental, and she was indignant at the charges of impropriety levelled against her. But Petit knew that her indignation rested on shaky ground, and in a spirited defence she turned her weakness to advantage by likening her own position to that of the men who so often courted her: tax farmers. Both began from nothing; both were cold-blooded and juggled many clients at the same time. They owed their status to riches, she to her charms. But at least the men she ruined loved her, whereas the tax farmer was a figure of hatred and derision. These feisty allegations were met with a sharply indignant response: the Fermiers Généraux, a powerful organization of tax collectors and financiers employed by the king, published a pamphlet in 1741 rejecting the slanderous assertations of this ‘little Actrice,’ who was idle and useless and whose loose morals stained the social fabric. Nothing came of this pamphlet war, but it is hard not to admire Petit’s gumption. By going public, she had broken all the rules and exposed the fragility of her own position – and theirs.