MU History Professor Details French Ballet’s Impact on History & Culture

Ilyana Karthas
Jordan Yount
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science

Ilyana Karthas says her fellow historians and other academics have not considered the important influence of ballet on French culture, national identity, and modern aesthetics. She hopes to correct that oversight with the release of her book, When Ballet Became French: Modern Ballet and the Cultural Politics of France, 1909–1939 from McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal. Karthas’ book is the first book-length study investigating how and why ballet revived in early 20th-century France after a long period of decline.

“It’s really about France in the early 20th century,” Karthas says. “In that time period, the French are very insecure, they have a sense of wanting to build their international standing, and they want to build their cultural preeminence.”

In order to create national renewal and create a sense of what it means to be French, Karthas says the French people first turned to music, rejecting prominent German musicians such as Wagner and embracing French artists such as Claude Debussy. She says the French people then looked to the theater as a means of expressing their “Frenchness.” However, Karthas says the one thing France ignored during this national and cultural revival was the art of ballet.

“It’s ironic, because ballet was the pride and joy of France,” she says. “Since 1500, ballet was a French form—the kind of dance one would see at court, with Louis XIV as the main dancer. In fact, the first thing Louis XIV does when he becomes king is to establish the School of Dance.”

When Ballet Became French

By the 20th century, though, ballet as an art form had deteriorated, as had the country’s international standing. Karthas says it took a ballet troupe from Russia, the Ballets Russes, to motivate the French to revive the art form in France. Years before, French dance masters had become disgusted with the commercialization of ballet in Paris and went to Russia, where they were welcomed by citizens hungry for cultural activities. By the time the Russian ballet troupe arrived in Paris, in 1909, the art form had been modernized.

“That makes the French irritated,” Karthas says. “They’re like, wait a minute, ballet is French, not Russian. That’s the story I tell—how do critics and intellectuals use ballet as a means of creating national identity and cultural preeminence? How do they navigate having men on stage again? How do they start to make women in ballet respectable artists instead of being seen as merely part-time prostitutes?”

Karthas, an associate professor of history, joined the MU history faculty in 2007 after teaching for three years at McGill University in Montreal in the history department and the Women’s Studies Program. Her focus at MU is on modern European intellectual and cultural history, visual culture, and women’s and gender history.

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