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Prévost, Françoise

The International Encyclopedia of Dance

Régine Astier

Prévost, Françoise 

(born c.1681, died 13 September 1741 in Paris), French dancer, choreographer, and teacher.

Despite the scanty information available about Françoise Prévost, one senses the presence of a personality and talent of exceptional quality and importance. Most surviving testimonies about her come from colleagues, who never tired of paying homage to her mastery as a performer. According to Pierre Rameau (1725), “Any one of her dances contains all the principles which a long reflection upon our art would lead us to lay down. She applies them all so fittingly and with such grace, lightness, and precision that she can be regarded as a prodigy.” In 1726, Marie Sallé gratefully acknowledged her debt: “You have taught me which ornament suits a shepherdess's bosom, which gesture pleases, which step conveys the most feeling” (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Ms. fr.25.000).

Long after Prévost's death, leading ballerinas continued to be judged by the standards she had set and maintained throughout an unusually long and distinguished career. In 1745, the Mercure de France wrote of the ballerina La Barberina: “In praising you, Barberina, I will not insult Prévost's illustrious memory.” Twenty years later, choreographer Jean-Georges Noverre would still flatly assert: “Before Prévost, no other female dancer is worth mentioning” (Noverre, 1760).

The exact date of her debut at the Paris Opera is unknown: early programs do not list casts, and archives began much later. Her teacher was named Thibaud. In October 1695, Mademoiselle Prévost appeared in the program of the Ballet des Saisons. Her name did not appear again until 1702 in André Campra's opera Tancrède.

In approximately 1705, “La petite Prévost” and another rising star, Marie-Catherine Guyot, were already featured in leading roles. The two dancers were well matched—both had fiery temperaments and solid technique—and they often appeared together in such roles as bacchantes, tambourins, and scaramouchettes. Some of these duets, recorded in Feuillet notation, sparkle with cabrioles, entrechats, and pirouettes à la seconde. They were bravura pieces that also demanded acting ability.

As a performer, Prévost stood supreme. In Le maître à danser (1725), Rameau wrote: “Like Proteus, she can assume all kinds of forms. … She uses this talent to captivate her spectators and endear herself to them.” Indeed, she was to more fully develop the acting side of her dancing talent. In 1710 she appeared in a danse du caprice to music by Jean-Féry Rebel. In 1714, at one of the duchesse du Maine's famous “Nuits” at Sceaux, she reduced her sophisticated audience to tears with her rendering of Camille in Les Horaces, a role she danced opposite Claude Ballon. Many historians now see that performance as the beginning of ballet d'action.

In 1715, Prévost was to experiment further in Les Caractères de la Danse, a piece she choreographed for herself to music by Rebel. Each of the suite's eleven movements was personified, from the giddy gigue of a young girl in love to the stately courante of an elderly gallant. This ballet pantomime was such a success that it became the dancer's favorite encore at the opera and at private parties, where she often received requests for it. Prévost later chose Les Caractères for the debut of her pupil Marie Camargo in 1726, and Marie Sallé rechoreographed it as a duet for herself and Antoine Bandieri de Laval in 1729 and exported it to England. Indeed, this brilliant and expressive number was such a perfect vehicle for aspiring ballerinas that it soon became their customary debut piece. [See Caractères de la Danse, Les.]

Prévost's work as a choreographer cannot have stopped at Les Caractères de la Danse. She must have taken full advantage of the privileges that gave the premier danseurs opportunities to compose their own solos. She also seems to have choreographed for others. At the time of her estrangement from Camargo, according to Le nécrologe des hommes (1771), she “refused to go on teaching her and to compose her ‘entrées.’”

Three professional dancers studied with Prévost: Mademoiselle Richalet, who made her debut at the Paris Opera in 1723; Camargo, who made hers in 1726; and Sallé, who appeared in 1727. Each embodied a facet of their teacher's multiple talent, and the spectacular Camargo and the expressive Sallé soon reached a fame comparable to hers.

Much has been written about the pretended rivalry between Prévost and Camargo. Actress Adrienne Lecouvreur recalled in her letters:

Yesterday, they played Roland, by Quinault and Lully. Mademoiselle Prévost, although she surpassed herself, obtained very meager applause in comparison with a new dancer named Camargo, whom the public idolize, and whose great merit is her youth and vigor. Mademoiselle Prévost at first protected her but Blondy has fallen in love with her, and the lady is piqued. She seemed jealous and discontented at the applause Camargo received from the public.

If Prévost was jealous of Camargo, she seemed not to be jealous of her other pupil, Sallé. In 1731, Voltaire recalled in a letter, “The pit, the loggias, the ladies, the ‘Petits maîtres,’ Mademoiselle Prévost herself, everyone was ecstatic when she [Sallé] last danced in the new opera.”

After more than three decades of dancing leading roles, Prévost retired from the Paris Opera in September 1730. The Mercure de France, which recorded the event, noted that the public, “who has always honored her with much applause, will not readily forget her.” The “illustrious” Prévost, who, in the pursuit of personal happiness had been as indefatigable offstage as on, was left to spend the last decade of her life in peace and dignity. The gossip chronicles, which had recorded so many of her intrigues and made songs about her amours, stopped mentioning her altogether.

On 1 January 1718, the ballerina had given birth to an illegitimate child, whom she only legally recognized eight years later—at the same time as did the presumed father, Alexandre Maximilien Balthazar de Gand, comte de Middlebourg. This daughter, Anne-Auguste de Valjolly, was to marry composer and violinist François Rebel, the son of Jean-Féry Rebel, both renowned musicians.

In 1740, Prévost made a will, bequeathing to her lawyer her portrait by Raoux portraying her as a bacchante; this is now in the art museum at Tours. On 13 September 1741, the great ballerina died in her home at the age of sixty. She left a comfortable estate to the widow of her brother Jean, a bookbinder. The inventory of her belongings mentions several paintings in their gold frames, several damask hangings, a well-provided cellar, and a lovely garden decorated with crated orange trees, which suggest a well-to-do household that was not nearly so luxurious as Camargo's but far more opulent than Sallé's.

Dances performed by Prévost and recorded in Feuillet notation include the following duets (listed in Gaudrau, Recueil de danses, 1713) that were performed with Mademoiselle Guyot: “Canary” from Le Triomphe de l'Amour, “Entrée à Deux” from Issé, “Entrée de Deux Bacchantes” from Philomèle, “Entrée de Deux Femmes” from Les Fêtes Vénitiennes, and “Muzette à Deux” from Callirhoé.

See also the entries on the principal figures mentioned herein.


Astier, Régine. Françoise Prevost, A Biography. In Dance History Scholars Conference. Baltimore, 1984.Find this resource:

Aubry, Pierre, and Émile Dacier. Les Caractères de la Danse. Paris, 1905.Find this resource:

Bonnet, J. Histoire général de la danse sacrée et profane. Paris, 1724.Find this resource:

Dacier, Émile. Une danseuse de l'Opéra sous Louis XV: Mlle. Sallé, 1707–1756. 2d ed. Paris, 1909.Find this resource:

Jullien, Adolphe. La comédie à la cour: Les théâtres de société royale pendant le siècle dernier. Paris, 1883.Find this resource:

Lecouvreur, Adrienne. Lettres. Edited by Georges Monval. Paris, 1892.Find this resource:

Marais, Mathieu. Journal et mémoires. Paris, 1864.Find this resource:

Migel, Parmenia. The Ballerinas: From the Court of Louis XIV to Pavlova. New York, 1972.Find this resource:

Noverre, Jean-Georges. Lettres sur la danse et sur les ballets. Stuttgart and Lyon, 1760. Translated by Cyril W. Beaumont as Letters on Dancing and Ballets (London, 1930).Find this resource:

Poinsinet de Sivry, J., et al. Le nécrologe des hommes célèbres de France, par une société de gens des lettres. Paris, 1767–. See the entry for Camargo.Find this resource:

Rameau, Pierre. Le maître à danser. Paris, 1725. Translated by John Essex, London, 1728.Find this resource:

Ranum, Patricia. Les ‘Caractères’ des danses françaises. Recherches sur la Musique Française Classique 23 (1985): 45–70.Find this resource:

Semmens, Richard T. Terpsichore Reborn: The French Noble Style and Drama. In Proceedings of the Tenth Annual Conference, Society of Dance History Scholars, University of California, Irvine, 13–15 February 1987, compiled by Christena L. Schlundt. Riverside, Calif., 1987.Find this resource:

Voltaire. Le siècle de Louis XIV (1751). Edited by Adolphe Garnier. Paris, 1857. See chapter 33.Find this resource:

Winter, Marian Hannah. The Pre-Romantic Ballet. London, 1974.Find this resource:

Régine Astier