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Mariana Ivanescu

The evolution of ballet in Romania from its outset till 1947.

Ivanescu, Mariana: "The evolution of ballet in Romania from its outset till 1947", 14th International Congress on Dance Research, Aridaia, Greece, 13-17/9, 2000.

“What can be more beautiful than the language of the human shapes, lifted like a surge and riding stoopingly, graciously, mysteriously, mutinously, athwart, tangentially, spirally on the light of the waves, with all these indefinite, joined movements and with some others, rolled into one?”

Tudor Arghezi

Romanian poet

The first performances including dancing parts that took place on the Romanian stages were given by foreign troupes. The first records date from the second half of the 18th century (1772 and 1787), when two Italian groups performed in Bucharest and Sibiu, followed in 1795 by a German opera company, which gave opera performances in Iassy. At the beginning of the 19th century, there were both an Italian company belonging to Gaetano Madji, in 1806, and two German groups headed by Johann Gerger and respectively Josepha Uhlich from Weimar, which performed in Transylvania, around the year 1815. Johann Gerger’s company performed in Bucharest too, between 1818 and 1820. Another German troupe performed in Bucharest, in 1822, the ballet shows “Horia and Closca” and “The Gypsies’ Liberation”. A first autochthonous attempt to create a Romanian comedy with dances and songs belonged to the Romanian writer Iordache Golescu, whose play was called “Barbu Vacarescu”, the traitor to his country. All these theatrical performances did not certainly have the character of a ballet itself and were not performed by professional dancers.

In 1837 Joseph Hette brought to Bucharest, besides the Opera Company he was heading together with J. Foureaux, a ballet troupe. Moreover, the foreign opera companies that used to perform either in Bucharest or in Iassy became more and more numerous. Romanian authors also started to appear, who did not however write proper ballet scripts: the Romanian writers Ion Heliade Radulescu and Gh. Asachi wrote pastoral poems with songs and dances (1834-1837).

An attempt to create a national ballet was represented by the show “The fisherman and His Majesty”, performed in 1853. Such attempts became more frequent after the shows given by the foreign troupes in Bucharest in the years 1860, 1869, 1875 and 1877. A more worthy achievement was the show “The Golden Lady or the Devil of the Defeated Dance”, on a libretto by Petre Gradisteanu and music by Augusta Maywood [1] and L. Wiest, given by a German troupe on the stage of the Big Theatre in Bucharest, in which the folk dances prevailed.

Another important performance was the comic opera “The free peasant’s daughter” by Eduard Caudella, on a libretto by Gh. Irimescu (1882). An ample ballet scene on a more widely symphonical music can be found for the first time in this comic opera, including three dances: the Russian dance, the Gypsy dance and the Romanian one. A contemporary chronicle mentioned that: “The real success was given by the national dances, well performed and the music of which inspired by the folk songs was successful”.

It is also worth mentioning the activity of the Romanian composer George Stefanescu (1843-1924), a passionate promoter of the Romanian interpretative art and founder of an opera company that began its activity in 1885 with the opera show “Linda of Chamonix” by Donizetti, performed in Romanian.

The ballet creations became more numerous in the following years, without however having a particular worth. The so-called Romanian ballet shows were nothing but vaudevilles, dance suites or opera shows including various folk dances. The richness of Romanian folk dances attracted not only Romanian composers, but also foreign musicians, who used Romanian elements in their creations. The Russian composer A. N. Verstovsky for instance used a Romanian dance in the ballet fragment included in his opera Gromoboy (1853-1854).

Vaudeville was the musical-dramatical genre that appeared and became the most popular in the second half of the 19th century. It was a continuation, on a higher level, of the Romanian popular drama, with a synchretic character, combining music, poetry and dance. Some of the most successful vaudevilles were composed by Alexander Flechtenmacher (“Iassy in the Carnival”, “Iorgu from Sadagura” etc.).

Another genre including dances that appeared during that period was the operetta, which usually featured songs, dances and choirs at the end. The most known operetta belongs to A. Flechtenmacher too, being entitled “Mother Harca”, the première of which took place at the Romanian Opera House on December 27, 1848. A corps de ballet was formed at the National Theatre of Bucharest in the year 1898, the Tomas dancers’ family being hired in this concern [*], an attempt that did not have however significant consequences. We can also mention the choreographic fairy play “Four swards” and the folk dances suite “The shepherd’s song” (1903) belonging to the Romanian composer Constantin Dimitrescu.

A genuine ballet performance seems to have been given in London in 1906, entitled “Jeanne d’Arc” and composed by Alexis Catargi, but there are no details about its subject or about its echo to the audience. Its score was not to be found and seems to have remained in the archives of the London theatre, where the author was compelled to stage, since in Romania, at that time, he could not find professional dancers or a ballet-master able to perform it either.

It was only in the year 1908 that the first private choreography school was created by Constantin Grigoriu, in association with Oscar Schmidt, designed to train a good corps de ballet. Therefore, at a time when Diaghilev was about to bring about his famous artistic “explosion” to Paris, in Romania there was neither the profession of classical dancer, nor the possibility to earn one’s living by means of it, although a number of choreographic scenes or sketches had been created. They were obviously interpreted by amateurs and their artistic level was quite low.

The same Constantin Grigoriu staged the show “The puppets’ fairy” (Die Puppenfee) by J. Bayer, at the Lyrical Theatre of Bucharest, performed between December 1911 and January 1912. It was the first valuable European ballet performed on a Romanian stage. The following important moment was the foundation of another opera company in 1919, called the Romanian Lyrical Society, which subsequently was to become the Romanian Opera House, on April 1st, 1921. Another Opera House was founded in the town of Cluj, the same year.

The ballet master Godlevsky was invited to Bucharest in 1920, together with sixteen ballerinas, to perform the divertissement fragment from Aida. Its première took place on March 20, 1920, the conductor being Egizio Massini. However, due to the extension of the repertory of the Romanian Opera House, the need of a permanent ballet group became more and more imperative. Since there were no specialized schools, the future dancers were recruted from the staff of the revue and operetta theatres of Bucharest and foreign choreographers were invited to stage the shows. Another ballet master who came to Romania, after Godlevsky, was Roman Romanov, who staged the shows “The Faun and the Nymph” and “The Harlequins’ show” (1922), which marked a step forward. Nevertheless, the foreign dancers’ presence on the stage of the Romanian Opera House was fluctuating: Godlevsky remained a year, and so did Tereza Battagi, Roman Romanov and Smirnova.

The year 1925 was a turning point in the history of the Romanian ballet, as Anton Romanowsky [4] came to Romania as ballet master and head of the corps de ballet of the Romanian Opera House. He settled to Romania and assumed the hard assignment of creating a good ballet troupe. He was in charge of both the staging of performances and the training of real professional dancers. “Invitation to the waltz” by C.M. von Weber, “Sheherazade” by Rimski Korsakov, “Petrushka” by Igor Stravinsky, “Nippes or China Figurines” by Joseph Bayer and “Daphnis and Chloé” by Maurice Ravel are some of the most successful performances he staged at the Romanian Opera House. He had a special preference for the ballet shows created by Fokin, due to his romantic temperament. He left for Warsaw in 1929 and was replaced by the ballet master Vera Carally [5]. Both Anton Romanowsky and Vera Carally trained, enriched and intensified the activity of the corps de ballet of Bucharest’ s Opera House.

During that period, a young dancer girl named Floria Capsali, who had studied in Paris, started in the year 1923 to give dance recitals and make tours across the country, enjoying a great success. Consequently, she opened a ballet studio in Bucharest in 1924 and started performing dance recitals with her pupils, using music by Romanian composers. She studied the Romanian folklore and managed to combine the genuineness of the popular creation with the choreographic criteria of the stage dance. She investigated new fields, came to know thouroughly the modern trends in choreography and was interested in the sociology of dance. She also performed ballet or eurhythmic recitals on verses by Romanian poets, such as Ion Barbu, Tudor Arghezi, Mihai Eminescu etc. She also performed in Paris, Lyon, Bordeaux, Belgrade, Athens and Dresda.

A remarkable progress was also achieved with regard to the creation of genuine ballet compositions, after World War One. Ion Nonna Otescu composed the ballet entitled “Helen the fairy” for the Grand Opera House of Paris, as well as “The miraculous ruby”, while Constantin C. Nottara wrote “Iris”, a very poetical work, the choreography of which belonged to Anton Romanowsky, who meanwhile had returned to the Romanian Opera House. The show was first performed to Moravska Ostrava, in the CzechRepublic, in 1931, and only the following year on the stage of the Romanian Opera House of Bucharest, interpreted by Anton Romanowsky. As a consequence of these successes, Vera Carally, being certain of the Romanian dancers’ possibilities, staged “SwanLake” in 1931, that is during the first years of existence of the Opera House’s corps de ballet. It proves that most of the Romanian dancers, trained by Anton Romanowsky and Vera Carally, managed to master the Russian classical school in a relatively short time.

Another important achievement belonging to this ballet master was the ballet show entitled “The Secret”, on music by the Romanian composer Mihail Andricu, based on the Romanian tale “The three daughters of the Emperor and the golden apples” (1936). Despite having a subject taken from the Romanian folklore, the choreography was inspired by the Byzantine iconography and was expressed in the old form of the classical ballet.

Other Romanian composers who intended to contribute to the creation of a Romanian choreographic art were Mihail Jora, author of the one act ballet show entitled “At the market”, performed, for the first time on the stage of the Bucharest Romanian Opera House in 1932, Sabin Gragoi, with the ballet “The great evening” (performed in 1934-1935) and Paul Constantinescu, who composed the one-act choreographic poem “Wedding in the Carpathians” (première in 1939).

Anton Romanowsky and Vera Carally laid the foundations of the ballet troupe of the Romanian Opera House, while Floria Capsali [6] was the first Romanian ballet master, whose activity within the Romanian Opera House began in 1938. She re-organised the ballet troupe, enlarged it and encouraged the young gifted dancers. She also trained entire generations of dancers, turning some of them into her assistants, both within her ballet studio and her “Classical and character dance school”. During the first period of her activity, she staged “The Carnival” by Schumann, “Coppélia” by Délibes, “Invitation to the waltz” by Weber and “The box with toys” by Debussy, as well as, from the autochthonous ballet compositions, “Wedding in the Carpathians” (1939) by Paul Constantinescu and “Miss Mariuta” (1941) by Mihail Jora. She had a decissive contribution to the development of an autochthonous choreographic culture generally valuable. She was supported by the Romanian conductors and composers of the age (George Georgescu, Ionel Perlea, Constantin Silvestri and George Niculescu-Basu). By her skill and talent, she brought the ballet at the same level with the opera.

The Romanian ballet creation began to be appreciated in several European capitals. Thus, Wedding in the Carpathians by Paul Constantinescu was performed in Berlin and in Vienna, being interpreted by the first ballerina Enrika Hanka. At the same time, the Romanian dancer Vera Proca gave a recital of Romanian dances in Vienna, Elena Penescu-Liciu danced in several Italian towns and also at the Italian Opera House in Hague (1932-1934), while another ballerina, named Marie-Jeanne Livezeanu, interpreted the main part of the ballet show The Sunday Horse Woman, on the stage of the Municipal Opera House in Vienna.

The choreographic activity of the Romanian Opera House extended, so that the program of a single evening could include, for instance, an expressionist ballet, “Don Morte” by Wilkens, “The invitation to the waltz” by Weber and “Miss Mariuta” by Mihail Jora. Another important intellectual and artistic center, besides the capital, was the town of Cluj (in Transylvania). Ballet performances like “The puppets’ fairy”, “Coppélia” and “Sheherazade”, as well as the four-acts ballet entitled “The four seasons of love” by Franz Schubert were given on the stage of the Opera House founded there in 1921.

World War Two prevented the natural development of Romanian ballet that started to have an ascending trend. New theatres and choreography schools were founded in the towns of Iassy, Timisoara, Sibiu, Galatzi and Constantza after the war. In the year 1947, the first Soviet ballet master Seda Vasilieva Sarkizian staged “The fountain from Bahcissaray” by B. Asafiev at the Romanian Opera House of Bucharest, its première taking place on January 26, 1947. The main protagonists of the show were chosen among the most representative dancers of the Romanian Opera House, such as Sanda Danovsky, Anton Romanowsky and Oleg Danovsky, Zarema’ s part being interpreted by Seda Vasilieva Sarkizian.

The Romanian composers started to pay a special attention to the Romanian ballet. Laurentiu Profeta, a composer belonging to the young generation, is the author of the ballet “The captain’s wife”, on a libretto by Oleg Danovsky, the première of which took place on the stage of the Romanian Opera House on 9th December 1947. The repertory of the Romanian Opera House was enlarged in the course of time. It included some ballet shows with divertissements from operas, such as “The scene of the temple from Lakmé” by Delibes, “Valpurgian night” from Faust by Ch. Gounod, “Gypsy dances” from “The troubadour” by Verdi, or miniatures like: “The Romanian Rhapsody” by George Enescu, “The Hungarian rhapsody” by Franz Liszt, “The Carnival” by Robert Schumann, “The Invitation to the Waltz” by Carl Maria von Weber, “Sheherazade” by Rimski Korsakov, “The Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy and “The Blue Rhapsody” by Gershwin. One of the most successful shows was “Sheherazade”, its choreography being signed by Oleg Danovsky, a young ballet master of the Opera House at that time.

It is also worth mentioning the foundation of the Opera House of Timisoara, in 1947. Its dancers (Francisc Valkay, Vasile Fonta etc.) were the main interpreters of the ballet shows performed on its stage, such as: “Sheherazade”, “The Romanian Rhapsody” by George Enescu, “Peter and the wolf” and “Romeo and Juliet” by Prokofiev, “SwanLake” by Ceaikovsky etc. The Romanian Opera House of Cluj resumed its activity after 1944. Besides the usual classical performances (“Cinderella” and “Romeo and Juliet” by Prokofiev etc.), its dancers and choreographers staged the two-acts ballet “Esmeralda” by Cesare Pugni. Despite being performed for the first time in the year 1844, with Carlotta Grisi in the main part, this ballet is still to be found in the repertoire of many ballet troupes.

The development of classical ballet in Romania emphasized the necessity of having a choreographic state educational system. Its first form was represented by the Choreography School of Bucharest, which began its activity in 1947, its first dean being Anton Romanowsky. Among the first professors of the School were Floria Capsali, Anton Romanowsky and Oleg Danovsky. Till 1947, the dancers were trained in the private ballet studios or schools that belonged to Elena Penescu-Liciu, the first autochthonous “danseuse étoile” of the Romanian Opera House, Vera Carally and Floria Capsali.


[1] Augusta Maywood, ballet master, called “The Little Augusta”, born in 1825, studied with Hazard in Philadelphia. She successfully danced for the first time in “The Bayadere”, in 1837. She danced as a first ballerina at the Paris Opera House in 1839, then at La Scala Opera House of Milan and on the stage of the Vienna Opera House. She was the first American dancer to perform on the European stages as a first ballerina.

[2] Quotation by Octavian Lazar Cosma, The Romanian Opera, Musical Publishing House, 1960, p. 117.

[3] The Family magazine no. 38 dated 20th September 1898, p. 455.

[4] Born in Warsaw in 1882. His Professors were Serge Legat, Graci Rafael and others. First dancer at the Tiflis Opera in 1900. He made tours with Nijinsky and, in 1914, with Anna Pavlova. He danced with Tamara Karsavina, Ekaterina Gheltzer and Sheshinskaya. The Romanian conductor George Georgescu invited him to Bucharest in 1925, where he was hired as choreographer and first dancer of the Romanian Opera House.

[5] Born in Russia in 1888. She graduated the Ballet School of Moscow in 1906 and became the first ballerina of the Bolshoy Theatre in 1909. She left for Paris with Diaghilev, the same year.

[6] She studied in Paris, in 1919-1920, with Enrico Cecchetti, Christine Kerf, N. Legat and the art of rope dancing with Solnier.


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Ms. Mariana Ivanescu



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