The term “episodically” says enough the character of detour attached to this danced moment, which is an occurrence in the opera. However, all classical thinking revolves around this episodic character, which must be reduced and even abolished.
From this point of view, the classical thought of danced entertainment in opera is homogeneous to that which runs through the whole theater and which makes it a classical theater in the sense that we are also talking about classical science: it is a question of moving from the concept of obligation – which is a matter of arbitrariness and convention – to that of necessity – which is a matter of nature and reason, in other words, of moving from rule to law.
This ingredient that is ballet, borrowed from court ballet, was inserted into a general thought of theater. This was the first theory of the introduction of dance into the theater: the thought of the legitimate insertion of dance into opera was engulfed in this program.
To make the dance necessary, and not only episodically obligatory, to make its presence a legitimate presence: this is a beautiful program that elevates it from regulatory status to legislative status (and why not to constituent status?). But this program conceals a few surprises, or at least it is paradoxical.
This reflection poses fundamental problems, notably that of dance as a paradigmatic art form or as an autonomous art form2. It does so all the more interesting because it also places dance under the umbrella of the theater with a view to a theater effect, since it is a question of inserting dance into opera.
The question of dance is moreover one of the modalities by which the general problem of opera as a mixed or impure art is raised. This can be seen by the place it occupies in the debates at the time, among both supporters and opponents of opera. Opera is the place where the arts are confronted with each other.
Should we think of this confrontation as prostitution, a moment when each art is sacrificed to the others, a place of perdition? There is a kind of original and essential impurity in opera, which makes it hated by lovers of the theater (at least at the time), and it will be hated by lovers of music (and sometimes, but later, by lovers of dance).
The paradoxical point of the reflection that interests me is the following: it is under the condition of this impurity that something fundamental is revealed in each of the arts involved in opera.
The constraint of the theater and the imperative to obtain a theater effect free the dance from itself. The paradox is that what presents itself as an insertion under the laws of the theater, in other words in a poetics in the strict sense of the term, is a liberation: a heteronomy would have autonomy as a result.
The theme was not very original at the time: it was a question of getting dance to also become an “art of imitation,” to make sense under the injunction of the theater. Imitation designates the signifying aspect, the idea that what is proposed does not refer only to oneself, but that it “says” something. Apparently, we are at the antipodes of a dance conceived in an autonomous way.