A dancer who produced beauty without being beautiful. This is one way that Marie Taglioni was described by Edwin Binney 3rd last month at the Harvard Theatre Collection, where he is honorary curator of ballet. He was speaking during a reception in the midst of the centenary exhibition he organized, ''Longing for the Ideal: Images of Marie Taglioni in the Romantic Ballet,'' which with its catalog is seen as a landmark in the scholarship of dance and its pictorial representation. Here, in a brief essay drawn from that catalog, Dr. Binney suggests the significance of an international star who was idolized in her youth by Britain's young Princess Victoria (who painted many watercolor sketches of her), and who in later years taught ballroom dancing to another princess, who would become Queen Mary. (The passages elsewhere on these pages are also from the catalog.)
MARIE Taglioni was certainly the most important dancer who ever lived. ''Most important,'' however, does not mean ''the best,'' since technique constantly develops and even yesterday's stars cannot compete with those of today. Attending a ballet performance at age sixty-eight, Taglioni herself commented to her companion: ''We could not dance like that in my day.'' More recently, Dame Margot Fonteyn commented that were she to apply to the Royal Ballet now, solely with the technique that she possessed at the time of her debut, she would not be accepted. What is meant by ''most important'' is ''most influential.''
Taglioni created a new image of the theatrical dancer. The early danse sur les pointes, the use of the tips of the toes for posing, had not progressed far beyond simple experimentation when she consecrated it as the most important, and obvious, of a danseuse's gifts. Since her time, no female ballet dancer can exist without flawless pointe work. Marie Taglioni's style and physical capability established the future standard for ballet.
Other dancers had toured before Taglioni, but not to the extent that she did. After nine years at the Paris Opera, she traveled throughout the British Isles, the Germanies, and Italy, appeared in Stockholm and Warsaw, and was premiere in St. Petersburg for five seasons. The geographical extent of such a stellar career during the 1830s and 1840s, and the influence it signifies, is comparable only to the travels of Anna Pavlova during the early part of the twentieth century.
The Romantic Ballet, a movement in the history of the dance that paralleled Romanticism in all of the other arts, carried the stamp of Taglioni's unique gifts and personality. Significantly, she is the contemporary of Delacroix and Victor Hugo, of Musset and Chopin. And she is almost the only female to belong in that company. The cult of the ballerina, which she nurtured and legitimized, lasted for many decades after the end of her career, a vitiating influence on the course of the ballet. It was more than sixty years before the advent of the Diaghilev seasons in Paris and the presence of a danseur of the quality of Nijinsky brought about a new balance between the sexes and reestablished male dancing, which had been eclipsed by the Taglioni mystique.
Ultimately, what would place Marie Taglioni's art apart from that of her contemporaries was its unique spiritual quality. According to Andre Levinson, ''Classical dance had been a pleasant exercise to witness; henceforth it would explain the soul; ballet had been an amusement, it became a mystery.'' Charles de Boigne in his Petits mysteres de l'Opera (1857) speaks of Taglioni causing a revolution: ''The reason is that Marie Taglioni was more than a dancer, the most perfect that ever appeared on the boards of the Opera, she was dance itself.''