Honoring Suzanne Douvillier

Honoring Suzanne Douvillier, Pioneering Ballerina

Suzanne Douvillier was a Franco-American dancer, mime, and likely the first woman choreographer in America. In 1792 she appeared at the John Street Theatre in New York City in The Bird Catcher, generally held to be the first ballet piece to have been presented in New York. She settled in New Orleans in 1799. She remained on the stage in ballet and pantomime until 1818. In addition to her distinction as perhaps the first female American choreographer, she was probably also the first to design and paint stage scenery.

PAMA will honor Suzanne Douvillier during the symposium, at noon on Monday, June 22, by placing a plaque on a tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, near to where she was buried in a pauper's grave.

 

A woman of firsts: Suzanne Douvillier changed dance in New Orleans—and America

Published: Tuesday, August 28, 2018
By Nina Bozak, library cataloguer

By the time she came to New Orleans in 1799, Suzanne Douvillier was a famous dancer on both sides of the Atlantic, but the sensational story of how she got here goes far beyond the stage.

Born in France in 1778 as Suzanne Theodore Vaillande, she became a child prodigy, studying ballet at the Paris Opera and performing at the Comédie Française before moving to the wealthy colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), likely with a theater troupe. There she formed a bond with Alexandre Placide, a versatile man of the theater as adept at acrobatics and acting as he was in theater management and choreography.

In August 1791 an uprising of enslaved people against the French administrators plunged Saint-Domingue into revolution, and many of the French residents fled.

A mere month before the Revolution, Placide took Douvillier, then just 13 years old, to the United States, where she was introduced to American audiences as “Madame Placide,” though they were never legally married. The duo performed in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia over the next couple of years, establishing her reputation throughout the U.S. as an exquisitely graceful dancer and emotive performer. In 1794 they settled in South Carolina, to work at the Charleston French Theatre: she as a performer, he as an administrative partner.

Jean Baptiste Fransicqui—himself a refugee of the Haitian Revolution—owned and operated the theater, which also employed a handsome young singer and actor named Louis Douvillier.

By 1796 Douvillier had grown quite amorous of the young “Madame Placide,” who by all accounts was very beautiful. His feelings were so obvious that Alexandre Placide challenged Douvillier to a duel by swords in the streets of Charleston.

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