Outreach & EducationHistory of Ballet

Ballet is a form of dancing performed for theatre audiences. Like other dance forms, ballet may tell a story, express a mood, or simply reflect the music. But a ballet dancer's technique (way of performing) and special skills differ greatly from those of other dancers. Ballet dancers perform many movements that are unnatural for the body. But when these movements are well executed, they look natural.

The beginnings of ballet can be traced to Italy during the 1400's at the time of the Renaissance. During the Renaissance, people developed a great interest in art and learning. At the same time, trade and commerce expanded rapidly, and the dukes who ruled Florence and other Italian city-states grew in wealth. The dukes did much to promote the arts. The Italian city-states became rival art centers as well as competing commercial centers. The Italian dukes competed with one another in giving costly, fancy entertainments that included dance performances. The dancers were not professionals. They were noblemen and noblewomen of a duke's court who danced to please their ruler and to stir the admiration and envy of his rivals.

Catherine de Medici, a member of the ruling family of Florence, became the queen of France in 1547. Catherine introduced into the French court the same kind of entertainments that she had known in Italy. They were staged by Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx, a gifted musician. Beaujoyeulx had come from Italy to be Catherine's chief musician. Ballet historians consider one of Beaujoyeulx's entertainments, the Ballet Comique de la Reine, to be the first ballet. It was a magnificent spectacle of about 51/2 hours performed in 1581 in honour of a royal wedding. The ballet told the ancient Greek myth of Circe, who had the magical power to turn men into beasts. The ballet included specially written instrumental music, singing, and spoken verse as well as dancing--all based on the story of Circe. Dance technique was extremely limited, and so Beaujoyeulx depended on spectacular costumes and scenery to impress the audience. To make sure that the audience understood the story, he provided printed copies of the verses used in the ballet. The ballet was a great success, and was much imitated in other European courts.

French leadership. The Ballet Comique de la Reine established Paris as the capital of the ballet world. King Louis XIV, who ruled France during the late 1600's and early 1700's, strengthened that leadership. Louis greatly enjoyed dancing. He took part in all the ballets given at his court, which his nobles performed, but stopped after he became fat and middle-aged. In 1661, Louis founded the Royal Academy of Dancing to train professional dancers to perform for him and his court.

Professional ballet began with the king's dancing academy. With serious training, the French professionals developed skills that had been impossible for the amateurs. Similar companies developed in other European countries. One of the greatest was the Russian Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg, whose school was founded in 1738.

The French professional dancers became so skilled that they began to perform publicly in theatres. But in 1760, the French choreographer Jean Georges Noverre criticized the professional dancers in his book Lettres sur la danse, et sur les ballets (Letters on Dancing and Ballets). Noverre complained that the dancers cared too much about showing their technical skills and too little about the true purpose of ballet. This purpose, he said, was to represent characters and express their feelings. Noverre urged that ballet dancers stop using masks, bulky costumes, and large wigs to illustrate or explain plot and character. He claimed that the dancers could express these things using only their bodies and faces. So long as the dancers did not look strained or uncomfortable doing difficult steps, they could show such emotions as anger, joy, fear, and love. Noverre developed the ballet d'action, a form of dramatic ballet that told the story completely through movement.

Most of Noverre's ballets told stories taken from ancient Greek myths or dramas. But during the early 1800's, people no longer cared about old gods and heroes. The romantic period began as people became interested in stories of escape from the real world to dreamlike worlds or foreign lands.

Ballet technique was expanded, especially for women, to express the new ideas. For example, women dancers learned to dance on their toes. This achievement helped them look like heavenly beings visiting the earth but barely touching it. Romantic ballet presented women as ideal and, for the first time, gave them greater importance than men. Male dancers became chiefly porters, whose purpose was to lift the ballerinas (leading female dancers) and show how light they were.

The Italian choreographer Filippo Taglioni created the first romantic ballet, La Sylphide (1832), for his daughter Marie. She danced the title role of the Sylphide (fairylike being) in a costume that set a new fashion for women dancers. It included a light, white skirt that ended halfway between her knees and ankles. Her arms, neck, and shoulders were bare. Marie Taglioni, with her dreamlike style, became the greatest star of the Paris stage. But soon afterward, her chief rival, the Austrian ballerina Fanny Elssler, danced in Paris and gained many followers. Her style expressed strong, human feelings. She was outstanding in the title role of La Gypsy (1839), and also became famous for her lively Spanish character dances.

Another Italian ballerina, Carlotta Grisi, combined the qualities of Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler in Giselle (1841), the outstanding ballet of the romantic period. In the first act, she portrayed a simple peasant girl who dies for love. In the second act, she played the spirit of the dead girl in an unearthly style.

Paris remained the capital of the ballet world during the early 1800's. But many dancers and choreographers who trained and worked there took their technique to cities in other countries. Perhaps the most important of this group was Marius Petipa, who joined the Russian Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg (now the Kirov Ballet). He helped to make St. Petersburg the world centre of ballet. Petipa's speciality was creating spectacular choreography for women. The leading roles in his Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, created in the 1890's, are still the parts desired most by ballerinas. The St. Petersburg company produced some of the greatest ballet dancers of all time. Among the best known were Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky. Pavlova became world famous for her outstanding grace. Nijinsky thrilled audiences with his great expressiveness and his magnificent leaps, during which he seemed to float through the air. Both Pavlova and Nijinsky also danced with another famous Russian company, the Diaghilev Ballets Russes. Sergei Diaghilev, one of the world's greatest ballet producers, established the Ballets Russes in 1909. Michel Fokine was the first choreographer of the Ballets Russes. He had worked earlier with the St. Petersburg company, which did not accept his advanced ideas. Fokine urged that technique be a means to express character and emotion. He felt that a dancer's entire body, rather than separate mimed gestures, should express the story at all times. He also urged that all the arts involved in a ballet be blended into a harmonious whole. With Diaghilev's company, Fokine had the opportunity to carry out his ideas. He created such brilliant works as Prince Igor (1909), The Firebird (1910), and Petrouchka (1911). Diaghilev's company broke up with his death in 1929. His dancers and choreographers then joined companies in many parts of the world, and strongly influenced ballet wherever they went.

The growth of ballet in the United States was largely a result of Russian influence. George Balanchine, who worked for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes as a young man, cofounded the company that became the world-famous New York City Ballet. Mikhail Mordkin, a principal dancer from Moscow, started the company that eventually became American Ballet Theatre under the direction of Lucia Chase. American-born choreographers and dancers also contributed to the development of American ballet. Choreographers such as Ruth Page, Agnes de Mille, and Jerome Robbins created dances to specifically American themes. American dancers who have gained fame in the 1900's include Maria Tallchief, Suzanne Farrell, Cynthia Gregory, Edward Villella, and Arthur Mitchell.

During the mid-1900's, many choreographers based their works on dramatic action. For example, Pillar of Fire (1942), by Antony Tudor of the United Kingdom, told a story of rebellion and repentance. Fancy Free (1944), by the American choreographer Jerome Robbins, featured three sailors looking for fun in New York City. In Germany, the British choreographer John Cranko created full-length ballets for the Stuttgart Ballet based on plots from works by William Shakespeare and Alexander Pushkin.

Today, many choreographers prefer to display dancing without a story--either as an expression of the music or as a study in a particular style of movement. The greatest influence in this type of ballet was George Balanchine of the New York City Ballet. Balanchine's works included a series of collaborations with the Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky, which reached its height in the masterpiece Agon (1957). Balanchine also created choreography for more romantic music, such as Vienna Waltzes (1977). Sir Frederick Ashton of the United Kingdom's Royal Ballet also choreographed nondramatic ballets, such as Symphonic Variations (1946) and Monotones (1966). Outstanding teachers of the art of ballet during the 1900's have included the Irish-born Dame Ninette de Valois, founder of the company that eventually became the Royal Ballet; the Polish-born British ballet director Dame Marie Rambert; and the gifted Russian-British teacher Vera Volkova.

Contemporary ballets reflect a wide variety of styles. During the 1970's, some ballet companies began to perform modern dance works. For example, the American Ballet Theatre commissioned modern-dance choreographer Twyla Tharp for Push Comes to Shove (1976).

Several third party sources were used to compile this information and thus, it is not necessarily the complete work of anyone involved @dance4it.