Ballet, from the 16th century to the present

The earliest form of ballet was "court ballet" which was a loose story often using mythical symbolism and based on current events. These ballets included dancing, singing, music, pantomime and elaborate costumes and sets, and started in the 1500's, primarily in France and Italy. Their purpose was somewhat propagandistic, or at least nationalistic, as they were originally used to further the case of the king, whatever case that might be. Nobles danced in the court ballets, including the king (who always had a vaunted part) and at the end, the spectators would join the dancers for a ball in the same hall where they had just performed. This coming together of the audience and dancers was symbolic of the unity of the state.

Unlike later, when the proscenium stage came into use, the court ballet took place in the center of a hall and the audience was in balconies overlooking the "stage". Thus much of the dancing was designed to trace intricate patterns that could be seen from above - not unlike the designs you sometimes see marching bands take in the middle of a college football stadium. This early form of ballet did not have the advanced leaps, pirouettes, and other steps that typify ballet today. Also, dancers wore masks on stage, a convention that held for quite a while before being dropped.

At the same time that the court ballet was coming of age in France, opera was being born in Italy. Both contained similar elements, as operas at that time had dance in the interludes between scenes, and court ballets included speaking, miming and singing. As time went on, of course, the two forms grew to have their own distinct characters.

By the early 1600's, the stories of the court ballet had less and less plot. Instead, the dances were held together by a loose theme. Performances began to include pantomimic dances, which required more skill for jumps, leaps, acrobatics, and other advanced steps. Professional dancers were hired for these parts, and of course that change only increased as time went on.

In Ballet & Modern Dance, Susan Au says, "The French court ballet reached its height during the reign of Louis XIV.... The young king, who made his debut as a dancer in the Ballet de Cassandre in 1651, enjoyed the position of first dancer of the realm until his retirement in 1670. One of his favourite roles was that of the god Apollo, who was closely associated with solar symbolism. As the Roi Soleil or Sun King, Louis became the human embodiment of the brilliance and splendour of France."

At the same time that Louis XIV reigned in France, Charles I came to power in England. He enjoyed playing the lead in masques - which were much like court ballets, but different in their themes and symbols. Unlike the court ballet, court masques died out when Charles I did, and were not started again after the Civil War and the English Republic.

In that time, nobles were taught dance and ballet as part of their education. They had use for it every day in their bearing and presentation; the way they stood, walked, moved their hands, was based on ballet and was a sign of good breeding - or not. Indeed, some of the old paintings show the stances of noblemen in what we call second position, or third position, or occasionally fourth position. This was not by accident. In this same time period, women also learned ballet for their bearing, curtseys, etc., and also learned the fan talk discussed in the previous class.

The mid to late-17th century saw several changes in the court ballet. For one thing, female professional dancers were hired for the first time. The proscenium stage came into use, putting more distance between the dancers and the audience. And the technical skill of the professional dancers and the difficulty of the feats they performed grew, further pushing noble amateurs out of the show.

In 1672, the Académie Royale de Musique et de Danse - later known as the Paris Opéra - was created, and a permanent troupe of dancers installed in 1713. (Despite its nickname, it is a dance company, rather than an opera company. When it was created, there was still no distinct difference between opera and ballet.) The Paris Opéra is still in existence today. For much of the 17- and 1800's, the Paris Opéra dominated the ballet world.

In the 1700's, the ballet d’action came into being. This involved a couple of major changes from the previous court ballets - for one thing, it incorporated the idea that the plot of the ballet could be portrayed solely through movement, rather than accompanying song or narration. Also, "the professional dancer was no longer required to preserve a gentlemanly demeanour; instead, as the dramatic dimension of ballet grew, he was often called upon to display emotions that could seldom if ever be expressed in public life."

Two notable dancers of this period were Marie Camargo and Marie Sallé. Camargo was highly skilled at quick footwork, while Sallé excelled at dramatic interpretation. Both left their mark on the ever evolving art form. Sallé’s best known ballet was Pygmalion, which she performed in a simple tunic, with her hair unbound. This was revolutionary costuming, and did not catch on for several more decades.

The latter part of the century saw more reforms promoted by Jean Georges Noverre, a choreographer. He pushed for changes in costume - away from "the women’s panniers and the men’s tonnelets or abbreviated hoop-skirts", as well as for a more cohesive approach to planning a ballet. At that time, staging, costuming, scoring and choreographing might all take place with no discussion or shared vision of what the outcome should be.

The first half of the 19th century and the Romantic period saw the rise of ballerinas to prominence, with a corresponding decline in the importance of the male dancer. Indeed, in a neat reversal of ancient theatre, there were many times when men were barred from the stage altogether, and women dressed as men to play the male roles.

Ballerinas were stars, their names known in every household. It was also in this period that dancers became sylph-like; the pinnacle of this being ballerina Marie Taglioni. In contrast to her was Fanny Elssler, who excelled at fast and difficult footwork. While Taglioni made a huge splash in Le Sylphide, Essler made her mark in Cachuca, a ballet based on Spanish dance. A third ballerina, Carlotta Grisi, performed the familiar Giselle, a ballet created for her by her lover. In each, the respective ballerina was able to display her greatest talents. So this period saw the rise of both the ballerina as an ethereal, sylph-like, light-as-air character as well as an accomplished ballet technician capable of great feats.

This was the first time pointe shoes came into use, and in the beginning they were used only sparsely, as proof of a dancer’s technical ability. Later, their use became more widespread. Tutus also came appeared on the scene, replacing the more cumbersome costumes used in the 18th century. Ballet was becoming something we would recognize today.

If you have seen any of Edgar Degas’ ballet paintings, you have seen the Paris Opéra of the mid to late 1800's.

Most of this progress went on in Paris and to a certain extent in other areas of Europe. In many ways, though, Paris was the hub, with the Paris Opéra at the center. It is no coincidence that later ballet showed two main "flavors" - the French and the Russian. The latter part of the century saw a decline in French ballet: it was not evolving and was falling out of favor with the public. It was at exactly this time that many major figures in Russian ballet left their enclave and burst on the European scene.

The late 1800's and early 1900's were the time of the Ballet Russes. Serge Diaghilev brought several of his best dancers to Paris and wowed crowds grown tired of the Paris Opéra’s standard fare. Russian dancers were stronger, faster, lighter on their feet. Their choreography was adventurous but not so far out of the mainstream that it was objectionable.

Two choreographers instrumental in the rise of the Ballet Russes were Marius Petipa, a Frenchman, and Mikhail (Michel) Fokine. Petipa worked with composer Tchaikovsky and choreographed such ballets as The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. Tchaikovsky also composed The Nutcracker, which was choreographed by Petipa’s assistant, Lev Ivanov.

Fokine was a little later in the timeline. He moved in another direction, eschewing pointe shoes and tutus and tradition, and pushing the envelope of formal ballet. It is known that he saw modern dancer Isadora Duncan when she travelled to Russia, and it is thought that her dance might have influenced his ideas (though he denied that they did). We will discuss Duncan more in the next class. Some of Fokine’s most famous ballets are Scheherazade, Cleopatre, The Firebird, and Petrouchka. Igor Stravinsky composed the scores for several of his ballets.

Several great ballet dancers came from the Ballet Russes: Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinksy (and his sister Bronislava Nijinska, who became a choreographer), and Tamara Karsavina. At that time, it was believed the Russians were the best of the best, to the point that many other dancers "Russianized" their names - such as British Alicia Marks, who became Alicia Markova.

In addition, the great George Balanchine started out in the Ballet Russes. After several successful years with Diaghilev and then with the successors to Ballet Russes (which closed after Diaghilev’s death), Balanchine came to America, where he was on the ground floor of the Ballet Theatre - now the American Ballet Theatre, or ABT - and helped start the New York City Ballet.

Balanchine took choreography even further than Fokine, discarding both drama and emotion in favor of "pure dance", even stripping music down to its bare bones lest it interfere with the dance itself. Some of his choreography was seen as "cold and mechanical", but there is no doubt he had a great influence on ballet as a whole. Two specific instances of his legacy are the extremely thin, waif-like figures of the dancers (previous dancers were not expected to be so thin; Pavlova, for instance, was graceful and accomplished but hardly skin and bones), and the "over the toe" stance when using pointe shoes (so the foot is arched just a bit over the front of the toe, thus making the heel disappear more and providing a cleaner line). Both show a certain disregard for the dancers who have to live to such dictates, and it is no small coincidence that today so many ballet dancers have eating disorders.

The latter part of the century saw continued evolution in ballet, as well as many new stars, such as Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gelsey Kirkland, and Jerome Robbins. It was also during the 1900's that modern, jazz and tap dance came to the fore, and there were several dancers who crossed over into and out of ballet - Baryshnikov dancing modern and jazz, and dancing with tap dancer Gregory Hines in the movie White Nights, Fred Astaire incorporating ballet moves with his legendary tap dancing.

Several movies have featured ballet dancing (aside from Astaire’s) - White Nights, The Turning Point, Flashdance, and the recent Save the Last Dance, not to mention the movie and TV series Fame. Even Everwood has a ballet dancer, although only a few shows have featured her dancing. And of course, the Nutcracker is produced each year at Christmas in dance studios everywhere, and various Nutcracker productions are shown on TV.

Pictures & Articles

Some of these have interesting articles, and others I included only for the pictures - those might be for event listings, etc., but the pictures are nice.

Other Resources

Ballet & Modern Dance, by Susan Au

Ballet legends
Roland Petit
Antony Tudor
Leonide Massine
Frederick Ashton
Jose Limon

Ballet Years
Chronological List of Ballets
Ballet History

Confessions of a Ballet Junkie
Pavlova’s Dog: A Regular Guy’s Book of Ballet

100 Common Ballet Terms Defined
Ballet Alert
Eat Right. Respect Your Body. Dance Forever.

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