Think ballet, and the first things that come to mind are elegant, dainty dancers standing poised and tall in ballet shoes. The dance style that is now synonymous with opulence and grace wasn’t always like this. As time has passed, ballet has evolved, matured into the beautiful art that it is today.
How did this happen? What molded ballet into its current form? Let’s take a look at the journey of ballet from its birth in the 16th century to its steps onto global platforms. A look back in time, through the history of ballet.
The complete history of ballet : Timeline
The Italian origins of ballet
The history of ballet dates back to the the 15th century. During this time, the Italian courts were flourishing. They were enjoying a period of great scientific and artistic boom, called the Renaissance. Their noblemen and women were enjoying lavish events and celebrations, where dance and music were integral. A very typical celebration to have was to hold balls with attendees wearing masks.
In these celebrations, the attendees were often taught dance by masters of the art, creating spectacular performances. At this point, ballet dancers would wear long, heavy clothes which were floor-length.
At the heart of this growth was the city of Florence, which was home to the wealthy banker family, the Medici. From the family, a noblewoman named Catherine de Medici married into a French noble family and became the wife of King Henry II of France.
And she was responsible for carrying over Italian traditions and festivities into France. She took with her the tradition of dancing, and the word ‘ballet’, from the Italian word ‘ballare’, meaning ‘to dance’.
The French revolutionizing ballet
In her French court, Catherine de Medici became a patron of the arts and funded ballet performances in France. Due to her efforts, ballet gained popularity in France, and a festival called ballet de cour (ballet of the court) became commonplace. These festivals nurtured ballet and made it commoner.
Under Catherine’s tutelage, ballet was married to French style, becoming more performance-based and intellectual. The dancers began to wear lighter costumes, used freer movements and complex dances.
Soon after, it gained popularity among the noblemen. A century later, King Louis the XIV took fancy to the art form. He was a passionate dancer himself, and helped standardize ballet. Louis was enthusiastic enough to codify the entirety of ballet costumes, movements, stories and music, and formally supported them under the Crown.
He was passionate enough to take up many roles himself. Louis the XIV is especially remembered for his role of the Sun King in Ballet de la nuit, and this inspired many amateurs to perfect their art. Louis in fact had such a strong influence that to this day, most ballet movements and techniques have French terms.
Ballet goes on stage
In 1661, the French opened an academy in Paris, which contributed largely to the history of ballet. Two decades later, ballet shifted from courts to performing on stage. The opera Le Triomphe de l’Amour (The triumph of love) incorporated ballet elements, giving it an opening on stage.
However, in the mid-1700s, ballet proponents like Jean Georges Noverre were already pushing for ballet to be its own art form. They strongly believed that ballet had expressive and dramatic movements that could help establish character roles on stage. At this point, ballet d’action came into existence, dramatic and narrative. This is an important development, picking speed especially in the 19th century.
Ballet soon took off from France, spreading to Denmark and Russia. It also changed its storytelling form. It was no longer restricted to a genre and began to tell stories of commoners and heroes alike. To complement this, ballerinas began wearing more Grecian dresses which allowed freer movements.
19th century ballet
The first half of the 19th century saw the rise of the Romantic Movement. This influenced all of art and culture, and ballet was no exception. The themes of the movement were supernatural and magical, with women being portrayed as fragile and passive. The stories became more of fairy tales than commoners’ lives.
With the debut of La Sylphide, ballets mirrored the industrialization of Europe. La Sylphide opened to great success, followed by Giselle. These were iconic performances where the ballerinas were cast into the limelight.
This period was also when pointe work was created. Pointe work is the technique in which ballerinas stand on the tips of their toes and dance. This has become the iconic image of ballet in the world. Pointe work was invented by Marie Taglioni who danced La Sylphide. Marie’s father Filipo wrote it for her, and she was so charismatic that after her last performance, her fans cooked and ate her ballet slippers!
Post this, ballerinas strived to appear more sylph-like, slender and graceful, and this was accompanied by the advent of the tutu. The tutu is a romantic style calf-length full skirt made of tulle. Together, these gave ballerinas the image that they are associated with today.
Towards the latter half of the 19th century, ballet declined in popularity in France. But it remained popular in Russia, where some of the best-loved ballerinas of the world come from. In the 1840s, Marius Petipa, a Frenchman, went to Russia to produce ballets. The most popular ballets of all time are also Russian and from this production company, such as Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.
It might be surprising, but these now popular ballets were poorly received when they first opened in Moscow. They have gained fame in the last few decades, especially with The Nutcracker becoming a Christmas tradition.
The Russian influence on Ballet
Before and while the Russian Revolution was ongoing, Russian expats were establishing their names on the ballet scene. Serge Pavlovich Diaghilev owned a dance company called Ballet Ruses, which began to charm audiences in Paris in 1909. Thereafter, Ballet Ruses was strengthened with the brilliant composer Igor Stravinsky and an array of innovative choreography, costumes and Russian folklore.
Because these companies could not return to Russia, they remained in Western Europe after the revolution and this helped ballet regain its popularity across the globe. Russia was also home to Anna Pavlova, the famous ballerina who performed the Dying Swan, a solo created specifically for her.
At this point, American audiences had still not experienced the rush of ballet. In the 1920s and 1930s, they were fascinated by the idea of toe dancing, but did not have any local ballerinas. Social dances were quite popular in the United States, but the few ballet troupes were from Europe and Russia.
American audiences learn to love ballet
A few years later, Serge Pavlovich Diaghilev died and one of his famous dancers, George Balanchine came to America to form his own company. He saw Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the movies and thought that there would be many people with great ballet potential in America. He founded the New York City Ballet, produced his version of The Nutcracker and established a name for ballet in the minds of American audiences.
Balanchine was also accompanied by many other dancers from the Ballet Ruses company. One of these was Adolph Bolm, who founded the San Francisco Ballet School. With Balanchine came Barbara Karinska. She was a skilled seamstress who changed the ballet costume by introducing the bias cut. This made the tutu simpler and allowed free movement. She began to add decoration to the tutus, such as beadwork, embroidery, crochet and applique.
One of the many ways that Balanchine transformed ballet was by introducing neo-classical ballet. This is a form of ballet that is plotless and endeavors to express human emotions through movement and music.
There are some more important people who contributed significantly to the development and history of ballet:
- Frederick Ashton was an English choreographer who created the ballet Daphnis and Chloe. This was specifically written for Margot Fonteyn at an age when most ballerinas retire.
- Rudolph Nureyev was a Russian dancer who trained for several years and then defected to France. He produced his own versions of Don Quijote and Romeo and Juliet.
- Mikhail Baryshnikov was a Latvian dancer who was so good that he got solo roles immediately. Once while his company was touring Canada, he defected and joined a Canadian company. He was the first ballet star in America, and took breathtaking dance steps. Mikhail is recognizable in his roles in The Turning Point and White Nights.
Ballet as we know it
Ballet captured people’s hearts in the 20th century, and companies cashed in on it. Ballet grew in popularity and gave rise to different dance styles including Contemporary dance. Its became more accessible to audiences and people began to watch ballet more commonly.
These dance styles reinvented old works and inspired new ones. Sets became less elaborate and more traditional and theatrical. The focus shifted onto the dance and technique, and performance styles developed.
Ballet spread throughout the world and has led to the formation of many theatres. These include the Royal Danish Ballet, Sadler’s Royal Ballet of London, American Ballet Theatre and many others. These contribute towards popularizing ballet and introducing it to new places.
Especially recently, ballet has become mainstream and is portrayed in media. Films such as Billy Elliot and The Black Swan are a part of pop culture now, and there is so much more! Modern ballets have an internationally acclaimed athleticism and virtuosity. They have restaged ballets and modern dance to revitalize the art. Dancers and choreographers are pushing the frontiers and make ballet more appealing.
Types of ballet
Through the years, ballet changed form as it was influenced by the happenings around it. In the 18th century it became recognized as an independent art form and its actions developed. The movements of the dancers expressed character and narrated the plot. Women were still secondary dancers, bogged down by their costumes.
Soon, ballet was divided into the three formal techniques of Sérieux, demi-caractère, and comique. It also began to feature in operas called divertissements, which were interludes.
In the 19th century as social change occurred, ballet shifted from aristocracy to plotlines that touched on the lives of common folk. Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler brought in new techniques like pointe work. The ballet slipper was invented to help these dancers accomplish their leaps and jumps skillfully.
As Romanticism rose, ballets became light and airy. The dancers were expected to be more sylph-like and wore loose, flowy costumes. Tutus were long and airy, and the stories were heavily inspired from folklore. From La Sylphide, dancers danced pointe more and more, making them appear unearthly and ethereal, light and airy.
Balanchine, the Russian dancer from Diaghilev’s dance company introduced his own style of ballet. This was more expansive and flexible, and dancers danced at extreme tempo, performing technical feats. It is derived from 19th century Russian imperial dance, and is stripped of its narrative and theatrical nature.
Neoclassical ballet is dance at its most primal form. It is sophisticated but modern. Pointe work is still a part of it, but the drama and mime are no longer there. Balanchine’s Apollo is the first neoclassical ballet. After this, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan also began to choreograph neoclassical ballet.
Contemporary ballet is a fusion of classical ballet and modern dance. It takes the technique of classical ballet and has freer movement of the body. Its ideas are from modern dance of the 20th century with floorwork and turn-in of the legs.
Balanchine is also partly responsible for the techniques of contemporary ballet. He distanced his art from the classical and romantic ballet traditions, and brought modern into his company. He got Mikhail Baryshnikov in his company and they used modern movements in their ballets.
Today, there are dancers that dance exclusively contemporary ballet. These include Alonzo King, Nacho Duato, Compañia Nacional de Danza. Jiří Kilián currently directs the Nederlands Dans Theatre and performs contemporary ballet. Traditional classical companies also perform contemporary works.
Summing it up
Like society, ballet has transformed over the years, mirroring changes in the world structure.
Today it is well-known around the world. Are you interested in learning about or how to dance ballet?
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