A Short History of Ballet

Expression through movement has been a key part in ceremonial and celebratory events since man learned to walk. But the most beautiful and evocative of dance creations did not become what we would recognise today until the glittering Renaissance courts of fifteenth century Italy. Nobles used the basic steps and arm movements during weddings, masques and processions as a way to demonstrate politics, classical stories and biblical morality. Whole courts would participate in the dance designed to show off the ruler’s wealth through costume and the ability to know the latest dance crazes of late medieval Europe. Ballet itself spread northwards to France due to Catherine de Medici’s marriage to Henri II, then the Duke of Orleans, in 1533 who both sought to fund and patronise the growing athletic activity. Ballet continued to be a mixture of dance, poetry and music to envelope the audience in a concoction of movement, colour and noise in the hopes of impressing the resident foreign ambassadors of the French court.

Catherine de Medici’s patronisation of Ballet led it to becoming one of the art forms France remains infamous for today, hence why when learning ballet all of the steps retain their French name. Catherine never lost touch with her Italian native culture and encouraged dance masters from the city states to teach her children, including Cesare Negari who excelled at educating figure dancing – a series of dance patterns learned independently to the beat of eight per bar. The first full-scale choreographed piece Ballet Comique de la Reine was portrayed on October 15th 1581 for Catherine to celebrate the marriage of Marguerite of Lorraine’s marriage to Duc de Joyeuse. Inspired by Homer’s Odyssey and choreographed by Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx, the ballet lasted five and a half hours and focused upon the enchantress Circe, while dancers appeared from all four sides of the great hall which was a first for any court ballet. French kings and queens developed a habit of appearing in the ballets themselves thus showing off their own prowess on the stage, and Henri III and his wife Louise of Lorraine were no different occupying roles in the Ballet Comique.

Ballet continued to be an important part of court festivities until the reign of the Le Roi-Soleil Louis XIV in the seventeenth century when the king began to standardised ballet into a discipline. Louis XIV was an avid dancer throughout his reign and performed in many choreographed pieces such as Ballet de la Nuit. His patronisation meant that ballet was lifted from noble amateurs to require professional training from the masters as dance academies began to develop from 1661. In 1681 ballet moved from the courts to the stage for the first time and became a popular pastime for royals and nobles to visit. By this time the ideology of the Opera-Ballet developed particularly enhanced by the French opera Le Triomphe de l’Amour which remains a popular show today. Up until this point ballet had always been incorporated into other art forms such as masques, weddings or poetry. However, Jean Georges Noverre in the eighteenth century believed that ballet could stand alone as a piece of artwork with just dance and emotive music to convey stories without words. Thence ballet d’action was born which meant the movement of the figures would convey the relationship between characters and carry the narrative themselves. Noverre’s work is considered the most important pre-cursor to the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century.

The Romantic movement influenced art, dance and music and some of the most famous ballets were designed and choreographed during this period. The movement focused upon the ideology of the supernatural with faeries and magic furthering influencing the Gothic movement in literature. Women were painted to seem fragile and passive creatures which were emulated in the ballets. It was during the romantic period that it became the norm for ballerinas to become skilled in pointe work – the act of dancing on your toes in special shoes – and tulle tutus became the staple image of a ballet dancer. The most famous ballets of this period were Giselle and La Sylphide which are the oldest surviving ballets with choreography that would be recognised today. Both include the dramatic death of a main character via supernatural means. Giselle focuses upon a girl who danced herself to death after experiencing heart-break which led to wraiths forcing the man who broke her heart to dance to his death. La Sylphide portrays a man falling for a type of faery, a sylph, who is then killed by witches in the arms of a real girl who loved him. I have seen an adaption of Giselle by the Bolshoi Ballet which was stunningly dramatic and I loved it. During the nineteenth century ballet spread world-wide becoming infamous in Russia, England, America and Japan. Russia is responsible for the most famous ballets of all time with Pepita and Ivanov’s The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake. These three ballets represent classical ballet in its purest form due to the development of the classical technique – turned out from the hips, pointe work, high extensions and ultimately precision. Tutu’s got shorted in order to fully maximise the effect of the classical ballet while introducing the ability and movement for leaps and turns those rendered more difficult in older ballet costumes.

From the twentieth century onwards ballet metamorphosed and was challenged by a series of choreographers to include styles and movements derived or adjacent to classical ballet. Neo-Classical ballet was created by the founder of the New York City Ballet, the Russian George Balachine. Balachine created the ideology of the plotless ballet where dance was choreographed to music to reflect the music’s style but for no other purpose and no narrative. Experimentation with costume and dance meant that ballet was able to take on a more contemporary form representing the newer Art Deco styles in the 1920s and away from the Pre-Raphaelite-esque romance of the previous century. Oskar Schlemmer designed the ‘Bauhaus Ballet’ – Triadisches Ballett – where the figures were moulded into geometric colourful shapes to allow the dancers to transform into part of the scenery. Today both classical and contemporary ballet continues to be shown on stages world-wide and remains to be a fascinating and enduring concept. Thousands of little girls still seek to learn the complicated discipline either at amateur schools or professional training boarding schools. I did myself for eleven years during my childhood. Ballet continues to be one of the innovative art forms of modern-day society even with retaining old-fashioned values and movements.

There are plenty of books that highlight the history of ballet that would also go into more depth including:

Anderson, J., Ballet and Modern Dance: A Concise History, 1993.

Clark, M., and Crist, C., Ballet: An Illustrated History, 1992.

Homans, J., Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, 2010.

Lee, C., Ballet in Western Culture: A History of its Origins and Evolution, 1992.

(Image: ‘Grand pas de Quatre’ from http://revistaelbosco.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/ballet-grand-pas-de-quatre-y-su-historia.html)

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