History of Ballet

1. An Introduction to ballet


What is Ballet?

Example of a ballerina

Ballet is a type of performance dance that originated in the Italian Renaissance courts and has since evolved into a concert dance form that is widely performed in theaters around the world. It is known for its grace, precision, and technical demands, and is typically performed to classical music. Ballet dancers typically wear tights and tutus, and perform choreographed sequences of movement that can range from simple and elegant to highly complex and athletic. Ballet is often considered an art form, and is enjoyed both for its aesthetic qualities and for the skill and athleticism of the dancers.

2. History of Ballet

Representation of a Ballet before Henri III. and his Court, in the Gallery of the Louvre. Re-engraving from an original on Copper in the Ballet comique de la Royne by Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx (Paris: Ballard,1582).

The origins of ballet can be traced back to the 15th century in the courts of the Renaissance in Italy. At the time, it was a form of court entertainment, featuring dancing and music, performed by members of the nobility. The choreography was typically simple, consisting of orderly, formal patterns of movement, and the performances were often accompanied by musicians playing a variety of instruments. Ballet as an art form gradually developed over the next several centuries, with the first professional ballet companies being established in the late 17th century in France.

During the 15th century, ballet was known as "ballare" in Italy, which means "to dance." It was a form of court entertainment that was performed primarily by members of the nobility, and it was seen as a way to display their social status and wealth. The choreography was typically simple, featuring orderly, formal patterns of movement, and the dances were often performed in a group, rather than by individuals.

The 16th Century


As time passed, ballet began to evolve and change. By the 16th century, it had become more theatrical, with costumes, scenery, and elaborate choreography. The dances were also becoming more acrobatic, as dancers began to incorporate turns and leaps into their movements.

The 17th Century


In the late 17th century, the first professional ballet companies were established in France, and the art form began to flourish. The choreography became more complex and virtuosic, and the dances were often based on stories and myths. The development of pointe work, in which dancers perform on the tips of their toes, also became a major feature of ballet at this time.

The 18th Century


During the 18th century, ballet began to spread to other parts of Europe, and by the 19th century, it had become popular in Russia, England and throughout the world. Ballet was also evolving with new choreographers and dancers, new choreographic forms and new styles.

The 19th Century


19th century ballet, also known as Romantic ballet, was a period in the history of ballet characterized by an emphasis on dramatic expression and the portrayal of strong emotions through movement. It marked a departure from the more formal and highly technical ballet of the 18th century, and laid the foundation for the development of modern ballet as we know it today.

Marius Petipa (1898)

The 19th century saw the emergence of many significant choreographers and dancers who shaped the future of ballet. Among the most notable were Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot, and Marius Petipa, who together created the first full-length ballet, "Giselle," in 1841. This ballet, which tells the story of a peasant girl who dies of a broken heart and returns as a ghost to save her lover, is considered one of the greatest ballets of all time and is still performed today.

Another important figure in the history of 19th century ballet was Italian choreographer Carlo Blasis, who introduced the five basic positions of the feet and the use of pointe work to ballet. Pointe work, which involves dancing on the tips of the toes, greatly expanded the range of movement for female dancers and helped to create the illusion of weightlessness.

During the second half of the 19th century, the Imperial Ballet in Russia, under the direction of Petipa, became the leading center for ballet in the world. Petipa created some of the most famous ballets of all time, including "Swan Lake," "The Sleeping Beauty," and "The Nutcracker." These ballets, along with many others created by Petipa and his contemporaries, continue to be performed around the world today and are considered the backbone of the classical ballet repertoire.

The 19th century also saw the emergence of the ballerina as a celebrated solo performer. One of the most famous ballerinas of the time was Marie Taglioni, whose delicate and ethereal style was a stark contrast to the more robust and athletic dancing of her male counterparts. Taglioni's performances in ballets such as "La Sylphide" and "Fantasy on the Theme of the Magic Flute" brought her international fame and helped to establish the ballerina as the principal female performer in ballet.

In addition to the key developments and figures of 19th century ballet that have already been discussed, there were several other significant contributions to the art form that helped shape the direction of ballet in this period.

One of these was the rise of national schools of ballet, each with their own distinct styles and techniques. The French school, for example, emphasized grace, elegance, and a soft, fluid style of movement, while the Russian school was known for its powerful, precise technique and its emphasis on drama and expressiveness. The Italian school also had its own unique style, with a special emphasis on virtuosity and rapid footwork, which would be an inspiration for later stylistic trends.

Devon Carney and Marie Christine Mouis during a performance of Swan Lake

Another important development of the 19th century was the use of historical and literary themes in ballet. This trend began with "Giselle," and continued with ballets such as "Swan Lake," which was based on a German folktale, and "The Sleeping Beauty," which was based on a fairy tale by Charles Perrault. These historical and literary themes helped to give ballets a greater sense of narrative and emotional depth, and they are still commonly used in contemporary ballet productions.

Music also played an important role in the development of 19th century ballet. Many of the most famous ballets of this period were created to specific scores, and the music was often specifically composed to enhance the emotional and narrative aspects of the choreography. Some of the most famous composers associated with 19th century ballet include Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, and Delibes, and their contributions to the art form were essential to the development of ballet as we know it today.

The 19th century also saw the emergence of ballet companies as we know them today. Prior to this period, ballet companies were largely associated with the courts of Europe, and their main purpose was to entertain the royal family and the elite. However, the 19th century saw the rise of public performances and the growth of the ballet-going audience. The great ballet companies such as the Ballets Russes, the Paris Opera Ballet, and the Royal Ballet became more independent and began to travel abroad to showcase their productions, and ballet became a truly international art form.

Finally, the 19th century also saw the growth of ballet as an educational discipline. Important ballet schools, such as the Imperial Ballet School in Russia and the Paris Opera Ballet School, were established to train young dancers and provide them with the technical and artistic skills they would need to become professional ballet dancers. The establishment of these schools helped to ensure the survival of ballet as an art form by providing a steady supply of talented dancers and choreographers who could continue to push the boundaries of the art form.

In conclusion, the 19th century was a time of great artistic innovation and experimentation in ballet. It marked a departure from the more formal and technical ballet of the past and laid the foundation for the more expressive and emotional ballet of the 20th century. It was marked by the emergence of new styles, themes, and techniques and it was a period of important contributions and innovations by choreographers, dancers, composers, and ballet companies. The ballets and choreographers of this era continue to be celebrated and performed around the world, making 19th century ballet a vital and enduring part of the world's cultural heritage.

The 20th Century


In the 20th century, ballet continued to evolve and change, as new choreographers and dancers began to experiment with new styles and movements. The modern era of ballet was characterized by a focus on innovation and experimentation, and the use of more contemporary music and choreography. Today, ballet is still a popular and important form of entertainment and art, and it continues to evolve and change to this day.