The evolution of ballet through the centuries

The origins of ballet are rooted in the extravagant royal court commemorations of 15th century Renaissance Italy. The word ballet is derived from the Italian word ‘ballare’ which means ‘to dance, to jump about’. Aristocratic families enjoyed lavish celebrations such as weddings and parties with grandeur; dance and music were always part of these celebrations. This was the beginning of the ballet.

The fine arts grew tremendously under the aristocratic influence of Italian noblewoman Catherine de’ Medici who married into the family of a French noble and became the wife of King Henry II of France. Known as the patron of arts, Catherine brought Italian festivities and traditions to France and helped develop the early form of ballet. Her exorbitant celebrations, which were infused with dance, decor, costume, song, music, and poetry, inspired the growth ballet de cour. Under her tutelage, ballet became increasingly popular in France and grew beyond its borders. One of the earliest recorded ballet performances was ‘Le Paradis d’ Amour’ which was presented at Marguerite de Valois’s wedding, Catherine de’ Medici’s daughter. The first formal court ballet ever recognised was Ballet des Polonais in 1573, a magnificent festival held in honour of the election of Henri de Valois, the future Henri III of France, to the throne of Poland. Evolving from its genesis as a form of royal entertainment, the first ballet school the Academie Royale de Danse (Royal Academy of Dance) opened in France in 1661 under the patronage of King Louis XIV. It was at Academie Royale de Danse that Pierre Beauchamps began his illustrious career as a ballet master and came to be regarded as one of the most famous “fathers” of the ballet. It was Beauchamps who standardised the five-foot positions of ballet (first through fifth positions). The Royal Academy was responsible for the incorporation of ballet elements into traditional French Opera. The Renaissance period ballet was elaborate, extravagant, and expensive. Dancers were adorned with luxurious jewellery and ornate costumes. The recital generally consisted of small jumps, curtsies and slow turns. By the mid-1700s, ballet master Jean Georges Noverre and composer Christoph Gluck moved away from the theatrical form of opera-ballet and introduced a new format called ballet d’action, a dramatic style of ballet that conveys a narrative. Ballet d’action is considered to be the predecessor of the 19th-century classical ballet.

In the 18th century, ballet flourished in the royal courts of  Spain, Portugal, Poland, Germany, Hungary. It had spread its wings across Europe as professional ballet troupes travelled across the continent to perform for aristocratic audiences. Venice, Italy became a cultural centre and a major contributor to ballet as dancers across Europe organized and performed in Venice Carnival. Some of the leading ballet dancers of the time who performed during this era were Louis Dupré, Charles Le Picque with Anna Binetti, Gaetano Vestris, and Jean-Georges Noverre. The Baroque period of the 1700’s witnessed the prominence of female ballet dancers as society shed its disapproval of females performing. Another alteration in this period was the costumes that the dancers wore- ball gowns were replaced by shorter skirts and lighter textiles. 

The onset of the 19th-century continued to highlight the rise of female members of ballet, turning away the spotlight from male dancers. Social and cultural changes as well as the induction of the industrial revolution reflected a change in ballet. The Romantic period ballet retired from its aristocratic roots as performances became more technical and movements became more fluid and graceful. The stories were supernatural and magical with elements of folklore which depicted women as fragile, ethereal beings. The Romantic period birthed the tutu- the current formal dress code of ballet. The era also gave birth to famous ballerinas such as Geneviève Gosselin, Marie Taglioni, and Fanny Elssler who were among the first to experiment with pointework and paved the way for en pointe performances. Marie Taglioni is thought to be the first ballerina to dance en pointe in 1832 as the sylph in La Sylphide, although this fact is contested by certain historians. Her role in La Sylphide earned her the nickname ‘Christian Dancer’ as she exuded an image of light and purity. With orientalism in vogue during this period, many of the works saw the caricature portrayal of African, Asian, and Africans; non-European members of the troupe were mostly cast in a negative light. The performances of the Romantic period were created through the narrow purview of European understanding of other ethnic cultures and unsurprisingly, it was riddled with misinformation and fantasy.

National Opera of Ukraine, Hungarian National Ballet, National Theatre Ballet of Prague, and Vienna State Ballet were established in the mid-to-late 19th century. As ballet began to lose its allure in France post the French Revolution, it flourished in Denmark and Russia. Russian ballet came to prominence owing to the tremendous work by masters like August Bournonville, Jules Perrot, Arthur Saint-Léon, Enrico Cecchetti, and Marius Petipa. Particularly, Marius Petipa is known for reforming ballet and credited with the development of classical ballet we know today. He is considered the father of classical ballet. Some of his most recognised works include The Pharaoh’s Daughter (1862), The Talisman (1889), and La Bayadère (1877). His choreography of The Nutcracker (1892), The Sleeping Beauty (1890), and The Swan Lake (1895) are still alive and relevant today. Russian ex-pats like Michel Fokine and Serge Pavlovich Diaghilev helped popularise ballet in France and other parts of Europe after a slump in the early 20th century.

Ballet in the 20th century was far more technically complex and refined than it’s precedent formats thanks to Russian masters and choreographers. The country was also home to one of the most famous ballerinas that ever lived, Anna Pavlova, who was the centrepiece of The Dying Swan (a solo created specifically for her). Post World War II, Russian ballet companies toured worldwide and helped revive ballet in the West. While Americans were fascinated and mesmerised by the European artistry, there was a lack of local dancers. It was Serge Pavlovich Diaghilev’s student George Balanchine’s arrival in the United States in 1933 that offset the love affair that spellbound Americans and laid the foundation of American ballet. Balanchine is the founder of the New York City Ballet. He created a new style of ballet that came to be known as neoclassical ballet. Neo-classical ballet signifies a plotless storyline and endeavours to express human emotions through movement and music. Balanchine also worked with seamstress Barbara Karinska to upgrade the costume design and bring to life the classic tutu that we associate with ballet today. 

Balanchine’s follower Mikhail Baryshnikov, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre from 1980-2002, blended neoclassical style with modern choreography to develop contemporary ballet. Contemporary ballet intertwines traditional stories with modern techniques such as floor work and turn-in of the legs. Today, ballet is accessible to everyone and has become mainstream. Modern ballet is an immersive experience of artistic costumes, intricate choreography, symphonious music, and a show of technical adroitness and athleticism. The art form has evolved through the centuries. Dancers and choreographers continue to forge ahead to expand the boundaries of ballet, amalgamating the old and new to create diverse styles that cater to the new generation of audience. To know more about “The evolution of ballet through the centuries”, reach us.

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