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History of Ballet

Early Years | Modern Times

Early Years

The earliest forerunners to ballets were extravagant entertainments given in the courts of Renaissance Italy. They utilized painting, poetry, music, and dancing, took place in large halls that were used also for banquets and balls. A dance performance given in 1489 actually was performed between the courses of a banquet, and closely related to the menu. For example, “Jason and the Golden Fleece” preceded the roast lamb.

Ballet developed in the French courts. The first official ballet to have an accompanying score was titled Le Ballet Comique de la Reine (The Queen's Ballet Comedy), staged by Balthazar de Beaujoyeux and performed in Paris in 1581. Beaujoyex was a violinist and dancing master in Queen Catherine de M,dicis’ court. The choreography highlighted elaborate lines and floor patterns with the dancers, since majority of the audience sat above the performance.

Louis VIV’s reign furthered the development of court ballet between 1643 and 1715. Louis XIV’s title, the Sun King, was adopted from a role he danced in the ballet. The king established the Académie Royale de Danse (which is now the Paris Opera Ballet) in 1661. The same year, composer Jean Baptiste Lully debuted the first comédie-ballet. Pierre Beauchamp, maître de ballet of the Académie Royale de Musique et de Danse from 1671 to 1687, created the five basic feet positions for ballet. Since France is where ballet was born and grew, most of its terms are in French, and are still used today.

Toe dancing began to develop approximately in the 1790s. However, dancers balanced on their toes only for a moment or two. Blocked toe shoes (which evolved into today’s pointe shoes) had not yet been invented, and dancers strengthened their light slippers with darning.

During the 1800s, the romantic era intertwined with ballet. The ballet La Sylphide, introduced this new style. The part of Sylphide, a supernatural creature whom a mortal man loves and destroys, was first danced by Marie Taglioni. The choreographer, Filippo Taglioni, exploited the use of toe dancing to emphasize his daughter’s otherworldly lightness and insubstantiality. “La Sylphlike inspired many changes in the ballets of the time—in theme, style, technique, and costume. Its successor, Giselle (1841), also contrasted the human and supernatural worlds, and in its second act the ghostly spirits called wilis wear the white tutu popularized in La Sylphide.”

Ballet also continued to progress in Russia in the late 19th century. Marius Petipa, from France, became the head choreographer of the Imperial Russian Ballet at the time. He is known for perfecting the “full-length, evening-long story ballet that combined set dances with mimed scenes.” His best-known ballets are The Sleeping Beauty (1890) and Swan Lake (choreographed with Lev Ivanov), both set to commissioned scores by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Cited: Ballet-MSN Encarta | ABT's Dictionary

Modern Times

Eventually, Petipa’s style of choreography became a sort of ballet formula. Greater advances were also made in scenery, choreography and costumes. Ballet was rising to new heights and gaining quite the reputation.

The Ballets Russes opened in Paris in 1909 and immediately became a hit. The male dancers, among them the Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, were particularly admired because “good male dancers had almost disappeared in Paris.” Ballet Russes presented a broad range of works, including Fokine’s The Firebird (1910), Scheherazade (1910), and Petrushka (1911). The Ballets Russes became “synonymous with novelty and excitement, a reputation it maintained throughout its 20 years of existence.”

Modern dance began developing in the United States and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. American dancers Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, German dancer Mary Wigman, and others “broke away” from traditional ballet to create their own kinds of “expressive movement styles” and to choreograph dances that were “more closely related to actual human life.”

Ballets also started reflecting this move toward realism. In 1932 German choreographer Kurt Jooss created The Green Table, an “antiwar” ballet. Antony Tudor developed the “psychological ballet,” which “revealed the inner being of the characters.” Modern dance also eventually added to the ballet vocabulary, particularly in the use of the torso and in movements done lying or sitting on the floor.

Popular dance forms also contributed to new ballets. In 1944, American choreographer Jerome Robbins created Fancy Free, a ballet based on “the jazz-dance style that had developed in musical comedy.” Symphonic ballets also became popular, using the music of known composersLudwig Van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms.

“Two great American ballet companies were founded in New York City in the 1940s, American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet. The latter drew many of its dancers from the School of American Ballet established by George Balanchine and Kirstein in 1934. Since the mid-20th century, ballet companies have been founded in many cities throughout the United States and in Canada, among them the National Ballet of Canada, in Toronto (1951); Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, in Montréal (1952); the Pennsylvania Ballet, in Philadelphia (1963); and the Houston Ballet (1963).”

Dance in general underwent an “enormous upsurge in popularity” beginning in the mid-1960s. Ballet began to show the influence of a younger audience, in both themes and style. The athleticism and technique of dancing was appreciated more, in much the same way as sports, and bold steps were admired for their challenge and daring. Popular music such as rock and roll and jazz was used to accompany many ballets.

“Today’s ballet repertoire offers great variety. New ballets and reconstructions and restagings of older ballets coexist with new works created by modern-dance choreographers for ballet companies.” Choreographers now often experiment with both new and traditional forms and styles, and dancers continuously strive to extend their technical and dramatic range. The numerous tours of ballet companies allow audiences throughout the world to experience the “full spectrum of today’s ballet activity.”

Cited: Ballet-MSN Encarta

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