The History of Ballet

Ballet is a form of dancing performed for theatre audiences. Like other dance forms, ballet may tell a story, express a mood, or simply reflect the music. But a ballet dancer’s technique (way of performing) and special skills differ greatly from those of otherdancers. Ballet dancers perform many movements that are unnatural for the body. But when these movements are well executed, they look natural. The beginnings of ballet can be traced to Italy during the 1400’s at the time of the Renaissance. During the Renaissance, people developed a great interest in art and learning.

At the same time, trade and commerce expanded rapidly, and the dukes who ruledFlorence and other Italian city-states grew in wealth. The dukes did much to promote the arts. Catherine de Medici, a member of the ruling family of Florence, became the queen of France in 1547. Catherine introduced into the French court the same kind of entertainments that she had known in Italy. They were staged by Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx, a gifted musician. Beaujoyeulx had come from Italy to be Catherine’s chief musician. Ballet historians consider one of Beaujoyeulx’s entertainments, the Ballet Comique de la Reine, to be the first ballet.

Dance technique was extremely limited, and so Beaujoyeulx depended on spectacular costumes and scenery to impress the audience. To make sure that the audience understood the story, he provided printed copies of the verses used in the ballet. The ballet was a great success, and was much imitated in other European courts. The Ballet Comique de la Reine established Paris as the capital of the ballet world. King Louis XIV, who ruled France during the late 1600’s and early 1700’s, strengthened that leadership. Louis greatly enjoyed dancing.

He took part in all the ballets given at his court, which his nobles performed, but stopped after he became fat and middle-aged. In 1661, Louis founded the Royal Academy of Dancing to train professional dancers to perform for him and his court. Professional ballet began with the king’s dancing academy. Ballet technique was expanded, especially for women, to express the new ideas. For example, women dancers learned to dance on their toes. This achievement helped them look like heavenly beings visiting the earth but barely touching it. Romantic ballet presented women as ideal and, for the first time, gave them greater importance than men.

Male dancers became chiefly porters, whose purpose was to lift the ballerinas (leading female dancers) and show how light they were. The Italian choreographer Filippo Taglioni created the first romantic ballet, La Sylphide (1832), for his daughter Marie. She danced the title role of the Sylphide (fairylike being) in a costume that set a new fashion for women dancers. It included a light, white skirt that ended halfway between her knees and ankles. Paris remained the capital of the ballet world during the early 1800’s. But many dancers and choreographers who trained and worked there took their technique to cities in other countries.

Perhaps the most important of this group was Marius Petipa, who joined the Russian Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg (now the Kirov Ballet). He helped to make St. Petersburg the world centre of ballet. The St. Petersburg company produced some of the greatest ballet dancers of all time. Among the best known were Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky. Pavlova became world famous for her outstanding grace. Nijinsky thrilled audiences with his great expressiveness and his magnificent leaps, during which he seemed to float through the air.

The growth of ballet in the United States was largely a result of Russian influence. George Balanchine, who worked for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes as a young man, cofounded the company that became the world-famous New York City Ballet. Mikhail Mordkin, a principal dancer from Moscow, started the company that eventually became American Ballet Theatre under the direction of Lucia Chase. American-born choreographers and dancers also contributed to the development of American ballet. Choreographers such as Ruth Page, Agnes de Mille, and Jerome Robbins created dances to specifically American themes.

American dancers who have gained fame in the 1900’s include Maria Tallchief, Suzanne Farrell, Cynthia Gregory, Edward Villella, and Arthur Mitchell. Today, many choreographers prefer to display dancing without a story–either as an expression of the music or as a study in a particular style of movement. The greatest influence in this type of ballet was George Balanchine of the New York City Ballet. Balanchine’s works included a series of collaborations with the Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky, which reached its height in the masterpiece Agon (1957).

Balanchine also created choreography for more romantic music, such as Vienna Waltzes (1977). Outstanding teachers of the art of ballet during the 1900’s have included the Irish-born Dame Ninette de Valois, founder of the company that eventually became the Royal Ballet; the Polish-born British ballet director Dame Marie Rambert; and the gifted Russian-British teacher Vera Volkova. A ballet’s choreography (arrangement of dancemovements) may be based on such sources as a story, a musical composition, or a painting. If a choreographer’s idea comes from a story, the dancers take the roles of the story’s characters.

If a choreographer’s idea comes from music or a painting, the dancers create a mood or image like that of the original work. Choreographers usually have only basic plans about what they want to create and the style of movement they want to use. They develop these plans with dancers at a rehearsal. It is almost impossible for choreographers to picture what the ballet will look like. Unlike most other artists, they cannot create alone. Although all choreographers have their own methods, most of these specialists are influenced by the dancers with whom they work. Music may be written especially for a ballet.

But original music is expensive, and only a few large ballet companies can occasionally afford it. A choreographer usually selects music that has already been written, such as a symphony or a concerto. The music may even have given the choreographer the idea for the ballet. Most ballets are composed to music that is no longer protected by copyright. Therefore, no payment is required to use it. After selecting the music, choreographers listen to it until they feel they understand its mood and structure. Then they begin work on the choreography of the ballet with the dancers and a pianist or a recording of the music.

Skilled choreographers want their ballets to express more than the music expresses. Instead of following the beats of the rhythm, they arrange dance steps that go with the longer phrases of music. To create special effects or dramatic effects, choreographers may make the steps go against the music. A ballet dancer can perform the difficult steps of ballet only after many years of hard training. The best age for a person to begin ballet lessons is when he or she is between 8 and 10 years old. A serious student— one who plans a professional dancing career–may be taking three to six lessons a week by the age of 12.

Most dancers become professionals before they are 20, and retire by 45. It is difficult for a dancer to practice at home, and most dancers go to a studio and enroll in a class. Practice requires the space of a studio, and a piano accompaniment is helpful. Even professional ballet dancers practice daily to remain skilled and to stay in top physical condition. During a performance, they should show no sign of strain or effort, and should appear to be completely absorbed in their dramatic role or in the music. The audience should be aware only of the beauty and expressiveness of the performance, not its technical difficulties.

Ballet has greatly developed and changed throughout the years and there are many various aspects to this beautiful classical dance. 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 experiment with both new and traditional forms and styles, and dancers constantly seek to extend their technical and dramatic range. The frequent tours of ballet companies allow audiences throughout the world to experience the full spectrum of today’s ballet activity.

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