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 ruled Florence and other Italian city-states grew in wealth. The dukes did much to promote the arts. The Italian city-states
became rival art centres as well as competing commercial centres.
The Italian dukes competed with one another in giving
costly, fancy entertainments that included dance performances. The dancers were not professionals. They were noblemen and
noblewomen of a duke's court who danced to please their ruler and to stir the admiration and envy of his rivals.
de Medicis, 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. It was a magnificent spectacle of about 51/2 hours
performed in 1581 in honour of a royal wedding. The ballet told the ancient Greek myth of Circe, who had the magical power
to turn men into beasts (see CIRCE). The ballet included specially written instrumental music, singing, and spoken verse as
well as dancing--all based on the story of Circe. 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.
leadership. 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.
ballet began with the king's dancing academy. With serious training, the French professionals developed skills that had been
impossible for the amateurs. Similar companies developed in other European countries. One of the greatest was the Russian
Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg, whose school was founded in 1738.
The French professional dancers became so skilled
that they began to perform publicly in theatres. But in 1760, the French choreographer Jean Georges Noverre criticized the
professional dancers in his book Lettres sur la danse, et sur les ballets (Letters on Dancing and Ballets). Noverre complained
that the dancers cared too much about showing their technical skills, and too little about the true purpose of ballet. This
purpose, he said, was to represent characters and express their feelings.
Noverre urged that ballet dancers stop using
masks, bulky costumes, and large wigs to illustrate or explain plot and character. He claimed that the dancers could express
these things using only their bodies and faces. So long as the dancers did not look strained or uncomfortable doing difficult
steps, they could show such emotions as anger, joy, fear, and love. Noverre developed the ballet d'action, a form of dramatic
ballet that told the story completely through movement.
Romantic ballet. Most of Noverre's ballets told stories taken
from ancient Greek myths or dramas. But during the early 1800's, people no longer cared about old gods and heroes. The romantic
period began as people became interested in stories of escape from the real world to dreamlike worlds or foreign lands.
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. Her arms, neck, and shoulders were bare. Marie Taglioni, with her dreamlike
style, became the greatest star of the Paris stage. But soon afterward, her chief rival, the Austrian ballerina Fanny Elssler,
danced in Paris and gained many followers. Her style expressed strong, human feelings. She was outstanding in the title role
of La Gypsy (1839), and also became famous for her lively Spanish character dances.
Another Italian ballerina, Carlotta
Grisi, combined the qualities of Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler in Giselle (1841), the outstanding ballet of the romantic
period. In the first act, she portrayed a simple peasant girl who dies for love. In the second act, she played the spirit
of the dead girl in an unearthly style.
Russian ballet. 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. Petipa's speciality was creating spectacular
choreography for women. The leading roles in his Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, created in the 1890's, are still the parts
desired most by ballerinas.
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. Both Pavlova
and Nijinsky also danced with another famous Russian company, the Diaghilev Ballets Russes. Sergei Diaghilev, one of the world's
greatest ballet producers, established the Ballets Russes in 1909.
Michel Fokine was the first choreographer of the
Ballets Russes. He had worked earlier with the St. Petersburg company, which did not accept his advanced ideas. Fokine urged
that technique be a means to express character and emotion. He felt that a dancer's entire body, rather than separate mimed
gestures, should express the story at all times. He also urged that all the arts involved in a ballet be blended into a harmonious
whole. With Diaghilev's company, Fokine had the opportunity to carry out his ideas. He created such brilliant works as Prince
Igor (1909), The Firebird (1910), and Petrouchka (1911).
Diaghilev's company broke up with his death in 1929. His
dancers and choreographers then joined companies in many parts of the world, and strongly influenced ballet wherever they
Ballet in the United States. 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.
Ballet in Australia and New Zealand. Ballet became firmly established in Australia
in the early 1900's after visits by the ballerinas Adeline Genee of Denmark and Anna Pavlova of Russia. Pavlova in particular
inspired Misha Burlakov and Louise Lightfoot to found the first Australian Ballet Company at the end of the 1920's.
dancers who visited Australia with touring ballet companies stayed on to form companies of their own. The most influential
of them include Helene Kirsova, Edouard Borovansky, and the Austrian-born Gertrud Bodenwieser. The Australian Ballet opened
its first season in November 1962. Among the most famous people associated with the company are Sir Robert Helpmann, Anne
Woolliams, and Marilyn Jones.
The first professional ballet company in New Zealand was formed in 1953 by the Danish
dancer Poul Gnatt. The New Zealand Ballet Trust, formed in 1960 and renamed the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 1984, performs
both classical and modern ballets.
Ballet in Europe. Opera houses throughout Europe benefitted from the emigration
of Russian dancers during and after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Touring companies, such as de Basil's Ballets Russes,
also helped popularize ballet in the 1930's and 1940's.
In France, the Paris Opera (in decline since the 1860's) regained
its status in the mid-1900's under choreographer Serge Lifar. Outside the Opera, Roland Petit defined a new and vibrant style
of French choreography with his companies Les Ballets des Champs-Elysees and Les Ballets de Paris. In the 1980's, Rudolf Nureyev
brought added prestige to the Paris Opera, where he was ballet director until 1989.
In Denmark, Danish ballet has
maintained its distinction as the major guardian of the Bournonville style, named after August Bournonville, a French choreographer.
Bournonville made the Royal Danish Ballet famous from the 1830's onward.
In the United Kingdom, the Royal Ballet is
widely recognized as the national ballet company. It was founded as the Vic-Wells Ballet, by Dame Ninette de Valois, and adopted
its present name in 1957. Its most gifted choreographers were Sir Frederick Ashton, Sir Robert Helpmann, John Cranko, and
Sir Kenneth MacMillan.
The Ballet Rambert was founded by Dame Marie Rambert as a classical ballet company. It was
renamed the Rambert Dance Company in 1987, to reflect its emphasis on contemporary dance. Dame Marie trained many of the United
Kingdom's most famous choreographers, including Ashton and Antony Tudor.
The Royal Ballet has trained many fine dancers,
the greatest of whom was probably Margot Fonteyn. Alicia Markova was the first British ballerina to win international renown.
Anton Dolin won fame as a solo dancer and as Markova's partner in many pas de deux (dances for two people).
Festival Ballet, now the English National Ballet, was founded by Markova, Dolin, and Julian Braunsweg, and has a wide repertoire
of classical ballets. The Scottish Ballet, which was founded by Elizabeth West and Peter Darrell as the Western Theatre Ballet,
is noted for its new and experimental ballets.
Ballet today. During the mid-1900's, many choreographers based their
works on dramatic action. For example, Pillar of Fire (1942), by Antony Tudor of the United Kingdom, told a story of rebellion
and repentance. Fancy Free (1944), by the American choreographer Jerome Robbins, featured three sailors looking for fun in
New York City. In Germany, the British choreographer John Cranko created full-length ballets for the Stuttgart Ballet based
on plots from works by William Shakespeare and Alexander Pushkin.
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). Sir Frederick Ashton of the United Kingdom's Royal Ballet
also choreographed nondramatic ballets, such as Symphonic Variations (1946) and Monotones (1966). 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
Contemporary ballets reflect a wide variety of styles. During the 1970's, some ballet companies began
to perform modern dance works. For example, the American Ballet Theatre commissioned modern-dance choreographer Twyla Tharp
for Push Comes to Shove (1976).
Great ballerinas of the mid-1900's included Melissa Hayden and Nora Kaye of the United
States, Maya Plisetskaya of Russia, and Dame Margot Fonteyn of the United Kingdom. Famous male dancers of that period included
Jacques D'Amboise and Edward Villella of the United States and Erik Bruhn of Denmark. Three performers who were born and trained
in what was then the Soviet Union successfully continued their careers after settling in the West. They were Mikhail Baryshnikov,
Natalia Makarova, and Rudolf Nureyev. Other stars include the American ballerina Darci Kistler, the Russian dancer Irek Mukhamedov,
and the French ballerina Sylvie Guillem.