Ballet /ˈbæleɪ/ (French: [balɛ]) is a type of performance dance that originated in the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th century and later developed into a concert dance form in France and Russia. It has since become a widespread, highly technical form of dance with its own vocabulary based on French terminology. It has been globally influential and has defined the foundational techniques used in many other dance genres. Becoming a ballet dancer requires years of training. Ballet has been taught in various schools around the world, which have historically incorporated their own cultures to evolve the art.
Ballet may also refer to a ballet dance work, which consists of the choreography and music for a ballet production. A well-known example of this is The Nutcracker, a two-act ballet that was originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a music score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Ballets are choreographed and performed by trained artists. Traditional classical ballets usually are performed with classical music accompaniment and use elaborate costumes and staging, whereas modern ballets, such as the neoclassical works of American choreographer George Balanchine, often are performed in simple costumes (e.g., leotards and tights) and without the use of elaborate sets or scenery.
Ballet is a French word which had its origin in Italian balletto, a diminutive of ballo (dance) which comes from Latin ballo, ballare, meaning “to dance”, which in turn comes from the Greek “βαλλίζω” (ballizo), “to dance, to jump about”. The word came into English usage from the French around 1630.
History of Ballet
Ballet is a formalized form of dance with its origins in the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th and 16th centuries. Ballet spread from Italy to France with the help of Catherine de’ Medici, where ballet developed even further under her aristocratic influence. An early example of Catherine’s development of ballet is through ‘Le Paradis d’ Amour’, a piece of work presented at her daughter’s wedding, Marguerite de Valois to Henry of Navarre. Aristocratic money was responsible for the initial stages of development in ‘court ballet’, as it was royal money that dictated the ideas, literature and music used in ballets that were created to primarily entertain the aristocrats of the time. The first formal ‘court ballet’ ever recognized was staged in 1573, ‘Ballet des Polonais’. In true form of royal entertainment, ‘Ballet des Polonais’ was commissioned by Catherine de’ Medici to honor the Polish ambassadors who were visiting Paris upon the accession of Henry of Anjou to the throne of Poland. In 1581, Catherine de’ Medici commissioned another court ballet, Ballet Comique de la Reine, however it was her compatriot, Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx, who organized the ballet. Catherine de’ Medici and Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx were responsible for presenting the first court ballet ever to apply the principles of Baif’s Academie, by integrating poetry, dance, music and set design to convey a unified dramatic storyline. Moreover, the early organization and development of ‘court ballet’ was funded by, influenced by and produced by the aristocrats of the time, fulfilling both their personal entertainment and political propaganda needs.
In the late 17th century Louis XIV founded the Académie Royale de Musique (the Paris Opera) within which emerged the first professional theatrical ballet company, the Paris Opera Ballet. The predominance of French in the vocabulary of ballet reflects this history. Theatrical ballet soon became an independent form of art, although still frequently maintaining a close association with opera, and spread from the heart of Europe to other nations. The Royal Danish Ballet and the Imperial Ballet of the Russian Empire were founded in the 1740s and began to flourish, especially after about 1850. In 1907 the Russian ballet in turn moved back to France, where the Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev and its successors were particularly influential. Soon ballet spread around the world with the formation of new companies, including London’s The Royal Ballet (1931), the San Francisco Ballet (1933), American Ballet Theatre (1937), The Royal Winnipeg Ballet (1939), The Australian Ballet (1940), the New York City Ballet (1948), the National Ballet of Canada (1951), and the National Ballet Academy Trust of India, New Delhi (2002).
In the 20th century styles of ballet continued to develop and strongly influence broader concert dance, for example, in the United States choreographer George Balanchine developed what is now known as neoclassical ballet, subsequent developments have included contemporary ballet and post-structural ballet, for example seen in the work of William Forsythe in Germany.
The etymology of the word “ballet” reflects its history. The word ballet comes from French and was borrowed into English around the 17th century. The French word in turn has its origins in Italian balletto, a diminutive of ballo (dance). Ballet ultimately traces back to Italian ballare, meaning “to dance”.
Renaissance – Italy and France
Ballet originated in the Renaissance court as an outgrowth of court pageantry in Italy, where aristocratic weddings were lavish celebrations. Court musicians and dancers collaborated to provide elaborate entertainment for them. A ballet of the Renaissance was a far cry from the form of theatrical entertainment known to audiences today. Tutus, ballet slippers and pointe work were not yet used. The choreography was adapted from court dance steps. Performers dressed in fashions of the times. For women that meant formal gowns that covered their legs to the ankle. Early ballet was participatory, with the audience joining the dance towards the end.
Domenico da Piacenza (c. 1400–c. 1470) was one of the first dancing masters. Along with his students, Antonio Cornazzano and Guglielmo Ebreo, he was trained in dance and responsible for teaching nobles the art. Da Piacenza left one work: De arte saltandi et choreus ducendi (On the art of dancing and conducting dances), which was put together by his students.
In 1489 Galeazzo, Duke of Milan, married Isabella of Aragon in Tortona. An elaborate dance entertainment was arranged for the celebrations by the Italian dance master Bergonzio di Botta. The dances were linked by a slim narrative concerning Jason and the Argonauts, and each corresponded to a different course for the dinner. Tristano Calco of Milan wrote about the event, and it was considered so impressive, that many similar spectacles were organized elsewhere.
Ballet was further shaped by the French ballet de cour, which consisted of social dances performed by the nobility in tandem with music, speech, verse, song, pageant, decor and costume. When Catherine de’ Medici, an Italian aristocrat with an interest in the arts, married the French crown heir Henry II, she brought her enthusiasm for dance to France and provided financial support. Catherine’s glittering entertainments supported the aims of court politics and usually were organized around mythological themes. The first ballet de cour was the Ballet de Polonais. This Ballet was performed in 1573 on the occasion of the visit of the Polish Ambassador. It was choreographed by Balthasar de Beaaujoyeulx and featured an hour-long dance for sixteen women, each representing a French province. Ballet Comique de la Reine (1581), which was also choreographed and directed by Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx, was commissioned by Louise of Lorraine, queen consort of King Henry III, son of Catherine, to celebrate the marriage of Henry’s favorite the Duke de Joyeuse to Marguerite de Lorraine, the sister of Queen Louise. The ballet lasted for more than five hours and was danced by twenty four dancers: twelve naiades and twelve pages.
In the same year, the publication of Fabritio Caroso’s Il Ballarino, a technical manual on court dancing, both performance and social, helped to establish Italy as a centre of technical ballet development.
17th century – France and Court Dance
Ballet developed as a performance-focused art form in France during the reign of Louis XIV, who was passionate about dance. Pierre Beauchamp, the man who codified the five positions of the feet and arms, was the king’s personal dance teacher and favorite partner in ballet de cour in the 1650s. In 1661 Louis XIV, who was determined to reverse a decline in dance standards that began in the 17th century, established the Académie Royale de Danse. Beauchamp was appointed Intendant des ballets du roi and in 1680 became the director of the dance academy, a position he held until 1687.
In the French courts during the 17th Century, ballet first begins to flourish with the help of several important men: King Louis XIV, Jean-Baptiste Lully, Pierre Beauchamps, and Molière. The combination of different talents and passions of these four men shaped ballet to what it is today.
Jean-Baptiste Lully, an Italian violinist, dancer, choreographer, and composer, who joined the court of Louis XIV in 1652, played a significant role in establishing the general direction ballet would follow for the next century. Supported and admired by King Louis XIV, Lully often cast the king in his ballets. The title of Sun King for the French monarch, originated in Louis XIV’s role in Lully’s Ballet de la Nuit (1653). The fourteen-year-old Louis XIV danced five roles in this 12-hour ballet. This Ballet was lavish and featured a scene where a set piece of a house was burned down, included witches, werewolves, gypsies, shepherds, thieves, and the goddesses Venus and Diana. Lully’s main contribution to ballet were his nuanced compositions. His understanding of movement and dance allowed him to compose specifically for ballet, with musical phrasings that complemented physical movements. Lully also collaborated with the French playwright Molière. Together, they took an Italian theatre style, the commedia dell’arte, and adapted it into their work for a French audience, creating the comédie-ballet. Among their greatest productions, with Beauchamp as the choreographer, was Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670).
In 1669 Louis XIV founded the Académie d’Opéra with Pierre Perrin as director. Louix XIV retired in 1670, largely because of excessive weight gain. Earlier, in 1661 he had founded a school, the Adacemie Royale de danse. Beauchamp was the first ballet-master of the Opéra and created the dances for the new company’s first production Pomone with music by Robert Cambert. Later, after Perrin went bankrupt, the king reestablished the Opéra as the Académie royale de Musique and made Lully the director. Beauchamp was one of the principal choreographers. In this position Lully, with his librettist Philippe Quinault, created a new genre, the tragédie en musique, each act of which featured a divertissement that was a miniature ballet scene. With almost all his important creations Jean-Baptiste Lully brought together music and drama with Italian and French dance elements. His work created a legacy which would define the future of ballet.
Popularity throughout Europe
France’s court was in some ways the leading source of fashionable culture for many other royal courts in Europe. Styles of entertainment were imitated, including the royal ballets. Courts in Spain, Portugal, Poland, Germany, and elsewhere all became audiences and participants in ballets. In addition to France, Italy became an important influence on the art form, predominantly Venice.
Professional ballet troupes began to organize and tour Europe, performing for aristocratic audiences. In Poland, King Władysław IV Vasa (1633–1648) hosted Italian opera productions, which included ballet performers in some scenes. The famous European ballet-masters who worked for the Polish court include Louis de Poitiers, Charles Duparc, Jean Favier, Antoine Pitrot, Antonio Sacco and Francesco Caselli.
France and development as an art form
The 18th century was a period of advance in the technical standards of ballet and the period when ballet became a serious dramatic art form on par with the opera. Central to this advance was the seminal work of Jean-Georges Noverre, Lettres sur la danse et les ballets (1760), which focused on developing the ballet d’action, in which the movements of the dancers are designed to express character and assist in the narrative. Noverre believed that: ballet should be technical but also move the audience emotionally, plots need to be unified, the scenery and music need to support the plot and be unified within the story, and that pantomime needs to be simple and understandable.
Reforms were made in ballet composition by composers such as Christoph Gluck. Finally, ballet was divided into three formal techniques sérieux, demi-caractère and comique. Ballet also began to be featured in operas as interludes called divertissements.
Venice continued to be a centre of dance in Europe, particularly during the Venice Carnival, when dancers and visitors from across the continent would travel to the city for a lively cultural exchange. The city’s Teatro San Benedetto became a famous landmark largely due to the ballets performed there. Italian ballet techniques remained the dominant influence in much of southern and eastern Europe until Russian techniques supplanted them in the early 20th century.
Ballet performances spread to Eastern Europe during the 18th century, into areas such as Hungary, where they were held in private theatres at aristocratic castles. Professional companies were established that performed throughout Hungary and also toured abroad. The Budapest National Theatre increasingly serving a role as a home for the dancers.
Some of the leading dancers of the time who performed throughout Europe were Louis Dupré, Charles Le Picque with Anna Binetti, Gaetano Vestris, and Jean-Georges Noverre.
The ballerina became the most popular dance performer in Europe in the first half of the 19th century, gradually turning the spotlight away from the male dancer. In many performances, ballet heroes were played by a woman, like the Principal Boy in pantomime.
The professionalism of ballet companies became a focus for a new generation of ballet masters and dancers. Vienna was an important source of influential ballet coaches. The first ballet master of Hungary’s National Theatre and Royal Opera was the Vienna-born Frigyes Campilli, who worked in Budapest for 40 years.
The 19th century was a period of great social change, which was reflected in ballet by a shift away from the aristocratic sensibilities that had dominated earlier periods through romantic ballet. Ballerinas such as Geneviève Gosselin, Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler experimented with new techniques such as pointework that gave the ballerina prominence as the ideal stage figure. Taglioni was known as the “Christian Dancer,” as her image was light and pure (associated with her role as the sylph in La Sylphide). She was trained primarily by her father, Filipo Taglioni. In 1834, Fanny Elssler arrived at the Paris Opera and became known as the “Pagan Dancer,” because of the fiery qualities of the Cachucha dance that made her famous. Professional librettists began crafting the stories in ballets. Teachers like Carlo Blasis codified ballet technique in the basic form that is still used today. The ballet boxed toe shoe was invented to support pointe work.
The Romantic movement in art, literature, and theatre was a reaction against formal constraints and the mechanics of industrialization. The zeitgeist led choreographers to compose romantic ballets that appeared light, airy and free that would act as a contrast to the spread of reductionist science through many aspects of daily life that had, in the words of Poe, “driven the hamadryad from the woods”. These “unreal” ballets portrayed women as fragile unearthly beings, ethereal creatures who could be lifted effortlessly and almost seemed to float in the air. Ballerinas began to wear costumes with pastel, flowing skirts that bared the shins. The stories revolved around uncanny, folkloric spirits. An example of one such romantic ballet is La Sylphide, one of the oldest romantic ballets still performed today.
One strain of the Romantic movement was a new exploration of folklore and traditional ethnic culture. This influence was seen in the emergence of European folk dance and western portrayals of African, Asian, and Middle East peoples on European stages. In ballets from this period, non-European characters were often created as villains or as silly divertisements to fit the orientalist western understanding of the world. The National Opera of Ukraine, a performing arts theatre with a resident opera company, was established in Kiev in 1867. It also included a small resident troupe of ballet dancers, who would perform mainly folk-style dancing during opera productions. By 1893, this grew to a troupe large enough to stage large ballets. Folk dancing and ballets with Ukrainian stories were among the early productions.
Many leading European professional ballet companies that survive today were established at new theatres in Europe’s capital cities during the mid- to late- 19th century, including the Kiev Ballet, the Hungarian National Ballet, the National Theatre Ballet (Prague) and the Vienna State Ballet (formerly the Vienna State Opera Ballet). These theatres usually combined large opera, drama and ballet companies under the same roof. Composers, dramatists, and choreographers were then able to create works that took advantage of the ability to collaborate among these performance troupes.
While France was instrumental in early ballet, other countries and cultures soon adopted the art form, most notably Russia. Russia has a recognized tradition of ballet, and Russian ballet has had great importance in its country throughout history. After 1850, ballet began to wane in Paris, but it flourished in Denmark and Russia thanks to masters such as August Bournonville, Jules Perrot, Arthur Saint-Léon, Enrico Cecchetti and Marius Petipa. In the late nineteenth century, orientalism was in vogue. Colonialism brought awareness of Asian and African cultures, but distorted with disinformation and fantasy. The East was often perceived as a faraway place where anything was possible, provided it was lavish, exotic and decadent. Petipa appealed to popular taste with The Pharaoh’s Daughter (1862), and later The Talisman (1889), and La Bayadère (1877). Petipa is best remembered for his collaborations with Tchaikovsky. He used his music for his choreography of The Nutcracker (1892, though this is open to some debate among historians), The Sleeping Beauty (1890), and the definitive revival of Swan Lake (1895, with Lev Ivanov). These works were all drawn from European folklore.
The female dancers’ classical tutu as it is recognized today began to appear at this time. It consisted of a short, stiff skirt supported by layers of crinoline or tulle that revealed the acrobatic legwork, combined with a wide gusset that served to preserve modesty.
Ballet companies from Europe began lucrative tours of theatres in North, Central and South America during the mid-19th century. The prestigious Colon Theater in Buenos Aires, Argentina had hosted foreign ballet artists on its stage, with touring companies from Europe presenting full ballets as early as 1867. By the 1880s, the Colon Theater had its own professional ballet company. It would still be several decades before most countries outside of Europe could claim their own professional ballet companies, however.
20th century and modernism
Russia and the Ballets Russes
Diaghilev and composer Igor Stravinsky merged their talents to bring Russian folklore to life in The Firebird and Petrushka choreographed by Fokine. Diaghilev’s next choreographic commissions went to Nijinsky. His First ballet was L’apres-midi d’un Faune (Afternoon of a Faun) to music by Debussy. It was notable for its two dimensional shapes and lack of ballet technique. It caused controversy by depicting the faun rubbing the scarf of one of the maidens on himself, in simulated masturbation. The most controversial work of the Ballets Russes however, was The Rite of Spring, choreographed by Nijinsky with music by Stravinsky. The ballet’s modern music, pigeon toed stomping and theme of human sacrifice shocked audiences so much they rioted.
After the “golden age” of Petipa, Michel Fokine began his career in St. Petersburg but moved to Paris and worked with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.
Russian ballet continued development under Soviet rule. There was little talent left in the country after the Revolution, but it was enough to seed a new generation. After stagnation in the 1920s, by the mid-1930s that new generation of dancers and choreographers appeared on the scene. The technical perfection and precision of dance was promoted (and demanded) by Agrippina Vaganova, who had been taught by Petipa and Cecchetti and headed the Vaganova Ballet Academy, the school to prepare dancers for the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg/Leningrad.
Ballet was popular with the public. Both the Moscow-based Bolshoi and the St. Petersburg (then Leningrad)-based Kirov ballet companies were active. Ideological pressure forced the creation of many socialist realist pieces, most of which made little impression on the public and were removed from the repertoire of both companies later.
Some pieces of that era, however, were remarkable. The Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev and Lavrovsky is a masterpiece. The Flames of Paris, while it shows all the faults of socialist realist art, pioneered the active use of the corps de ballet in the performance and required stunning virtuosity.
The ballet version of the Pushkin poem, The Fountain of Bakhchisarai with music from Boris Asafiev and choreography by Rostislav Zakharov was also a hit.
The well-known ballet Cinderella, for which Prokofiev provided the music, is also the product of the Soviet ballet. During the Soviet era, these pieces were mostly unknown outside the Soviet Union and later outside of the Eastern Bloc. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union they received more recognition.
The 1999 North American premiere of The Fountain of Bakhchisarai by the Kirov Ballet in New York was an outstanding success, for example. The Soviet era of the Russian Ballet put a lot of emphasis on technique, virtuosity and strength. It demanded strength usually above the norm of contemporary Western dancers. When watching restored old footage, one can only marvel at the talent of their prima ballerinas such as Galina Ulanova, Natalya Dudinskaya and Maya Plisetskaya and choreographers such as Pyotr Gusev.
Russian companies, particularly after World War II engaged in multiple tours all over the world that revitalized ballet in the West. Maiden Tower written by Afrasiyab Badalbeyli is the first ballet in the Muslim East.
United States of America
Following the move of the Ballets Russes to France, ballet began to have a broader influence, particularly in the United States of America.
From Paris, after disagreements with Diaghilev, Fokine went to Sweden and then the USA and settled in New York. Diaghilev believed that traditional ballet offered little more than prettiness and athletic display. For Fokine that was not enough. In addition to technical virtuosity he demanded drama, expression and historical authenticity. The choreographer must research the period and cultural context of the setting and reject the traditional tutu in favour of accurate period costuming.
Fokine choreographed Sheherazade and Cleopatra. He also reworked Petrouchka and The Firebird. One of his most famous works was The Dying Swan, performed by Anna Pavlova. Beyond her talents as a ballerina, Pavlova had the theatrical gifts to fulfill Fokine’s vision of ballet as drama. Legend has it that Pavlova identified so much with the swan role that she requested her swan costume from her deathbed.
The American Ballet was the first professional ballet company George Balanchine created in the United States. The company was founded with the help of Lincoln Kirstein and Edward Warburg, managed by Alexander Merovitch and populated by students of Kirstein and Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. Having failed to mount a tour, American Ballet began performing at the “Old Met.” After being allowed to stage only two dance performances (Orfeo and Eurydice in 1936 and an evening of dances choreographed to the music of Igor Stravinsky in 1937), Balanchine moved the company to Hollywood in 1938. The company was restarted as the American Ballet Caravan and toured North and South America, although it too folded after several years.
George Balanchine developed state-of-the-art technique in America by opening a school in Chicago and more importantly, in New York. He adapted ballet to the new media, movies and television. A prolific worker, Balanchine rechoreographed classics such as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty as well as creating new ballets. He produced original interpretations of the dramas of William Shakespeare such as Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and also of Franz Léhar’s The Merry Widow.
In 1967, Balanchine’s Jewels broke with the narrative tradition and dramatized a theme rather than a plot. This focus fits with the state-sponsored funding sources in the United States which sought to encourage “liberty and freethinking” in contrast to narrative-driven dance, which was seen as to be connected too closely with socialism, especially Soviet communism. Today, partly thanks to Balanchine, ballet is one of the most well-preserved dances in the world.
Barbara Karinska was a Russian emigree and a skilled seamstress who collaborated with Balanchine to elevate the art of costume design from a secondary role to an integral part of a ballet performance. She introduced the bias cut and a simplified classic tutu that allowed the dancer more freedom of movement. With meticulous attention to detail, she decorated her tutus with beadwork, embroidery, crochet and appliqué.
Stylistic variations have emerged and evolved since the Italian Renaissance. Early, classical variations are primarily associated with geographic origin. Examples of this are Russian ballet, French ballet, and Italian ballet. Later variations, such as contemporary ballet and neoclassical ballet, incorporate both classical ballet and non-traditional technique and movement. Perhaps the most widely known and performed ballet style is late Romantic ballet (or Ballet blanc), a classical style that focuses on female dancers (ballerinas) and features pointe work, flowing and precise movements, and often presents the female dancers in traditional, long white tutus.
The Romantic ballet is defined primarily by an era in ballet in which the ideas of Romanticism in art and literature influenced the creation of ballets. The era occurred during the early to mid 19th century primarily at the Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique of the Paris Opera Ballet and Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. The era is typically considered to have begun with the 1827 début in Paris of the ballerina Marie Taglioni in the ballet La Sylphide, and to have reached its zenith with the premiere of the divertissement Pas de Quatre staged by the Ballet Master Jules Perrot in London in 1845. The Romantic ballet had no immediate end, but rather a slow decline. Arthur Saint-Léon’s 1870 ballet Coppélia is considered to be the last work of the Romantic Ballet.
Furthermore, the development of pointework, although still at a fairly basic stage, profoundly affected people’s perception of the ballerina. Many lithographs of the period show her virtually floating, poised only on the tip of a toe. This idea of weightlessness was capitalised on in ballets such as La Sylphide and Giselle, and the famous leap apparently attempted by Carlotta Grisi in La Péri.
Other features which distinguished Romantic ballet were the separate identity of the scenarist or author from the choreographer and the presence of specially written music as opposed to a pastiche typical of the ballet of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The invention of gas lighting enabled gradual changes and enhanced the mysteriousness of many ballets with its softer gleam. Illusion became more diverse with wires and trap doors being widely used.
The Romantic era marked the rise of the ballerina as a central part of ballet, where previously men had dominated performances. There had always been admiration for superior dancers, but elevating ballerinas to the level of celebrity came into its own in the nineteenth century, especially as female performers became idealized and objectified. Marie Taglioni became the prototypical Romantic ballerina, praised highly for her lyricism. The movement style for Romantic ballerinas was characterized by soft, rounded arms and a forward tilt in the upper body. This gave the woman a flowery, willowy look. Leg movements became more elaborate due to the new tutu length and rising standards of technical proficiency. Important Romantic ballerinas included, in addition to Marie Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi, Lucille Grahn, Fanny Cerrito, and Fanny Elssler. The plots of many ballets were dominated by spirit women—sylphs, wilis, and ghosts, who enslaved the hearts and senses of mortal men and made it impossible for them to live happily in the real world.
The costume for the Romantic ballerina was the romantic tutu. This was a full, white, multi-layered skirt made of tulle. The ballerina wore a white bodice with the tutu. In the second acts of Romantic ballets, representing the spiritual realm, the corps de ballet appeared on stage in Romantic tutus, giving rise to the term “white act” or ballet-blanc. The dancers wore pointe shoes to give the effect of floating. However, sometimes they decided to throw in extra sharp, sassy movements to portray the given concept or intent, often using high kicks and fast turns.
Romantic ballet owed much to the new developments in theatre effects, particularly gas lighting. Candles had been previously used to light theatres, but gas lighting allowed for dimming effects and other subtleties. Combined with the effects of the Romantic tutu, ballerinas posing en pointe, and the use of wires to make dancers “fly,” directors used gas lighting to create supernatural spectacles on stage.
Classical ballet is any of the traditional, formal styles of ballet that exclusively employ classical ballet technique. It is known for its aesthetics and rigorous technique (such as pointe work, turnout of the legs, and high extensions), its flowing, precise movements, and its ethereal qualities.
There are stylistic variations related to area of origin, which are denoted by classifications such as Russian ballet, French ballet, British ballet and Italian ballet. For example, Russian ballet features high extensions and dynamic turns, whereas Italian ballet tends to be more grounded, with a focus on fast, intricate footwork. Many of the stylistic variations are associated with specific training methods that have been named after their originators. Despite these variations, the performance and vocabulary of classical ballet are largely consistent throughout the world.
Ballet technique is the foundational principles of body movement and form used in ballet. A distinctive feature of ballet technique is turnout, which is the outward rotation of the legs emanating from the hip. There are five fundamental positions of the feet in ballet, all performed with turnout and named numerically as first through fifth positions. When performing jumps and leaps, classical ballet dancers strive to exhibit ballon, the appearance of briefly floating in the air. Pointe technique is the part of ballet technique that concerns pointe work, in which a ballet dancer supports all body weight on the tips of fully extended feet.
Students typically learn ballet terminology and the pronunciation, meaning, and precise body form and movement associated with each term. Emphasis is placed on developing flexibility and strengthening the legs, feet, and body core (the center, or abdominals) as a strong core is essential for turns and many other ballet movements.
After learning basic ballet technique and developing sufficient strength and flexibility, female dancers begin to learn pointe technique and male and female dancers begin to learn partnering and more advanced jumps and turns. Depending on the teacher and training system, students may progress through various stages or levels of training as their skills advance.
Female attire typically includes pink or flesh colored tights, a leotard, and sometimes a short wrap-skirt, or a skirted leotard. Males typically wear black or dark tights, a form-fitting white shirt or leotard worn under the tights, and a dance belt beneath the outer dancewear to provide support. In some cases, students may wear a unitard — a one-piece garment that combines tights and a leotard — to enhance the visibility of artistic lines.
All dancers wear soft ballet shoes (sometimes called flats). Typically, female dancers wear pink or beige shoes and men wear black or white shoes. Leg warmers are sometimes worn during the early part of a class to protect leg muscles until they become warm. Females are usually required to restrain their hair in a bun or some other hair style that exposes the neck. The customary attire and hair style are intended to promote freedom of movement and to reveal body form so that the teacher can evaluate dancers’ alignment and technique. After warming up, advanced female students may wear pointe shoes whereas advanced male students continue to wear soft shoes. Pointe shoes are worn after the student is deemed strong enough in the ankles and can execute the routine to a high standard.
Classical ballet is based on traditional ballet technique and vocabulary. There are different styles of classical ballet that are related to their areas of origin, such as French ballet, Italian ballet and Russian ballet. Several of the classical ballet styles are associated with specific training methods, which are typically named after their creators. For example, the Cecchetti method is named after its creator, Italian dancer Enrico Cecchetti and the Vaganova method is named after Russian ballerina Agrippina Vaganova. The Royal Academy of Dance method is a ballet technique and training system that was founded by a diverse group of ballet dancers. They merged their respective dance methods (Italian, French, Danish and Russian) to create a new style of ballet that is unique to the organisation and is recognized internationally as the English style of ballet. Some examples of classical ballet productions are: Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and Sleeping Beauty.
Neoclassical ballet is the style of 20th century classical ballet exemplified by the works of George Balanchine. The term “neoclassical ballet” appears in the 1920s with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, in response to the excesses of romanticism and modernity. It draws on the advanced technique of 19th century Russian Imperial dance, but strips it of its detailed narrative and heavy theatrical setting. What is left is the dance itself, sophisticated but sleekly modern, retaining the pointe shoe aesthetic, but eschewing the well-upholstered drama and mime of the full-length story ballet.
Neoclassical ballet is a style that utilizes classical ballet technique and vocabulary, but deviates from classical ballet in its use of the abstract. In Neo-Classical Ballet, there often is no clear plot, costumes or scenery. Music choice can be diverse and will often include music that is also Neo-Classical (e.g. Stravinsky, Webern). Neo-Classical ballet opens up the use of space to multiple possibilities, as the elimination of the necessity of formalities and story telling allows far more possibilities for architecture and design in choreography.
Tim Scholl, author of From Petipa to Balanchine, considers George Balanchine’s Apollo in 1928 to be the first neoclassical ballet. Apollo represented a return to form in response to Sergei Diaghilev’s abstract ballets. Balanchine worked with modern dance choreographer Martha Graham, expanding his exposure to modern techniques and ideas, and he brought modern dancers into his company (New York City Ballet) such as Paul Taylor, who in 1959 performed in Balanchine’s Episodes.
While Balanchine is widely considered the face of Neo-Classical Ballet, there were others who made significant contributions to the development of the style. Fredrick Ashton’s Symphonic Dances (1946) is a seminal work for the choreographer, and is a work staged in white tunics, abstract and minimal set design with no discernable plot. Set to César Franck’s score of the same title, it is a pure-dance interpretation of the score in a manner that exemplifies the Ashton style.
Neoclassical ballet is a genre of dance that emerged in the 1920s and evolved throughout the Twentieth Century. Artists of many disciplines in the early 1900s began to rebel against the overly dramatized style of the Romantic Period. As a result, art returned to a more simplistic style reminiscent of the Classical Period, except bolder, more assertive and free of distractions. This artistic trend came to be known as Neoclassicism. The ballet choreographer who most exemplified this new, clean aesthetic, was George Balanchine. As a child, the importance of classicism was imprinted on him when he was a student at the famed Imperial Ballet School, which was (and remains) steadfast in its firm commitment to classical ballet technique. Upon his graduation, Balanchine earned the privilege of choreographing for the Ballets Russes, where he had the opportunity to collaborate with Picasso, Matisse, Chanel, Debussy, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, who were all at the forefront of Neoclassicism. Rather than turning away from his classical training, Balanchine built upon the traditional ballet vocabulary. He extended traditional ballet positions, played with speed and freedom of movement, and incorporated new positions not traditionally seen in ballet. Balanchine’s first foray into the neoclassical style was Apollon Musegete, choreographed in 1928 for the Ballets Russes, and set to a score by Stravinsky. Unlike many of his later neoclassical works, this ballet tells a story, which indicates that Balanchine had not yet completely broken free from the Romantic tradition. Moreover, when this ballet first premiered it featured large sets, costumes and props. However, Balanchine continually revised it as his neoclassical style evolved. For example, later versions of the ballet utilized white practice leotards and minimal sets and lights. Balanchine even renamed the ballet simply Apollo. The transformation of Apollo exemplifies Balanchine’s transformation as a choreographer. As Balanchine’s neoclassical style matured, he produced more plotless, musically driven ballets. Large sets and traditional tutus gave way to clean stages and plain leotards. This simplified external style allowed for the dancers’ movement to become the main artistic medium, which is the hallmark of neoclassical ballet.
Balanchine found a home for his neoclassical style in the United States, when Lincoln Kirstein brought him to New York in 1933 to start a ballet company. He famously decided to start a school, where he could train dancers in the style he wanted, and so the School of American Ballet was founded in 1934. Many of his most famous neoclassical ballets were choreographed in the United States, on both his school eventually his own company, the New York City Ballet, which he founded in 1948 and still exists today. Well-known neoclassical ballets like Concerto Barocco, (1941), Four Temperaments, (1946), Agon, (1957), and Episodes, (1959) were all choreographed in New York.
Another form, Modern Ballet, also emerged as an offshoot of neo-classicism. Among the innovators in this form were Glen Tetley, Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino. While difficult to parse modern ballet from neo-classicism, the work of these choreographers favored a greater athleticism that departed from the delicacy of ballet. The physicality was more daring, with mood, subject matter and music more intense. An example of this would be Joffrey’s Astarte (1967), which featured a rock score and sexual overtones in the choreography.
Contemporary ballet can take on a wide variety of aesthetics, incorporating pedestrian, modern, jazz, or ethnic forms, so long as the roots of classical ballet are apparent. It allows for open-ended exploration and experimentation, but a good way to determine if a work is contemporary ballet, as opposed to contemporary dance. It can sometimes be difficult to differentiate this form from neo-classical or modern ballet. Some prime examples of this would be Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe (1973) for the Joffrey Ballet. In this ballet, Tharp juxtaposed a ballerina clad in white who makes her way through the lexicon of ballet steps, while dancers clad in street clothes, sometimes in pointe shoes, socks or sneakers, dance in wide range of styles to the music of the Beach Boys. In the 1980s William Forsythe made substantial innovations in contemporary ballet with a range of works, including In the Middle Somewhat Elevated (1987). This work featured a robust athleticism and electric score. Forsythe took classical ballet vocabulary and exaggerated it, making the dancers move bigger, faster and in more directions than before.
Many contemporary ballet concepts come from the ideas and innovations of 20th-century modern dance, including floor work and turn-in of the legs. This ballet style is often performed barefoot. Contemporary ballets may include mime and acting, and are usually set to music (typically orchestral but occasionally vocal).
George Balanchine, the founding director of the New York City Ballet, is considered to have been a pioneer of contemporary ballet because of his pioneering development of neoclassical ballet. Another early contemporary ballet choreographer, Twyla Tharp, choreographed Push Comes To Shove for the American Ballet Theatre in 1976, and in 1986 created In The Upper Room for her own company. Both of these pieces were considered innovative for their melding of distinctly modern movements with the use of pointe shoes and classically trained dancers.
Today there are many contemporary ballet companies and choreographers. These include Alonzo King and his company LINES Ballet; Matthew Bourne and his company New Adventures; Complexions Contemporary Ballet; Nacho Duato and his Compañia Nacional de Danza; William Forsythe and The Forsythe Company; and Jiří Kylián of the Nederlands Dans Theater. Traditionally “classical” companies, such as the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet, also regularly perform contemporary works.
The term ballet has evolved to include all forms associated with it. Someone training as a ballet dancer will now be expected to perform neo-classical, modern and contemporary work. A ballet dancer is expected to be able to be stately and regal for classical work, free and lyrical in neo-classical work, and unassuming, harsh or pedestrian for modern and contemporary work. The art form has grown vertically and horizontally and can sometimes be blurred with other dance forms, however the foundational elements of ballet technique will always be apparent.
The modern tutu is a dress worn as a costume in a ballet performance, often with attached bodice. It may be made of tarlatan, muslin, silk, tulle, gauze, or nylon. Modern tutus have two basic types: the Romantic tutu is soft and bell-shaped, reaching the calf or ankle; the Classical tutu is short and stiff, projecting horizontally from the waist and hip. The derivation of the word tutu is unknown. The word was not recorded anywhere until 1881. One theory is that it is simply derived from the word tulle (one of the materials from which it is made).
Another theory is that it derives from French babytalk for bottom (cucul): during that era, the abonnés (rich male subscribers at the Paris Opera Ballet) were encouraged to mix with the ballet girls in the foyer, and arrange assignations. It is suggested the expression came from the abonnés playfully patting the back of the tulle dress with the saying pan-pan cucul (French for I’ll spank your bottom).
A third, related theory suggests a derivation from the more vulgar French word, “cul” (which can be used to refer to the bottom or genital area). During this era, women (including dancers) wore pantalettes as underwear, which were open at the crotch. The abonnés favoured the very front rows in the hope of a scandalous view, and the skirt was modified for that reason. This is supported by the description by nineteenth-century balletomane, Charles Nuitter, who defined tutu as “a slang term for the very short petticoat worn by danseuses in the interest of modesty.”
The skirt that became known as the Romantic tutu made its first appearance in 1832 at the Paris Opera, when Marie Taglioni wore a gauzy white skirt cut to reveal her ankles, designed by Eugene Lami in La Sylphide. From the late 19th century onwards, the tutu was steadily shortened, for ease of movement and to show off the dancer’s legs, culminating in the very short Classical tutu which leaves the whole leg free.
Fashion designers have often been involved in design for ballet. Fashion designers Cecil Beaton in England, Christian Lacroix in France, and Isaac Mizrahi in the United States have all designed tutus. Among the leading makers of tutus around the world, few designers have matched the reputation of Barbara Karinska (1886-1983), costumer for the New York City Ballet for many years, She designed and constructed tutus of extraordinary beauty and durability.
Ballet costumes play an important role in the ballet world. They are often the only survival of a production, representing a living imaginary picture of the scene.
Ballerina skirt is a full skirt that reaches to mid-calf or just above the ankles, worn as a costume in a ballet performance, often made up of multiple layers of fabric. It was a popular style during the 1950s.
Ballerina skirts have been a consistently popular length for formal dresses, especially for young women.The most persistent image of a ballerina skirt is that worn by the most famous ballerina Anna Pavlova. The Ballerina skirt adds to the magical quality of the Ballet dancer with its long, floating, frothy looking voluminous skirt made of many layers of tulle.The Ballerina skirt can be made up of five to even 12 layers of tulle fabric.
A ballerina skirt can transform a dancer to look ethereal and a true ballerina. The ballerina skirts are beautiful, feminine and elegant as well as being the traditional costume for every classical ballet performance.
The different types of the ballerina skirts are used in ballet performance like the romantic, classic, pancake, balanchine and platter.
A ballet shoe, or ballet slipper, is a lightweight shoe designed specifically for ballet dancing. It may be made from soft leather, canvas, or satin, and has flexible, thin soles. Traditionally, women wear pink shoes and men wear white or black shoes. Tan colored slippers—which are unobtrusive and thus give the appearance of dancing barefoot—are worn in modern ballets and sometimes modern dancing by both men and women.
Most ballet dancers wear soft ballet slippers for the main part of the ballet class. More advanced female dancers may change into pointe shoes for centre work and performance.
Ballet shoes must fit very closely to the foot, for safety and to retain maximum flexibility.
Ballet shoes traditionally have a leather sole which does not reach all the way to the edges of the shoe. A modern development is the split sole, which provides greater flexibility and emphasises the shape of the foot when pointed. They are usually made from soft leather, canvas or satin. Leather shoes are long-lasting. Canvas shoes are less expensive but wear faster than average leather ballet shoes. Satin shoes are often used for performances, but can wear out very quickly.
Shoes are secured with the use of elastic, most often with a single band across the arch of the foot, or with two bands that cross in an “X” shape at the top of the arch. In the case of double band shoes, some ballet slipper manufacturers will attach one end of each band to the shoe as part of the production process, and leave it to the purchaser to attach the free ends of the bands for optimal fit.
Women began to dance ballet in 1682, twenty years after King Louis XIV of France ordered the founding of the Royal Academy of Dance. At that time, the standard women’s ballet shoe had heels. Mid 18th century dancer Marie Camargo of the Paris Opéra Ballet was the first to wear a non-heeled shoe. After the French Revolution, heels were completely eliminated from standard ballet shoes, as they still are.
Renaissance and Baroque
The roots of ballet go back to the renaissance time in France and Italy when court wear was the beginning of ballet costumes. Ballet costumes have been around since the early fifteenth century. Cotton and silk were mixed with flax woven into semitransparent gauze to create exquisite ballet costumes.
During the seventeenth century, different types of fabrics and designs were used towards ballet costumes to make them much more spectacular and eye catching. Court dress still remained for women during this century. Silks, satins and fabrics embroidered with real gold and precious stones increased the level of spectacular decoration associated with ballet costumes. Women’s costumes also consisted of heavy garments and knee-long skirts which made it difficult for them to create much movement and gesture.
During the eighteenth century, stage costumes were still very similar to court wear but progressed overtime. European ballet was centered in the Paris Opera. During this era, skirts were raised a few inches off the ground compared to the renaissance period and the seventeenth century. Overtime, costumes progressed as more designs and colors were used on ballet costumes. Flowers, flounces, ribbons, and lace emphasized this opulent feminine style, as soft pastel tones in citron, peach, pink and pistachio dominated the color range of stage costumes.
During the early nineteenth century, close-fiting body costumes, floral crowns, corsages and jewels were used during this time. Ideals of Romanticism were reflected in female stage. Costumes became much tighter as corsets started to come into use to show off the curves on a ballerina. Jewels and bedazzled costumes became much more popular.
During the twentieth century, ballet costumes transitioned back to the influence of Russian ballet. Ballerina skirts became knee-length tutus later on in order to show off pointe work and mainly the technique of ballet dancers. During this era, costumes focused on the importance of a ballet dancers work and dance practice. Colors used on stage costumes also became much more vibrant. Designers used colors such as red, orange, yellow, etc. to create visual expression when ballet dancers perform on stage.