Without a doubt ballet is one of the most popular forms of dance in the world. It is also one of the oldest still being performed. And in terms of development and practice, it is one of the few art forms that manages to balance an adherence to tradition with radical new innovation. But where did ballet come from? And how did it develop into the crowd-thrilling spectacle that it is today? Well, that could take a while, but here’s a brief history.
Ballet’s origins go all the way back to southern Europe in the 15th century, specifically the Italian Renaissance. There, in cultural strongholds like Florence, the nobility practiced a type of celebratory dance which was part costume show, part pageant, and full of choreographed steps. When the Florentine noblewoman Catherine de’ Medici married the future French king Henry II in 1533, she brought with her this exotic Italian custom to the French royal court. The dance soon developed into something called ballet de cour (“court dance”) which started seeing more codified dance steps and specific musical accompaniment. By the time of the court of King Louis XIV a century later, ballet de cour was such an essential part of noble life that “The Sun King” himself was an avid dancer, performing in dances which were specifically commissioned for him. It was during this time that dance troupes started sprouting up all across France to train professional dancers in this exciting new emerging art.
The next development of ballet came in the mid 18th century, when French choreographer Jean Georges Noverre began designing dances which included more forms of physical expression. Working to convey emotion was now a part of the dancer’s duty, so more emphasis was put on the shapes made by the dancer’s body and even the expressions on their faces! This new form of dance was called ballet d’action and was much more accessible to the public, as the extremely ornate–and expensive–costumes were shelved in favor of simpler attire which allowed the dancer more movement and gave the audience an opportunity to focus more on the bodies and faces of the people on stage.
Birth of Narrative
By the time of the French Revolution, the association of ballet with the royal court was completely severed. However, instead of dying without royal patronage, ballet flourished! By the time of the Napoleonic Wars and the Congress of Vienna in the early 19th century, French was the language of diplomacy and class in Europe and Russia. And with the language came French customs, and the widespread introduction of ballet to the Russian people. By the end of the 19th century ballet would absolutely dominate the Russian theaters, and Russian ballets were among the most popular in the world. Over the course of the 19th century a new form of narrative ballet emerged, where the dancers were not simply pantomiming emotions but also telling a story.
The Classical Era
Closely linked with the emerging cultural zeitgeist known as Romanticism, early narrative ballet gave birth to the golden age of the ballerina. Female dance stars like the Italian Marie Taglioni and the Austrian Fanny Elssler dominated the stages of Europe in productions like Jules Perrot’s La Esmeralda that were tailor-made for female stars. Male ballet dancers at the time were little more than moving props whose job it was to make the ladies shine. The music was changing too: with the rise of orchestras and pieces going beyond mere accompaniment, as well as the continued development of ballet’s rival opera, more complex instrumentation and compositions were emerging. Soon there were not only ballet troupes in every country across Europe, but distinct styles. Russian ballet, French ballet (which saw a decline in Paris by the end of the century), Italian and English ballet all had unique styles and movements along with new compositions. This was the age of classical ballet which exploded across Europe in the mid-to-late 19th century. New composers like the Frenchman Léo Delibes and the Russian master Pyotr Tchaiikovsky started writing for specific productions and companies. Cities like Austria, London, and Copenhagen replaced Paris as cultural centers for ballet.
By the end of the 19th century the undisputed epicenter of the ballet world was St Petersburg, where the Russian Tzar Alexander III and his court patronized the Imperial Russian Ballet. It was during this period that the choreographer Marius Petipa developed productions which are still famous today, including Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. The Imperial Ballet, with its deep access to funding thanks to the royalty and its attention to detail and dedication to innovation was the bedrock foundation of the coming Russian school of ballet that would utterly dominate the early 20th century. French and Italian choreographers united their respective styles in the Imperial Ballet and laid the groundwork for the coming Russian revolution of dance.
By the beginning of the 20th century ballet was in a decline nearly everywhere except for Russia. It was in the first decade of the new century that visionary impresario Sergei Diaghilev founded the Ballet Russes in Paris, a city that had not seen a dance revolution in over a generation. Diaghilev recruited some of the stars of the Imperial Ballet for his new troupe including the ballerina Anna Pavlova and the Polish-born Vaslav Nijinsky, whose 1913 performance of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring caused a riot with it’s bold new movements and powerful music. This was the age of the ballet star, where dancers were as famous and perhaps more acclaimed as any actor, writer, or composer. In a brand new age defined by conflict and innovation, ballet was at the forefront of avant garde performance and theatricality.
After World War II and the division of Europe between the west and the Communist east, ballet had found an American audience with the migration of many Russian ballet heavyweights. Cultural centers like New York and San Francisco had prestigious companies which drew heavy inspiration from the Russian school in the beginning of the century. The emergence of the American film industry, and in particular animation, helped popularize the music associated with classical European dance and ballet. A whole generation of Americans were raised on Walt Disney and Looney Tunes productions which featured classical dance music and hilarious pantomimes of ballet form. A new style of dance was developing as well, one that drew inspiration from the productions of Diaghilev as well as contemporary American dance, influenced by jazz and the splendor of big Hollywood films from the golden age of cinema. The Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine, an alumni of the Ballets Russes, founded the tremendously influential School of American Ballet in New York City in 1934, where dancers were trained in the rigors and forms of the Russian school of ballet but with an emphasis on appealing to American audiences. Between the SAB and his work in Hollywood, Balanchine became one of the most important figures in the development of contemporary ballet, a style which came to define the latter half of the 20th century. Star dancers like the Soviet defectors Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov were regarded with the same degree of fame as Hollywood actors and rock stars and helped make contemporary ballet an international phenomenon.
At the same time as the rise of contemporary ballet came a distinctly American and modern form of dance that was influenced by the rich history of ballet. The most important American choreographer of the 20th century was Martha Graham, a visionary whose style and choreography spawned an entire school of dance. With angular movements and extremely emotive performances, Graham’s ballet productions were to the world of ballet what abstract expressionism was to the world of painting. Drawing on distinctly American musical compositions like Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Martha Graham conceived productions that were exciting, innovative, modern, during an era of American art and cultural renaissance. Her company produced bold new choreographers like Merce Cunningham and Twyla Tharp. In a career that spanned most of the 20th century, Graham’s innovations defined the century, and the modern era as we understand it.
To The Future
After a decline in the 1990s brought on by the passing of the esteemed choreographers of the 20th century, ballet has reemerged with new companies and exciting young millennial dancers like Tiler Peck, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet whose career has taken her from Hollywood to Broadway and collaborations with world class choreographers like William Forsythe. Tiler’s CV is emblematic of the many new paths which are being made by ballet in the 21st century, while still keeping tradition alive. Unlike music, whose notes can be written down, recorded, and played at will, dance requires living performance and the lineage of instruction. Every new student is not just stepping into a classroom but literally stepping into history, their footfalls, movements, and positions are inhabiting the same forms that have been studiously pursued and perfected over the centuries. When you take a ballet lesson, you are not just learning, you are mimicking and breathing the living language of dance. You are standing in position on a bridge that connects the distant past with the unseen future and your movements become the living embodiment of the eternal dance; for you have become the dancer.