History of Ballet

Ballet from 16th Century France to Russia By: Jamie Gorman History of Dance 10/29/2010 I have chosen to write my paper on ballet. I will begin with sixteenth century court dance and will work up to classical ballet in Russia during the late nineteenth century. I have researched the topics of footwork, location, monetary support, style, the dancers, cultural influences, costumes, shoes, and gender roles. In Italy during the sixteenth century, ballet was common place in the court circles. It was associated with weddings, victories, welcoming, and any other type of festivity.

It was also used by the king as a political tool, starting with King Louis XIII. The person who truly imported ballet into France was Catherine De Medici. Under Louis XIV ballet spectacles became even more lavish, and power became a central theme in the dance. “Under Louis XIV, le roy soleil, ballet spectacles became still more lavish and his majesty and power were a favorite theme for sycophant courtier choreographers. Menestrier mounted a ballet in which the thirteen Louis paid homage to the glorious fourteenth.

Where in the previous reign ballet had a tendency to be bawdy and Louis XIII himself specializing in low comedy roles, appeared more than once with great success as an old woman, Louis XIV loved the lavish and the heroic” (Haskell, 12). At the age of thirty, Louis abandoned dance and allowed Beauchamps to bring in “professional” dancers, who were actually traveling acrobats trained to dance in the court. At this time only men really danced, even playing the female roles. About twenty years later, women began to play a role in ballet.

The dances were simple because their long skirts prevented them from being able to do complex steps and the choreography was just a series of geometrical patterns. Elevation was not yet born, and the dancers had to wear heeled shoes. In 1721 La Camargo became the first great ballerina, making amateur dancers a thing of the past. She shortened her skirt to show more leg and also started the heelless shoe, using more of her foot than had been done before. La Camargo’s contemporary, J. G. Noverre, developed the aesthetic of ballet. Marie Antoinette made him maitre de ballet en chef, even though two others were entitled to the position over him.

Noverre was not the biggest fan of technique, but basically invented the turn-out position that is now the basis for ballet technique. During the romantic period dance began to change in many ways, especially in France. There was a movement in all the arts, and dance drew inspiration from them all, especially from written texts and paintings. The anima became the main focus of themes, no longer the animus. In ballets, women were the objects of desire and highly unattainable, flitting from one side of the stage to another. The people of the time were fascinated with mythical creatures and exotic locales. Better to talk to a workman than to see one on the stage, says Theophile Gautier” (Haskell, 37). Male dancers were looked at as both ridiculous and gross, while women’s beauty was glorified. There were some exceptions, but for the most part a male dancer should stay in the background, which was a huge difference from the time of Louis XIV. The Romantic Movement demanded new technique. The dancer must float, glide, and seem to fly. What used to be considered grotesque was now aesthetically pleasing. This was the moment when the tips of the toes became extremely important, almost obscuring all other aspects of the ballet.

Ballet was becoming an expressive art and the whole body was now being used. “The Romantic Movement not only upset the balance of orchestration, it demanded new technical effects. The dancer must no longer be terre a terre, she must glide, float, and seem to fly. From this moment the tips of the toes, the points, come into the picture and gradually begin to assume an importance so great that they obscure every other department of the art. Whether the dancers of this period used the full point or only three quarters it does not matter, they ushered in the era of ‘toe-dancing’ that to so many is synonymous with ballet” (Clarke, 39).

One of the first great dancers to employ this technique was Marie Taglioni. She made her debut in Vienna in 1822 with great success. She later danced in a ballet her father choreographed, La Sylphide, which made her famous. After this, ballets were filled with fantastical creatures and pixies and nymphs. Taglioni was referred to as the “Christian” dancer, unlike her counterpart, Fanny Elssler, who was known as the “pagan” dancer and famous for her beauty and expressiveness. Taglioni on the other hand, was recognized for her technicality. Both dancers represented two different aspects of the romantic ballet.

Romantic ballet paved the way for what we refer to as classical ballet today. The movement was responsible for developing point technique and elevation, presenting the dancer as ethereal and otherworldly. This era was also responsible for dance text to help choreographers create and present their dances. The Romantic Movement also glamorized dancers, making them the first real rock stars. After the craze for ballet died down in France, it became popular in England for awhile and then fell on bad times, only to be revived at the end of the nineteenth century by Russia.

Jules Perrot moved to Russia in 1848 and became the established principle ballet master one year after Marius Petipa was invited to St. Petersburg. He had hoped for the job of ballet master but Perrot got it instead. Petipa came from a family of dancers, and his father was a ballet master and choreographer. Petipa was offered the position of premier danseur. He began as a dancer and also staged revivals of ballets. Perrot was dismissed in 1859, but Petipa was overlooked for the role of principal ballet master once again.

After some time he was given the chance to compose a ballet for an ageing ballerina and he seized the opportunity, opening the door that led him to be one of the future greatest influences on the Russian ballet. Petipa helped begin a new approach to choreography. When ballet was pretty much dying in Western Europe, Petipa helped preserve the art of ballet, as well as Russian choreographer Mikhail Fokine. With the help of these two, ballet moved from its birthplace, France, to Russia. The term ‘classical ballet’ is most often associated with ballets such as Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker.

This style of ballet involved choreography that stressed formal values such as symmetry, order, harmony, and clarity. Academic technique was chief and rarely strayed from. Classical ballets were not entirely of emotion, but it usually came second to technique. Petipa made the emphasis on form a positive thing and much of his work is noted for variety and inventiveness, and the ability to captivate an audience. “He found a dance of grace and turned it along paths of virtuosity, demanding the highest technical standards from corps de ballet as well as principals” (Haskell, 62).

Petipa’s ballets were known for their pas de deux, which is when the ballerina and her partner perform a duet, followed by a solo for each dancer. The two join again for a conclusion, followed usually by pyrotechnics. The ballerina is the main focus while the male dancers role is to support her and help showcase her beauty. Unlike most ballets of this time, the corps de ballet usually dressed in authentic costumes for the period represented. The sets also revealed a good amount of research done for the theme. Since Taglioni’s day, the tutu had become considerably shorter and was now the ballerinas ‘uniform’ and marked her status.

The tutu was worn regardless of the period or country, with only minor changes done to represent another period or nationality. Classical ballet put great emphasis on the method and execution of movement. A distinctive feature is the continuous outward rotation of the thighs from the hip, referred to as a ‘turn-out’ position. One classical ballerina of notable interest is Pierrina Legnani. She was the last of the great foreign stars to secure the great roles, before Russian ballerinas became favored. She was a dancer of dazzling skill and impeccable precision.

She popularized the foette by doing thirty-two in a row in Swan Lake. She never missed them and the audience would erupt with applause after feverishly counting them. Legnani aroused the sense of competition in the Russian dancers and helped hasten their complete reign. Throughout time dance has always played a role in cultures universally. In the 16th century, ballet played an important role in court, with nobility being required to learn the proper steps. With the Romantic Movement danced changed in many ways, ushering in the first era of professional ballerinas.

Technique became important, and the road to classical ballet was paved. Once ballet moved to Russia, techniques were perfected by choreographers such as Marius Petipa. The turn of the nineteenth century marked the beginning of ballet as we know it today.

Works Cited Au, Susan Ballet and Modern Dance. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988 Clarke, Mary Ballet: An Illustrated History. New York: Universe Books, 1973. Haskell, Arnold L. Ballet Panorama. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1938. Lifar, Serge A History of Russian Ballet. New York: Roy Publishers, 1974.

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