History of Ballet

A Brief Lesson In Ballet History

The Beginning: It was in the courts of Italy, following the Renaissance, that ballet first flourished. The birth of ballet is usually dated at 1581. In these entertainments, which took place in the ballrooms, the courtiers, and sometimes even the monarch, took part. The French Court also began having ballets and later, Louis XIV himself insisted on dancing the leading roles until he became too old and fat.

First Ballerina: Marie Camargo danced in 1721 in France in a daring costume - a skirt that was short enough to show her ankles, and slippers with no heels so she could move freely.

Romantic Ballet: This period took place around the beginning of the 1800s. The ballet stories were mysterious and told of exotic faraway places. The characters were often ghost-like spirits, like the sylphs in Les Sylphides or the wilis in Giselle. The ballerinas wore romantic tutus which went to just below the knee. Classical Ballet companies today still perform Giselle and Les Sylphides and their audiences still find them haunting and magical.

Classical Ballet: The classical age of ballet centers around the glorious productions of Marius Petipa to the music of Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky. These ballets often featured the Italian virtuoso dancers who went to Russia during the middle of the 19th century. The ballet Sleeping Beauty is sometimes considered the peak of classical ballet. Other examples are Paquita, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. A classical tutu skirt is very short.

Sergei Diaghilev: It was inevitable that young dancers and choreographers would eventually rebel against the rigid formula and ideas of classical ballet. Around 1910, Sergei Diaghilev led a group of artist and dancers who began to experiment with new ideas and produced exciting new works where design, music, and steps blended as one creation. Diaghilev was not a designer, dancer or musician, but he was able to bring together other talented artists and encourage them to create new experimental ballets which have withstood the test of time. Petrouchka and The Firebird are examples. The famous Vaslav Nijinsky danced and choreographed during this period. Costumes, because they were designed by real artists involved in the whole creative process, were innovative, moving away from the ballet tutu.

Balanchine and the Neo-Classical Period: After Diaghilev's death, many of the talented artists he had worked with scattered around the world to found new companies and schools. Balanchine arrived in America where he had enormous influence through his company, the New York City Ballet, because of this innovative choreographic style. His style is often referred to as neo-classical.

Contemporary Ballet: Modern Dance was born in the 1920s and 1930s through the work of several modern dance pioneers including Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham and Ruth St. Denis. Modern dance developed into a theatrical dance form with its own companies, dancers and choreographers. This dance style expressed emotions and activity from everyday life, rather than fairy tales. The dancers used different lines and angles of the body, and danced barefoot with movements which were more grounded in the earth. Gradually these modern dance ideas filtered into the ballet world, creating contemporary ballet.

Dodd, C. Ballet In Color. Octopus Books. 1980
Draper, N., Atkinson, M. Ballet For Beginners. Alfred A. Knoph, Inc. 1952.
Reprinted with permission from the Youth Ballet Company of Saskatchewan, 2005.