A Very Brief History of Ballet

To give context for the Modern dancers and choreographers I’m surveying (see previous posts), I’m gathering some information about the history of ballet—which was perceived as the antithesis to Modern dance, until choreographers began synthesizing the two streams in the latter half of the 20th century. This division has broken down over the last few decades, and many major ballet companies perform works by “Modern” choreographers such as William Forsythe and Mark Morris.

  • Ballet was derived from the dance of Italian courts during the Renaissance (15th-16th centuries). It spread to the French court of Catherine de Medici.
  • Classical ballet as we know it was created in the court of King Louis XIV (who also patronized Lully, Couperin, Moliere, Racine, et al), who himself was a dancer. Dance was an important part of French opera (notably the operas of Lully), and it was an outgrowth of opera performances that ballet was formally established. (View a film recreating dance in the court of Louis XIV.) Louis XIV founded the Academie Royale de Danse (the Paris Opera Ballet) in 1661, which created and codified standards for ballet technique and pedagogy. In the 1680s it was headed by Pierre Beauchamp, who codified the five positions of the feet. The Paris Opera Ballet, a component of the Paris Opera, became the first professional ballet company during the 1670s and ’80s.
  • The Royal Danish Ballet and the Imperial Ballet of the Russian Empire were founded in the 1740s, and ballet in Denmark and Russia, as well as Italy, grew as ballet declined in popularity in France after the mid-1800s.
  • Romantic ballet in the 19th century saw the introduction of pointework (dancing en pointe, with pointed shoes) and the tutu. Russia became the leader in ballet during this time, giving rise to the famous ballets of Tchaikovsky in the 1870s-90s. (Example: Swan Lake, 1876.)
  • Around 1907, ballet was re-introduced to France and re-invigorated in Paris, notably by the Russian company Ballets Russes and its innovative producer Sergei Diaghilev who was responsible for the avante garde ballets of Igor Stravinsky and Vaslav Nijinsky (choreographer). (Example: The Rite of Spring, 1913.) The vibrancy of Russian ballet in Paris increased ballet’s influence in the USA and other non-European countries.
  • George Balanchine, a Russian-born composer who moved to the States in the 1920s, is known for creating neoclassical ballet: a genre that bridged traditional and contemporary style and influenced Modern choreographers. (Example: Apollo, 1928.) He founded the New York City Ballet in 1948.
  • Postmodern dance in the 1970s and ’80s saw the emergence of conscious synthesis between ballet and Modern styles. Collaborations between ballet dancer and choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov and Modern choreographer Twyla Tharp, such as Push Comes to Shove (1976), are particularly notable.

See this Wikipedia article for more on these topics.

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