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Ballet and its history

Western classical dance, as we know it today, is the result of a centuries-long evolution, beginning in the Italian Renaissance courts in the 16th century and developing over time in Europe and North America to the present day. 

With the creation of the Royal Academy of Dance by Louis XIV, the court dance is transformed into "dance de théâtre", whose steps and movements are established during the 17th century in France, taking inspiration from the Italian school.

In 1700, we witness the birth of the great europeans schools  of ballet and that of the  action ballet. 

Heir to the “beautiful dance” practiced in Western Europe since the 17th century, ballet has as its founding principles the “en dehors” (the external rotation of the hips), the five reference positions, aplomb, rigor and neatness. Its technicality has continued to develop since the Royal Academy of Dance and his vocabulary has been constantly enriched, always in French.

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The Italian ballet

The balletto originated at the Italian Renaissance court where weddings were celebrated lavishly. Musicians and dancers did their best to entertain the guests. When Catherine de Medici, interested in the arts, married Henri II (1533), heir to the throne of France, she brought her enthusiasm for dance and her financial support.

The balletto is presented at the court of the King of France where words, verses, songs, sets and costumes are added to it to make it a great ceremonial spectacle, which will become the ballet. Domenico da Piacenza was one of the first dancing masters. With his students Antonio Cornazzano and Guglielmo Ebreo, he was trained in the art of dance and responsible for teaching it.

The French court ballet


The Queen's Comic Ballet, choreographed by Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx, was staged and performed in Italy in 1581, the same year that Il Ballarino, a treatise on court dance technique by Fabritio Caroso, appeared. Although the Ballet comique de la reine was not the first ballet of its kind, its performance coincided with the publication of the treatise in Italy, at this time the center of the technical development of ballet.

The French court ballet, both instrumental and vocal, was contemporary with the first attempts at dramatic monody in Florence (the “interludes”, at the end of the 16th century). Lully and Molière's opera-ballets and comedies-ballets arose from the court ballet tradition.

The 17th century

In France, ballet gained its letters of nobility as an art in its own right at the court of the king through dance and determined to reverse the decline of this art, begun during the XVII siècle. Louis XIV created the Royal Academy of Dance en 1661, then in 1669 the Royal Academy of Music. This will be the birth of the prestigious company known today as Ballet de l'Opéra national de Paris. Pierre Beauchamp, dancer and choreographer at court, codifies the five  classic positions and develops a system of  dance notation.

The XVIIIe siècle

The 18th century saw a profound evolution in the standards and technique of ballet, which starts to be considered as a form of artistic spectacle alongside opera. The work of Jean-Georges Noverre and his Lettres sur la danse (1760) are no strangers to the evolution towards the ballet d'action or ballet-pantomime, in which the dancer's movements express the feelings of the character he's supposed to represent and helps to understand the story.
The very first action ballet in the repertoire was Gluck's Don Juan (1761), written according to Noverre's instructions. This major work is the direct ancestor of the great ballets of the 19th and 20th centuries.

At that time, women, encumbered as they were by baskets, corsets, wigs and high heels, only played a secondary role (while it predominates today).

The intercalary ballet, inserted in an opera, then became a specificity of French lyrical art. This can be seen by attending performances of the tragedies lyriques of Lully and Rameau. Noverre's reform (action ballet) and that of Gluck also retain this practice.

The XIX century

Modern ballet is built as a succession of episodes which follow one another in a continuous manner. This type of ballet developed at the beginning of the 19th century in an autonomous setting. Indeed, Wagnerian conceptions make the practice of intercalary ballet obsolete.

While France contributed to the rise of ballet in its early stages, other countries, particularly Russia, adopted this new form of the art.

After 1850, enthusiasm for ballet began to wane in Paris but found its blossoming in Denmark and Russia thanks to ballet masters and choreographers such as Auguste Bournonville, Jules Perrot, Arthur Saint-Léon, Enrico Cecchetti and Marius Petipa.

Orientalism became fashionable towards the end of the 19th century. Colonialism brings knowledge of Asian and African cultures, but distorts it with misinformation and a lot of fantasy. The Orient is then perceived as decadent. It is nevertheless the time of the constitution of large Western private collections concerning these cultures.

Petipa appealed to popular enthusiasm by staging La Fille du pharaon in 1862, then La Bayadère (1877) and Le Talisman (1889).

Petipa is especially famous for his choreographies for the Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake ballets, from European folklore to music by Piotr Ilitch Tchaikovsky.

It was at this time that the tutu made its appearance and completely uncovered the ballerina's leg.

With La Sylphide (1832), a great turning point took place: the romantic ideal overwhelmed the stage and the dance became ethereal, precise, elaborate, and essentially feminine. This impression of lightness comes from the use of ballet slippers called “pointes” (used for the first time in 1801) and whose reinforced toe allows the dancer to stand on her tiptoes. She is then at the center of all romantic ballets, the male partners serving more as “fosters” and “carriers” for the ballerina. The aplomb, the pas de deux and the elevation symbolize the new technical qualities, as well as the quality and rigor of a corps de ballet which supports the soloists. It was Marius Petipa, a Frenchman who spent most of his life in Russia, who is one of the great explorers of classical technique. He left us many masterpieces such as La Bayadère, Swan Lake or Don Quixote, which are the foundation and basis of classical dance as we understand it today. The word “classic” made its appearance with the Ballets Russes (1910) and never left dance.

The XXth century

Serge Diaghilev rekindled public interest in ballet when he founded his Ballets Russes company. It is made up of dancers from the community of Russians exiled to Paris after the 1917 Revolution. Diaghilev and Stravinsky combined their talents to bring Russian folklore to life through The Firebird and Petrushka. A controversy arose for The Rite of Spring, which hit the Americans.

Michel Fokine began his career as a dancer and choreographer in Saint-Petersburg while that of Petipa declined. Fokine left Russia for Paris where he worked with Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. In France, with Serge Lifar, and in the United States, with George Balanchine, creator of the New York City Ballet and founder of the Balanchine Method, the ballet is renewed by giving rise to the neo-classical style.

The Ballets Russes continued to develop under the Soviet regime. There was little talent left after the Revolution, but enough to form a new generation of dancers and choreographers who would appear on the scene around the mid-1930s. Technical perfection and precision were demanded by Agrippina Vaganova, director of the dance school of the Mariinsky Theatre.

Ballet was and remains very popular in Russia. The companies of the Kirov (currently Mariinsky Theatre) and that of the Bolshoi Theater are very popular. The ideology of the time forced the two companies to program pieces imbued with Soviet socialist realism, most of which were little appreciated and later removed from the repertoire. Nevertheless, some ballets are remarkable, such as Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. Flammes de Paris (1932) makes extensive use of the corps de ballet and requires astonishing virtuosity in its execution. La Fontaine de Bakhchisaraï (1933), a danced version of the poem by Alexander Pushkin and choreographed by Rostislav Zakharov to music by Boris Assafiev, was an undeniable success and was performed for the first time in the United States by the Kirov during its tour. from 1999. Cinderella is also a production of the Soviet Ballets. These coins were little known in the West before the collapse of the USSR.

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