BY ISABELLA BOURMAN
Ballet first emerged during the Italian Renaissance (~15th century) as noble families in power sought artistic achievement. They were striving for the same degree of fame that classical art and theater possessed by emulating it in their art, architecture, inventions, and music; dance was no different. At that time, dancing was most familiar to people of status who incorporated it into pageant-like events that occurred indoors and outdoors. Nobles would employ other architects and artists, including Leonardo Da Vinci, to design elaborate chariots to use during these events. These Italian entertainments led to French “dinner ballets” which were lengthy meals with interludes of dancing in between the service of each course. The French dinner ballets were among other wonders of the Italian Renaissance, until ballet was adopted by other courts across Europe.
Catherine de Medici was a notable Italian noble who is credited with popularizing court ballet in France at the end of the 16th century. To Catherine, court ballet was not only about pageantry, but it became politically useful as well. During her rule as Queen of France in the mid-1500’s, she used court ballet and similar events to celebrate marriages, impress diplomats, or even distract her sons from some affairs of state. These ballets were often performed by nobility themselves and involved a lot of what we associate with the art form today, including extravagant costumes, orchestral composition, and technical choreography that adhered to rules of music theory.
By the time Louis XIV was born in 1638, opera had also made its way from Italy to France, sparking some competition between the two forms of entertainment. Despite losing its popularity slightly to opera, ballet was still well-loved by Louis XIV and his family. After years of performing himself, Louis began collaborating with other artists to further develop ballet. Some of these artists include Pierre Beauchamps, ballet master and the inventor of the five positions, Jean-Baptiste Lulli, an Italian musician and ballet dancer, and Molière, the dramatist whose 400th birthday we celebrate this year and the creator of Comédie-Ballets. The greatest of these collaborations was Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (1670) which was written by Molière, choreographed by Beauchamps, and featured Lulli in the role of Mufti. This was also the point at which ballet started to move out of courts and into theaters.
Louis XIV is also credited with the foundation of the Académie Royale de Danse and the Académie Royale de Musique, known today as the Paris Opéra. His goal was to train artists and establish set technique for both ballet and music. Over the course of time, the creation of these schools would eventually play a part in making ballet accessible to lower classes by training professional dancers and making it possible for them to take over roles previously reserved for noble men and women.
After the French Revolution, ballet started to change and develop rapidly. Ballet’s movement out of the courts allowed it to join opera in the opera houses for a hybrid form of entertainment. The steps and movements start to adhere to technique, or unified methods of movement, and they receive the French names ballet students know them by today. Professional male dancers take over roles held by male nobles, effectively pushing female nobles out of ballet performance as well. This leads to a brief period of female character roles being played by men, not unlike classical theater or Shakespeare’s theater. Then, by the 18th century, ballerinas joined men on the stage. Professional female dancers improved under the same instruction as men and started taking over roles. Costumes also changed during this time. As ballerinas perfected quick, dazzling footwork, they shortened the skirt length from floor-length to above the ankle so that it would be seen better.
Similar to other artistic forms, ballet experienced a Romantic Era or Romantic Movement. During this time, the storytelling in ballet and other elements of staging was concerned largely with the supernatural and sublime. La Sylphide is one of the most well-known romantic ballets, although my personal favorite is Giselle. This is also the era in which ballerinas began dancing en pointe, that is on the tips of their toes in pointe shoes. Skirts shortened even more to show off this new style of footwork. It is evident that ideals of the romantic era heavily influenced this change because pointework itself elicited a feeling of wonder in audiences, and the new movements possessed an ethereal visual element that not only coincided with themes of the era but also assisted in storytelling. La Sylphide and Giselle, for example, both feature creatures akin to will-o-the-whisps or ghost-like fairies, and when corps du ballet performs these en pointe, it gives the visual effect of the sylphs gliding through mist.
Of course, there are a lot of other changes that happened after the Romantic Era before ballet became fully what it is today. Imperial Russia influenced ballet immensely and in conjunction with Tchaikovsky’s musical compositions yielded some of the greatest ballets of all time-- The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty. And it wasn’t until the late 19th century and early 20th century that ballet made its way to America and stayed there-- a lot of American dancers were making their careers in Europe until that point. Now, almost every state in the U.S. has a professional ballet company that is currently in business. (Think the NFL but ballet!) However, without Louis XIV making ballet and music accessible to classes other than the rich and powerful, we wouldn’t be able to learn about it and appreciate it the way we can now; and in a sense, we have Molière to thank as well for his part in making ballet a medium for storytelling, and not just something to watch while we eat dinner.
Clarck, Mary, and Clement Crisp. Ballet: An Illustrated History. Universe Books, 1973.
Fonteyn, Margot. The Magic of Dance. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1979.