A Brief History of Ballet From European Courts to Modern Dance

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Every winter, millions flock to see The Nutcracker, perhaps the most famous ballet of all time. Ballet’s beginnings actually began centuries before little Clara began capturing hearts as she flew through a world of sweets with her gallant nutcracker. While the oldest ballets performed today date from the 19th century, choreographed dances in a style known as ballet were actually performed in the Italian Renaissance.

As the style spread across 16th-century Europe, the dance developed into an art form which was eventually professionalized and perfected. Read on to learn about the origins of ballet—a graceful yet powerful discipline which has captured the hearts of children and catapulted talented dancers to stage stardom.

 

Le Ballet de Cour

The earliest ballet dances were part of highly ritualized court entertainment in Renaissance Italy. The performances were choreographed routines performed by aristocrats—men and women—in their elaborate courtly dress. These dances were common at elite weddings where audience members would join in on the fun. Early dances featured mythology and political symbolism.

The Queen’s patronage of the ballet began a long history of French royal interest in the new style of dance. The ballet de cour remained an important part of royal entertaining. King Louis XIV—known for his opulent palace at Versailles—gained his nickname “the Sun King” from his role as Apollo in a performance of the dance Ballet de la Nuit in 1653. Under the Sun King’s rule, ballet became a more formal discipline. The Académie Royale de Danse was founded in 1661, and dance masters set to work standardizing notation for choreography. The five standard positions of ballet date from the this time in late 17th-century France.

18th-Century Innovations

By the 18th century, ballet dancing could be found in many of the princely courts of Europe. Professional performers emerged, largely replacing the aristocrats who once danced together. Opera houses staged operas conjoined with ballet, but by mid-century this was abandoned in favor of orchestral accompaniment. Inspired by the emerging Romanticism of the second half of the 18th century, the characters portrayed by dancers expanded to include nobles, peasants, and other romantic, almost fairy-tale figures. Ballet began to develop as a narrative art rather than a simple spectacle. The use of steps and body language to express emotion and interaction became critical.

 

The most important figure of 18th-century ballet was Jean-Georges Noverre, who is typically credited with the narrative shift to the storytelling ballet d’action. The French dancer and choreographer wrote Lettres sur la Danse et les Ballets. Published in 1760, the text outlines a style of ballet based on the relationships of characters. This new style drew on the ancient art of pantomimes, and the ballet d’action was also known as a pantomime ballet. Noverre’s most famous ballet—Les Fêtes Chinoises—fully embraced the Rococo aesthetic. A trained corps de ballet performed in front of luxurious set designs. The Parisian public loudly praised the ballet upon its first performance in the city in 1754.

Staged in theaters and opera houses, ballet was becoming more available to audiences outside of the royal court. The art remained dominated by male choreographers, but women did compose and appear on stage as well. Marie Sallé—an early inspiration to her student Noverre—was one such woman. Known as one of the earliest dancers to embrace a truly emotive style, she performed at the Paris Opera and Covent Garden before retiring to teach dance. Her skills were so revered, she was still sought out by nobility in her retirement—she even performed at Versailles. In addition to her dancing, she choreographed her own ballets—including one called Pygmalion, based on the Greek myth of a man who sculpts a female companion.

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