A Brief Excursion into the History of Modern Ballet

A Brief Excursion into the History of Modern Ballet

The world ballet art was born in the 16th century, and the word “ballet” as such had appeared a century earlier. What important milestones did the genre go through while evolving?

A brief history of ballet in Europe

In the syncretic genre of ballet, dance and music, dramatic and visual arts are intertwined, giving rise to a specific kind of stage expressiveness. A ballet performance can be based on a well-known story or on a unique plot, or it can be absolutely plotless, but expressive and emotional at the same time.

 The word "ballet" first appeared in the Italian language: “ballo” means "dancing" in Latin. According to the world art history, in the 15th century, the dance teacher Domenico da Piacenza, who taught at the royal court, suggested combining several dances for the upcoming ball and wrote a summarizing finale for them. He called this musical and choreographic work “ballet”.

 References to ballet as an independent dance genre can be found later and beyond the borders of Italy. In 1581, in Paris, the choreographer Baldassare de Belgiojoso staged a performance called Circe, or Ballet Comique de la Reine, combining music and dance. This was the first production, after which the development of court ballet as a genre began in France.

The more magnificent and ceremonious, the better. This rule was followed by the choreographers of the 16th century, creating spectacular baroque performances. The heyday of the court ballet falls on the years of the reign of King Louis XIV. In one of the productions, the ruler took the stage himself dancing the part of the luminary. After that, he got the name Sun King, which survived to this day.

 In court performances, music and ceremony were more important. World ballet owes its establishment as an independent genre to the French choreographer Pierre Beauchamp. In the 17th century, he defined the canons of ballet dance, formulated five positions for the legs and three for the arms, and was also the first to use the term "turnout". Moreover, this choreographer singled out the varieties of dance movements: plies, jumps, rotations and body positions. The terms "fouette", "entrechat", "arabesque" and others appeared in ballet and stayed with us for centuries. After the "rules" of performance had been formulated, ballet started moving away from the court entertainment towards the theatrical art.

Another French choreographer of the Age of the Enlightenment, Jean-Georges Noverre, compared ballet to classic drama. He invented the term "ballet d’action", where the plot came to the fore. This was often achieved at the expense of the dance and musical expressiveness. Noverre made a great theoretical contribution to the development of ballet: he differentiated comic and tragic dance works, invented such a form as multi-act ballet, wrote about the differences between ballet and opera (before him, the so-called “ballet-opera” could often be seen on the French stage). The choreographer managed to find time for practical work too: he wrote 80 ballets with different plots and in different styles.

The first librettos appeared a bit later, when sentimentalism took the stage and choreodrama became the most popular ballet form. It was followed by romanticism. At that time, the choreographer Carlo Blasis, who headed the Accademia Teatro alla Scala, became an important figure in the world of classical dance. It was he who divided the dance into classical (academic) and character (functional, folk), which became a norm in ballet theory. He also formulated the differences between the types of dance - solo, ensemble and mass. Besides, Blasis worked in St. Petersburg in the 1860s and impacted the Russian ballet school, which was actively developing then.

Ballet in Russia: from court art to world-renowned samples

Almost 100 years after the very first ballet performance, the ballet debuted in Russia. The premiere performance in the new genre was The Ballet of Orpheus and Eurydice that was given at the court of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich in 1673.

The first performances declared Russian ballet as a court art: invited European ballet masters were staging performances based primarily on mythological plots. Later, they were replaced by historical performances.

In the 19th century, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky created Swan Lake, and this was the first time a Russian composer of that rank wrote a ballet. This changed the entire genre again: symphonic music ceased to be just an accompaniment and became a full-fledged work of art, while Tchaikovsky's performances opened up a new sphere of romantic ballets. The composer also changed the form of ballet music: now the performances were built according to the new laws of symphonic development.

The ballet genre in Russia was interpreted in their own ways by both composers and choreographers. Alexander Glazunov, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitry Shostakovich, Reinhold Gliere, Aram Khachaturian and other masters of music - each of the ballet composers worked in their own unique style. Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, Mikhail Fokine, Yuri Grigorovich - each of the choreographers used their own arsenal of dance expressiveness means.

Hierarchy and history of a ballet company

Historically, a ballet troupe consisted of male dancers. In Italy, where ballet was born, a distinctive feature of the performing skill was the so-called jumping style of dance. In France, where ballet emerged as a genre, grace and flexibility were valued among the early dancers. Ballerinas joined ballet companies later. The first dancer in the classical style - wearing pointe shoes and a tutu - was the Italian Marie Taglioni.

The classical dance performers have a whole hierarchy of statuses, a position in which is determined by the level of skills, talent and degree of recognition in the professional environment. Different ballet schools have different levels in their performing hierarchy. Moreover, there are differences within the Russian ballet school: the company structure in the Bolshoi and Mariinsky Theaters vary.

The ballet hierarchy has existed for a long time. In 19th-century Russia, graduates of the Theater School most often began their career in the corps de ballet, the most talented ones had a chance to immediately get a solo part. A few years later, talent, multiplied by hard work and skill, allowed the artist to achieve the title of a ballerina. Obviously, such a dance career was not universal. In pre-revolutionary Russia and later, there were artists who reached the status of a ballerina and prima ballerina shortly before retirement.

A modern ballerina implies the highest stage of the performing art. Graduates of choreographic schools come to this status through practice, constant improvement and participation in performances - first, dancing the secondary roles, then the lead ones. From a corps de ballet artist to a soloist, from a soloist to a ballerina and prima ballerina - this path is rarely simple and doesn’t always end at the highest point. It’s all because besides skills and experience, a true ballerina must have an original talent, her own personal style and unique charisma. Every famous ballerina has her own way, her own interpretation of the lead parts.

What ballet consists of: dances, pantomimes, scenes

The main components of a ballet performance are classical dance, character dance and pantomime.

Classical dance is many centuries old: it appeared in France almost at the same time as ballet emerged as a genre. Classical dance can take the form of a solo dance: in this case, it is called a variation or adagio. However, a solo dance in ballet is not necessarily performed alone - such numbers can be part of an ensemble dance. One of the most famous adagios in world ballet is the dance from the ballet Swan Lake.

Character dance is based on national choreography and conveys folk color and mood. Ballet historian Yuri Slonimsky emphasized that the essence of the character dance was more accurately reflected in the translation of the same term from French - “a dance with a character” (danse de caractère). In other words, it is important for artists performing a character dance to show not the folkways of the depicted country, but rather its stage character. The Hungarian dance in Raymonda or the Spanish dance in Don Quixote are classic examples of character dances.

Ballet pantomime is directly related to the plot of the production. The artists use gestures, facial expressions and moves to demonstrate events and their emotions.

There are also mass scenes in ballet - they are performed by the corps de ballet artists. Such dances can also be character, demonstrating a national flavor or a historical era. A good example is the Spanish Dance in Swan Lake.

Ballet of the present and of the future: the postmodern era and daring experiments

Contemporary ballet tries oftentimes to be markedly unlike classical ballet, using a different choreographic language - freer, more liberated and acrobatic. Anything - from the usual classics to works by contemporary composers and seemingly chaotic sets of sounds - can become musical accompaniment. Artists in such performances can go on stage in minimalistic tight leotards or, conversely, in bold futuristic costumes. An important feature of modern ballet art is blurred boundaries, freedom of creative expression. Choreographers juggle references to national dances, daringly reinterpret the classics, include modern movements and plastique elements. Choreographers are also not afraid of ballet classics: for example, the British choreographer Matthew Byrne reinterpreted Tchaikovsky's legacy in his own way, offering the roles of swans in Swan Lake to men.

At the same time, contemporary ballet adheres to traditions - this is the second important line of development. All over the world, theaters give canonical productions that are a century or even more old, and they are a great success. Costumes, elements of choreography and musical accompaniment may change, but the general attitude towards classical productions remains invariably careful.

No matter how modern ballet deals with the classical heritage - opposing itself to it, rethinking it or quoting it - it remains symbolic. As it should be in the postmodern era, contemporary choreographers often reflect, share allusions and references generously. The art of ballet is influenced by both cinematography and clip culture. So, ballet didn’t freeze in the form, in which it was known at the beginning of the 20th century. Ballet is changing, which means it lives.

World famous theaters: where to watch ballet

Contemporary ballet is evolving and flourishing in different countries. The greatest theaters all over the world perform to full houses regularly. 

La Scala Theater in Milan is not only an internationally renowned opera house. Ballet performances have been staged here for centuries. Built in 1778, it still stands out for its impeccable acoustics.

The main building of the Grand Opera in France took 15 years to build. This process didn’t stop in modern history either: in 1989, a new opera stage was opened. The main ballet company in the country lives here too.

The Bolshoi Theater building in Moscow is like the Phoenix bird, it perished in big fires and was rebuilt anew, underwent several reconstructions and refurbishments. It's not an exaggeration to say that today this is one of the best ballet stages in the world. The St. Petersburg “relative” of the capital's theater is the ceremonial and palace-like Mariinsky Theater.

The Covent Garden Theatre in London has been the permanent home of the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet since the 19th century. The English school is a separate direction in the world of ballet, original and noteworthy.

The Metropolitan Opera on Broadway is the most famous music stage in the United States. Representatives of the American Ballet School often play to a full house.

The futuristic Opera House in Sydney was built not so long ago, in 1973. Australian Ballet performances take place in this building, which is famous for its acoustics and elaborate seating system.