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Home Columns History The enthralling history of ballet

The enthralling history of ballet

Last updated 6 months ago by Michael Darmanin

Ballet is the fairies’ Baseball

Oscar Levant

Very rare species of humans will not be amused by the magic wand of the spectacular dance form – Ballet. Just like poetry in motion, the ballerinas seem to be the musical notes enchanting us with their impressive grace. Though it appears to be seamless; years of strenuous efforts, discipline and practice lead to the flamboyant performances. Being a Balletomane, I want you to have a glance at the evolution of this dance form through centuries.

Ballerina Grafitti. Photo Credits: Krutika Hirani

The word has its origin in Italian “Balleto” (little dance). It occurs from Latin ballo, ballore, which in turn originates from the Greek word – “Ballizo” meaning to dance or to jump about. Around 1630, the word came into English usage from the french word – Ballet.

“The ballet originated in Italy, developed in France and was immortalised in Russia.”

The beginning traces back to 15th century Renaissance Italy as a combination of social dance and choreographed display at aristocratic gatherings. In many aspects, it was a way of controlling people in court with acceptable forms of behavior such as the manner in which people stepped, bowed or took someone’s hand. Over the time, the study of ballet became code of conduct and central element of king’s court life. A proper grasp of etiquette could make or break one’s success as a courtier. Modern ballet techniques still use many of the court gestures.

Emergence of The Paris Opera Ballet

In 16th century, Ballet made his arrival to France. It was in 1533, when King Henry II married Italian Catherine de’ Medici. She was philanthropist of art and culture. Thus, Ballet made his way to French court. As celebrations became more lavish, so did the dance. With dancing masters teaching intricate steps to young nobles and chronicles delivering consolidating themes; the focus shifted from participation to performance. The form achieved theatrical tinge such as designed sets, stage with decorated curtains and raised platform.

In 17th century, it was in the court of King Louis XIV (14th), that ballet was refined into the art we know today. At the age of 13, he made his debut in Ballet de Cassandre. His early role as the sun god Apollo in The Ballet of Night (Ballet de la Nuit), earned him the title of Sun King. With his splendid golden costume, he vanished the night terrors as he emerged as the Sun at dawn. This promoted the idea of the king as divinely ordained ruler. He would perform in 40 major ballets, either as majestic lead or sometimes play minor parts. The king himself created many steps and terms. Hence, French became the official language of Ballet Vocabulary.

By his example, dancing became necessary skill for the gentleman of that era. But his main contribution is founding of the Royal Academy of Dance in 1661. He appointed his personal ballet master Pierre Beauchamp as a director of the academy. He codified the 5 main positions of the body still used today. Through his collaborations with Jean-Baptiste Lully, the director of Royal Music Academy and famous play-writer Moliére, Beauchamp established it as a magnificent display. In 1669, a separate academy The Paris Opera Ballet came to existence.

Opéra national de Paris ( The Paris Opera ballet) is world’s oldest ballet company which produces some classical works at Palais Garnier auditorium. Photo Credits: By Naoya Ikeda, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipidea

Romantic Movement

The dance form moved away from the royal court to the theatre and survived the democratic revolutions that followed over the next century. Though the influence of ballet in France declined, other countries such as Russia played a major role in its further development. It reached Russia when Peter the Great instituted his Westernization program, replacing traditional Russian folklore with ballet. Essentially, dancers from poor background were encouraged to be ballet dancers. But as rich Russian Czars demonstrated interest in ballet, they used their resources to develop it further. The ballet became much more international. Anna Pavlona became one of the famous Ballerinas from Russia. Russian pedagogue Agrippina Vaganova developed the most widely used teaching method known as Vaganova method. The feasible method fuses traditional French style from romantic era and Italian Cecchetti technique.

With the advent of Romantic Movement in 19th century, the prominence of folklore themes, supernatural and exotic elements, magic, romance and soft moves became common motifs. During this period, famous ballets evolved such as Giselle and La Sylphide (considered as the first romantic ballet). It was also during this period; pointe work became the chief element.

Progression of Tutu

Tutu: A classical skirt made of tulle, tarlatan, muslin, silk, or nylon which the ballerinas wear around their waist. It comes from French children’s word “tu-tu,” which means bottom.

There were two ballerinas that are worth talking about: Camargo and Sallé. They are the once who actually influenced society’s fashion by scandalously changing woman’s outfits. Before, they had incredibly heavy costumes like large hoop skirts. To show off more of their techniques and footwork, they shortened the skirts to ankle and calf length. Because, at first, it was just about posing; they couldn’t really do much in these ensembles. These two danseuses (French term for female dancer) lightened the costumes, took off the layers so that they could move and jump in them; eventually allowing freedom of movement. They even softened their shoes with satin and removed heels from ballet slippers. It was later termed as “Romantic Tutu.”

Marie Taglioni wearing Romantic Tutu. Photo Credits: By ​English Wikipedia user Mrlopez2681, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia

The modification in the design of tutus made ballerinas to showcase their movements freely and gracefully on stage. It became even shorter when the art form entered 20th century (Classical Tutu, which we see today). To frame dancer’s movement and physicality, stiffer and lighter materials to make tutus for instance, Pancake and Powder-puff tutus.

Ballerina in classical pancake tutu ensemble. Photo by David Hofmann on UnSplash.com

“In the torso of the costume, you can include modern or stretch fabrics, but the silhouette has been set, is appreciated, and serves dance wonderfully.”


En Pointe

There was one ballerina that really transformed the dance, a Swedish born Italian ballerina called Marie Taglioni. She wore a classical bell shaped Romantic tutu and soft satin slippers. During her performance at Paris Opera, she literally rose up onto pointe (tip of the toes) without any support. The audience were just in shock. They didn’t believe and thought it was a magic. Then onwards, the art transformed. More and more pointed shoes were designed so that they could support themselves. It also helped them Bourré across the stage and do Fouettés on point.

Satin Pointe Shoes: Certainly, not the most comfortable things they put on their feet. Photo by Nihal Demirci on UnSplash.com

Pirouettes is the most difficult move which requires lots of practise and balance.

En Pointe & Poise. Photo by Hudson Hintze on UnSplash.com

Notable Ballets

Some of the most famous of all time are Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Don Quixote, The Sleeping Beauty, Cindrella, Romeo and Juliet, La Bayadère, Giselle. Marius Petipa is the most noted choreographer in the ballet history. The influential master has created most of the above mentioned classic examples.

The Swan Lake. Photo Credits: By Alexander Kenney / Kungliga Operan, CC BY 3.0, Wikipedia

Ballet in Netherlands

Originally, known as the Dutch National Ballet Academy of the Netherlands in 1968, it was renamed the National Ballet Academy in 1988. It was previously run by Nel Roos. It is the only ballet school in the Netherlands affiliated to the internationally acclaimed Dutch National Ballet and its Junior Company. The academy is first school classical ballet school of the Netherlands and offers many preliminary and art courses. At the end of the year, the NBA students performs at National Opera & Ballet.

Dutch National Opera & Ballet is the leading and prestigious institute for opera and ballet which ranks among the top five in the world in its domain. It provides and presents innovative top quality productions in opera and ballet both nationally and internationally.

Amused by the startling history, city of Utrecht has ample of dance classes which can suffice your learning desires. Ballet School Utrecht, Ballet – Toucheé Dance Company and Dedine Ballet & Movement Arts are some of the dance academies.

The Ballerina. Photo by Ferdinand studio on UnSplash.com

Krutika Jadeja Hirani
Krutika Jadeja Hirani
Born and raised in India, I am Electronics & Communication Engineer. New Technologies, Travelling, Reading, Dancing, Relishing Different Culture and Making Delicious Meals are the things that fascinate me the most. Caught by Wanderlust bug, I would describe myself as a "Flaneur" I am passionately curious about exploring new horizons. Dance keeps my creative flare intact. Reading and Travelling helps me to narrate tales that motivate. Having a Papyrophilia, I love to hoard stationeries. I am here, to make a difference through my writings, share ideas and hope to inspire. I live by this quote:"Pen is mightier than Sword."



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