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Part 4: History

This revision Mar. 18, 2004
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Contents:

PART 4: HISTORY

  1.   Ballet history
    1. Who invented ballet?
    2. I thought ballet was a Russian art.
    3. When was the first ballet?
    4. What is the oldest surviving ballet?
    5. When was the first ballet school started?
    6. How did ballet develop after the founding of that school?
    7. Who was Noverre?
    8. How did ballet develop in the nineteenth century?
      1. Who was Carlo Blasis?
      2. Who was August Bournonville?
      3. The primacy of the ballerina
      4. Ballet in Russia
      5. Who was Didelot?
      6. Who was Petipa?
    9. Dance in the 20th century
      1. Who was Diaghilev and what did he do?
      2. Who was Fokine?
      3. Who was Balanchine?
      4. The beginnings of modern dance

  1.   Ballet history

    Ballet is at once the oldest and the youngest of the arts. The impulse to dance must be at least as old as the impulse to sing; but the first professional ballet dancers appeared on the scene only about 300 years ago. It is also the only high art whose foundations were laid in recent times by amateurs, and by royal amateurs at that. The French court put on ballets the way some of our own ancestors may have put on amateur theatricals or played at charades, and the dancers were drawn from the members of the Court, including at least two French kings, Louis XIII and Louis XIV. Many of the gestures in ballet to-day still reflect the body language of the nobility of the seventeenth century.

    Dance history can be approached in different ways. You can address the history of dance as an art, listing the great teachers and choreographers who influenced its development; or the history of performance, naming the stars and describing their careers; or the social history, discussing how theatrical dance interacted with the social and economic circumstances in which it found itself. The material that follows is largely the history of dance as an art.

    Modern, or contemporary, dance is (naturally) a recent development. Where the history of ballet goes back four or more centuries--depending on when you date its origins--modern goes back only about a hundred years. Hence the entries here inevitably have much more to say about ballet than about modern.

    The history presented in this version of the FAQ ends after Diaghilev and the beginnings of modern dance. We are still too close to more recent developments, and it is difficult to sort out the threads and to distinguish what was most important.

    1. Who invented ballet?

      No one person did; it evolved gradually from the popular dances of the period. Many of the steps still bear names relating to the dances or the geographical regions from which they were drawn--for example, pas de bourrée and pas de Basque.

    2. I thought ballet was a Russian art.

      Many of the greatest dancers in the 20th century have been Russian, but ballet arose in Italy and matured in France (see Questions D.3 andD.5, below). In the 19th century, ballet flowered in Russia (through the work of French and Italian teachers who moved there), and early in the 20th century Russian ballet began to influence Western Europe, largely through the agency of the impresario Serge Diaghilev. (See Question D.9.a.) Diaghilev's Ballets Russes gave ballet in Western Europe a much-needed shot in the arm, and the influence of Russian dancing, augmented by the various Russian companies who have toured Western Europe in recent years, persists to this day.

    3. When was the first ballet?

      That's open to debate, because there's no general agreement on how balletic a performance has to be to qualify as a ballet. Two performances are usually singled out by historians, however. One is a danced entertainment that was put on at a banquet celebrating the marriage of Gian Galeazzo, Duke of Milan, in 1489. Each course of the banquet was introduced by a dance. But the dances told stories, and so this is occasionally reckoned as "the first ballet." The other pioneering performance was the Balet Comique de la Royne (in modern French, Ballet Comique de la Reine), put on by Catherine de Medici in Paris in 1581 to celebrate yet another marriage. The libretto and choreography for this ballet are generally attributed to Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx, whose definition of ballet we quoted above in Question B.1. The dancers were members of the Court. The performance, which included singing and recitation as well as dancing, lasted more than five hours, and its expense was ruinous.

      We know that other balletic entertainments were put on in between these two events, and it seems pretty clear that dance was presented as an artistic entertainment before 1489, but these are the events most frequently cited.

      Ballet is generally considered a French art, but it should be clear that it has its roots in Italy. There was that performance in 1489; Catherine de Medici was Italian and may have brought the ballet with her; Beaujoyeulx was an Italian (originally named Belgiojoso); and the very word ballet is derived from the Italian balletto. But the first school (Question D.5) was in France, the terminology is nearly all French, the most important early books on the subject were French, and it was the French who turned it from an entertainment into an art.

      One of the earliest landmarks in ballet appeared shortly after the Balet Comique. The book, Orchésographie, written by a priest, Jehan Tabourot, under the pseudonym Thoinot Arbeau, appeared in 1588. In this book, there is no clear distinction between ballet and social dancing. Ballet evolved out of social dancing, and Arbeau's book gives us a snapshot of the era when this evolutionary process was still going on.

    4. What is the oldest surviving ballet?

      If by "surviving" you mean, continually in the repertory of a company in essentially its original form, the oldest ballet is apparently The Whims of Cupid and the Ballet Master, choreographed in 1786 by Vincenzo Galeotti for the Royal Danish Ballet. La Fille Mal Gardée is sometimes said to be the oldest, but it appeared three years later than Whims and the original choreography (by Jean Dauberval) is lost, while the Danes have preserved the choreography of Whims largely intact.

      An earlier candidate could be Le Mariage de la Grosse Cathos, choreographed by Jean Favier in 1688, but this has survived only in notation and while it has been reconstructed in modern times, it does not appear to have been continually in any company's repertoire.

    5. When was the first ballet school started?

      The Académie Royale de la Danse was founded in 1661 by Louis XIV of France. (We are told that his sobriquet, le Roi Soleil, "the Sun King," stemmed from his performance as Apollo in Le Ballet de la Nuit, although Jacques Barzun claims that Louis XIII had the title before him.)

      Whether the Académie was a ballet school as we think of them today is uncertain. The French use the term somewhat differently than in English-speaking countries, and an Académie is apt to be as much a standardizing organization as a school. (Think of the Académie Française.) The charter of the Académie Royale de la Danse suggests as much: it was to "reestablish the said art in its perfection, and to increase it as much as possible"

      So it may have been as much a school for dance teachers as for dancers. In any case, it codified and standardized much of the teaching of ballet. (The five positions of the feet were either defined or standardized by the Académie.) Its most notable member was probably Pierre Beauchamps, who had been the king's personal dance instructor. This school was later merged with the Académie Royale de Musique, and was eventually absorbed fxinto the Paris Opéra.

      From this background you can understand the roots of ballet: folk dancing, first refined by the court, and then turned into a theatrical display and an art. Each of these influences made its own contribution: the court added gracefulness and dignity, and the theater contributed professionalism and virtuosity.

    6. How did ballet develop after the founding of that school?

      The century after the founding of the Académie marked the rise of professionalism in ballet. Ballets like the Balet Comique de la Royne were danced by noblemen, but after the founding of the Académie, the nobility were gradually reduced to the status of spectators and patrons, and ballet was performed by trained, professional dancers.

      Early ballet differed from what we see to-day in several ways. First, performance was "in the round": dancers performed on the floor of a hall, with the audience surrounding them and looking down at them. It was as if ballet were performed in a stadium. Ballet started using the proscenium stage some time in the mid-1700s, and this had a considerable influence on technique. Second, dancers did not have the great extensions we see now; the leg was rarely raised higher than 45 degrees off the floor. Third, dancers do not appear to have jumped very much: most dancing was at ground level, terre-à-terre. The change to greater extension and more steps of elevation may have resulted from the use of the proscenium stage, since both extension and jumps are visually more effective there. Finally, dancers wore heavy costumes--and masks. (Ballet tights weren't invented until about the time of the French Revolution.) Ballets in those days typically represented the deeds of classical gods and heroes, and the masks may have been thought appropriate for such roles. Dancers were still wearing masks in the latter part of the eighteenth century; Noverre (Question D.7) complains about them in his Letters of 1760.

      Beauchamps must have had a large body of experience to draw on. It would be interesting to know just when the organization of a ballet class took the form it has to-day, but it probably began to develop in that direction soon after the founding of the Académie and may have been Beauchamps's work. He is credited with naming the five positions of the feet, introducing more steps of elevation, and emphasizing turnout. The positions and turnout are mentioned in a book dating from around 1700. The degree of turnout was probably only moderate; the 90-degree turnout we recognize as the ideal to-day (i.e., with the feet in a straight line, pointing in opposite directions) was a gradual development.

      The first important book after the founding of the Académie seems to have been Maître à Danser ("The Dancing Master"), by Pierre Rameau (1725). This book contains descriptions of pirouettes, beaten steps, and jetés, and it particularly emphasizes the arms. (The entire second half of the book is devoted to the use of the arms.)

    7. Who was Noverre?

      Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810) was a dancer, a choreographer, and a teacher of dancers. He was also the author of Lettres sur la Danse et sur les Ballets ("Letters on Dance and Ballet," 1760). This was the most important book on ballet published in the 18th century and probably one of the most important of all time. In it, he recommended abolishing the custom of dancing with masks and drew the distinction between arqué and jarreté (see Question C.20). He also urged that ballets included in operas be choreographed so as to carry the plot forward. As any opera lover can attest, this advice was not generally heeded. Indeed, George Balanchine revolutionized dance in musical comedy in the 1930s by doing exactly what Noverre asked for: the choreography in "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," for example, was an integral part of the story line in the musical On Your Toes. (This tradition was then carried still further by Agnes de Mille in the musical, Oklahoma.)

      Noverre's birthday, April 29, is now observed as International Dance Day.

    8. How did ballet develop in the nineteenth century?

      Dance in the nineteenth century was marked by three main developments: the expansion of dancers' technical powers, the primacy of the ballerina, and the flowering of ballet in Russia.

      The enlargement of the technical vocabulary and the growth of technique in general was an inevitable consequence of the professionalization of ballet. We see evidence of this growth in the writings of Carlo Blasis (Question D.8.a). One of the most striking technical advances was the development of dancing on the toes, or on pointe. Marie Taglioni, reportedly a superb technician, is commonly said to have been the first dancer to go up on pointe, in 1825, although historians believe that she probably had predecessors. (There is some evidence that Didelot (Question D.8.e) may have had his dancers on pointe.) Taglioni was, in any case, the first to popularize the technique, in the ballet La Sylphide, and ballet was never quite the same again.

      1. Who was Carlo Blasis?

        Carlo Blasis (1797-1878) was the author of The Theory and Practice of the Art of Dancing (1820) and The Code of Terpsichore (1823), an expanded version of the earlier book. The material in these books is virtually indistinguishable from ballet as it is taught to-day, and a dancer of our own time could do worse than to read and follow his advice. He requires a full 90-degree turnout, and his rules for placement are essentially the same as ours: "Let your body be, in general, erect and perpendicular on your legs.... Let your shoulders be low, your head high, and your countenance animated and expressive." Dancers were now expected to be able to extend the leg 90 degrees as a matter of course. Blasis's description of pirouettes, which is too long to quote here, is as useful to dancers to-day as it was in 1823.

        He repeats Noverre's description of arqué and jarreté and enlarges on it; but he also describes the body types of the serious dancer (what we would call the danseur noble), the demi-caractère dancer, and the comic dancer. For the serious dancer he recommends particular attention to the adage part of class; to him, adage is "the ne plus ultra of our art" and "the touchstone of the dancer."

      2. Who was August Bournonville?

        August Bournonville (1805-1879) was soloist, choreographer, and ballet master of the Royal Danish Ballet from 1830 to 1877. His father, Antoine, had been born in France and had studied with Noverre. August went his own way and created a style that persists in Danish ballet to this day. Unlike most 19th-century ballet, it has significant roles for male dancers, and dancers of both sexes are given very demanding technical work to do. Pointe work was less important in the Bournonville style than elsewhere, and the ballerina did not have the commanding position she had elsewhere in Europe at that time.

      3. The primacy of the ballerina

        In the nineteenth century, the ballerina became the central figure in ballet. This led to a curious reversal: in the seventeenth century, women were generally not allowed to dance, and female parts were danced by men in women's costumes. In the nineteenth century, almost the exact opposite situation prevailed: the ballerina reigned supreme, and male roles were often danced by women in men's costumes, or en travesti. The ballerina system was at its strongest in France, and it was ruinous. Lincoln Kirstein, in his history, says, "On the stage, if there was anything of interest, we may be sure it was not French."

        We can only speculate on how the ballerina achieved such a dominating position. It may well have been sheer commercialism: pretty girls were a pleasant sight for the tired businessman then as now, and a star brought in money. Ballerinas occasionally even dictated the choreography and the music. One consequence of this, as Elizabeth Sawyer points out, was that the music tended to be second-rate. The Brahmses, Schumanns, and Liszts of the day were not about to let themselves be ordered around by dancers, and in consequence the composers of 19th-century ballets tended to be figures virtually unknown outside the world of ballet, like Adam, Minkus, Drigo, or Pugni. The world of dance was extremely lucky, later in the century, to have music from composers of the stature of Glazunov, Delibes, and Tchaikovsky.

        Another side effect of this commercialism is the decline of ballet as an art, particularly in France, and a gradual refusal, among intellectuals of the time, to take it seriously or to consider it on a par with music, literature, or the other arts. (There were a few exceptions to this.) This is one reason why the Ballets Russes took Western Europe and its intellectuals by storm early in the 20th century: Western ballet had been reduced to an entertainment, and under Diaghilev, who ran the Ballets Russes, it became an art again. Diaghilev (Question D.9.a) had absolute control over his company and resolved that he was going to go for the best dancing, the best costumes, the best set designs, and the best music. This set a precedent that has lasted throughout the 20th century.

      4. Ballet in Russia

        Ballet first arose in Russia during the reign of the Empress Anne, who is responsible for the founding of the Russian Imperial Academy in 1735. During the 19th century, a number of teachers found their way to Russia, where they revolutionized Russian ballet, to the extent that the center of ballet could fairly be said to have moved from France to Russia. Among the many figures associated with Russian ballet were Didelot and Petipa.

      5. Who was Didelot?

        Charles Louis Didelot (1767-1836), the Swedish-born son of a French dancer, had studied under the best teachers of his time, including Noverre. He spent 25 years dancing in Paris, London, Stockholm, Bordeaux, Lyon. He came to Russia first in 1801 and stayed there 10 years. He returned in 1816 and spent the rest of his life there. He revolutionized Russian ballet. When he arrived, the company was dominated by foreign soloists; when he left, it had a complete ensemble comprising mostly native Russians. He reformed teaching as well, making classes longer, more numerous, more intensive. He was an exacting teacher who earned loyalty from students. His most famous student was probably the short-lived, brilliant Maria Danilova (1793-1810). Van Praagh and Brinson say, "His teaching laid the basis of Russian classical ballet." In his history, Lincoln Kirstein says simply that all of Russian ballet can be divided into two eras: before Didelot and after Didelot.

      6. Who was Petipa?

        Marius Petipa (1822-1910) was trained in France and had danced in Spain and the United States before he emigrated to Russia in 1847, where he dominated Russian ballet from 1870 to 1905. He choreographed (among many other ballets) Sleeping Beauty, Raymonda, and Swan Lake (this last in collaboration with Lev Ivanov.) Together with Ivanov, Christian Johansson, and Enrico Cecchetti, he raised Russian ballet to world pre-eminence. He is generally regarded as a ballerinas' choreographer, however; his parts for male dancers were weak.

        For the purposes of choreography, Petipa divided ballet steps into seven categories:

        1. Preparatory or connecting steps (e.g., pas de bourrée or glissades)
        2. Steps of elevation (e.g., grands jetés or entrechats)
        3. Steps with beats (e.g., brisés or cabrioles)
        4. Pirouettes
        5. Poses (e.g., arabesque or attitude)
        6. Port des bras
        7. Pointe work
        These are expressive categories, defined with reference to their artistic function rather than being purely technical, as Feuillet's list is.
    9. Dance in the 20th century

      The 20th century has been marked chiefly by a renewal of ballet as an art and by the rise of modern dance.

      1. Who was Diaghilev and what did he do?

        Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) was an impresario, the manager of the Ballets Russes that created a sensation in Western Europe in the early years of the 20th century. Born in Perm and active as a young man in artistic circles, Diaghilev formed the Ballets Russes in 1909 and ran it until his death in 1929. The dancers and choreographers associated with the Ballets Russes included George Balanchine (Question D.9.c), Alexandra Danilova, Ninette de Valois, Michel Fokine (Question D.9.b), Tamara Karsavina, Serge Lifar, Alicia Markova, Leonide Massine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, Marie Rambert, Olga Spessivtseva, and Tamara Toumanova, among many others. His designers included Bakst, Braque, Picasso, Tchelitchev, and Utrillo. His composers included Debussy, Milhaud, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Ravel, Satie, and, most notably, Igor Stravinsky, whom Diaghilev spotted when he was virtually unknown and whose career he launched.

        The impact of Ballets Russes on the West stemmed from a number of causes. First, there was the greater vitality of Russian ballet, as compared with what was current in France. Second, Fokine was an innovative choreographer, who would have been as influential in Russia if he could have prevailed against the entrenched administration of the Russian companies. Third, Diaghilev was a superb spotter of talent, a master showman, and a man who knew his audiences. Fourth, there was the simple fact that Russian ballet, and the performances mounted by Diaghilev, were different and hence exotic. For whatever reason, Diaghilev rejuvenated ballet in the West. If we could go back and view his productions now, they might well strike us as quaint, and we might even wonder what all the fuss was about. But, with the possible exception of the first modern dancers, his company was the most influential in the twentieth century, and that influence, in one form or another, has lasted to this day.

        A list of the ballets premiered by Diaghilev reads like a roster of the most important works of the century. They include, among many others, Les Sylphides (1909), The Firebird (1910), Le Spectre de la Rose (1911), Petroushka (1911), Afternoon of a Faun (1912), The Rite of Spring (1913), the Song of the Nightingale (1920), Apollo (1928), and Prodigal Son (1929). The mortality of ballets is notorious, but a striking number of these are still performed.

        After Diaghilev's death the company's properties were claimed by creditors (he himself died in poverty), and the dancers were, more or less, scattered. But the name was a property, too, and in the subsequent years the company had two reincarnations, one as the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the other as the Original Ballet Russe.

      2. Who was Fokine?

        Michel Fokine (1880-1942) was trained at the Imperial School in St Petersburg and joined Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1909. In 1923, he moved to the United States, where he re-staged pieces for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and American Ballet Theatre. Fokine objected to what he considered arbitrary and artificial conventions and sterile technique and strove for a more natural and expressive choreographic style. (This is a recurrent theme in ballet; Noverre called for almost the same thing in his Letters.) His influence and ideas undoubtedly contributed to the early success of Diaghilev's company. He choreographed a number of plotless ballets, most notably Chopiniana (later Les Sylphides), which eventually led Balanchine to try the plotless ballets that ultimately became his trademark.

      3. Who was Balanchine?

        George Balanchine (1904-1983), born Georgi Melitonovich Balanchivadze, was trained at the Imperial school in St Petersburg. He left the Soviet Union in 1920 and joined Diaghilev's company in Monte Carlo. (It was Diaghilev who had him change his name, on the grounds that Balanchivadze would be too much for French audiences.) In 1932, he came to the United States at the suggestion, and with the assistance, of Lincoln Kirstein. His first act in the United States was to found the School of American Ballet. In the 1930s he made a name for himself choreographing for musical comedies. In 1947, he and Kirstein set up Ballet Society; the following year this became the New York City Ballet. He was ballet master at NYCB until his death.

        (The ballet world owes an immense debt to the vision of Morton Baum of the City Center, who was instrumental in establishing the New York City Ballet. He dropped in one evening to see what Ballet Society, who had rented the City Center, was up to, saw the Stravinsky/Balanchine Orpheus, and went to Lincoln Kirstein with a proposal. Kirstein promised him a world-class company, and Kirstein and Balanchine delivered.)

        With Balanchine, the music came first. He is remembered for saying that he wanted us to see the music and to hear the dance. His ballets are mostly plotless, although the structure of a piece or of a pas de deux frequently has an emotional subtext that holds it together and gives it a meaning beyond merely beautiful dancing (if beautiful dancing can be said to be "mere"!). But detailed narrative was always distasteful to Balanchine. He used to say, "There are no sisters-in-law in ballet," meaning that a complicated information of this sort could not be conveyed by dance.

      4. The beginnings of modern dance

        Modern dance has its roots in the late 19th century, but is mainly a 20th-century phenomenon. To some extent, it was a reaction against ballet. (Isadora Duncan, one of the best-known pioneers, claimed that ballet "deformed" the body.) When you consider the condition of ballet in most of Western Europe at the time, this is not surprising. One might say that it was as much a response to this as Diaghilev's company was. Diaghilev responded by importing dancers and fresh ideas from Russia; the moderns responded, initially, by rejecting the traditions of ballet altogether as sterile and irrelevant to the new century. They were searching for naturalism and, above all, expression.

        But the reaction against ballet must not be exaggerated; new movements in the arts frequently start with a rejection of what has gone before. In a larger sense, modern dance was also part of the general trend toward modernism in all the arts that has marked this century, and this is probably a more important cause than any rejection of ballet. In addition, there has been a fair amount of cross-fertilization between ballet and modern, and althought they may well continue to be separate traditions, the gulf between them has narrowed over the century.


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