Ballet is one of the most popular and admired dances today. It is impossible not to admire the beautiful, slender dancers who perform steps that seem out of this world; suspended in the air, going against gravity.
It's almost impossible not to want to be like them, isn't it? And I'm sure that's why you're here. However, Ballet didn't always look the way it does today. It was very different, in fact.
To understand its history as such, we must make a leap in time: it begins in Renaissance Italy in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, although it would not be until the 1600s when it would begin to be known and represented by ballet works.
This is the time when princes organised expensive stage productions, always accompanied by luxurious banquets, with artists from their court (dancers, mimes) who performed and sang about the mythological plots. It was at this time that ballet, opera and poetic drama began to emerge.
It spread in France, thanks to Catherine de Medici, who entered the French court as the wife of King Henry III in 1533. Catherine organised the first court ballet performance entitled Ballet de Polonais in 1573, as she wished to celebrate the election of her son Henri d'Anjou as King of Poland. The celebration was attended by diplomats who were amazed and impressed by the spectacle.
However, the peak date is considered to be 1581, when Catherine decided to make a spectacle of the sorceress Circe - a mythological character popularised in Homer's Odyssey - to celebrate the wedding of the Duke of Joyeuse to Margaret of Lorraine, who was the sister-in-law of King Henry III.
The piece was commissioned to the choreographer and composer Balthasar de Beaujouelx. And it is from there that certain elements and concepts that gave shape to the ballet began to be codified. Some argue that it was Beaujouelx himself who first used the term "ballet", which in turn comes from the Italian balletto, meaning to dance. The piece became known as Ballet comique de la Reine.
These performances continued until 1636, when the Palais Cardinal theatre was built for these performances, the character of which had changed considerably.
In the reign of Louis XIV in France, the first ballet and dance academy was created in 1661, called Royale de la danse. Moving forward in time, in 1700, R. A Feuillet published a sort of guide or manual known as Choréographie ou Art de noter la danse, which was the first document to include the codified steps of ballet as such. Nowadays there are many different types of ballet; each ballet technique should be studied independently in order to understand its origin.
Jean George Noverre, an important figure in the history of dance, a French choreographer who in 1790 published his Letres sur de la dance et les Ballets, argued that technique had become too rigid, and that men and women should use their skill to express emotions. He proclaimed something he called “The ballet of action”, which is known as ballet with plot or danced drama. In short, to convey feelings and passions to the spectator through the sincere expression of our movements and gestures.
Over the years, instead of being a hobby it became a profession, the ballet began to have important changes, such as the extension in the technique and the appearance of women dancers, being in 1681 in the ballet Le Triunphe de'lAmour. Where the prima ballerina receives the title of queen of the dance.
The costume, as an essential part of the ballet technique, was first innovated by Maillot, who invented an extremely tight-fitting costume that was later banned in Italy by the Church. Then in 1726 Marie Camargo appeared, she shortened the traditional skirt so that it reached only to the ankle and adopted the heelless slipper which allowed elevating movements unique to dancers at the time. Marie Sallé was also a forerunner. In 1734 she appeared in the ballet Pygmalion wrapped in Greek-inspired veils.
The romantic movement of the 19th century marks a point in the history of ballet: this is when dancers begin to make ethereal and aerial movements. In addition, dancing on pointe shoes starts to develop, so it is the genesis of modern ballet. The first great Romantic ballet is The Sylphide, premiered at the Paris Opera in 1832.
The next major development came from the second half of the 19th century, and shifted from France to the Russian Empire. The Russian Empire had been allocating large budgets for performances and the imperial ballet in St. Petersburg, while in France there was a lethargy about ballet.
Later, the 19th century brought with it some of the most beautiful pieces that continue to grace the stage: Swan Lake (1877); The Sleeping Beauty (1890); The Nutcracker (1892). These three works bear the signature of the Frenchman Marius Petipa (1818-1910), who began a whole new production, especially when he settled in St. Petersburg and worked with the musician Tchaikovsky, the composer of almost all his ballets.
Petipa left a large number of writings that are still preserved on the required tempi of the dance pieces, the duration of each piece, the tone of the variations, the number of bars and other elements.
The 20th century saw the international expansion of ballet. The ballet school would not be fully established until 1920, when it would integrate the contributions of the Italian school, as well as the various famous Russian ballets that participated in it over the years.
The creation in 1907 of the Ballets Russes company, with the best dancers from the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg directed by the great choreographer Marius Petipa caused a great sensation in Europe, especially in Paris, given the great development of Russian ballet as opposed to that which had been followed in France.
In the meantime, ballet spread all over the world with the formation of new companies such as the London Ballet (1931) or the American Ballet (1937), among many others, and not forgetting Adore Dance London (2021)!