When you think of ballet, you think of all the technical aspects – complex leaps and pointe work – but that is actually a commonly mistaken concept! Ballet is the theatrical presentation of classical dance, such as Swan Lake or Giselle. The technicalities of it are known as classical dance.
The history and culture of classical dance spans over 500 years, and what it was like then is a very different image from the classical dance we see on stage now.
Intertwining cultures and different narratives made the history of classical dance one hard to quantify and trace, but let’s try to take a look at the milestones which caused classical dance to evolve to what it is today, shall we?
Let’s begin with the seed of classical dance, born in Italy and sowed in France…
Roots of Classical Dance
During the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century, entertainment came in the form of street performers. When Italian noblewoman, Catherine De Medici married the future King of France Henry II, she brought Italian performers with her, essentially introducing Italian culture to France.
At that point in time, France had their court dances. Elaborate and formal costumes which were difficult to move about in, complemented with mysterious masks, were the dance outfits of the day.
Much like the line dancing we know today, these dances were conducted by dancing masters to the party-goers during feasts or celebrations for the royal court. It was performed on the ballroom floor in lines and circles by the audience moving from “elegant pose to elegant pose”.
This was where the magic began! French court dances and Italian street performances collided to give rise to ballet de cour (court ballet).
The Bloom of Classical Dance Technique
A century later in mid 16th century, King Louis XIV continued to popularise it by performing roles himself.
His passion resulted in the birth of the Royal Academy of Dance (not to be confused with the current England academy) under the Royal Academy of Music in 1661. It was then that classical dance became a profession through structured training, and not just simply for entertainment.
The academy grew and eventually became the Paris Opera, which is now the world’s oldest ballet academy and company.
Ballets are frequently showcased in seasons alongside operas and orchestras at the Paris Opera today.
Although ballet is usually associated with women and considered feminine in today’s society, the stage was dominated by men back then. This was not only due to societal disapproval of women performing, but also a direct result of the restrictive clothes they were required to wear.
This was until the emergence of one lady, known as Marie Salle in the early 17th century, well known for her evoking performances that defied the accepted norm. She is considered widely to be the inspiration to the future changes in ballet.
Not only did she challenged the mainstream, she discarded the restricted clothing in favour of light-weight and shorter dresses, allowing for more ease of movement.
Start of Narrative Ballets
The pioneer of narrative ballets or ballet d’action was French Ballet Master Jean Georges Noverre in late 17th to early 18th century. He insisted that classical dance could a self-sustaining art form through the merge of classical dance and narrative theatre through his controversial book, Letters on Dance and Ballet.
Changes in society and social thinking influenced these narrative ballets. In late 1860, women began to overtake men in the scene and with it, early classical ballet pieces such as Giselle emerged. They portrayed women as passive and fragile, and are known as romantic ballets.
Many women went en pointe during this period, although the most famous would no doubt be Marie Taglioni as she became the first dancer to be credited for dancing an entire ballet, La Sylphide, en pointe.
Ballet spread to Russia under the influence of Marius Petipa, a dancer from the Paris Opera, who advanced the ballet technique in Russia. This is when Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty found their story on stage. The classical tutu was then introduced to showcase the intricacy of the dance.
Classical Dance Today
In the late 19th century, the classical dance began to lose the interest of the audience as the Italian style of dance was too technical for the changing tastes of the age. It marked the near extinction of an ageing art form.
Till the remarkable foresight of Sergei Diaghilev. Not a dancer himself, he created a travelling company known as Ballet Russes that focused on performing for the masses instead of the elite. Consisting of renowned dancers such as Anna Pavlova and subsequently George Balanchine, they were based in Paris and made frequent tours to America.
This caught the interest of the audience on the global stage and resulted in classical dance being taught worldwide. Schools such as the Royal Academy of Dance in England and the American Ballet Theatre began and cemented classical dance as one of the essential foundations of dance till date.
Today, while classical dance has its foundation grounded in tradition, old stories are retold again and again through new perspectives and new trends. How it may change in the future, remains to be seen.
Stay with us for part two of DANCE||CULTURE: BALLET, where we sit down for a chat with the Principal of the Singapore Ballet Academy and mentor of David Hilberg, Mr Han Kee Juan, on insights into ballet in Singapore culture!
Thanks to Mr Antony, certified ballet teacher, for advising on the article.
“History of Ballet.” Dancewear Central, http://www.dancewearcentral.co.uk/history-of-ballet-i284. Accessed 20 Sept. 2017.
Greskovic, Robert. Ballet 101: a complete guide to learning and loving the ballet. Milwaukee, Limelight Editions, 2006.