When we think of the ballet, often we think of certain cultures. Just as Italians and Germans are known for their operas, French and Russians are dominant, or have been, in the art of the most graceful dance known to humanity, ballet.
We wanted to take a brief look at some facts about how ballet and France became so synonymous. Here are six facts about the French ballet and its history that we hope you enjoy.
1. The French Ballet started in Italy.
The fact is, all ballet started in Italy, sometime during the Italian Renaissance. The term for it was ballare, which literally means “dance” in Italian. Catherine, daughter to Lorenzo di Medici ruler of Florence, married Henri II of France just before he became king. When she moved over to France, Catherine di Medici brought some of her Florentine traditions with her.
Ballare was no different, yet at the time it was an art so different from the ballet we know today. The costumes were heavier, pointe had not been created yet, and the custom was that this style of dance was primarily performed at weddings of royals. So, it makes sense that Catherine di Medici would bring this lovely tradition into her own wedding, to a Frenchman.
This was the moment when ballet was created in France. There is no denying that once the French got their hands on it, ballet was forever changed. In fact, it could be argued that ballet didn’t become ballet until it reached France, because that’s where the universal name was changed from ballare to ballet.
2. The first ballets were danced by royalty
Royals, it seems, would dance “ballare” at their weddings and other events. They would perform on a dais, which is that stair like platform in which so many thrones have sat upon. If you have seen any movie or television show that depicts historical royals during the middle ages through the Renaissance, then you are familiar with the structure. The royal sits on his or her throne on a platform at the head of the room, with a cathedral-like staircase that will lead you up to bow before them.
It is on the dais where the royals would perform these dances for their audiences. Of course, a good deal of halls that held the dais not only had places for their subjects to view them from the front of the stage, but there were galleries above where more people could gather and stand to view the goings on. When the aristocrats designed their dances, they made sure the view from above was unique in that, as a group danced in contrast with the floor display the figure below was appealing, like a kaleidoscope.
It was customary for these dances to include music and verse, and when ballet began to grow in France, plot was introduced, and they started to tell a story.
3. Louis XIV (1643-1715) had a great impact on the ballet in France
It was during the reign of Louis XIV when ballet made a distinct move from a display of Royal grandeur to an art that was open to everyone. It is said that Louis was a great fan of dancing and had been performing in court ballets since he was a child. Le Ballet de la Nuit is a ballet that Louis danced in when he was sixteen and it is his most famous performance.
As the ruler of France his love of dance morphed into an activity available for all. Louis and his Chief Minister Cardinal Mazarin of Italy both agreed the joy of dancing should be taught. In a chamber of the Louvre, Louis founded the Académie Royale de Danse in 1661, which was the first ballet school anywhere in the world. The kings dance teacher, Pierre Beauchamp, was appointed head of the institution and t was Beauchamp who first named the five positions used in ballet.
A few years prior, Louis and his Chief Minister Cardinal Mazarin imported an Italian ballare master named Giovanni Baptista Lulli to work as a composer for Louis’ ballet performances. Lulli had to have new French name to work for the king so he was from then on known as Jean Baptiste Lully. This appointment brought the art of ballet into the center stage of French culture.
Louis created the Académie d’Opéra, which is now the Paris Opera, in 1669. When Pierre Perrin, the man Louis appointed head of this organization, was put in jail for outstanding debts, Lully was put in charge. Lully was already the head of the ballet and he merged the two and gave it a new moniker, Académie Royal de Musique and founded another dance school.
Of course, ballet grew from there and Louis XIV has a good deal of credit. It was under his rule that it moved from an art that only aristocrats performed to one that is filled with trained professionals.
4. In the beginning, men played roles of both genders.
Gender equality isn’t a new venture, and the history of ballet, French or any other, isn’t much different. In the very early stages of this art form. Every dance before 1681, when the first woman performed in ballet, every role was danced by men. When there was a woman role that needed to be filled, men in masks filled the part.
La Fontaine was the lucky woman have the honor of being the very first ballet dancer in a professional setting. The ballet was Le Triomphe de l’Amour.
5. Dance costumes of the 18th century were weighted down.
Costumes were also much different back in the day. Performers were robed with headdresses, masks, shoes with heels on them, and large heavy wigs. When women were introduced to the profession they had to wear cumbersome skirts with elaborate hoops and looping ties.
It was Marie-Anne de Cupis de Camargo was the first woman to shorten her skirts, which caused quite the scandal. She also took the heels from her shoes, which enabled her to jump high. Of course, in the early days of dance, there were some heated rivalries and Camargo’s nemesis, Marie Sallé, was not going to be outdone, so she also dumped the heels and took it a step further by ditching the wig and wearing her hair down.
6. It was where en pointe dancing was created.
La Sylphide is the ballet that gets acknowledgement for moving ballet in Paris toward the Romantic era. It premiered in 1832, a time in France’s history when people were looking to take a break from their lives and indulge in a little bit of fantasy. Another claim to fame for this ballet is that it is the first one where the en pointe style was used.
The idea behind en point dancing was to give the ballerina’s an angel-like identity. The origin of jumps and leaps in ballet were uncoordinated and jerky, in opposition to the en point idea, which encompasses grace, divine movements, and seeming as if they fell right out of heaven.
Due to this style of dancing men were pushed back and the creation of the “ballerina”, as we know her today, was born.
In case you missed it: 4 more ballerinas, starting the list with a French dancer!