The history of ballet is divided into nine distinct evolutions or ballet periods; The Renaissance Period, The Baroque Period, The Classical Period, Pre-Romantic Period, Romantic Era, The Russian Classics, The Ballet Russes, Ballet in Europe, Ballet in America.
In our list today we will discuss the significant strides made in the dance during these significant timelines.
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1. The Renaissance Period
It was during the Italian Renaissance that ballet was first contrived. It all started around the year 1500 and “ballet” became a popular entertainment device. When Italian Catherine de Medici married the King of France at the age of fourteen, she single-handedly introduced the French to the ballet.
The first endorsed “ballet” called Le Ballet Comique de la Reine or The Comic Ballet of the Queen was first performed for the court of Catherine de Medici on October 15, 1581. It was composed to rejoice in the marriage of Marguerite of Lorraine and Duc de Joyeuse. This first ballet production was not only expensive it lasted five hours. The King and Queen participated in the dance as well.
The word “ballet” and the word “ball”, the party, not the toy, are derived from the Italian word ballare, which means “to dance.”
In these early days of ballet, dancers wore heavy costumes that included many layers of heavy silks embroidered together. The dancers also wore masks, pantaloons, head dresses that were heavy and jewelry that weighed them down. Due to the substantial clothing in the early days of ballet, the dance moves were not as sinewy and graceful as they are today. The dances then consisted of tiny jumps, slides, curtsies, gentle turns, and strolls.
The shoes used in the earliest days of ballet dancing were not the pointed toe shoes modern ballet artists use. Past ballet dancers wore shoes with tiny heels and looked more like a shoe for a formal affair.
The most significant contribution this period made to the art of ballet is it established the five basic foot positions that are at the core of ballet today. They are still used as they were back then.
2. The Baroque Period
It was in the Baroque Period when troupes began to merge opera, ballet, and music together. This was the era when ballet began to tell a tale.
During Louis XIV’s sovereignty he loved to perform many of the trendy dances that entertained the courts. Once he was done dancing with his noblemen the professional dancers would come in and perform when he stopped.
Over the next one hundred years the face of ballet would change in many ways. The size of the dances in the courts became larger, they were also becoming more lavish, and this is when the performances began to be presented on raised stages with hopes to improve the sightline for a larger audience. The reason there was a need for a stage so viewers could experience the ever increasing pyrotechnics and ostentatious displays.
Still, women were not permitted to perform in the art of ballet until 1681. Just like theatre, men dressed as women took on the female roles until then. Marie Camargo was one of the very first women to dance in the ballet. So, essence, she was one of the world’s first ballerinas.
Camargo disliked the heavy costumes of the day so she took it upon herself to shorten the skirts and take away the excess. This enabled her to perform jumps that gave birth to the leaps we see in ballet today.
Some credit Jean-Georges Noverre with first putting story behind the ballet in the 1700’s. He educated his students on the importance of facial expression and mime as a tool for storytelling. This helped ballet evolve to what we know today from a series of random beautiful steps.
It was also during the Baroque period that Peter the Great is the person that first brought the ballet to Russia. He presented it as a dance of the upper crust. This happened in the early 1700’s.
3. The Classical Period
It was during the Classical Period that expressiveness in one’s performance became important. This evolutionary time in ballet’s history happened in the late 1700’s. From the Classical Period rose the use of emotions and character to tell the story and less of a dependence on costumes. Dancers began to utilize their movements and facial expressions.
Marius Petipa is thought to be the “father of classical ballet.” Although French born, Petipa relocated to Russia to create original works in the ballet. It was also at this time that Moscow and St. Petersburg were becoming important hubs in the world of ballet.
4. The Pre-Romantic Period
Ballet left the Classical Period in the early 1800’s and was destined to move on to the Romantic Era, still, it couldn’t do so without stopping in the Pre-Romantic Period. This short time is best known as the emergence of pointe work.
Marie Taglioni, born to an Italian father and Swedish mother, is credited as the first ballerina to ever dance en pointe.
The en pointe, or “on toe”, dancing we are familiar with seeing ballet dancers perform didn’t become popular until the early days of the nineteenth century, well into the Romantic Period of ballet.
5. The Romantic Period
The Romantic Era introduced audiences to the productions that were more elegant and refined. It was at this time that women began to dominate to lead roles with their increasing ability to stay on their toes.
In 1832 the production of La Sylphide catapulted women, particularly Marie Taglioni, into the spotlight in the world of ballet. They danced on their toes and added a great deal of expression in their performances.
Normally the roles taken on by women were a stereotypical Romantic heroine. These women would glide along the stage like a fairy. They were immaculate and the epitome of virtue. Their wholesomeness would lead good to always prevail over evil.
This is also when the “tutu” was born when the women were dressed in lengthy, elegant skirts. Such a costume was originally called a “romantic tutu” due to the willowy look it gave the ballerinas. Today it can take as long as ninety hours to create one professional tutu.
6. The Russian Classics
The Russian Classics occurred during the late 1800’s. Petipa composed full length productions that introduced the pas de deux or dance for two. Tutu’s became rigid and fashionable.
It was during this Russian Classics time that we were given such greats as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker.
In 1734, that the first Russian ballet academy opened. In 1740 the first Russian ballet dance company opened. It was called The Imperial School of Ballet and it was located in St. Petersburg.
This initial educational institution focusing on Russian ballet was disbanded when the Soviet regime took over. Still, before the revolution, by the end of the 1800’s, Russia had pulled into the lead as artistic heart of the ballet.
7. The Ballets Russes
In the 1900’s Serge Diaghilev, a Russian ballet dancer/choreographer, went in the opposite direction of Petipa. He moved to Paris to share his innovative ideas he had for ballet. There Diaghilev met Michel Fokine and they changed the face of ballet and the modern era began.
Diaghilev was the founder of Les Ballets Russes, a ballet house with a French name but considered a Russian company. It was formed in 1909. The Ballets Russes toured the world extensively except for Russia, and it was a Russian Ballet Company. This was because of the revolution occurring at the time.
8. Ballet in Europe
It was after the Ballet Russes period that the dance began to sprout throughout Europe. The Royal Ballet in London opened, The Royal Danish Ballet opened in Copenhagen. Dame Margot Fonteyn, who danced at the Royal Ballet in London, is considered one of the most celebrated ballerinas of all time.
The love of ballet has reached every corner of the European map and there is barely a country let alone a major metropolitan area in Europe that doesn’t boast a ballet company of its own.
9. Ballet in America
It wasn’t until the turn of the twentieth century that classical ballet made its way into the American culture. The American Ballet Theater and the New York City Ballet were the two most prestigious ballet companies of the time. Both were created in the 1940’s, four decades after ballet’s inception into American society.
It was during that time that the ballet world was rocked by George Balanchine of New York. He is known as the “father of American ballet.” Balanchine’s popularity helped New York City become the dance capital of the world.
Today nearly every state in the union has a ballet company to call their own. From the Alabama Ballet in Birmingham all the way to the legendary American Ballet Theatre in New York City, this elegant form of dance has been generating a fan base in the United States for decades and will continue to do so well into the future.