What a Gentleman Should Know About Ballet–one of the luxurious performing arts of the world


Court Ballet

The French word “ballet,” adopted into the English language in the 17th century, derives from the Italian word “balleto,” the diminutive of “ballo,” meaning “dance.” And “ballo” derives from the Italian verb “ballare,” “to dance.” But any modern-day student or connoisseur of ballet knows that most of the art form’s vocabulary is from the French, not the Italian, language: pas de deux (a dance for two people); pirouette (a complete turn of the body on one foot); plié (a bending of the knees, with the knees wide open and the feet turned outward), for example. That is because while ballet originated as an art form in Renaissance Italy, it was in France, during the middle of the 17th century, that the genre formalized, ballet’s terminology thereafter remaining largely French, with dancers around the world today communicating with a now-universal, French-derived vocabulary. The valiant Italians, however, would not give up without a fight. So even if they did not have the final word on the art form to which they gave birth, they certainly kept its most important, for “ballerina” is Italian for “little dancer,” and what would ballet be without its ballerinas?

The precursors of ballet were lavish, elaborate, entertainment spectacles performed at the courts of 15th -century Italy. The performances typically included painting (in the set-designs), poetry, music, and dance and oftentimes took place in large halls as entertainment at weddings and banquets. A dance performance in 1489 occurred between the courses of a banquet, the action closely related to the menu: The story of Jason and the Golden Fleece was preceded by a dish of lamb, for example. In those early years, the dancers—the nobles themselves—would base their performances on the popular social dances of the day.

When in 1533, at age 14, Italy’s Catherine de’ Medici married Henry, the second son of King Francis I of France, she took with her to France her homeland’s custom of the dance performance. And in France, the nascent art form was nurtured. Henry would go on to become King Henry II of France in 1547, Catherine his queen consort.

At the French court, Catherine, a great patron of the arts, began funding ballet. And her spectacular festivals encouraged the growth of ballet de cour (court ballet), a system that consisted of dance, décor, costume, song, music, and poetry. The first ballet for which a complete score survives, Le Ballet Comique de la Reine (The Queen’s Ballet Comedy), was performed in Paris in 1581. Directed by Balthazar de Beaujoyeux, a violinist and dance master at the court of Queen Catherine de’ Medici, the dancers were aristocratic amateurs, with the royal family, situated upon a dais, viewing the performance from one end, while courtier-spectators were situated in galleries on three sides, looking down onto the dance floor, thereby witnessing the choreography and its elaborate floor patterns created by the lines of dancers and groups of dancers. Poetry and song enhanced the dances.

But if the court ballet got its start under the reign of Catherine de’ Medici, it was during the reign (1643-1715) of Louis XIV that the genre reached its apex. Also known as The Sun King, Louis XIV’s illustrious moniker was actually derived from a role he danced at the tender age of 14 in a ballet—Ballet de la Nuit (Ballet of the Night) (1653), which is believed to have lasted 12 hours, from sunset on one day, to sunrise the following morning. And just one year later, in 1654, the young king danced in a court ballet, Les Nopces de Pelée et de Thétis (The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis), in which, in the opening scene, he appears as Apollo surrounded by the nine muses—the female roles danced by actual women, thereby marking the first time in the history of ballet that women had performed on stage. (Prior to that groundbreaking event, it was considered inappropriate for women to expose their ankles, let alone their legs!) King Louis’ appearance on stage with the muses served as the precedent for noble men and women to dance together in the ballet du cour.

Many of the ballets presented at Louis’ court were created by Italian-French composer Jean Baptiste Lully and French choreographer Pierre Beauchamp, the man to whom the establishment of the five feet positions of ballet is attributed.

Most of the 16th – and early 17th -century court ballets were comprised of dance scenes connected by a minimum of plot. And because they were performed primarily for aristocratic audiences, sumptuous costumes (oftentimes cumbersome and restrictive), scenery, and sophisticated theatrical effects were employed.

By the middle of the 1600s, the proscenium stage had been adopted in France. Ballet, then, left the confines of courtly halls and went into public spaces, even if the audiences were still primarily of the privileged classes. And on the public stage, the concept of the professional dancer emerged.

One of the greatest leaps towards ballet’s advancement as a dance form was the 1661 establishment by Louis XIV of the Academie Royale de Danse (which would later become Paris Opera Ballet), a professional organization of dancing masters, its aim being not only to teach dance technique, but also social etiquette, thereby integrating dance, elegance, and manners. In 17th -century France, a gentleman was expected to be well versed in riding, fencing, and dancing. And Louis was known as the consummate dancer and supporter of ballet.

The Emergence of Women as Ballet Dancers

The king stopped dancing in 1670, after 75 roles in 26 performances, and his courtiers followed suit, thereby signaling the changing of the guards from court ballet to professional dancing. In the beginning, all professional ballet dancers were men, with men in masks and women’s garb dancing female roles. But in 1681, in a ballet titled Triomphe de l’Amour (The Triumph of Love), the first professional female ballet dancer, Mademoiselle Delafontaine (ca. 1655 – 1738), her first name lost to history, made her debut.

By the year 1700, as evidenced by Raoul-Auger Feuillet’s book titled Choreographie, many of the steps and positions recognizable today as ballet had already been established. Commissioned by King Louis to create a system of dance notation (comparable to how music is notated on paper), Feuillet, with the aid of the work laid down earlier by Beauchamp, established a system that could be written down in symbols, printed, and disseminated, allowing for choreography to “recorded” and recreated in an era prior to film and video recordings. [Other dance notation systems, most notably Labanotation and Benesh Movement Notation, have since evolved].

The first decades of the 1700s also saw the emergence of opera-ballet, a theatrical form that placed equal emphasis on dancing and singing and usually consisted of a series of dances woven together by some common theme. One of the most famous opera-ballets, Les Indies Galantes (The Gallant Indies) (1735) by French composer Jean Phillipe, featured faraway, exotic lands and peoples.

The movements of 16th – and 17th -century dancers were restricted by masks, wigs, headdresses, and heeled shoes. Men oftentimes wore the tonnelet, a knee-length hoop-skirt, and women wore panniers. But around 1730 danse haute (“high dance”), with its jumps, allowed dancers to take to the air, thereby replacing danse basse (“low dance”), wherein dancers would move from one elegant pose to another. The 18th century is also the era when women began making their mark in ballet. Following in the footsteps of Delafontaine, French ballerina Marie-Thérèse de Subligny (1666 – 1735) became the first professional ballerina to appear in England. Françoise Prévost (ca. 1680 – 1741), with her expressive style, helped establish dramatic dance in the early days of the genre. She also was teacher of the two foremost professional ballerinas who would emerge to first threaten male dominance and virtuosity in ballet: Marie Anne de Cupis de Camargo shortened her skirts and adopted heel-less dancing slippers so that she could better execute—and display—her magnificent jumps and footwork; and her rival, Marie Sallé, literally let her hair down, cast off the then-conventional corset, and donned Grecian-inspired garb to perform in her own ballet, Pygmalion (1734). It is unlikely that these trailblazing women, “the queens of ballet” as they would come to be called, were fully aware that they were making one small step for a woman, one giant leap for womankind. And it is also unlikely that they were aware that they were laying the cornerstones for Women’s Rights: Ballet (along with fashion modeling) is one of the few professions open to both women and men where women surpass their male counterparts in both financial, professional, and social reward.

Despite the presence of some prominent female dancers, during the second half of the 18th century, Paris’ opera was still dominated by male dancers, Italian-French virtuoso Gaétan Vestris (1729 – 1808) and his son Auguste Vestris, famous for his leaps and jumps, being two of the most celebrated. But women, too, were becoming known for their technical prowess: German-born Annie Heinel is credited as being the first female dancer to do double pirouettes. Meanwhile, outside Paris, choreographers were working to achieve more dramatic expression in ballet. In London, for example, John Weaver eliminated words, trying, instead, to convey dramatic action through dance and pantomime. And in Vienna, Austria, Franz Hilverding and his student Gasparo Angiolini experimented with dramatic themes and gestures. But arguably the most famous advocate of dramatic ballet was Frenchman Jean Georges Noverre. His Letters on Dancing and Ballets, published in 1760, served to influence choreographers during and after his lifetime. Noverre rebelled against the tendency towards artifice in opera-ballet, arguing that ballet could stand on its own two feet—as an independent art form. He was a proponent of the use of natural, easily understood movement, and insisted that all the elements of a particular ballet should work harmoniously to convey that ballet’s theme. He introduced ballet d’ action, a dramatic style of ballet that conveys a narrative through expressive, dramatic movement that reveals the relationships between characters. Noverre’s philosophy found fertile ground in Stuttgart, Germany, where he produced his most famous ballet, Medea and Jason (1763). As such, Noverre is regarded as the father of the narrative ballet that would be embraced by the 19th century.

Much of what is broadly regarded as “classical ballet” emerged in the first half of the 19th century, during the Romantic Period of literature, music, art, and dance. The artists of the era—Byron, Shelley, Keats, Géricault, and Chopin, for example—embraced themes of beauty, passion, love, nature, and the supernatural. In ballet, Romantic themes oftentimes involved the supernatural world of spirits and magic, filled with tragic encounters between mortal, terrestrial man and the supernatural female. Ballerina characters were almost always other-worldly: the sylph in La Sylphide, a supernatural creature who is loved and ultimately, even if inadvertently, destroyed by mortal man; the wilis in Giselle; the fairy in La Peri; and then later in the 19th century, as swan maidens in Swan Lake; more fairies in Sleeping Beauty; the shades in La Bayedere, for example. (One of the few flesh-and-blood female characters of the era was Swanhilda in Coppélia. And in 1836’s Le Diable Boiteux, in the dance the “cachucha,” Austrian dancer Fannie Eissler popularized a more earthy, sensuous character in the Spanish-style solo performed with castanets in hand. Eissler was also known for dancing stylized versions of national dances). Female characters were also oftentimes depicted as passive and fragile. So it was the logical and aesthetic extension that during the Romantic era, “point work,” dancing on the tips of one’s toes—as if floating or about to fly—became the norm for the ballerina. The ballerina of the era is oftentimes depicted as a woman not earthbound; she is almost, if not, weightless. So it was only fitting that that era would produce such ballet classics as La Sylphide (1832) and Giselle (1841). And, ironically, it was in the Romantic era that female dancers became dominant in the genre. Excellent male dancers such as Frenchmen Jules Perrot and Arthur Saint-Leon were known for delivering stunning performances, but they were eclipsed by ballerinas such as Taglioni, Eissler, Carlotta Grisi, and Fanny Cerrito. The United States also produced two renowned ballerinas during the era: Augusta Maywood, and Mary Ann Lee, both of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Romantic Ballet and En Pointe Dancing

But en pointe dancing did not just occur one day out of thin air: Ballet had already existed for 200 years before toe shoes made their debut. The thing that, to a large extent, symbolizes ballet, was long in its evolution. And to a large extent, that evolution began with Marie Camargo (1710 – 1770) of the Paris Opera Ballet when she decided to remove the heels from her dancing shoes. Other dancers followed suit; and the new flat-bottomed slippers caught on quickly throughout the ballet community. (The flat-bottomed slippers worn during the 18th century were very much like the demi-point rehearsal and learning shoes that young ballerinas wear today). Secured to the feet with ribbons wrapped around the ankles, and pleated under the toes for a better fit, the flat slippers allowed for a full extension and enabled a dancer to use her entire foot. But with such types of slippers, dancers rose onto the balls of their feet or, on a few occasions during a performance, onto the tips of their toes. It was not until Charles Didelot’s 1795 invention of his “flying machine” that lifted dancers upward, allowing them to stand on their toes just before leaving the ground, that the notion of en pointe dancing gained footing as a dance technique. The lightness and ethereal quality achieved by use of the device was well received by audiences, resulting in choreographers finding ways to incorporate more “point work” in their pieces. As the technical skills of dancers became more pronounced in the 19th century, dancers endeavored to display more point work—without the aid of the wires availed by the “flying machine.”

Dancing en point, as a ballet technique, was intimated in the 1828 treatise on ballet training and exercise by Italian choreographer Carlo Blasis (1797-1878), Code of Terpsichore. (The extant ballet exercise regimen of adagio, pirouettes, and allegro, and the dance pose “Attitude,” derived from the famous statue Mercury by Giovanni da Bologna, are attributed to Blasis). But who, exactly, was the first person to dance en pointe remains a mystery. Perhaps Camargo had done back in the 1700s. And there are newspaper references to various ballerinas with “fantastic toes.” In its earliest years, en-pointe dancing was probably viewed as a stunt. But in Paris in 1832, when Italy’s Marie Taglioni first danced the entire La Sylphide en pointe (clearly not the first occasion upon which she danced on her toes), she established that dancing en pointe was on its way towards becoming an artistic expression—a dramatic as well as technical feat.

In 1832, Taglioni’s dancing slippers were, in effect, nothing more than modified satin slippers with soles made of leather and with toes and sides darned to help maintain their shape. Because shoes of that era provided no significant structural support, dancers would pad their own shoes and rely on the strength of the feet and ankles for support. Nonetheless, Taglioni, because of her grace, seeming weightlessness, elevation, and style, went on to enjoy a brilliant career and countless adoring audiences. It is said that in Russia her fans so loved her that they cooked her slippers and ate them with sauce!

Dancers would continue using the rudimentary, Taglioni-type, “do-it-yourself” point shoes until the late 19th century when in Italy a shoe with a modified toe-section, the precursor to the toe box, emerged. Dancers such as Pierina Legnani—rather than wearing the earlier model shoe which featured a sharply pointed toe—were known for wearing shoes with a sturdy, flat platform at the front-end of the shoe. The new shoe design, a then-guarded trade secret of the Italian School, enabled dancers to accomplish spectacular technical feats such as multiple pirouettes. Eventually the shoes evolved in the 1880s to contain a toe-box, made of multiple layers of fabric, for containing the toes. A stronger, stiffer sole was also added. Constructed without nails, and with soles stiffened only at the toes, the shoes were almost silent. And as the shoe evolved, so did ballet as an art form, each advancing the other: the shoes enabled dancers to do more; and dancers, in turn, wanted more from their shoes. Because of the Romantic era’s preoccupation with the ethereal female, and because the pointe shoe served as the vehicle by which the female characters’ seeming immateriality could be achieved, pointe shoes never became part of male ballet dancing since during the Romantic period, it was the corporal, flesh-and-blood, corporal man—with his foot firmly on terra firma such that he could hoist his willowy female counterparts into the air—that was needed as the contrast.

The pointe shoe as it is known today is largely attributed to Anna Pavlova, the early 20th -century Russian ballerina, one of the most famous and influential dancers of her time. Because of her exceptionally high, arched instep and slender, tapered feet, which made her particularly susceptible to injury when dancing en point, she compensated for her impediment by inserting toughened leather soles into her slippers for extra support, and flattened and reinforced the toe area to form a “box.” The shoes worn by ballerinas during the early years of the 20th century would seem unfathomably soft by 21st -century standards. Fundamental to the development of ballet, then, was for the shoes to be stiffened and more sturdy in order to accommodate more sustained balances and multiple pirouettes.

Today, most pointe shoes are constructed of layers of satin stiffened with glue, with a narrow sole made of leather. But despite the advances over the centuries, ballet slippers, which must be at once flexible, soft, but sturdy, are short-lived: Point shoes last for two to 12 hours of steady dancing. (Shoes used for one-hour pointe classes, once per week, will endure three months. And a professional ballerina may expend a pair of shoes in one performance. As such, a professional ballerina can use 100 to 120 pairs of shoes in a dance year. Different roles also require different types of shoes: The rigorous role of the “Black Swan” in Swan Lake will require a strong shoe with copious support, while the role of the sylph in La Sylphide requires a more gentle shoe since the role calls for more jumps and less pirouettes).

In essence, though, the pointe shoe has remained fundamentally unchanged for the past 100 years. But recent developments have begun to appear as shoe companies such as Nike collaborate with dance professionals to create shoes the aim of which is to advance the art form while protecting the dancers’ most important asset: their feet. The first half of the 1800s—the early Romantic era, with its groundbreaking, bar-raising en pointe dancing—also ushered in the ballet costumes that are today iconic. The sylphs and spirits needed light, airy garments to convey their other-worldly immateriality. The romantic tutu, a calf-length, full skirt made of tulle, was introduced in La Sylphide and reprised in Giselle (and has remained a ballet staple ever since).

Classical Ballet

In Paris itself, during the late 19th century, ballet began to decline. Few notable ballets were produced at Opera. Poetic qualities yielded to virtuosic displays and spectacle. Male dancing was neglected. In Coppélia (1870), the principal male role was danced by a female.

In Denmark, however, the high standards in ballet established during the Romantic era were being maintained. Paris-trained Danish choreographer Bournonville established a system of training and created a large body of work, many of which are still performed by the Royal Danish Ballet, including a Danish version of La Sylphide. Russia also did its share to preserve high-level ballet during the second half of the 19th century, by 1850 establishing itself as the world’s foremost country of the genre. Chief choreographer for the Imperial Russian Ballet, Frenchman Marius Petipa, perfected the full-length, evening-long story ballet that incorporated set dances with mimed scenes. His The Sleeping Beauty (1890), and Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s Swan Lake (1895) and The Nutcracker (1892), all with music scores by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, represent classical ballet at its apex and in its grandest form. And one of the primary purposes of those works was to showcase classical technique—point work, high extensions, precision of movement, and “turn-out” (the outward rotation of the legs from the hip) in all its glory. Complicated sequences specifically choreographed to display prowess—demanding steps, leaps, and turns—were purposefully incorporated into the presentations. And, as such, the classical tutu, much shorter and stiffer than the romantic tutu, was introduced so that the ballerina’s legs and the intricacies of her footwork could be revealed.

By the 20th century, though, Petipa’s choreographic methods had been so imitated that they became formulaic. Enter: Mikhail Fokine (1880 – 1942), the groundbreaking Russian choreographer and dancer. Fokine advocated an evolution from the by-then-stereotypical ballet traditions, abandoning miming, outdated costumes, and virtuoso feats for their own sake. Instead, he was a proponent of more expressiveness and authenticity in choreography, scenery, and costumes. He realized his vision through Ballet Russes, a new company formed by Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Ballet Russes opened in Paris in 1909 and won immediate acclaim. Diaghilev joined forces with composer Igor Stravinsky on the ballet The Rite of Spring, a work so avant-garde and so different—with its dissonant music, unconventional movements, and theme of human sacrifice—that its debut caused the audience to riot. Ballet Russes immediately became synonymous with novelty and excitement, a reputation that would endure throughout the 20 years of the company’s existence. Male dancers were especially admired since by the early 20th century, male dancers had all but disappeared from the Paris ballet scene. Dancer Vaslav Nijinsky was one of the most esteemed. The company produced a wide range of works, including some one-act ballets featuring colorful themes derived from Russian or Asian folklore: The Firebird (1910); Scheherazade (1910); and Petrushka (1911).

Though most of Ballet Russes’ members were Russian, Diaghilev collaborated with Western European artists, composers, choreographers, and dancers such as Pablo Picasso, Maurice Ravel, Russian-born American George Balanchine, and Russian-born French dancer Serge Lifar. Together, they experimented with new themes and styles of movement. And offshoots of Ballet Russes established and revitalized ballet the world over: Renowned Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, who danced for the company during its early seasons, formed her own company and toured internationally; Fokine lent his genius to many companies, including what would become the American Ballet Theater; Léonide Massine contributed extensively to Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, a company established after the death of Diaghilev; two former member of Ballet Russes, Polish-born British dancer Dame Marie Rambert and British dancer Dame Ninette de Valois, founded the British Ballet; De Valois also founded the company that would eventually become Britain’s Royal Ballet; Balanchine was invited to work in the United States by Lincoln Kirstein, a wealthy patron of the arts; and Lifar worked at the Paris Opera, influencing French ballet for many years.

The Genre Transformed

In the 1920s and ’30s, the genre of modern dance emerged in the United States and Germany. American dancers Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, and German Mary Wigman and others broke away from ballet to create their own expressive movement styles and to choreograph dances that were more closely tied to human realities. During the same period, ballet also aspired towards realism: German choreographer Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table (1932) was an antiwar ballet. Anthony Tudor developed “psychological ballet,” a genre that revealed the inner being of its characters. And just as ballet had informed modern dance, modern dance also expanded the movement vocabulary of ballet, especially in the use of the torso and in movements while lying or sitting on the floor. The 1930s also saw the emergence of the concept of “pure dance”—plotless ballets in which the primary inspiration was movement to music. (Balanchine’s Jewels [1967] is regarded as the first full-length ballet of this type). And Léonide Massine invented “symphonic ballet,” the aim of which is to, through dance movement, express the musical content of symphonies by German composers Beethoven and Brahms.

Ballet originated and evolved as an art form in Western Europe. And in the early 1900s, as cultures became more integrated primarily as a result of advancements in methods of transportation, there were concerted exclusionary efforts to maintain ballet as a Western European art form. Darwinist-type biological justifications were oftentimes proffered, claiming that the non-Caucasian races and types were physiologically unsuitable and incapable of achieving high standards in the genre. In the minds of some, ballet was, by definition, a European[-only] art form. By the 1950s, however, such notions were not only being challenged, but also tested and disproved. Ballet Nacional de Cuba was founded in 1948 by renowned Cuban-born ballerina Alicia Martinez Alonso, her husband Fernando, and his brother Alberto. After the 1959 revolution, the company and its school, the Cuban National Ballet School, began receiving national funding. The aim was to make the art form accessible to all Cubans. And to that end, each year the school combs the island-nation in search of young people with the makings of stardom: musicality, good body proportions, and the ability to learn dance steps. Today, the company performs all over the world and is widely regarded as one of the world’s premiere romantic and classical ballet companies, fusing the great ballet traditions of Italy, France, Russia, Denmark, and England with Cuban-derived approaches to the genre.

Likewise, Dance Theater of Harlem was co-founded in1969 by Arthur Mitchell, the first African-American principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, and Karel Shook, who had served as the first teacher and dance master of the Dutch National Ballet. The company is renowned as both the first black classical ballet company and the first major ballet company to feature black dancers in principal roles. In 1972 Homer Bryant, founder of Chicago’s Multicultural Dance Center, joined the company as one of its principal dancers.

Popular dance forms also influenced ballet: In 1944, American choreographer Jerome Robbins created Fancy Free, a ballet based on the jazz dance style that had developed in musical comedy.

Two great ballet companies were founded in New York City in the 1940s: American Ballet Theater; and New York City Ballet, the latter drawing many dancers from the School of American Ballet established in 1934 by Balanchine and Kirstein. And since the middle of the 20th century, ballet companies have been established across Canada and the United States, some of the most notable being National Ballet of Canada in Toronto (1951); Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal (1952); Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Ballet (1963); and the Houston Ballet (1963).

Beginning in 1956, Russian ballet companies such as the Bolshoi and Kirov began touring the West for the first time, giving compelling performances and leaving their audiences mesmerized on account of technical virtuosity and their intense dramatizations of emotions through movement. The impact of those tours would prove indelible. And the Russian influence on the world of ballet continues to this day, whether through performances from visiting companies or individual dancers such as Rudolf Nureyev, artistic director of the Paris Opera (1983 – 1989); prima ballerina and choreographer Natalia Makarova; and Mikhail Baryshnikov, director of the American Ballet Theater (1980 – 1989).

The 1960s witnessed a renewed popular interest in ballet as the genre began reflecting—both in theme and style—the influences of a younger audience. Popular music such as rock-and-roll and pop were used to accompany many ballets, and the “sport” element of dance, with its physical rigors and virtuosic expressions, was admired.

Today’s ballet repertoire offers great variety: New ballets and reinterpretations of older ones coexist; choreographers are keen on experimenting with new and traditional forms and styles; dancers are constantly seeking to expand their technical and dramatic range; manufacturers of dance equipment work closely with dancers in order to create products that allow for the advancement of dance; and because of the proliferation of air travel, the frequent touring of ballet companies allows audiences all over the world to experience the full array that modern-day ballet has to offer.

Ballet has undergone many transformations throughout its 500-year history, from an art form, the participation in which was limited to aristocratic men, to an art form dominated by women, to an art form open to any talented dancer, regardless of gender, race, color, or creed. What has remained constant throughout the transformations, however, is ballet’s appeal to gentlemen as one of the world’s great luxuries.

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