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alt.arts.ballet FAQ 4: Brief Dance History

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Last-modified: Jul. 21, 2004

See reader questions & answers on this topic! - Help others by sharing your knowledge
Part 4 of seven parts

    Copyright (c) 1995-2004 by Thomas Parsons; all rights reserved.
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    4.1. Who invented ballet?
    4.2. I thought ballet was a Russian art.
    4.3. When was the first ballet?
    4.4. What is the oldest surviving ballet?
    4.5. When was the first ballet school started?
    4.6. How did ballet develop after the founding of that school?
    4.7. Who was Noverre?
    4.8. How did ballet develop in the nineteenth century?
    4.8.1. Who was Carlo Blasis?
    4.8.2. Who was August Bournonville?
    4.8.3. The primacy of the ballerina
    4.8.4. Ballet in Russia
    4.8.5. Who was Didelot?
    4.8.6. Who was Petipa?
    4.9. Dance in the 20th century
    4.9.1. Who was Diaghilev and what did he do?
    4.9.2. Who was Fokine?
    4.9.3. Who was Balanchine?
    4.9.4. The beginnings of modern dance


4. Ballet history

	Ballet is at once the oldest and the youngest of the arts.  The
impulse to dance must be at least as old as the impulse to sing; but the
first professional ballet dancers appeared on the scene only about 300
years ago.  It is also the only high art whose foundations were laid in
recent times by amateurs, and by royal amateurs at that.  The French court
put on ballets the way some of our own ancestors may have put on amateur
theatricals or played at charades, and the dancers were drawn from the
members of the Court, including at least two French kings, Louis XIII
and Louis XIV.  Many of the gestures in ballet to-day still reflect the
body language of the nobility of the seventeenth century.

	Dance history can be approached in different ways.  You can address
the history of dance as an art, listing the great teachers and choreo-
graphers who influenced its development; or the history of performance,
naming the stars and describing their careers; or the social history,
discussing how theatrical dance interacted with the social and economic
circumstances in which it found itself.  The material that follows is
largely the history of dance as an art.

	Modern, or contemporary, dance is (naturally) a recent development.
Where the history of ballet goes back four or more centuries--depending on
when you date its origins--modern goes back only about a hundred years.
Hence the entries here inevitably have much more to say about ballet than
about modern.

	The history presented in this version of the FAQ ends after
Diaghilev and the beginnings of modern dance.  We are still too close to
more recent developments, and it is difficult to sort out the threads and
to distinguish what was most important.

4.1. Who invented ballet?

	No one person did; it evolved gradually from the popular dances of
the period.  Many of the steps still bear names relating to the dances or
the geographical regions from which they were drawn--for example, _pas de
bourr'ee_ and _pas de Basque_.

4.2. I thought ballet was a Russian art.

	Many of the greatest dancers in the 20th century have been Russian,
but ballet arose in Italy and matured in France (see questions 4.3 and 4.5,
below).  In the 19th century, ballet flowered in Russia (through the work
of French and Italian teachers who moved there), and early in the 20th
century Russian ballet began to influence Western Europe, largely through
the agency of the impresario Serge Diaghilev.  (See question 4.9.1.)
Diaghilev's Ballets Russes gave ballet in Western Europe a much-needed shot
in the arm, and the influence of Russian dancing, augmented by the various
Russian companies who have toured Western Europe in recent years, persists
to this day.

4.3. When was the first ballet?

	That's open to debate, because there's no general agreement on how
balletic a performance has to be to qualify as a ballet.  Two performances
are usually singled out by historians, however.  One is a danced enter-
tainment that was put on at a banquet celebrating the marriage of Gian
Galeazzo, Duke of Milan, in 1489.  Each course of the banquet was intro-
duced by a dance.  But the dances told stories, and so this is occasionally
reckoned as "the first ballet."  The other pioneering performance was the
_Balet Comique de la Royne_ (in modern French, _Ballet Comique de la
Reine_), put on by Catherine de Medici in 1581 to celebrate yet another
marriage.  The libretto and choreography for this ballet are generally
attributed to Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx, whose definition of ballet we
quoted above in Question 2.1.  The dancers were members of the Court.  The
performance, which included singing and recitation as well as dancing,
lasted more than five hours, and its expense was ruinous.

	We know that other balletic entertainments were put on in between
these two events, and it seems pretty clear that dance was presented as
an artistic entertainment before 1489, but these are the events most
frequently cited.

	Ballet is generally considered a French art, but it should be
clear that it has its roots in Italy.  There was that performance in 1489;
Catherine de Medici was Italian and may have brought the ballet with her;
Beaujoyeulx was an Italian (originally named Belgiojoso); and the very word
_ballet_ is derived from the Italian _balletto_.  But the first school
(Question 4.5) was in France, the terminology is nearly all French, the
most important early books on the subject were French, and it was the
French who turned it from an entertainment into an art.

	One of the earliest landmarks in ballet appeared shortly after the
_Balet Comique_.  The book, _Orch'esographie_, written by a priest, Jehan
Tabourot, under the pseudonym Thoinot Arbeau, appeared in 1588.  In this
book, there is no clear distinction between ballet and social dancing.
Ballet evolved out of social dancing, and Arbeau's book gives us a snapshot
of the era when this evolutionary process was still going on.

4.4. What is the oldest surviving ballet?

	If by "surviving" you mean, continually in the repertory of a
company in essentially its original form, the oldest ballet is apparently
_The Whims of Cupid and the Ballet Master_, choreographed in 1786 by
Vincenzo Galeotti for the Royal Danish Ballet. _La Fille Mal Gard'ee_ is
sometimes said to be the oldest, but it appeared three years later than
_Whims_ and the original choreography (by Jean Dauberval) is lost, while
the Danes have preserved the choreography of "Whims" largely intact.

	An earlier candidate could be _Le Mariage de la Grosse Cathos_,
choreographed by Jean Favier in 6688, but this has survived only in
notation and while it has been reconstruted in modern times, it does not
appear to have been continually in any company's repertoire.

4.5. When was the first ballet school started?

	The _Acad'emie Royale de la Danse_ was founded in 1661 by Louis XIV
of France.  (He was an enthusiastic dancer; we are told that his sobriquet,
_le Roi Soleil_, "the Sun King," stemmed from his performance as Apollo in
_Le Ballet de la Nuit_, although Jaques Barzun claims that Louis XIII had
the title before him.)

	Whether the _Acad'emie_ was a ballet school as we think of them
today is uncertain.  The French use the term somewhat differently than
in English-speaking countries, and an _Acad'emie_ is apt to be as much
a standardizing organization as a school.  (Think of the _Acad'emie
Franáaise_.)  The charter of the _Acad'emie Royale de la Danse_ suggests
as much: it was to "reestablish the said art in its perfection, and to
increase it as much as possible."

	So it may have been as much a school for dance teachers as for
dancers.  In any case, it codified and standardized much of the teaching
of ballet.  (The five positions of the feet were either defined or
standardized by the _Acad'emie_.)  Its most notable member was probably
Pierre Beauchamps, who had been the king's personal dance instructor.  This
school was later merged with the _Acad'emie Royale de Musique_, and was
eventually absorbed into the Paris Op'era.

	From this background you can understand the roots of ballet: folk
dancing, first refined by the court, and then turned into a theatrical
display and an art.  Each of these influences made its own contribution:
the court added gracefulness and dignity, and the theater contributed
professionalism and virtuosity.

4.6. How did ballet develop after the founding of that school?

	The century after the founding of the _Acad'emie_ marked the rise
of professionalism in ballet.  Ballets like the _Balet Comique de la Royne_
were danced by noblemen, but after the founding of the _Acad'emie_, the
nobility were gradually reduced to the status of spectators and patrons,
and ballet was performed by trained, professional dancers.

	Early ballet differed from what we see to-day in several ways.
First, performance was "in the round": dancers performed on the floor of
a hall, with the audience surrounding them and looking down at them.  It
was as if ballet were performed in a stadium.  Ballet started using the
proscenium stage some time in the mid-1700s, and this had a considerable
influence on technique.  Second, dancers did not have the great extensions
we see now; the leg was rarely raised higher than 45 degrees off the floor.
Third, dancers do not appear to have jumped very much: most dancing was at
ground level, _terre-`a-terre_.  The change to greater extension and more
steps of elevation may have resulted from the use of the proscenium stage,
since both extension and jumps are visually more effective there.  Finally,
dancers wore heavy costumes--and *masks*.  (Tights weren't invented until
about the time of the French Revolution.)  Ballets in those days typically
represented the deeds of classical gods and heroes, and the masks may have
been thought appropriate for such roles.  Dancers were still wearing masks
in the latter part of the eighteenth century; Noverre (question 4.7)
complains about them in his _Letters_ of 1760.

	Beauchamps must have had a large body of experience to draw on.
It would be interesting to know just when the organization of a ballet
class took the form it has to-day, but it was probably very soon after
the founding of the _Acad'emie_ and may have been Beauchamps's work.  He
is credited with naming the five positions of the feet, introducing more
steps of elevation, and emphasizing turnout.  The positions and turnout are
mentioned in a book dating from around 1700.  The degree of turnout was
probably only moderate; the 90-degree turnout we recognize as the ideal
to-day (i.e., with the feet in a straight line, pointing in opposite
directions) was a gradual development.

	The first important book after the founding of the _Acad'emie_
seems to have been _Ma^itre `a Danser_ ("The Dancing Master"), by Pierre
Rameau (1725).  This book contains descriptions of pirouettes, beaten
steps, and jet'es, and it particularly emphasizes the arms.  (The entire
second half of the book is devoted to the use of the arms.)

4.7. Who was Noverre?

	Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810) was a dancer, a choreographer, and
a teacher of dancers.  He was also the author of _Lettres sur la Danse et
sur les Ballets_ (Letters on Dance and Ballet, 1761).  This was the most
important book on ballet published in the 18th century and probably one
of the most important of all time.  In it, he recommended abolishing the
custom of dancing with masks and drew the distinction between _arqu'e_ and
_jarret'e_ (see question 3.23).  He also urged that ballets included in
operas be choreographed so as to carry the plot forward.  As any opera
lover can attest, this advice was not generally heeded.  Indeed, George
Balanchine revolutionized dance in musical comedy in the 1930s by doing
exactly what Noverre asked for: the choreography in "Slaughter on Tenth
Avenue," for example, was an integral part of the story line in the musical
"On Your Toes."  (This tradition was then carried still further by Agnes de
Mille in the musical, "Oklahoma.")

	Noverre's birthday, April 29, is now observed as World Dance Day.

4.8. How did ballet develop in the nineteenth century?

	Dance in the nineteenth century was marked by three main develop-
ments: the expansion of dancers' technical powers, the primacy of the
ballerina, and the flowering of ballet in Russia.

	The enlargement of the technical vocabulary and the growth of tech-
nique in general was an inevitable consequence of the professionalization
of ballet.  We see evidence of this growth in the writings of Carlo Blasis
(question 4.8.1).  One of the most striking technical advances was the de-
velopment of dancing on the toes, or on pointe.  Marie Taglioni, reportedly
a superb technician, is commonly said to have been the first dancer to go
up on pointe, in 1825, although historians believe that she probably had
predecessors.  (There is some evidence that Didelot (question 4.8.5) may
have had his dancers on pointe.)  Taglioni was, in any case, the first to
popularize the technique, in the ballet _La Sylphide_, and ballet was never
quite the same again.

4.8.1. Who was Carlo Blasis?

	Carlo Blasis (1797-1878) was the author of _The Theory and Practice
of the Art of Dancing_ (1820) and _The Code of Terpsichore_ (1823), an
expanded version of the earlier book.  The material in these books is
virtually indistinguishable from ballet as it is taught to-day, and a
dancer of our own time could do worse than to read and follow his advice.
He requires a full 90-degree turnout, and his rules for placement are
essentially the same as ours: "Let your body be, in general, erect and
perpendicular on your legs....  Let your shoulders be low, your head high,
and your countenance animated and expressive."  Dancers were now expected
to be able to extend the leg 90 degrees as a matter of course.  Blasis's
description of pirouettes, which is too long to quote here, is as useful
to dancers to-day as it was in 1823.

	He repeats Noverre's description of _arqu'e_ and _jarret'e_ and
enlarges on it; but he also describes the body types of the serious dancer
(what we would call the _danseur noble_), the _demi-caract`ere_ dancer,
and the comic dancer.  For the serious dancer he recommends particular
attention to the _adage_ part of class; to him, _adage_ is "the _ne plus
ultra_ of our art" and "the touchstone of the dancer."

4.8.2. Who was August Bournonville?

	August Bournonville (1805-1879) was soloist, choreographer, and
ballet master of the Royal Danish Ballet from 1830 to 1877.  His father,
Antoine, had been born in France and had studied with Noverre.  August went
his own way and created a style that persists in Danish ballet to this day.
Unlike most 19th-century ballet, it has significant roles for male dancers,
and dancers of both sexes are given very demanding technical work to do.
Pointe work was less important in the Bournonville style than elsewhere,
and the ballerina did not have the commanding position she had elsewhere
in Europe at that time.

4.8.3. The primacy of the ballerina

	In the nineteenth century, the ballerina became the central figure
in ballet.  This led to a curious reversal: in the seventeenth century,
women were generally not allowed to dance, and female parts were danced
by men in women's costumes.  In the nineteenth century, almost the exact
opposite situation prevailed: the ballerina reigned supreme, and male roles
were often danced by women in men's costumes, or _en travesti_.  The bal-
lerina system was at its strongest in France, and it was ruinous.  Lincoln
Kirstein, in his history, says, "On the stage, if there was anything of
interest, we may be sure it was not French."

	We can only speculate on how the ballerina achieved such a
dominating position.  It may well have been sheer commercialism: pretty
girls were a pleasant sight for the tired businessman then as now, and
a star brought in money.  Ballerinas occasionally even dictated the
choreography and the music.  One consequence of this, as Elizabeth Sawyer
points out, was that the music tended to be second-rate.  The Brahmses,
Schumanns, and Liszts of the day were not about to let themselves be
ordered around by dancers, and in consequence the composers of 19th-century
ballets tended to be figures virtually unknown outside the world of ballet,
like Adam, Minkus, Drigo, or Pugni.  The world of dance was extremely
lucky, later in the century, to have music from composers of the stature
of Glazunov, Delibes, and Tchaikovski.

	Another side effect of this commercialism is the decline of ballet
as an art, particularly in France, and a gradual refusal, among intellec-
tuals of the time, to take it seriously or to consider it on a par with
music, literature, or the other arts.  (There were a few exceptions to
this.)  This is one reason why the Ballets Russes took Western Europe and
its intellectuals by storm early in the 20th century: Western ballet had
been reduced to an entertainment, and under Diaghilev, who ran the Ballets
Russes, it became an art again.  Diaghilev (question 4.9.1) had absolute
control over his company and resolved that he was going to go for the best
dancing, the best costumes, the best set designs, and the best music.  This
set a precedent that has lasted throughout the 20th century.

4.8.4. Ballet in Russia

	Ballet first arose in Russia during the reign of the Empress Anne,
who is responsible for the founding of the Russian Imperial Academy in 1735.
During the 19th century, a number of teachers found their way to Russia,
where they revolutionized Russian ballet, to the extent that the center of
ballet could fairly be said to have moved from France to Russia.  Among the
many figures associated with Russian ballet were Didelot and Petipa.

4.8.5. Who was Didelot?

	Charles Louis Didelot (1767-1836), the Swedish-born son of a French
dancer, had studied under the best teachers of his time, including Noverre.
He spent 25 years dancing in Paris, London, Stockholm, Bordeaux, Lyon.  He
came to Russia first in 1801 and stayed there 10 years.  He returned in
1816 and spent the rest of his life there.  He revolutionized Russian
ballet.  When he arrived, the company was dominated by foreign soloists;
when he left, it had a complete ensemble comprising mostly native Russians.
He reformed teaching as well, making classes longer, more numerous, more
intensive.  He was an exacting teacher who earned loyalty from students.
His most famous student was probably the short-lived, brilliant Maria
Danilova (1793-1810).  Van Praagh and Brinson say, "His teaching laid the
basis of Russian classical ballet."  In his history, Lincoln Kirstein says
simply that all of Russian ballet can be divided into two eras: before
Didelot and after Didelot.

4.8.6. Who was Petipa?

	Marius Petipa (1822-1910) was trained in France and had danced in
Spain and the United States before he emigrated to Russia in 1847, where
he dominated Russian ballet from 1870 to 1905.  He choreographed (among
many other ballets) _Sleeping Beauty_, _Raymonda_, and _Swan Lake_ (this
last in collaboration with Lev Ivanov.)  Together with Ivanov, Christian
Johansson, and Enrico Cecchetti, he raised Russian ballet to world pre-
eminence.  He is generally regarded as a ballerinas' choreographer,
however; his parts for male dancers were weak.

	For the purposes of choreography, Petipa divided ballet steps into
seven categories:
	Preparatory or connecting steps (e.g., _pas de bourr'ee_ or
	Steps of elevation (e.g., _grands jet'es_ or _entrechats_)
	Steps with beats (e.g., _bris'es_ or _cabrioles_)
	Poses (e.g., _arabesque_ or _attitude_)
	_Port des bras_
	Pointe work
These are expressive categories, defined with reference to their artistic
function rather than being purely technical, as Noverre's list is.

4.9. Dance in the 20th century

	The 20th century has been marked chiefly by a renewal of ballet as
an art and by the rise of modern dance.

4.9.1. Who was Diaghilev and what did he do?

	Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) was an impresario, the manager of the
Ballets Russes that created a sensation in Western Europe in the early
years of the 20th century.  Born in Perm and active as a young man in
artistic circles, Diaghilev formed the Ballets Russes in 1909 and ran it
until his death in 1929.  The dancers and choreographers associated with
the Ballets Russes included George Balanchine (question 4.9.3), Alexandra
Danilova, Ninette de Valois, Michel Fokine (question 4.9.2), Tamara
Karsavina, Serge Lifar, Alicia Markova, Leonide Massine, Vaslav Nijinsky,
Anna Pavlova, Marie Rambert, Olga Spessivtseva, and Tamara Toumanova, among
many others.  His designers included Bakst, Braque, Picasso, Tchelitchev,
and Utrillo.  His composers included Debussy, Milhaud, Poulenc, Prokofiev,
Ravel, Satie, and, most notably, Igor Stravinsky, whom Diaghilev spotted
when he was virtually unknown and whose career he launched.

	The impact of Ballets Russes on the West stemmed from a number of
causes.  First, there was the greater vitality of Russian ballet, as com-
pared with what was current in France.  Second, Fokine was an innovative
choreographer, who would have been as influential in Russia if he could
have prevailed against the entrenched administration of the Russian
companies.  Third, Diaghilev was a superb spotter of talent, a master
showman, and a man who knew his audiences.  Fourth, there was the simple
fact that Russian ballet, and the performances mounted by Diaghilev, were
different and hence exotic.  For whatever reason, Diaghilev rejuvenated
ballet in the West.  If we could go back and view his productions now, they
might well strike us as quaint, and we might even wonder what all the fuss
was about.  But, with the possible exception of the first modern dancers,
his company was the most influential in this century, and that influence,
in one form or another, has lasted to this day.

	A list of the ballets premiered by Diaghilev reads like a roster of
the most important works of the century.  They include, among many others,
_Les Sylphides_ (1909), _The Firebird_ (1910), _Le Spectre de la Rose_
(1911), _Petroushka_ (1911), _Afternoon of a Faun_ (1912), _The Rite of
Spring_ (1913), _the Song of the Nightingale_ (1920), _Apollo_ (1928), and
_Prodigal Son_ (1929).  The mortality of ballets is notorious, but a
striking number of these are still performed.

	After Diaghilev's death the company's properties were claimed by
creditors (he himself died in poverty), and the dancers were, more or less,
scattered.  But the name was a property, too, and in the subsequent years
the company had two reincarnations, one as the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo,
the other as the Original Ballet Russe.

4.9.2. Who was Fokine?

	Michel Fokine (1880-1942) was trained at the Imperial School in
St Petersburg and joined Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1909.  In 1923, he
moved to the United States, where he re-staged pieces for the Ballet Russe
de Monte Carlo and American Ballet Theatre.  Fokine objected to what he
considered arbitrary and artificial conventions and sterile technique and
strove for a more natural and expressive choreographic style.  (This is a
recurrent theme in ballet; Noverre called for almost the same thing in his
_Letters_.)  His influence and ideas undoubtedly contributed to the early
success of Diaghilev's company.  He choreographed a number of plotless
ballets, most notably _Chopiniana_ (later _Les Sylphides_), which even-
tually led Balanchine to try the plotless ballets that ultimately became
his trademark.

4.9.3. Who was Balanchine?

	George Balanchine (1904-1983), born Georgi Melitonovich
Balanchivadze, was trained at the Imperial school in St Petersburg.  He
left the Soviet Union in 1920 and joined Diaghilev's company in Monte
Carlo.  (It was Diaghilev who had him change his name, on the grounds that
Balanchivadze would be too much for French audiences.)  In 1932, he came
to the United States at the suggestion, and with the assistance, of Lincoln
Kirstein.  His first act in the United States was to found the School of
American Ballet.  In the 1930s he made a name for himself choreographing
for musical comedies.  In 1947, he and Kirstein set up Ballet Society; the
following year this became the New York City Ballet.  He was ballet master
at NYCB until his death.

	(The ballet world owes an immense debt to the vision of Morton Baum
of the City Center, who was instrumental in establishing the New York City
Ballet.  He dropped in one evening to see what Ballet Society, who had
rented the City Center, was up to, saw the Stravinsky/Balanchine _Orpheus_,
and went to Lincoln Kirstein with a proposal.  Kirstein promised him a
world-class company, and Kirstein and Balanchine delivered.)

	With Balanchine, the music came first.  He is remembered for saying
that he wanted us to *see* the music and to *hear* the dance.  His ballets
are mostly plotless, although the structure of a piece or of a pas de deux
frequently has an emotional subtext that holds it together and gives it
a meaning beyond merely beautiful dancing (if beautiful dancing can be
said to be "mere"!).  But detailed narrative was always distasteful to
Balanchine.  He used to say, "There are no sisters-in-law in ballet,"
meaning that a complicated information of this sort could not be conveyed
by dance.

4.9.4. The beginnings of modern dance

	Modern dance has its roots in the late 19th century, but is mainly
a 20th-century phenomenon.  To some extent, it was a reaction against bal-
let.  (Isadora Duncan, one of the best-known pioneers, claimed that ballet
"deformed" the body.)  When you consider the condition of ballet in most
of Western Europe at the time, this is not surprising.  One might say that
it was as much a response to this as Diaghilev's company was.  Diaghilev
responded by importing dancers and fresh ideas from Russia; the moderns
responded, initially, by rejecting the traditions of ballet altogether as
sterile and irrelevant to the new century.  They were searching for
naturalism and, above all, expression.

	But the reaction against ballet must not be exaggerated; new
movements in the arts frequently start with a rejection of what has gone
before.  In a larger sense, modern dance was also part of the general trend
toward modernism in all the arts that has marked this century, and this is
probably a more important cause than any rejection of ballet.  In addition,
there has been a fair amount of cross-fertilization between ballet and
modern, and althought they may well continue to be separate traditions, the
gulf between them has narrowed over the century.

Continued in Part 5....

--             |  It's easier to apologize afterwards than
                          |   getting something allowed in the first place. |             --Clifford Stoll

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