A Condensed History of the BalletBy
To truly understand and appreciate the ballet, perhaps the best place to start is to have a basic understanding of what it actually is and how it differs from other types of dancing. The dictionary defines ballet as a classical, theatrical entertainment, which involves formalized precision steps and gestures in intricate patterns. It frequently tells a story through movement.
It is important to note the words “formalized” and “precision” in the definition. Ballet uses“codified” steps. Some of the first codifications were done in France in the 1600s. Pierre Beauchamp, superintendent of the Academie Royal de Danse codified the five basic positions of the feet based upon Thoinot Arbeau’s foundations laid out in the 1500s. The fact that these codifications were done in France has had a profound effect. French is the language of the ballet. Almost all the terms in ballet are French in origin, regardless of the creator.
The five basic positions are the basis for the majority of steps in ballet. These positions involve the feet being turned out pointing in opposite directions. There are also five basic positions of the arms.
The Ballet de cour (Court ballets) is considered to be the forerunner of the ballet. These dances evolved for folk and local social dances. Preformed in various European courts these dances were performed by the wealthy and royalty. These performances were extremely elaborate. Members of various courts would try to outperform or up-stage each other. Costumes and sets became the norm.
These events were frequently performed during feasts and banquets. Dancers were often done between courses. Additionally, the dances that were staged might relate to the menu. Shows often included a variety of entertainments, along with the dance. These shows underwent a major choreography change when dancers were moved to a stage. The dancing was no longer seen from all sides. Dancers had to turn each move to ensure that their faces were towards the audience.
The ballet underwent a number of significant changes in the 1600s. King Louis XIV of France set up a professional dance Academy. When Louis retired from dancing, many of the members of his court did so as well. The job of dancing fell to the professionals. The first professionals were all men. However, within a few years women were included.
There were a number of changes to the costumes over the next two centuries. The first dancers were courtiers who were wearing their court dress. Although elegant and elaborate, these outfits restricted the movements of the dancers. To accommodate leaps and spins, hoop skirts and corsets were removed. Dancers also changed their footwear. The professionals preferred to wear slippers rather than shoes, which had a heel.
Another dramatic change was made in the 1800s. Operas at this time always featured a ballet. The opera was considered to be a show where the music, the dancing and the singing were all in balance. Each was given a significant role. However, people who favored the dance began to create entertainment pieces where it was the dance which dominated. They started choreographing entire shows and stories where there were no spoken words. They used the dance itself to tell the entire tale.
This is far from a complete history about the world of ballet. However, it does help the reader to understand that the ballet is not a free form of dance, but rather a coded set of moves, which are preformed in elaborate patterns. It also provides some insight as to how the ballet moved away from being merely a part of a show to being the center.