Ballet, the beginnings of the dance
Ballet - as a young child I began ballet lessons when I was four years old. Of course, I thought I was a ballerina princess dressed in my leotard and purple tutu. I progressed through the years and was in many dance recitals and gave up the purple tutu for other colors, but I never forgot the basic steps I learned, the first through fifth positions for feet and arms. I danced ballet until about ten years old when I decided I wanted to concentrate all my time on piano.
I highly recommend giving dance and/or music lessons to children when they are small as it helps them to learn to focus and helps them to learn to practice that art in order to progress. It teaches discipline and perseverance to children which are important qualities for them to learn outside of school. I value today what I learned in ballet nearly forty years ago.
Today, I exercise to to a video from the New York City Ballet and it is haws wonderful stretching and exercises for the body. Although I have given up the tutu, I still wear the leotard although I would never let anyone see me in it today. I practice in the privacy of my home and these exercises are great for the body and help to tighten and sculpt the body form. These exercises, when done correctly, also help to maintain great posture.
Ballet as a dance form has been around for centuries, but exactly where did it begin?
Ballet's beginnings are in the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th and 16th centuries and was the 'hot' dance of the Venetians.
Ballet originated as an outgrowth of Italian court pageantry where aristocratic weddings were huge and lavish celebrations. These pageantry's included court musicians and dancers who collaborated to provide elaborate entertainment for the Italian court and included the nobility joining in on the dances. Ballet began as a participatory dance form.
Tutus, ballet slippers and pointe work were not used in Renaissance times and would come later to the formalized and stylized dance as we know it today. The performers dressed in the fashions of the times, and the women wore formal gowns that covered their legs to the ankles. The choreography for these Italian ballets were taken from the court dance steps.
The term ballet is French but its origins are from the Italian balleto, a short form of ballo (dance) and the Italian ballare (to dance).
The first great Italian ballet master was Domenico da Piacenza (c. 1400-c. 1470) who was trained in dance and responsible for teaching court nobles the art. Then came Bergonzio di Botta, who arranged elaborate dance entertainments for the celebrations of marriages, specifically, the marriage of Galeazzo (Duke of Milan) to Isabella of Aragon in 1489,
Botta's dances were linked to the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece and each dance corresponded to a different course for the marriage dinner of which there were many.
The ballet comico was also created and formed in Italy by Balthasar de Beaujoyeiux and was known as a ballet comique (ballet drama), the Balthasar de Beaujoyeiux's Ballet Comique de la Reine in 1581.
During this time, Italy became the established center of technical ballet and Italian ballet evolved with the publication of Ill Ballarino written by Fabritio Caroso and was a technical manual on court dancing, both for performance and social gatherings.
This was the go-to manual for any court in Italy wanting to incorporate ballet into their court performances. At first these ballets were performed during intermissions or between acts of an opera (which also began in Italy) to allow the audience a moment of relief from the dramatic intensity of the opera.
By the mid-17th century, Italian ballets in their entirety were performed in between acts of an opera. Over time, these ballets began to stand alone as performances and became just as important as Italian opera..
La Scala Theatre Ballet is the resident classical ballet company at La Scala (the opera house) in Milan, Italy and was founded in 1778. It is the oldest a most renowned ballet company in the world. It was in the Sforza family's (Duke of Milan) court in the 16th century that classical ballet was born as an art form. Italian ballerinas were and are classically trained even today.
So how did ballet become so closely associated with France and take on French ballet terms and vocabulary?
Ballet made the great leap from Italy to France through Catherine de'Medici, an Italian aristocrat from the de' Medici family of Florence, Italy, and who had an intense interest in the arts, who married the French crown prince and heir to the throne, Henry II.
Catherine brought her enthusiasm for dance to France and provided the financial support for it in the French courts. But, Catherine was quite saavy and her glittering dance entertainments supported the aims of the French court politics.
The first ballet de cour was choreographed by Italian Balthasar de Beaujoyeiux, whom Catherine had brought from Italy. His choreography consisted of social dances performed by the French nobility along with music, speech, verse, song, pageant, decor and costume.
Ballet went on to evolve as a performance art form in France during the reign of Louis XIV who was passionate about dance and began formal dance lessons and performance dancing at the age of thirteen. Under Louis XIV, ballet grew leaps and bounds in France.
French Pierre Beauchamp, a master ballet dancer codified the five formal positions of the feet and arms through which all balletic movements move. He was Louis' personal dance teacher and his favorite partner in ballet de cour in the 1650's. At this time, only men were permitted to dance in performances in the French court, so two males as dance partners was not considered strange at all. It was Beauchamp that was the great French ballet master and responsible for the creation of courtly ballets in the 1650's and 1660's during Louis' reign.
However, Louis brought Jean-Baptist Lully, an Italian violinist, dancer, choreographer, and composer from Italy to France in 1652 to add his artistry to the court's dances. Lully was responsible for enlivening the staid court dances by adding more movement and jumps to the ballets. He began to put women in the ballets on stage, but men where still the principle dancers. Ballerinas as we know them today would come later in ballet history.
Lully frequently starred Louis in his ballets and Louis' title Sun King actually comes from his role in Lully's Ballet de la Nuit (1653), a twelve hour ballet in which the king danced five different roles. This ballet was quite lavish and Lully's main contributions to the ballet were his nuanced compositions and dance movements.
Lully's understanding of movement and dance along with music permitted him to compose especially for ballet with musical phrasings that complimented the dancer's physical movements.
He also collaborated with French playwright, Moliere and along with King Louis XIV, Jean-Baptise Lully, and Pierre Beauchamps and the combination of their different talents, they shaped ballet to what it is today.
It is because of these four men that ballet has become so closely associated with the French.
By the 19th century, ballet masters began to gradually turn the spotlight away from the male dancer to the female dancer, and the ballerina, as we know her today, was formed and became the the principle performer on the stage. The ballerina became the most popular dance performer in Europe and Vienna, Austria became the important source of ballet coaches.
With the emergence of Marie Taglioni, an Italian ballerina (c.1831), pointe work was first added to the ballerina's repertoire. Pointe work was a new technique in ballet and the specially made ballet slippers, with wood blocks and padding to support the toes, permitted the ballerina to dance on the tips of her toes. This gave the ballerina prominence as the principle stage figure. Now the spotlight was on the ballerina.
Taglioni was the pioneer in pointe work and was the first to dance it in Didelot's ballet, Zephire et Flore. Her elegance in dancing on her toes, added to the ballerina's loveliness and breathless quality of the ballet dance.
Now, ballerina's began to wear costumes with pastel colored, flowing skirts that bared the shins. With the emergence of the Romantic Period in literature and poetry, women in ballets were portrayed as fragile, unearthly beings, ethereal creatures who could be lifted effortlessly and almost seemed to float in the air.
The leading European professional ballet companies were established during the 19th century also. Some of them were:
- Kiev Ballet (Russia)
- Hungarian National Ballet
- National Theatre Ballet (Praque, Czhech)
- Vienna State Ballet (Austria)
- Ballet Dance - Which Direction? - a fiction short story
Will Anna and Max survive their ballet performance of "Swan Lake?"
Ballet came to Russia from France in the 18th century. The first ballet school in Russia was the Imperial School of Ballet (1738) and was located in St. Petersburg. This ballet school was begun under the instruction of Jean-Baptist Lande from France.
Years later the Kirov Ballet (today called the Mariinsky Ballet) and the Bolshoi Ballet companies were formed in Russia and are well renowned today throughout the world.
It is in Russia that we have the birth of the female classical tutu as we are familiar with today. A short, stiff skirt supported by layers of crinoline or tulle and it began to appear at this time in ballets all over Russia. It became so popular that eventually the short tutu was used by ballet companies throughout Europe. It was noted for revealing the acrobatic leg work of the ballerina.
The Russian Imperial School of Ballet eventually incorporated the Vaganova system of ballet instruction, the most strict ballet instruction in the world even today, developed by Agrippina Vaganova.
Agrippina Vaganova (1879 - 1951) was a Russian ballerina and instructor who graduated from the Imperial Russian Ballet School (1897) in St. Petersburg and danced with the Imperial Russian Ballet. She retired from the ballet company 1916 to pursue a teaching career in ballet.
In 1921 she returned as a ballet instructor to her previous school, now renamed the Leningrad Choreographic School. She taught ballet for thirty years and developed her own ballet technique and training method to teach her technique.
She mixed the elements of traditional French technique from the Romantic Era with the athleticism and virtuosity of the Italian technique. Her training system involves the entire body in every movement with equal attention paid to the upper body, legs, and feet. Her training includes the development of lower back strength and arm plasticity with the strength, flexibility, and endurance required for ballet.
She believed this approach increased consciousness of the body, thus creating a better harmony of movement and a greater expressed range for the ballerina. Vaganova wrote and published Basic Principles of Russian Classical Dance (1948), which outlined her training method and ballet technique. She died in 1951.
The Vaganova method of ballet today is the most widely used ballet teaching method in Russia. It is also used in Europe and in North America.
The next great Russian to influence ballet was Sergei Diaghilev who founded the Ballets Russes in 1909. He brought ballet back to Paris, France where he opened his ballet company. It was made up with dancers from the Russian exile community in Paris after the Russian Revolution.
Famed Russian ballet dancer, Mikhail Barishnikov, was Diaghilev's protege, who went on to become director of American Ballet Theatre in New York City in 1980.
Vaganova Method of Ballet
- Contemporary ballet
Contemporary ballet is different from classical ballet. While I studied classical ballet as a child, and today, classical ballet is still my preference, there is a new form of ballet that began in the 20th century and is still going strong today,...
French Ballet Terms
Although ballet had its beginnings in Italy and an Italian ballerina was the first to perform pointe work in a ballet, the terms for the ballet positions and dance are maintained in French even today. At four and five years old, little ballerinas begin learning the French terms and names for the dance positions they perform.
Here is a list of the most common ballet positions in French and with English definitions:
adagio - a succession of slow and graceful movements which may be simple or complex.
arabesque - standing on one leg with raised leg extended in a straight line to rear and foot pointed (4 positions used)
attitude - a position on one leg with the other lifted in back, the knee bent at a 90 degree angle and well turned out so that the knee is higher than the foot.
balance - a rocking step; an alternation of balance, shifting the weight from one foot to the other.
demi-plie - a half bend of the knees. All steps of elevation begin and end with a demi-plie.
entrechat - a step of beating in which the dancer jumps into the air and rapidly crosses legs before and behind each other.
extension - used to describe the ability of a dance to raise and hold her extended leg in the air.
jete - a jump from one foot to the other in which the working leg is brushed into the air and appears to have been thrown.
pas - a simple step or a compound movement which involves a transfer of weight
pas de deux - a dance for two
pirouette - a whirl or spin - a complete turn of the body on one foot, on pointe or demi-point
plie - a beat or bending of the knee or knees. This is an exercise to render the joints and muscles soft and pliable and the tendons flexible and elastic and to develop a sense of balance.
pointe - the raising of the body on the tips of toes. Used from c. 1830 on in ballet. There are three ways of reaching pointe: by pique, by releve, by saute.
pique - executed by stepping directly on the pointe or demi-pointe of the working foot in any desired direction or position with the other foot raised in the air.
releve - raised or raising of the body on pointe or demi-pointe. A traveling step.
saute - added to the name of a step when the movement is performed while jumping.
tendu - stretched. From the first or fifth foot position the working leg is extended to either the front, side or back gradually along the floor until only the tip of the toe remains touching the floor.
The ballet terms and positions performed
Tango by Italian Ballet
© 2014 Suzette Walker