I. Introduction

Ballet, form of theatrical dance that began to evolve in Western Europe during the Renaissance (1300-1600). Ballet technique consists of stylized movements and positions that have been elaborated and codified over the centuries into a well-defined, though flexible, system called academic ballet, or danse d'école. The word ballet can also denote an individual artistic composition using this dance technique. Such a composition is usually, but not inevitably, accompanied by music, scenery, and costumes. Toe dancing is often considered synonymous with ballet, but ballet technique can be performed without toe dancing. Because the steps were first named and codified in France, French is the international language of ballet.

II. Technique and Style

The basis of ballet technique is the turned-out position of the legs and feet: Each leg is rotated outward from the hip joint so that the feet form a 180° angle on the floor. This turned-out position is not unique to ballet; it is used also in many Asian dance forms, including bharata natyam, the classical dance of India. Ballet comprises five specific, numbered positions of the feet, which form the basis of almost all ballet steps. Corresponding positions exist for the arms, which are generally held with gently curved elbows.

Ballet technique emphasizes verticality. Since all the movements of the dancer's limbs flow from the body's vertical axis, all of the dancer's body parts must be correctly centered and aligned to allow maximum stability and ease of movement. Verticality implies resistance to gravity, a concept that is carried further in steps of elevation, such as jumps and leaps. Ballet possesses many such steps, including those that require the dancers, while in midair, to turn, beat their legs or feet together, or change their leg position. The more demanding steps of elevation traditionally are considered the special province of male dancers, but they can be performed by virtuosos of both sexes.

The idea of spurning gravity culminated in the invention of toe dancing, also called dancing sur les pointes, or pointe work. Toe dancing was developed early in the 19th century but did not become widely used by ballet dancers until the 1830s, when Swedish Italian ballerina Marie Taglioni demonstrated its potential for poetic effect. Pointe work is almost exclusively performed by women, although male dancers may use it.

The term line in ballet refers to the configuration of the dancer's body, whether in motion or at rest. Good line is partly a matter of the physique a dancer is born with, but it can also be developed and enhanced by training. In ballet, certain relationships of the arms, legs, head, and torso are considered particularly harmonious, while others are not, although they may be perfectly acceptable in different forms of dance. Large movements of the whole limb are preferred to small, isolated movements of individual body parts. Ballet is often described in terms of moving upward and outward; ideally, the dancer's limbs should appear to extend into infinity.

III. Training

Different systems of ballet training have evolved, named after countries (Russia, France) or teachers (Italian dancer Enrico Cecchetti, Danish choreographer August Bournonville). These systems, however, differ more in style and emphasis than in the actual movements taught.

The best age to begin a serious study of ballet is eight to ten for girls; boys may begin somewhat later. Younger children may be harmed by the strenuous physical demands of a ballet class, and older children gradually lose the flexibility required to attain good turnout. Girls usually begin pointe work after three years of training. If training is begun after the late teens, it is probably unrealistic to hope for a professional career.

All dancers, no matter how experienced or proficient, take daily class to keep their bodies supple and strong. Most ballet classes begin with exercises at the barre, a round horizontal bar that the dancer holds onto for support. These exercises warm up and stretch the muscles, work the tendons to make them supple, and loosen the joints. The second part of the class is done without the support of the barre and is called center practice. It usually begins with slow, sustained exercises that develop the dancer's sense of balance and fluidity of movement. Slow exercises are followed by quick movements, beginning with small jumps and beats and progressing to large traveling steps, turns, and leaps. Class generally lasts an hour and a half.

As the dancer grows more proficient, the exercises at the barre become more complicated, although based on the same movements taught to beginners. The steps performed in the center become quicker or slower, larger, more complex, and more physically demanding. Eventually dancers go to class not so much to learn new steps as to maintain their performing standards.

Some frequently seen positions include the arabesque, in which the dancer extends one leg backward in a straight line, and the attitude, a leg extension forward or back with a bent knee. Turning steps include the pirouette, a turn on one leg with the other leg raised; and the fouetté, in which the free leg whips around to provide impetus for the turns. Among the steps of elevation are the entrechat, in which the dancer jumps straight up and beats the calves of the legs together in midair, and the jeté, a leap from one foot onto the other. These steps include many different variations.

Besides the basic class, women often attend classes in pointe work. Men and women learn to dance together in pas de deux, or partnering, class. Some ballet schools also teach mime, the conventional hand gestures used to tell the story in older ballets such as Giselle and Swan Lake. These hand gestures have become codified (for instance, an invitation to dance is indicated by circling the hands above the head) and are less realistic than the type of mime popularized by French pantomimist Marcel Marceau.

IV. Music and Spectacle

A ballet may be choreographed either to music especially composed for it or to music already existing. Until the 20th century, specially composed music was more common. Sometimes the choreographer and composer worked closely together, but sometimes they had little or no contact.

The use of previously existing music for dance became more frequent due in large measure to American dancer Isadora Duncan. One of the pioneers of modern dance, she often used music by such composers as Ludwig van Beethoven and Frédéric Chopin. Existing music can be used in its original form or it can be adapted and arranged by another composer to suit the choreographer's needs.

The plot of a ballet is called its libretto or scenario. The narrative content of a ballet can be written especially for it or can be adapted from a book, poem, play, or opera. Modern ballet choreographers often borrow cinematic devices such as the flashback, or use other contemporary innovations found in literature, drama, and films. In contrast to story ballets are plotless ballets, which create a mood, interpret a musical composition, or simply celebrate dancing for the sake of dancing.

Scenery for ballet is limited by the need to provide sufficient space for dancing. The center of the stage is almost always kept clear. Many ballets use only a backdrop and sidepieces or wings. Some modern ballets supplement the scenery with slide projections, films, and special lighting. Others simply rely on the dramatic range of lighting effects permitted by modern stage lighting.

Early ballet costumes were simply the fashionable dress clothes of the time. The tutu, a bell-shaped skirt of translucent fabric, was popularized by Marie Taglioni in the ballet La Sylphide (1832). It was shortened in the course of the century and became the standard dress of the ballerina.

Ballet costume became more varied under the influence of 20th-century Russian choreographer Michel Fokine. Dancers today perform in many types of costume, including the simple practice clothes worn in the studio. Although first used by Russian American choreographer George Balanchine for financial reasons, practice clothes are often a deliberate costume choice because of their simplicity and clarity of line.

V. History

The earliest precursors to ballets were lavish entertainments given in the courts of Renaissance Italy. These elaborate spectacles, which united painting, poetry, music, and dancing, took place in large halls that were used also for banquets and balls. A dance performance given in 1489 actually was performed between the courses of a banquet, and the action was closely related to the menu: For instance, the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece preceded the roast lamb. The dancers based their performance on the social dances of the day.

The Italian court ballets were further developed in France. Le Ballet Comique de la Reine (The Queen's Ballet Comedy), the first ballet for which a complete score survived, was performed in Paris in 1581. It was staged by Balthazar de Beaujoyeux, a violinist and dancing master at the court of Queen Catherine de Médicis. It was danced by aristocratic amateurs in a hall with the royal family on a dais at one end and spectators in galleries on three sides. Since much of the audience saw the ballet from above, the choreography emphasized the elaborate floor patterns created by lines and groups of dancers. Poetry and songs accompanied the dances.

Most French court ballets consisted of dance scenes linked by a minimum of plot. Because they were designed principally for the entertainment of the aristocracy, rich costumes, scenery, and elaborate stage effects were emphasized. The proscenium stage (see  Theater: Theater Architecture) was first adopted in France in the mid-1600s, and professional dancers made their first appearance, although they were not permitted to dance in the grand ballet that concluded the performance; this was still reserved for the king and courtiers.

The court ballet reached its peak during the reign (1643-1715) of Louis XIV, whose title the Sun King was derived from a role he danced in a ballet. Many of the ballets presented at his court were created by Italian French composer Jean Baptiste Lully and French choreographer Pierre Beauchamp, who is said to have defined the five positions of the feet. Also during this time, the playwright Molière invented the comédie-ballet, in which danced interludes alternated with spoken scenes.

A. Early Professional Ballet

In 1661 Louis XIV established the Académie Royale de Danse, a professional organization for dancing masters. He himself stopped dancing in 1670, and his courtiers followed his example. By then the court ballet was already giving way to professional dancing. At first all the dancers were men, and men in masks danced women's roles. The first female dancers to perform professionally in a theater production appeared (1681) in a ballet called Le Triomphe de l'Amour (The Triumph of Love).

The dance technique of the period, recorded by the French ballet master Raoul Feuillet in his book Chorégraphie (1700), included many steps and positions recognizable today. A new theatrical form developed: the opéra-ballet, which placed equal emphasis on singing and dancing and generally consisted of a series of dances linked by a common theme. A famous opéra-ballet, by French composer Jean Philippe Rameau, was Les Indes galantes (The Gallant Indies, 1735), which depicted exotic lands and peoples.

Eighteenth-century dancers were encumbered by masks, wigs or large headdresses, and heeled shoes. Women wore panniers, hoopskirts draped at the sides for fullness. Men often wore the tonnelet, a knee-length hoopskirt. French dancer Marie Camargo, however, shortened her skirts and adopted heelless slippers to display her sparkling jumps and beats. Her rival, Marie Sallé, also broke with custom when she discarded her corset and put on Greek robes to dance in her own ballet, Pygmalion (1734).

During the second half of the 18th century the Paris Opéra was dominated by male dancers such as Italian French virtuoso Gaétan Vestris and his son Auguste Vestris, famed for his jumps and leaps. But women such as German-born Anne Heinel, the first female dancer to do double pirouettes, also were gaining in technical proficiency.

Despite the brilliance of the French dancers, choreographers working outside Paris achieved more dramatic expression in ballet. In London, English choreographer John Weaver eliminated words and tried to convey dramatic action through dance and pantomime. In Vienna, Austrian choreographer Franz Hilverding and his Italian pupil Gasparo Angiolini experimented with dramatic themes and gestures.

The most famous 18th-century advocate of the dramatic ballet was the Frenchman Jean Georges Noverre, whose Letters on Dancing and Ballets (1760) influenced many choreographers both during and after his lifetime. He advised using movement that was natural and easily understood and emphasized that all the elements of a ballet should work in harmony to express the ballet's theme. Noverre found an outlet for his ideas in Stuttgart, Germany, where he first produced his most famous ballet, Medea and Jason (1763).

Noverre's pupils included the Frenchman Jean Dauberval, whose ballet La fille mal gardée (The Ill-Guarded Girl, 1789) applied Noverre's ideas to a comic theme. Dauberval's Italian pupil Salvatore Viganò, who worked at La Scala, a theater in Milan, developed a variety of expressive pantomime performed in strict time to the music. Charles Didelot, a French student of both Noverre and Dauberval, worked mainly in London and Saint Petersburg. In Didelot's ballet Flore et Zéphire (1796), invisible wires helped the dancers appear to fly.

Toe dancing began to develop at about this time, although the dancers balanced on their toes only for a moment or two. Blocked toe shoes had not yet been invented, and dancers strengthened their light slippers with darning.

Italian choreographer Carlo Blasis, a pupil of Dauberval and Viganò, recorded the dance technique of the early 19th century in his Code of Terpsichore (1830). He is credited with inventing the attitude, derived from a famous work by Flemish sculptor Giambologna, a statue of the god Mercury poised lightly on the toes of the left foot.

B. Romantic Ballet

The ballet La Sylphide, first performed in Paris in 1832, introduced the period of the romantic ballet. Marie Taglioni danced the part of the Sylphide, a supernatural creature who is loved and inadvertently destroyed by a mortal man. The choreography, created by her father, Filippo Taglioni, exploited the use of toe dancing to emphasize his daughter's otherworldly lightness and insubstantiality. La Sylphide inspired many changes in the ballets of the time—in theme, style, technique, and costume. Its successor, Giselle (1841), also contrasted the human and supernatural worlds, and in its second act the ghostly spirits called wilis wear the white tutu popularized in La Sylphide.

The romantic ballet was not restricted, however, to the subject of otherworldly beings. Austrian dancer Fanny Elssler popularized a more earthy, sensuous character. Her most famous dance, the cachucha (in Le Diable Boiteux, 1836), was a Spanish-style solo performed with castanets, and she often performed very stylized versions of national dances.

Women dominated the romantic ballet. Although good male dancers such as the Frenchmen Jules Perrot and Arthur Saint-Léon were performing, they were eclipsed by ballerinas such as Taglioni, Elssler, Italians Carlotta Grisi and Fanny Cerrito, and others.

Taglioni and Elssler danced in Russia, and Perrot and Saint-Léon created ballets there. Elssler also danced in the United States, which produced two ballerinas of its own: Augusta Maywood and Mary Ann Lee, both from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

In Paris itself, however, ballet began to decline. Poetic qualities gave way to virtuosic displays and spectacle. Male dancing was neglected. Few ballets of note were produced at the Opéra during the second half of the 19th century. An exception was Coppélia, choreographed by Saint-Léon in 1870, but even in it the principal male role was danced by a woman.

Denmark, however, maintained the standards of the romantic ballet. The Danish choreographer Bournonville, who had studied in Paris, not only established a system of training but also created a large body of works, including his own version of La Sylphide. Many of these ballets are still performed by the Royal Danish Ballet.

Russia also preserved the integrity of the ballet during the late 19th century. A Frenchman, Marius Petipa, became the chief choreographer of the Imperial Russian Ballet. He perfected the full-length, evening-long story ballet that combined set dances with mimed scenes. His best-known works are The Sleeping Beauty (1890) and Swan Lake (co-choreographed with the Russian Lev Ivanov), both set to commissioned scores by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky.

C. 20th Century

With time, Petipa's choreographic method settled into a formula. Fokine called for greater expressiveness and more authenticity in choreography, scenery, and costume. He was able to realize his ideas through the Ballets Russes, a new company organized by Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev.

The Ballets Russes opened in Paris in 1909 and won immediate success. The male dancers, among them the Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, were particularly admired because good male dancers had almost disappeared in Paris. The company presented a broad range of works, including Fokine's compactly knit one-act ballets with colorful themes from Russian or Asian folklore: The Firebird (1910), Shéhérazade (1910), and Petrushka (1911). The Ballets Russes became synonymous with novelty and excitement, a reputation it maintained throughout its 20 years of existence.

Although the most famous members of the company were Russian (among them designers Leon Bakst and Alexandre Benois and composer Igor Stravinsky), Diaghilev commissioned many Western European artists and composers, such as Pablo Picasso and Maurice Ravel, to collaborate on the ballets. Diaghilev's choreographers, Fokine, Polish choreographer Branislava Nijinska, Nijinsky, Russian-born Léonide Massine, Russian-born American George Balanchine, and Russian-born French dancer and choreographer Serge Lifar, experimented with new themes and styles of movement.

The offshoots of the Ballets Russes revitalized ballet all over the world. Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, who danced in its early seasons, formed her own company and toured internationally. Fokine worked with many companies, including the future American Ballet Theatre. Massine contributed to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a company formed after Diaghilev's death. Two former members of the Ballets Russes, Polish-born British dancer Dame Marie Rambert and British dancer Dame Ninette de Valois, became the founders of British ballet. Rambert's students included British choreographers Sir Frederick Ashton, Antony Tudor, and John Cranko. De Valois founded the company that became Britain's Royal Ballet. Balanchine was invited to work in the United States by Lincoln Kirstein, a wealthy American patron of the arts. Lifar worked at the Paris Opéra and dominated French ballet for many years.

In the 1920s and 1930s, modern dance began to be developed in the United States and Germany. American dancers Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, German dancer Mary Wigman, and others broke away from traditional ballet to create their own expressive movement styles and to choreograph dances that were more closely related to actual human life. Ballets also reflected this move toward realism. In 1932 German choreographer Kurt Jooss created The Green Table, an antiwar ballet. Antony Tudor developed the psychological ballet, which revealed the inner being of the characters. Modern dance also eventually extended the movement vocabulary of ballet, particularly in the use of the torso and in movements done lying or sitting on the floor.

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

The idea of pure dance also grew in popularity. In the 1930s Massine invented the symphonic ballet, which aimed to express the musical content of symphonies by German composers Ludwig Van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms. Balanchine also began to create plotless ballets in which the primary motivation was movement to music. His ballet Jewels (1967) is considered the first evening-length ballet of this type.

Two great American ballet companies were founded in New York City in the 1940s, American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet. The latter drew many of its dancers from the School of American Ballet established by Balanchine and Kirstein in 1934. Since the mid-20th century, ballet companies have been founded in many cities throughout the United States and in Canada, among them the National Ballet of Canada, in Toronto (1951); Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, in Montréal (1952); the Pennsylvania Ballet, in Philadelphia (1963); and the Houston Ballet (1963).

Beginning in 1956, Russian ballet companies such as the Bolshoi and Kirov (now the Saint Petersburg Ballet) performed in the West for the first time. The intense dramatic feeling and technical virtuosity of the Russians made a great impact. Russian influence on ballet continues today, both through visits from Russian companies and the activities of defecting Soviet dancers such as Rudolf Nureyev, artistic director of the Paris Opéra Ballet from 1983 to 1989; Natalia Makarova; and Mikhail Baryshnikov, director of the American Ballet Theatre, New York City, from 1980 to 1989.

Dance in general underwent an enormous upsurge in popularity beginning in the mid-1960s. Ballet began to show the influence of a younger audience, in both themes and style. The athleticism of dancing was enjoyed in much the same way as sports, and virtuosic steps were admired for their challenge and daring. Popular music such as rock and roll and jazz was used to accompany many ballets.

Today's ballet repertoire offers great variety. New ballets and reconstructions and restagings of older ballets coexist with new works created by modern-dance choreographers for ballet companies. Choreographers experiment with both new and traditional forms and styles, and dancers constantly seek to extend their technical and dramatic range. The frequent tours of ballet companies allow audiences throughout the world to experience the full spectrum of today's ballet activity.

Contributed By:

Susan Au, M.A.

Dance historian. Author of Ballet and Modern Dance.


"Ballet," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000 © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


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