[ba-ley, bal-ey]
ballet [Ital. ballare=to dance], classic, formalized solo or ensemble dancing of a highly controlled, dramatic nature performed to music.

See also dance; modern dance.

The Development of Ballet in Western Europe

Foreshadowed in earlier mummeries and lavish masquerades, ballet emerged as a distinctive form in Italy before the 16th cent. The first ballet that combined movement, music, decor, and special effects was presented in France at the court of Catherine de' Medici in 1581. Organized by the violinist Balthasar de Beaujoyeux, it was entitled Le Ballet comique de la Reine. This production was the first ballet de cour, the ancestor of the modern ballet, which influenced the English court masque, a 16th-century entertainment with dance interludes. The first treatise on ballet dancing was the Orchésographie of Thoinot Arbeau (1588).

The 17th cent. saw the major development of ballet in France. At first a court entertainment, the simple entrées were extended c.1610 and joined together to form scenes, called divertissements, which culminated in a grand ballet. Louis XIV founded the Royal Ballet Academy (1661), the Royal Music Academy (1669), which became the Paris Opéra, and the first National Ballet School (1672). All parts were performed by male dancers; boys in wigs and masks took the female roles.

The first ballet using trained women was The Triumph of Love (1681), with music by Lully. Ballet remained a court spectacle and included opera or drama until about 1708, when the first ballet was commissioned for public performance. Thereafter the form, infused with new ideas, developed as a separate art (although the court ballet continued its historic traditions). Choreographic notation came into being, and for the first time mythological themes were explored.

With the increased influence of the Italian school of ballet, movement became elevated and less horizontal, and the five classic positions of the feet, which form the base for the dancer's stance and movement, were established by Pierre Beauchamps. The costumes, which had been cumbersome with decoration, long skirts, and high heels (for both men and women) were newly designed to allow greater freedom of movement. The virtuosa dancer Marie Camargo, who introduced the entrechat (elevation) for women, shortened her skirt to the middle of the calf and wore tights and what were to be the first ballet slippers (heelless shoes). Her rival, Marie Sallé (who was also the first female choreographer), was the first dancer to wear a filmy, liberating Grecian-style costume, made popular two centuries later by Isadora Duncan.

Jean Georges Noverre, a revolutionary 18th-century maǐtre de ballet, established the determining principles of the ballet d'action, which he described in his Lettres sur la danse et les ballets (1760). He wanted the ballet to tell a story, aided by the music, decor, and dance; he wanted the performer to interpret his role through the dance and through his own body and facial expression. In stressing naturalism, Noverre simplified the costume and c.1773 abolished the mask. Other important innovations came from the great artists of the period, Gaetan and Auguste Vestris, Salvatore Vigano, and Charles Didelot. Technical innovation in dance movement was increased after further modification of the ballet costume.

The Romantic Period and Ballet's Eclipse

In Milan in 1820 Carlo Blasis first set down the technique of ballet as we know it today—with its stress on the turned-out leg, which permits great variety of movement. With the production of La Sylphide (1832) the romantic period formally began, ushering in a new era of brilliant choreography that emphasized the beauty and virtuosity of the prima ballerina. In this production Maria Taglioni first wore the filmy, calf-length costume that was to become standard for classical ballet. The great ballerinas of the era included Taglioni, Fanny Elssler, Carlotta Grisi, and Fanny Cerrito. In keeping with the literature and art of the romantic movement, the new ballet concerned the conflicts of reality and illusion, flesh and spirit. Love stories and fairy tales replaced mythological subjects.

At the same time dancing sur les pointes [on the toes] had come into favor. By the end of the century the blocked toe had appeared, and the tutu, a very short, buoyant skirt that completely freed the legs, had come into use. The male dancer functioned as partner to support the ballerina, the central focus of the dance and drama. Ballet declined progressively after 1850 with the ballet d'action giving way entirely to divertissements; finally the great stars had retired, and the sets, costumes, and choreography had become stereotyped and uninteresting. The naturalistic trend in the theater had all but destroyed the imaginative touch necessary to ballet.

The Modern Ballet Renaissance

Russian Ballet

The renaissance in romantic ballet began in Russia after 1875. The Russian Imperial School of Ballet had been founded in 1738. During the early 19th cent. the Imperial Theatre housed more than 40 ballet productions staged by the celebrated Swedish master Charles Didelot. Marius Petipa, who created a powerful sense of unity by rigorously training his corps de ballet as had not been done before, indicated in his choreography the direction of intensified romantic drama that the newly revived art was to take. Petipa contributed many of the classic ballets still considered to be the greatest expressions of the form, including Don Quixote, La Bayadère, The Sleeping Beauty, Raymonda, Harlequinade, and restagings of Giselle, Coppélia, La Sylphide, and, with Lev Ivanov, Swan Lake.

In 1909 the celebrated impresario Sergei Diaghilev took his Russian company to Paris, and for 20 years it dominated the world of dance, displaying the creative talents of such choreographers and dancers as Michel Fokine, Léonide Massine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Bronislava Nijinska, Anna Pavlova, and George Balanchine. After Diaghilev's death in 1929, offshoots were formed by René Blum and Col. W. de Basil, which kept the Diaghilev tradition alive during the 1930s. The company merged with Blum and de Basil's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which nurtured the talents of Alexandra Danilova, André Eglevsky, and Igor Youskevitch.

Russian dancing has been maintained at the highest level of excellence to the present day. Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet, which brought fame to Galina Ulanova, Maya Plisetskaya, and V. M. Gordeyev, and the Kirov Ballet (since 1991 the St. Petersburg Maryinsky Ballet), whose dancers have included Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, are the two foremost Russian companies and are ranked among the finest in the world.

British Ballet

In England around 1918, Enrico Cecchetti, who had taught many great dancers including Pavlova, Nijinsky, Massine, and Danilova, set down his method of training (which is still in practice) in collaboration with Cyril Beaumont, proprietor of "Under the Sign of the Harlequin," a world-famous bookstore specializing in the dance. The Cecchetti Society was founded in 1922 to preserve and protect that system.

In 1930 Marie Rambert founded the Ballet Club, the first permanent ballet school and company in England. A year later Ninette de Valois established what became the Sadler's Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet). This company has drawn international attention to the work of Alicia Markova, Anton Dolin, Frederick Ashton, Margot Fonteyn, Robert Helpmann, Rudolf Nureyev, Antoinette Sibley, Svetlana Beriosova, and Anthony Dowell. Nureyev, both a choreographer and dancer, was instrumental in changing the traditional supportive role of the male dancer to a far more significant, dynamic, and athletic place in the ballet; many other contemporary choreographers have similarly given their male dancers a more flamboyant showcase.

American Ballet

In the United States, Lincoln Kirstein and Edward Warburg founded the American Ballet company in 1934. Under the direction of George Balanchine, its chief choreographer, the company established the first major school of ballet in the country, developed the talents of many notable American dancers (including Maria Tallchief, Todd Bolender, Suzanne Farrell, Patricia McBride, Jacques d'Amboise, Arthur Mitchell, and Edward Villella), and influenced enormously the evolution of an American ballet style as parent company to the New York City Ballet (founded 1948), one of the world's outstanding companies. Other celebrated choreographers who created ballets for the New York City Ballet are Eugene Loring, Jerome Robbins, and Peter Martins.

The other major American company, the American Ballet Theatre (formerly the Ballet Theatre), was founded in 1939 as an offshoot of the smaller Mordkin Ballet. The company's principal dancers have included Lucia Chase, Anton Dolin, Nora Kaye, Alicia Alonso, Michael Kidd, Scott Douglas, Royes Fernandez, Sallie Wilson, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, performing in works designed for them by Michel Fokine, Léonide Massine, Antony Tudor, Jerome Robbins, Michael Kidd, Agnes de Mille, Herbert Ross, Eugene Loring, Glen Tetley, Twyla Tharp, and many others. Through numerous tours both the New York City Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre have earned international reputations of a high order. Other American companies of note include the Joffrey Ballet (founded 1956) and the Dance Theatre of Harlem (founded 1970). In addition to these, there are many active regional ballet companies throughout the United States.

Using traditional formal training and movement, American choreographers have designed a new sort of pure, abstract ballet, far less dependent on literary plot, often using modern rock and electronic music, and have developed greatly simplified decor and costuming (e.g., Balanchine's Agon, Robert Joffrey's Astarte, and Glen Tetley's Chronochromie). Many modern choreographers have also designed dances for stage and film musicals (e.g., Jerome Robbins's West Side Story and Agnes de Mille's Oklahoma!). In the late 20th cent. ballet was increasingly receptive to techniques and music from many dance forms. It grew in popularity, international touring expanded, and, particularly with the collapse of the Soviet Union, international exchange was encouraged.


See S. Lifar, A History of Russian Ballet (tr. 1955); F. Reyna, A Concise History of Ballet (tr. 1965); A. L. Haskell, Ballet Retrospect (1965); A. Chujoy and P. W. Manchester, The Dance Encyclopedia (rev. and enlarged ed. 1967); W. Terry, The Ballet Companion (1968); L. Kirstein, Movement and Metaphor (1972); M. Clarke and C. Crisp, Ballet: An Illustrated History (1973); E. Binney, Glories of Romantic Ballet (1985); J. Anderson, Ballet and Modern Dance (1986); H. Koegler, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet (2d ed. 1987); R. Greskovic, Ballet 101 (1998); N. Reynolds and M. McCormick, No Fixed Points: Dance in the Twentieth Century (2003).

Ballet is a formalized form of dance with its origins in the French court, further developed in France and Russia as a concert dance form. It is a highly technical form of dance with its own vocabulary. It is most likely performed with the accompaniment of classical music. It has been influential as a form of dance globally and is taught in ballet schools around the world which use their own culture and society to modernize the art. Ballet dance works (ballets) are choreographed, and also include mime, acting, and are set to music (usually orchestral but occasionally vocal). It is best known in the form of classical ballet, notable for its techniques, such as pointe work and turn-out of the legs, its graceful, flowing, precise movements, and its ethereal qualities. Later developments include neoclassical ballet and contemporary ballet.

The etymology of the word "ballet" is related to the art form's history. The word ballet comes from the French and was borrowed into English around the 17th century. The French word in turn has its origins in Italian balletto, a diminutive of ballo (dance). Ballet ultimately traces back to Latin ballare, meaning to dance.


Ballet emerged in late 15 century Renaissance court of Italy, as a dance interpretation of fencing, and further developed in the French court from the time of Louis XIV in the 17th century. This is reflected in the French vocabulary of ballet. Subsequently, after 1850, ballet flourished in Denmark and Russia. It was from Russia that it returned to Western Europe and subsequently the globe. The Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev and its successors were particularly influential during this period. It has continued to draw on and be enriched by folk dance and local dance traditions.

In the 20th century ballet has continued to develop and has had a strong influence on broader concert dance. For example, in the United States, choreographer George Balanchine developed what is now known as neoclassical ballet. Subsequent developments have included contemporary ballet and post- structural ballet, seen in the work of William Forsythe in Germany.

Classical ballet

Classical ballet is the most formal of the ballet styles; it adheres to traditional ballet technique. There are variations relating to area of origin, such as Russian ballet, French ballet, and Italian ballet. The five most well-known styles of ballet are the Vaganova method, or Russian Method, after Agrippina Vaganova, the Cecchetti method, or Italian Method, after Enrico Cecchetti, the Bournonville Method, or Danish Method, after August Bournonville, the Balanchine Method, or School of American Ballet / New York City Ballet Method, after George Balanchine, and the Royal Academy of Dance Method, or R.A.D. Method, created in England.

Neoclassical ballet

Neoclassical ballet is a ballet style that uses traditional ballet vocabulary, but is less rigid than the classical ballet. For example, dancers often dance at more extreme tempos and perform more technical feats. Spacing in neoclassical ballet is usually more modern or complex than in classical ballet. Although organization in neoclassical ballet is more varied, the focus on structure is a defining characteristic of neoclassical ballet.

It is the style of 20th century classical ballet exemplified by the works of George Balanchine. It draws on the advanced technique of 19th century Russian Imperial dance, but strips it of its detailed narrative and heavy theatrical setting. Balanchine used flexed hands (and occasionally feet), turned-in legs, off-centered positions and non-classical costumes (such as leotards and tunics instead of tutus) to distance himself from the classical and romantic ballet traditions. What is left is the dance itself, sophisticated but sleekly modern, retaining the pointe shoe aesthetic, but eschewing the well upholstered drama and mime of the full length story ballet.

Balanchine also brought modern dancers in to dance with his company, the New York City Ballet; one such dancer was Paul Taylor, who in 1959 performed in Balanchine's piece Episodes. Balanchine also worked with modern dance choreographer Martha Graham, expanding his exposure to modern techniques and ideas. Also during this period, choreographers such as John Butler and Glen Tetley began to consciously combine ballet and modern techniques in experimentation.

Tim Scholl, author of From Petipa to Balanchine, considers George Balanchine's Apollo in 1928 to be the first neoclassical ballet. Apollo represented a return to form in response to Serge Diaghilev's abstract ballets.

Contemporary ballet

Contemporary ballet is a form of dance influenced by both classical ballet and modern dance. It takes its technique and use of pointe work from classical ballet, although it permits a greater range of movement that may not adhere to the strict body lines set forth by schools of ballet technique. Many of its concepts come from the ideas and innovations of 20th century modern dance, including floor work and turn-in of the legs.

George Balanchine is often considered to have been the first pioneer of contemporary ballet through the development of neoclassical ballet.

One dancer who danced briefly for Balanchine was Mikhail Baryshnikov, an exemplar of Kirov Ballet training. Following Baryshnikov's appointment as artistic director of American Ballet Theatre in 1980, he worked with various modern choreographers, most notably Twyla Tharp. Tharp choreographed Push Comes To Shove for ABT and Baryshnikov in 1976; in 1986 she created In The Upper Room for her own company. Both these pieces were considered innovative for their use of distinctly modern movements melded with the use of pointe shoes and classically-trained dancers -- for their use of "contemporary ballet".

Tharp also worked with the Joffrey Ballet company, founded in 1957 by Robert Joffrey. She choreographed Deuce Coupe for them in 1973, using pop music and a blend of modern and ballet techniques. The Joffrey Ballet continued to perform numerous contemporary pieces, many choreographed by co-founder Gerald Arpino.

Today there are many explicitly contemporary ballet companies and choreographers. These include Alonzo King and his company, Alonzo King's Lines Ballet; Nacho Duato and Compañia Nacional de Danza; William Forsythe, who has worked extensively with the Frankfurt Ballet and today runs The Forsythe Company; and Jiří Kylián, currently the artistic director of the Nederlands Dans Theatre. Traditionally "classical" companies, such as the Kirov Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet, also regularly perform contemporary works.

See also



  • Anderson, Jack (1992). Ballet & Modern Dance: A Concise History. 2nd ed., Princeton, NJ: Princeton Book Company, Publishers.
  • Bland, Alexander (1976). A History of Ballet and Dance in the Western World. New York: Praeger Publishers. ISBN 0-275-53740-4.
  • The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Word Histories. New York: Berkley Books.
  • Kirstein, Lincoln; Stuart, Muriel (1952). The Classic Ballet. New York: Alfred A Knopf.
  • Lee, Carol (2002). Ballet In Western Culture: A History of its Origins and Evolution. New York: Routledge.
  • Gordon, Suzanne (1984). Off Balance: The Real World of Ballet. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-023770-0.
  • The Bournonville School The DVD, The Dance Programme, The Music. Copenhagen: The Royal Danish Theatre, 2005.2 discs. 225 pp. 139 pp. Illustrated. Hardcover,,

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