Artists who participate in these arts in front of an audience are called performers, including actors, comedians, dancers, musicians, and singers. Performing arts are also supported by workers in related fields, such as songwriting and stagecraft.
There is also a specialized form of fine art in which the artists perform their work live to an audience. This is called Performance art. Most performance art also involves some form of plastic art, perhaps in the creation of props. Dance was often referred to as a plastic art during the Modern dance era.
Dance is also used to describe methods of non-verbal communication (see body language) between humans or animals (bee dance, mating dance), motion in inanimate objects (the leaves danced in the wind), and certain musical forms or genres.
Choreography is the art of making dances, and the person who does this is called a choreographer.
Definitions of what constitutes dance are dependent on social, cultural, aesthetic artistic and moral constraints and range from functional movement (such as Folk dance) to codified, virtuoso techniques such as ballet. In sports, gymnastics, figure skating and synchronized swimming are dance disciplines while Martial arts 'kata' are often compared to dances.
Starting in the 6th century BC, the Classical period of performing art began in Greece, ushered in by the tragic poets such as Sophocles. These poets wrote plays which, in some cases, incorporated dance (see Euripides). The Hellenistic period began the widespread use of comedy.
However, by the 6th century AD, Western performing arts had been largely ended, as the Dark Ages began. Between the 9th century and 14th century, performing art in the West was limited to religious historical enactments and morality plays, organized by the Church in celebration of holy days and other important events.
In the 15th century performing arts, along with the arts in general, saw a revival as the Renaissance began in Italy and spread throughout Europe plays, some of which incorporated dance were performed and Domenico da Piacenza was credited with the first use of the term ballo (in De Arte Saltandi et Choreas Ducendi) instead of danza (dance) for his baletti or balli which later came to be known as Ballets. The first Ballet per se is considered to be Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx's Ballet Comique de la Reine (1581).
By the mid-16th century commedia dell'arte became popular in Europe, introducing the use of improvisation. This period also introduced the Elizabethan masque, featuring music, dance and elaborate costumes as well as professional theatrical companies in England. William Shakespeare's plays in the late 16th century developed from this new class of professional performance.
In 1597, the first opera, Dafne was performed and throughout the 17th century, opera would rapidly become the entertainment of choice for the aristocracy in most of Europe, and eventually for large numbers of people living in cities and towns throughout Europe.
The introduction of the proscenium arch in Italy during the 17th century established the traditional theater form that persists to this day. Meanwhile, in England, the Puritans forbid acting, bringing a halt to performing arts which lasted until 1660. After this period, women began to appear in both French and English plays. The French introduced a formal dance instruction in the late 17th century.
It is also during this time that the first plays were performed in the American Colonies.
During the 18th century the introduction of the popular opera buffa brought opera to the masses as an accessible form of performance. Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni are landmarks of the late 18th century opera.
At the turn of the 19th century Beethoven and the Romantic movement ushered in a new era that lead first to the spectacles of grand opera and then to the great musical dramas of Giuseppe Verdi and the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) of the operas of Richard Wagner leading directly to the music of the 20th century.
The 19th century was a period of growth for the performing arts for all social classes, the technical introduction of gaslight to theaters in the United States, burlesque (a British import that became popular in the U.S.), minstrel dancing, and variety theater. In ballet, women make great progress in the previously male-dominated art.
Modern dance began in the late 19th century and early 20th century in response to the restrictions of traditional ballet.
Konstantin Stanislavski's "System" revolutionized acting in the early 20th century, and continues to have a major influence on actors of stage and screen to the current day. Both impressionism and modern realism were introduced to the stage during this period.
With the invention of the motion picture in the late 19th century by Thomas Edison, and the growth of the motion picture industry in Hollywood in the early 20th century, film became a dominant performance medium throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
The Darktown Follies and the later cultural growth of the Harlem Renaissance spanned the 1910s to the early 1940s. Rhythm and blues, a cultural phenomenon of black America became a distinctive genera in the early 20th century.
In the 1930s Jean Rosenthal introduced what would be come modern stage lighting, changing the nature of the stage as the Broadway musical became a phenomenon in the United States. George Gershwin and Rodgers & Hammerstein radically re-shaped the medium as the Great depression ended and World War II erupted.
Alvin Ailey's revolutionary American Dance Theater was created in the 1950s, signaling the radical changes that were to come to performing arts in the 1950s and 1960s as new cultural themes bombarded the public consciousness in the United States and abroad. Postmodernism in performing arts dominated the 1960s to large extent.
The most popular forms of theater in the medieval Islamic world were puppet theatre (which included hand puppets, shadow plays and marionette productions) and live passion plays known as ta'ziya, where actors re-enact episodes from Muslim history. In particular, Shia Islamic plays revolved around the shaheed (martyrdom) of Ali's sons Hasan ibn Ali and Husayn ibn Ali. Live secular plays were known as akhraja, recorded in medieval adab literature, though they were less common than puppetry and ta'ziya theater.
Folk theatre and dramatics can be traced to the religious ritualism of the Vedic peoples in the 2nd millenium BC. This folk theatre of the misty past was mixed with dance, food, ritualism, plus a depiction of events from daily life. It was the last element which made it the origin of the classical theatre of later times. Many historians, notably D. D. Kosambi, Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, Adya Rangacharaya, etc. have referred to the prevalence of ritualism amongst Indo-Aryan tribes in which some members of the tribe acted as if they were wild animals and some others were the hunters. Those who acted as mammals like goats, buffaloes, reindeer, monkeys, etc. were chased by those playing the role of hunters.
Bharata Muni (fl. 5th–2nd century BC) was an ancient Indian writer best known for writing the Natya Shastra of Bharata, a theoretical treatise on Indian performing arts, including theatre, dance, acting, and music, which has been compared to Aristotle's Poetics. Bharata is often known as the father of Indian theatrical arts. His Natya Shastra seems to be the first attempt to develop the technique or rather art, of drama in a systematic manner. The Natya Shastra tells us not only what is to be portrayed in a drama, but how the portrayal is to be done. Drama, as Bharata Muni says, is the imitation of men and their doings (loka-vritti). As men and their doings have to be respected on the stage, so drama in Sanskrit is also known by the term roopaka which means portrayal.
The Ramayana and Mahabharata can be considered the first recognized plays that originated in India. These epics provided the inspiration to the earliest Indian dramatists and they do it even today. Indian dramatists such as Bhasa in the second century BC wrote plays that were heavily inspired by the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Kālidāsa in the first century BC, is arguably considered to be ancient India's greatest dramatist. Three famous romantic plays written by Kālidāsa are the Mālavikāgnimitram (Mālavikā and Agnimitra), Vikramuurvashiiya (Pertaining to Vikrama and Urvashi), and Abhijñānaśākuntala (The Recognition of Shakuntala). The last was inspired by a story in the Mahabharata and is the most famous. It was the first to be translated into English and German. In comparison to Bhasa, who drew heavily from the epics, Kālidāsa can be considered an original playwright.
The next great Indian dramatist was Bhavabhuti (c. 7th century). He is said to have written the following three plays: Malati-Madhava, Mahaviracharita and Uttar Ramacharita. Among these three, the last two cover between them, the entire epic of Ramayana. The powerful Indian emperor Harsha (606-648) is credited with having written three plays: the comedy Ratnavali, Priyadarsika, and the Buddhist drama Nagananda. Many other dramatists followed during the Middle Ages.
There are references to theatrical entertainments in China as early as 1500 BC during the Shang Dynasty; they often involved music, clowning and acrobatic displays.
The Tang Dynasty is sometimes known as 'The Age of 1000 Entertainments'. During this era, Emperor Xuanzong formed an acting school known as the Children of the Pear Garden to produce a form of drama that was primarily musical.
During the Han Dynasty, shadow puppetry first emerged as a recognized form of theatre in China. There were two distinct forms of shadow puppetry, Cantonese southern and Pekingese northern. The two styles were differentiated by the method of making the puppets and the positioning of the rods on the puppets, as opposed to the type of play performed by the puppets. Both styles generally performed plays depicting great adventure and fantasy, rarely was this very stylized form of theatre used for political propaganda. Cantonese shadow puppets were the larger of the two. They were built using thick leather which created more substantial shadows. Symbolic color was also very prevalent; a black face represented honesty, a red one bravery. The rods used to control Cantonese puppets were attached perpendicular to the puppets’ heads. Thus, they were not seen by the audience when the shadow was created. Pekingese puppets were more delicate and smaller. They were created out of thin, translucent leather usually taken from the belly of a donkey. They were painted with vibrant paints, thus they cast a very colorful shadow. The thin rods which controlled their movements were attached to a leather collar at the neck of the puppet. The rods ran parallel to the bodies of the puppet then turned at a ninety degree angle to connect to the neck. While these rods were visible when the shadow was cast, they laid outside the shadow of the puppet; thus they did not interfere with the appearance of the figure. The rods attached at the necks to facilitate the use of multiple heads with one body. When the heads were not being used, they were stored in a muslin book or fabric lined box. The heads were always removed at night. This was in keeping with the old superstition that if left intact, the puppets would come to life at night. Some puppeteers went so far as to store the heads in one book and the bodies in another, to further reduce the possibility of reanimating puppets. Shadow puppetry is said to have reached its highest point of artistic development in the eleventh century before becoming a tool of the government.
Yuan drama spread across China and diversified into numerous regional forms, the best known of which is Beijing Opera, which is still popular today.
Theatre in Southeast Asia was mostly influenced by Indian theatre.
In Thailand, it has been a tradition from the Middle Ages to stage plays based on plots drawn from Indian epics. In particular, the theatrical version of Thailand's national epic Ramakien, a version of the Indian Ramayana, remains popular in Thailand even today.
In Cambodia, at the ancient capital Angkor Wat, stories from the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata have been carved on the walls of temples and palaces. Similar reliefs are found at Borobudur in Indonesia.
During the 14th century, there were small companies of actors in Japan who performed short, sometimes vulgar comedies. A director of one of these companies, Kan'ami (1333-1384), had a son, Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443) who was considered one of the finest child actors in Japan. When Kan'ami's company performed for Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), the Shogun of Japan, he implored Zeami to have a court education for his arts. After Zeami succeeded his father, he continued to perform and adapt his style into what is today Noh. A mixture of pantomime and vocal acrobatics, this style has fascinated the Japanese for hundreds of years.
Japan, after a long period of civil wars and political disarray, was unified and at peace primarily due to shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1600-1668). However, alarmed at increasing Christian growth, he cut off contact from Japan to Europe and China and outlawed Christianity. When peace did come, a flourish of cultural influence and growing merchant class demanded its own entertainment. The first form of theatre to flourish was Ningyō jōruri (commonly referred to as Bunraku). The founder of and main contributor to Ningyō jōruri, Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), turned his form of theatre into a true art form. Ningyō jōruri is a highly stylized form of theatre using puppets, today about 1/3d the size of a human. The men who control the puppets train their entire lives to become master puppeteers, when they can then operate the puppet's head and right arm and choose to show their faces during the performance. The other puppeteers, controlling the less important limbs of the puppet, cover themselves and their faces in a black suit, to imply their invisibility. The dialogue is handled by a single person, who uses varied tones of voice and speaking manners to simulate different characters. Chikamatsu wrote thousands of plays during his lifetime, most of which are still used today.
Kabuki began shortly after Bunraku, legend has it by an actress named Okuni, who lived around the end of the sixteenth century. Most of Kabuki's material came from Nõ and Bunraku, and its erratic dance-type movements are also an effect of Bunraku. However, Kabuki is less formal and more distant than Nõ, yet very popular among the Japanese public. Actors are trained in many varied things including dancing, singing, pantomime, and even acrobatics. Kabuki was first performed by young girls, then by young boys, and by the end of the sixteenth century, Kabuki companies consisted of all men. The men who portrayed women on stage were specifically trained to elicit the essence of a woman in their subtle movements and gestures.