A History of Ballet

There are many incredible styles of dance, each one helps you to tell a story in its own unique way and each style of dance has its own story of how it developed and evolved, and what it means to people. Most of us when we think of ballet probably think of things like pink tutu’s, men in tights, graceful dance, and traditional performances like Swan Lake or The Nutcracker. But there is a lot more to ballet than just those things.

Where it began…

Ballet dates all the way back to the 15th century and whilst that makes it several hundred years old, it is not the oldest form of dance that is still performed today. In the 15th and 16th centuries, lavish events and celebrations were the height of society. Aristocrats, noblemen, and royalty would be brought together for celebrations that could last days. Elaborate performances would be put on in order to entertain guests, music and dance would be at the centre of these performances.

Ballet came to life in Renaissance Italy, a form of dance that accompanied operas and helped to tell of the stories being sung. It quickly spread to France where it began to increase in popularity. In the 16th century Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry II of France, began to fund ballet within the French courts. At this time ballet was only enjoyed by noblemen, aristocrats, and royalty, and the music and performances were heavily influenced by royals and those at the top of the social chain. Ballet was very much something for the higher echelon of society. In the early days Ballet was controlled by royalty and aristocrats and was often used to portray stories of their own design or political intentions and propaganda.

Almost a century later there was a shift as Louis XIV foundered what was to become the Paris Opera, and from that was born the first recognised theatrical ballet company. The influence of the French over ballet is clear to see, much of the terminology and names of moves in ballet have their origins in the French language. Louis was a passionate dancer himself and would often feature in performances, further cementing the validity of Ballet as an art.

The boom…

From the mid-18th century onwards, ballet flourished and became more widely accessible. Several of the most well-known and famous ballet schools, which still exist today, were foundered in the 1700’s with both the Royal Danish Ballet and Imperial Ballet of Russia being formed in the 1740’s.

In the 19th century Ballet took on a romantic style, it had moved away from being used for the personal gain of nobility and was transitioning more towards the ballet that we recognise today. Women were portrayed as fragile and feminine, and performances started to focus more on the magical and fairy-tale. Ballet became an independent artform, while it retained its close ties to opera it became the central focus of many shows.

Increasing focus was put on the technical elements of moves and a new level of depth to the dance style was introduced, dancers were now expressing feelings, emotions and whole stories through the form of ballet. Pointework was developed and ballet took on a whole new skill level. As ballet swept across Europe so too did the importance and significance of the role of the ballerina. Towards the end of the 19th century Russia became the most dominant and popular location for ballet, whilst at the same time there seemed to be a natural decline of its popularity across Europe.

The decline in ballet across Europe was short lived and in the 20th century Ballet spread more widely across the world than ever before, renowned and recognised schools opened up in the United Kingdom, Canada, India, United States of America, Australia and beyond. Ballet continued to develop and evolve. More techniques and styles were introduced, clothing and costumes changed, not only with the fashions but also to make dancing more practical and the dancers themselves lighter and more agile.

In the 20th century ballet started to return to its roots, the French and Russian influence became more dominant and even today some of the best and most critically acclaimed ballet dancers come out of the Russian schools for ballet. One of the most famous ballerinas of all time, Anna Pavlova, was Russian and helped countless people to fall in love with the artform.

Three commonly known styles of ballet.

As ballet grew in popularity through the 20th century and it spread across the globe three distinct forms of ballet took shape. Whilst there is significant cross over in the styles, they are each very different to one another.

Classical Ballet – ballet in its most original form. Full of precise technique, perfect posture and storytelling.

Neoclassical Ballet – all of the key techniques and precision remain, but it has been striped of the theatrics and detailed story telling.

Contemporary Ballet – a more fluid version of ballet that also incorporates elements of more modern dance styles. Although technique is still important the dancers have more freedom within their movements.

Whatever your style preference, ballet is magical, elegant, disciplined, and has weathered the test of time. There are many powerful and emotional stories told through the art of ballet, the combination of music and movement creating a magical and immersive experience for its audience.