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The Birth of Ballet

Italy discovered a new form of entertainment during the period of Renaissance known as “Ballet”. Ballet took stage in 1581 with its first choreographed piece by Balthazar. However, there was no formal setting for a dancer to be thought until King Louis XIV founded the first professional Academy in 1661 for the art. That gave rise to a worldwide enthusiasm and generated Ballet into what it is today. Ballet, as it is known, is a formalized type of dance having its origins in the Courts of the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth (15th) and sixteenth (16th) centuries. The birth of ballet came along with its quick spread to the French Court where its development was furthered. This history is reflected by the predominance of French as a country in Ballet’s vocabulary. Theatrical ballet became a form of art that was independent and quickly spread from the heart of Europe to other countries. The word ballet is coming from French and at around the 17th century it emerged in the English language. In turn, the French word has its original roots in Italian’s balleto which was a diminutive for ballo meaning dance. Ballet is also known to trace its origin back to a Latin Word ballare which means to dance (Anderson 1992, p.36).

Dancing just like music is one of the oldest art forms in the history of mankind. In towns and villages around the whole world, dancing has been a form of celebration and entertainment since time immemorial and in many circumstances helped in marking various religious occasions. Dance has evolved over many centuries and it achieved great heights during the period of Renaissance when theatrical rather than social dancing happened following the introduction of Ballo. Ballo was known to be an Italian form of entertainment through which the adoption of simple country dances happened through the nobility and eventually executed by the women and men of the court. The Ballo tradition was brought by Catherine de Medici from Italy when she married Henry, the Second from France in the 15th century. As a result Ballet is known to be born during the sixteenth Century (16th C) as Catherine Medici developed the ballet to be a “de cour” entertainment at the French Court in which the courtiers sang, danced, recited and mimed dialogues or gestured towards an accompaniment of various forms of instrumental music (Bland 1976, pg.80).

The first ballet that told a story using dancing was known as Le ballet Comique de la Reine. This was a ballet which was presented in 1581 at the French Court. This form of entertainment became so popular and famous that almost all members from the nobility family acquired dancing masters who gave them interesting lessons in ballet. During the 17th Century, France’s King Louis XIV who was also known as the Sun King did not only greatly admire ballet spectacles but also participated in such spectacles as well. The King is known for having possessed his own personal dance master and thus the first Academy of dance was established in Paris by the King in 1661. The ballet masters of the academy during the period were tasked with codifying various combinations and steps of moves. Surprisingly, these dance steps by the masters are the ones which are known to have been handed down through various centuries since the birth of the ballet and they are the ones which form the basis of the contemporary classical ballet vocabulary.

Since the 15th century, ballet became a very famous form of art. Initially, performances were restricted or limited to Royal courts alone and the dancers in such courts were courtiers, but eventually, ballet started appearing on proscenium arch stages which were newly built. Today’s theatre stages are known to be modeled after such proscenium arch stages. As time went by, learning to dance, which was only a hobby for the privileged, stopped being nobility’s hobby alone. The ballet dancing became a profession and various dancers were developed and trained with very strong dance techniques. At first, men wearing masks were the only ones who appeared on stage in order to differentiate the different sex and the characters that they performed, but by the year 1685, women also started appering on professional stages (Chantrell 2002, p. 78).

The movements of dancers were greatly restricted in productions during the 17th century not only through the masks worn by such dancers but also through large ornaments and head-dresses coupled with heavy brocade of costumes. Apart from that, shoes meant for dancing had tiny heels which made it difficult for such dancers to point their toes. During the 18th century, the audience was shocked by Marie Camargo, the great ballerina through the shortening of her skirts just above her ankle. The aim of doing this, according to her, was to be free in her movements and because she was known to perform intricate jumps and footwork, Marie wanted her audience to not only see her techniques but also appreciate her (Cohen 1998, p.78).

During the 1830’s, ballet emerged as a true theatrical art of its own kind. Ballet was known to have taken a whole new look as a result of the influence from the Romantic Movement that was sweeping the world of music, art, philosophy and literature. Writers, like for instance Thophile Gautier were known to have paid great tribute towards the female dance muses that happened during the time. They were known to inspire the amorous liaisons and their flights of fantasy. The light, elusive and beautiful ballerina was known to have reined the supreme. Female dancers were known to wear white, calf length and bell shaped tulle skirts. Dancers started dancing on the tips of their toes upon the introduction of the pointee shoe. Male dancers, on the other side, started wearing long sleeved shirts that were tight and shorter jackets which greatly enhanced their movements when dancing. Ballet techniques for both women and men were developed and expanded due to the lighter costumes. Many ballets that were known during this period that included among others Napoli, La Syphide and Giselle remained in the repertoire of the ballet and still remain a constant challenge for dancers of the modern era (Franko 1993, p. 90).

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The centre of the ballet shifted from France to Russia just before the turn of century in 1890’s whereby a renowned and French born Choreographer known as Marious Petipa did a collaboration on very lavish ballet spectacles with a composer known as Pyotr Llyich who brought ballet towards a pinnacle of technical virtuosity. Among these ballets included The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. The choreographer (Petipa) also developed works which continued to challenge the dancers of the time because of their artistic and technical demands characterized by sharp razor precisions which were graced by flowing ease. Some of these works included Don Quixote, La Bayadere Act II and Paquita.

Serge Diaghilev, a Russian impresario brought some of the most talented dancers, composers, choreographers, artists, singers, designers and dancers in his company known as Ballet Russes in 1909. Paris was taken by storm as a result of the troupe since it introduced to the world a whole new aspects and techniques of classical ballet. Serge’s Company, as a result, presented one of the ballets’ “one-act”. Tightly abstract, exotic and constructed, these works by the troupe were known to challenge preconceived notions regarding the potentiality of the classical dance. Some of these works included among others Michel Fokine’s The Firebird, Schhrazade and Les Sylphides, Nijinsky’s L’Apres Midi d’un Faune and The rite of spring, George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son and Apollo and Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Biches and Les Noces. Almost all modern ballet dancers and companies have been greatly influenced by the effect of the company known as Ballets Russes. After George Balanchine had left the company of Diaghilev, he went to the United States of America where he started the New York City Ballet while Marie Rambert and Ninette de Valois went on to establish ballet companies known as the Rambert Ballet Company and England’s Royal Ballet respectively. It is through these England roots that Franca Celia came to Canada to establish what was known as the National Ballet of Canada (David, et al, 1998, p. 49)“.

At the beginning of the 20th century, modern dancce started to develop from the free style barefoot dance which was performed by Duncan Isadora and the light spectacles which were colorful in Loe Fuller. Rudolf Van Laban and Mary Wigman started the modern dance libraries in German which were based on natural movements and body shapes. Ruth St. Dennis and Ted Shawn were known to have moved to Eastern philosophies in the United States of America for inspiration. From St. Dennis and Shawn companies emerged the modern dance pioneers known as Martha Graham and Humphrey Doris (Carol 2002, p. 58).

Graham and Humphrey established definitive movement styles which are incorporated in today’s works in many of the choreographers’ performances. Glen Tetley, an American Choreographer studied with Holym Hanya as well as with Grana. Parsons David worked and studied with Taylor Paul who was Graham’s student and Limon Jose was Humphrey’s disciple. This is a clear indication that the world of dance has a rich history and it is well interconnected. The tradition of Ballet dance has been passed from one generation to another. During the 20th century, styles of ballet have continued to develop and strongly affect broader dance concerts like, for example, the neoclassical ballet, post-structural ballet and contemporary ballet. The history of the word “ballet” is reflected in its etymology (Stanley 1992, p. 46).

The origin of Ballet in the Renaissance Court was known to be an outgrowth of Italy’s court pageantry in which aristocratic weddings were known to be lavish celebrations. Dancers and court musicians were known to collaborate in order to provide elaborate entertainment for the audience. A ballet of Renaissance was different from the type of theatrical entertainment that is known to today’s audience. This is because the ballet sillipers, Pointe work and Tutus were not yet put to use and performers of such dances were dressed in the relevant fashions of the period. Formal gowns which covered legs that were meant for women were also used.

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It is during the reign of King Louis XIV that Ballet was established as an art that was performance focused in France. The King was very passionate about dance and he even had his personal dance teacher known as Pierre Beauchamp who is remembered for having codified five positions of the arms and feet and who became a favorite partner in the 1650’s ballet de cour. Beauchamp was appointed to become the Director of the Academie Royale de Danse (the dance academy), a position served until 1687. The general directions that ballet was to follow were established by an Italian dancer, violinist, composer and choreographer known as Jean Baptiste Lully who played a significant role in the ballet that followed the next century. King Louis XIV was cast in his ballets by Lully whom he greatly admired and supported (Margaret 1978, p. 89).

The French Monarch’s title of Sun King was known to originate from King Louis role in the 1653 Lully’s “Ballet de la Nuit”. As a result, Lully is best remembered for the nuanced compositions towards the ballet. His understanding of dance and movement allowed him to be capable of composing specifically for the dance of ballet through his musical phrasings which were appreciated for their ability in complementing physical movements. Lully in collaboration with French playwright Moliere established an Italian theatre style known as Commedia dell’’arte which they adapted in their work to suit the French audience. The Court in France became the leading source of culture that was fashionable for many other royal courts in Europe. Various entertainment styles were thus imitated, including the royal ballets. Several courts in Portugal, Poland, Spain, Germany and other places became participants and audiences in ballets. Besides France, Italy also exerted a vital influence on that form of art, especially Venice. Therefore, the birth of Ballet resulted in professional ballet troupes who started touring and organizing ballets in Europe while performing for various aristocratic audiences. For instance, King Ladislaus of Poland was known for having hosted various Italian productions that included talented ballet performers in various scenes (Vuilller, 1998, p.65).

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