The Rise of the Ballet in France

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The Rise of the Ballet in France


Several undeniable trends are evident in the history of dance in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century France. First, dances performed in the theater became increasingly the preserve of professional dancers and, second, dance began to acquire enhanced status as an art form on par with poetry, music, and drama. At the same time, the modern institution of the ballet emerged in close connection with the opera. Ballet troupes, for example, were most often connected to opera houses, and ballets played a key role within the action of operas or as a diversionary entertainment within theatrical and musical productions. This pattern developed in Paris at the end of the seventeenth century as the ballet's rise to prominence as an art form occurred in close connection with the city's main opera house. In 1672, Louis XIV chartered the Royal Academy of Music, a production company that throughout its long history came to be known most frequently merely as the Opera, since its operatic productions were a primary source of its revenue and fame. Within a few years the king also gave the Academy's director, the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, the use of a theater in the Palais Royale, a popular theatrical and commercial development near the Louvre. For most of the Old Regime—that is, until the French Revolution's onset in 1789—the Opera remained at this location. During its first fifty years of existence, the Opera premiered more than 100 productions, despite chronic bouts of financial instability and a space that was less-than-ideal for the performance of opera or the ballet. Because of the lavishness of its productions, tickets to the Opera cost twice what they did in other contemporary theaters in Paris. Dance figured prominently in most of the operas staged there, and Lully soon founded a permanent dance troupe within the opera to support his grand musical creations. The first director of this troupe was Pierre Beauchamp, an accomplished dancer and choreographer, who came to have an enormous influence upon the development of professional dance throughout Europe. He served as personal dance instructor to Louis XIV, and in his work with the Opera he codified the five positions that are still used by ballet dancers to this day. He also developed a system for notating dances, although Raoul-Auger Feuillet later revised his system. Beauchamp's tenure at the Opera began in 1680 and ended at Lully's death in 1687. He continued to choreograph dances, particularly for the Jesuit colleges in France. In his role as a director of the Académie Royale de Danse (the Royal Academy of Dance), he also came to have a profound impact on professional dance in France.

Professional Dancers.

Another impetus to the development of the Opera's professional dance troupe was Louis XIV's retirement from dancing after 1670. The king had long been an avid dancer, and had regularly performed in the many ballets de cour that were mounted at the French court. As he matured, Louis gave up the art, and his courtiers followed suit. Professionals were thus needed to mount the extravagant theatricals that were still popular at court. The early history of the Opera's ballet company suggests that many of its dancers performed both in musical productions in Paris and for the king and his court at Versailles. The dancers who performed in the troupe were initially all men, and they also performed for the king at the court and some choreographed productions staged elsewhere. Women entered the troupe quite early. The first female performer, Madame de Lafontaine (1655–1738), appeared at the Opera in 1681 in a production of Lully's opera The Triumph of Love. As amateur performers, women had long been active in court productions, although they had usually appeared in scenes with other women, or they had relied on masques to hide their true identities. Madame Lafontaine's appearance thus set an important historical precedent, and female dancers soon made inroads into the troupe. By 1704, men were still dancing many female roles in the productions of the troupe, although women were now employed in the company in roughly equal numbers. Within a decade, their numbers had surpassed male dancers, and the Opera emerged as the site for a ballet and singing school. In this early stage of its history the Paris Opera's ballet school seems to have cultivated technical proficiency in its dancers rather than dramatic skills. In the course of the eighteenth century, however, the theatrical and dramatic demands of ballets rose, necessitating the training of performers with a greater acting sense. Several key developments in the late seventeenth century aided in dance's rise to the status of a profession in France. The standardization of the system of five dancing positions may have only served to fix with greater accuracy what had already become standard practice among dancers, but as ballet acquired a greater precision, it also developed an increasing sophistication in its notational systems. Dance notation allowed for a progression of precise steps to be charted out, showing their progression across the floor, so that each time a dance was performed it was executed in a roughly similar way. Dances that were written down in this way were more long-lasting than those that were taught by a dancing master or choreographer to his students for each new circumstance. In this way the impact of a choreographer's work was more permanent, and dances that were performed in one place could also be reproduced else-where through the circulation of manuscripts and printed dance notations.


introduction: In the 1660s and early 1670s the great French playwright Moliére collaborated with the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully to produce a series of comedy-ballets that mixed dancing, text, and song. The greatest of these was The Bourgeois Gentleman or sometimes called in English The Shopkeeper Turned Gentleman, a play that treated a humble man's rise to social distinction. In this scene from near the beginning of the play, the shopkeeper, Mr. Jourdain, announces his intentions to employ a fencing master and a professor of philosophy to teach him the skills necessary for life in society. His music and dance masters assure him that dance and music are all that he needs, because in these two arts is hidden all the secrets of the world.

Mr. Jourdain: I will learn it, then; but I hardly know how I shall find time for it; for, besides the fencing master who teaches me, I have engaged a professor of philosophy, who is to begin this morning.

Music Master: Philosophy is something, no doubt; but music, Sir, music. …

Dancing Master: Music and dancing, Sir; in music and dancing we have all that we need.

Music Master: There is nothing so useful in a state as music.

Dancing Master: There is nothing so necessary to men as dancing.

Music Master: Without music no kingdom can exist.

Dancing Master: Without dancing a man can do nothing.

Music Master: All the disorders, all the wars that happen in the world, are caused by nothing but the want of music.

Dancing Master: All the sorrows and troubles of mankind, all the fatal misfortunes which fill the pages of history, the blunders of statesmen, the failures of great captains, all these come from the want of a knowledge of dancing.

Mr. Jourdain: How is that?

Music Master: Does not war arise from a want of concord between them?

Mr. Jourdain: True.

Music Master: And if all men learnt music, would not this be the means of keeping them in better harmony, and of seeing universal peace reign in the world?

Mr. Jourdain: You are quite right.

Dancing Master: When a man has committed some fault, either in the management of his family affairs, or in the government of a state, or in the command of an army, do we not say, "So-and-so has made a false step in such an affair"?

Mr. Jourdain: Yes, we do say so.

Dancing Master: And from whence can proceed the false step if it is not from ignorance of the art of dancing?

Mr. Jourdain: This is true, and you are both right.

Dancing Master: This will give you an idea of the excellence and importance of dancing and music.

Mr. Jourdain: I understand it now.

source: Moliére, The Shopkeeper Turned Gentleman, Act I, Scene II, in The Dramatic Works of Moliére. Trans. Charles Wall (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1900–1901).

Notational Systems.

The first dance notational systems to provide diagrams of how specific dances were to be performed appeared in France around 1700. In 1697 André Lorin published his Book of Country Dances Presented to the King, a work that helped to feed the popularity of the English country dance among the French aristocracy. In it, he included a series of sketches that showed precisely how the country dances' figures were to be performed. At around the same time Raoul-Auger Feuillet developed a slightly different system that provided for a greater specificity of detail. His notation, in other words, showed how dancers were to place their arms and feet and how the specific movements corresponded to the music. Like Lorin, Feuillet deployed his method in printed works that codified country dances. At the same time, his notational system seems to have been readily adopted at the Paris Opera, since a number of dances survive from this era that were set down using his system. These dances combined many different steps in elaborate patterns, although at this time, the men and women who danced these steps usually did so in unison. The energetic leaps and bounds typical of the contemporary ballet were largely impossible in this early era of the art's development. Heavy costumes, heeled shoes, masks, and other paraphernalia limited the movements of dancers. Dancing on toe-point, a readily recognizable attribute of the modern ballet, was largely impossible, although some steps were performed on partial toes. Instead the emphasis in the theatrical ballets was on elaborate and ornate patterned movements. These dances were often quite difficult for men and women performers alike, but the greatest demonstrations of technical proficiency were usually reserved for the solo dances of male, rather than female, performers.

Ballet as an Accompaniment to Opera.

The operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully dominated the musical life of late seventeenth-century Paris and of the royal court at Versailles. Lully had a long history of using dance in his musical productions. During the 1660s he cooperated with France's great comic playwright, Molière, to produce a series of "comedy-ballets" in which dances were interspersed between the spoken scenes of the drama. The last and greatest of these was The Bourgeois Gentleman, which was produced in 1670. His greatest achievements, though, were in the production of operas known as tragédies en musique, or lyric tragedies. These works became especially popular with the king in the later years of Louis XIV's reign, as he adopted a new serious moral tone. Between 1673 and his death in 1687, Lully composed thirteen of these tragic operas, all of which show careful attention to the integration of dance into the drama's action. He apparently worked quite closely with his librettist, Phillippe Quinault, to ensure that dance was an accompaniment and enhancement to the sung drama. Although dance was still considered a divertissement, a diversion to the main plot of his operas, Lully's operas were long remembered after his death as a particularly "French" art form, in part because of their persistent attempts to integrate dance, poetry, music, and singing into a greater whole. Even in the eighteenth century great choreographers anxious to develop the ballet as an independent medium looked to the operas of Lully for support in their efforts, and French writers treating aesthetics were also quick to point to the composer's art as an expression of the country's genius. Still, the connection between dance and drama upon which he relied was largely implicit, and was consonant with much of the artistic theory of his time. In the works of artistic theoreticians of the late seventeenth century, dance was extolled for its ability to represent through mimed gestures what might have been represented in words. There was little sympathy, in other words, for the views that were to develop later in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that dancing's representation might in certain situations exceed by virtue of its appeal to the emotions and senses the power of spoken words.

Ballet in Opera after Lully.

Lully's example in the operatic world remained influential long after his death in 1687, although changes began to occur soon after that time in the use of dance within the opera house. By the end of the century Houdar de Lamotte and André Campra had created a new kind of performance known as the opera-ballet that granted a greater importance to dance. In these productions singing still conveyed the essentials of the story line, although the role of dancing was expanded beyond a mere diversion and brought into the central flow of the opera's story line. Many new production experiments occurred in Paris around this time, producing works that were termed "heroic ballets" or "ballet comedies," all of which expanded the roles given to dancers. Thus dance escaped the longstanding role that it had played in the divertissements between scenes and acts, and mixed with the action of the drama proper. One of the most popular examples of this new style of production was André Campra's The Venetian Feast (Les fêtes venetiennes) of 1710, a work that was frequently revived in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Like most of the new operas produced around this time, The Venetian Feast had several self-contained acts that were grouped around a central theme, in this case the foibles and complications of love. Dancers entered into the action by playing the roles of gypsies, clowns, gamblers, and gondoliers in the exotic setting of the city of the lagoons. Like most operas of this kind, the singing conveyed the drama, but dancers took a greatly expanded role. This was also the case in the many tragedies that were produced during the early eighteenth century. Lully's tragic works had by this time become an esteemed part of the French operatic canon. His operas were continually revived in the eighteenth century, but their productions were packed over time with more and more ballets. Other composers created music for these dances, or music was adapted from other Lully compositions. These pieces accompanied the numerous new dance interludes that were injected into these venerable operas. The steadily increasing role that dance played in these operas contributed to the expansion of the Opera's troupe in the first half of the century. While the troupe had consisted of about twenty men and women in 1700, its ranks had risen to more than thirty by 1738 and to 42 in 1750.

Dance Moves Toward Drama.

As dance became an important force within the opera, a tension soon developed between the demands of technical brilliance and dramatic representation. In a private performance staged for aristocrats in 1714, two accomplished dancers from the Paris Opera first performed the concluding scene of a tragedy by Corneille completely in pantomime. In France, this experiment was not imitated for many years, although developments underway in England staged by the accomplished dance master and teacher John Weaver eventually influenced French ballet as well as dance troupes elsewhere in Europe. In 1703 Weaver produced a short dance work, The Tavern Bilkers, entirely in pantomime. He continued these experiments in dramatic dance, staging a pantomime ballet in 1717 at the Drury Lane theater near Covent Garden entitled The Loves of Mars, Venus, and Vulcan. Until Enlightenment sensibilities began to transform the French theater in the mid-eighteenth century, however, these innovations were not immediately imitated in France. In the operas of the composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, Lully's successor as the dean of French music in the early eighteenth century, divertissement dances did sometimes take on a more complete role as miniature dramas within the structure of an opera. Rameau's 1736 opera The Gallant Indies (Les indes galantes) included a concluding divertissement that was actually a small, completely self-contained ballet, consisting of its own narrative that was conveyed through the use of dance and pantomime. Rameau's willingness to grant dance a greater role in some of his operatic productions seems, in part, to have derived from his partnership with Louis de Cahusac, the librettist he used for several of his operas. In 1754, Cahusac published a work on the history and theory of dance that aimed to promote the art's ability to express a greater range of emotions. Although Rameau was open to the greater integration of dance into his operatic narratives, most of the uses to which he deployed dance in his production still remained within the conservative mold of the Opera at the time. He did not, in other words, rely on dance to convey central details of plot or story line.

Professional Dance Elsewhere in Paris.

More imaginative and theatrical uses of dance to depict narratives occurred at other theaters in the city of Paris during the early eighteenth century. The Opéra-Comique (literally "Comic Opera"), a Parisian company formed of vaudevillian entertainers in 1714, performed pantomime ballets as early as the 1720s. Catering to a popular rather than elite audience, the origins of the "comic operas" this company produced lay in the commedia dell'arte, fair entertainments, and other forms of street theater that had been widely enjoyed throughout Europe since the Renaissance. Not all the productions that this troupe performed were comedies by any means, but the forms of drama, dancing, and music that the group cultivated had a broader appeal than the classically-inspired tragedies performed at the Opera at the same time. Another similar group active around the same time, the Comédie-Italienne, produced more than fifty pantomime ballets from 1738 until it merged with the Opéra-Comique in 1757.


During the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries a greater range of ballet forms began to appear in connection with the performance of operas in Paris. New notational systems as well as the codification of ballet positions provided the foundation upon which ballet developed as an art form performed by professional dancers. The center of much of this transformation lay in the Royal Academy of Music, the institution that fondly became known in Parisian aristocratic and upper-class societies as the Opera. While the Opera granted dance a new importance as a diversionary entertainment within musical dramas, it proved resistant to the development of completely independent forms of ballet. The limits of the Opera's championship of dance as an art form able to convey narrative drama were demonstrated in its revivals of the popular operas of Lully as well as the productions of Rameau in the early and mid-eighteenth century. At the same time new forms of narrative pantomime ballet flourished in more popular venues in the city. These more popular forms told a story, and eventually the tendency to narrate an event or incident combined with the steps and techniques used in the more refined opera ballet to provide the foundation around which the modern ballet was to coalesce.


introduction: The system of training athletic dancers who were virtuosi of their craft was very much alive at the Paris Opera in 1750. While the many ballets staged and interwoven through operas at the time had great appeal to many in the audience, they were attacked by Enlightenment philosophes. In an entry he wrote for the Encyclopédie Baron Grimm likened the contemporary practice of ballet within the Opera to a school in which mediocre students of athletics performed their moves in front of a crowd.

The best dancers, however, are reserved to show off as soloists of pas de deux; for important moments, they form pas de trois, quatre or cinq or six, after which the corps du ballet had stopped moving in order to make way for the masters to regroup, and finish the ballet. For all of these different divertissements, the composer furnishes chaconnes, loures, sarabands, minuets, passepieds, gavottes, rigaudons and contradances. If once in a while there is a moment of action, or a dramatic idea, it is a pas de deux or trois that executes it and then the corps du ballet immediately begins its insipid dances. The only real difference between one ballet and another is the way the tailor costumes the ballet, whether it be in yellow, white, green, red, following the principles and etiquette of fashion. Thus the ballet in French opera is only an academy of dance, where in public view, mediocre people exercise, make figures break apart and reform into groups and where the great dancers show us their most difficult moves by making noble, gracious and wise positions or poses.

source: Baron Grimm, "Poème Lyrique," Encyclopèdie, in Dance in the Shadow of the Guillotine. Trans. Judith Chazin-Bennahum (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988): 16.


James R. Anthony, "The French Opera-Ballet in the Early Eighteenth Century: Problems of Definition and Classification," Journal of the American Musicological Society XVIII (1965): 197–206.

—, French Baroque Music: from Beaujoyeulx to Rameau (New York: Norton, 1978).

Sarah McCleave, ed., Dance and Music in French Baroque Theatre: Sources and Interpretations (London: IAMS, 1998).

Spire Pitou, The Paris Opéra: An Encyclopedia of Operas, Ballets, Composers, and Performers. 2 vols. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983–1985).

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The Rise of the Ballet in France

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