The African-American presence in classical ballet, triumphantly confirmed by the founding of the Dance Theater of Harlem in 1969, grew slowly alongside general American interest in the European form of theatrical stage dancing. Classical ballet developed from dancing styles of sixteenth-century European courts. Refined in France, especially under the monarchy of Louis XIV, ballet became the preferred form of dance expression in Europe and Russia by the nineteenth century. Ballet captured the interest of an American public only after tours of Daighilev's Ballets Russes proved undeniably entertaining in the early part of the twentieth century. The assumption that the European outlook, history, and technical theory of ballet were alien to the black dancer culturally, temperamentally, and anatomically plagued African-American interest in the form for generations. Dance aesthetes wrote about the unsuitability of the black dancer's "tight joints, a natural turn-in rather than the desired ballet turn-out, hyperextension of the knee, [and] weak feet" (McDonagh, 1968, p. 44), and most black dancers, barred from allwhite ballet schools, turned to performing careers in modern and jazz dance. Ballet training, however, remained the basis of many stage-dance techniques, and individual teachers had profound effects on pioneer African-American dance artists. In Chicago in the 1920s, Katherine Dunham studied ballet with Ludmilla Speranzeva before creating her own Dunham dance technique. The Jones-Haywood School of Dance, founded in Washington, D.C., in 1940, trained several significant ballet personalities, including Sylvester Campbell and Louis Johnson. Philadelphia's Judimar School, created in 1948, offered ballet classes led by Essie Marie Dorsey and produced several outstanding ballet artists, including Delores Brown, Tamara Guillebeaux, John Jones, and Billy Wilson.
The racial division of Americans led to the formation of several separatist, "all-black" dance companies to offer performing opportunities for growing numbers of classically trained dancers. Hemsley Winfield's New Negro Art Theater Dance Group brought concert dance to the New York Roxy Theater in 1932, effectively proving that largely white audiences would accept black dancers. John Martin of the New York Times noted the dancers' refusal to be "darkskinned reproductions of famous white prototypes" and termed the concert "an effort well worth the making" (Martin, 1932, p. 11). Winfield's company performed with the Hall Johnson Choir in dances of his own making.
Eugene Von Grona's American Negro Ballet debuted on November 21, 1937, at Harlem's Lafayette Theater. The son of a white American mother and a German father, Von Grona trained with modern dance choreographer Mary Wigman before moving to the United States in 1925. To form his company, he ran a newspaper advertisement in the Amsterdam News offering free dance lessons at the Harlem YMCA. Von Grona chose thirty trainees out of 150 respondents, and after three years of training in ballet and modern dance relaxation techniques, the company offered a program designed to address "the deeper and more intellectual resources of the Negro race" (Acocella, 1982, p. 24). The original program, choreographed by Von Grona to Ellington, Stravinsky, W. C. Handy, and J. S. Bach, was received by critics as "more of the nature of a pupil's recital than an epoch-making new ballet organization." The program included a version of Stravinsky's Firebird, although critics worried that "a Negro interpretation of a classical ballet would … be too unrestrained" to appeal to a ballet audience. Lukewarm critical reception and the absence of a committed audience shuttered the company's concert engagements after only five months. In 1939 the company appeared in Lew Leslie's Blackbirds and at the Apollo Theater and was renamed Von Grona's American Swing Ballet. By the end of that year Von Grona was bankrupt and disbanded the company. Dancers in the company included Lavinia Williams, Jon Edwards, and Al Bledger.
Wilson Williams's Negro Dance Company, founded in 1940 to "discipline talent, give it creative direction, [and] to train artists capable of expression through means of a technique" (Williams, 1940, p. 14), struggled for five years to garner dancers and patronage. Williams, an accomplished black modern dancer, intended to provide a three-year course at his School of Negro Ballet, with classes in folk forms as well as modern and classical ballet. The Negro Dance Company's first performances in 1943 were received as modern dance.
Dancing proved not to be the most lucrative of career choices for Arthur Bell. A pioneering black ballet dancer, he was found homeless wandering the streets of Brooklyn at age seventy-one in the late 1990s. Still, he does not regret following his dreams and, in fact, left his artistic mark on the classical dance scene of the 1940s and 1950s—a time that was not very receptive to African Americans in classical ballet.
Bell's Pentecostal parents viewed dance as sinful and so did not approve of their son's fascination with it. Attempting a career in dance was especially troubling to them because of the lack of employment opportunities for African Americans. Knowing the odds were not in his favor, Bell decided anyway to pursue dance as one of very few black students at the School of American Ballet. His skills were highly regarded and he eventually made a career for himself in Paris and London. Being invited by Frederick Ashton to appear in the New York City Ballet's world premiere of Illuminations was a career peak as he was the first black man to ever perform with this elite company.
Age caught up with Bell and he returned to New York City where he worked at a variety of menial jobs from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. Some time after this he became homeless. It is not clear what led to these circumstances, but he came into contact with a social worker named Mafia Mackin. Mackin was a former ballet photographer, so Bell's accounts of his experiences in 1950s London and Paris rang truthful to her whereas other social workers felt that Bell's accounts of his life in ballet were signs of dementia.
After confirming Bell's stories, Mackin contacted the New York Times who made Bell the subject of a feature article. Soon Bell received international news coverage and was reunited with two of his siblings. He went on to reside at the Actors Fund Retirement and Nursing Home in Englewood, New Jersey, where he spent the last six years of his life with a regained dignity. Bell died at the age of 77 on January 23, 2004.
The First Negro Classic Ballet, also briefly known as the Hollywood Negro Ballet, was founded in 1948 by Joseph Rickhard. Rickhard, a German émigré and former dancer with the Ballets Russes, taught ballet to black students in Los Angeles. The company had a first concert in 1949. This was truly a classical company, with ballerinas performing on point. They performed Variations Classiques, a suite of dances to Bach, as well as a reworking of Cinderella with African-American materials. Critically successful, the company lasted seven seasons touring the West Coast, with an annual performance at Los Angeles' Philharmonic Auditorium. In 1956 Rickhard brought his dancers to New York, and this company combined with the New York Negro Ballet.
Aubrey Hitchens' Negro Dance Theater, created in 1953, was an all-male repertory company. Hitchens was born in England and had danced with the Russian Opera Company in Paris before he opened his own New York school in 1947. Hitchens, who "ardently believed in the special dance talents of the Negro race" (Hitchins, 1956, p. 12), managed to book his group to perform at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in August 1954. Its repertory included Gotham Suite by Tony Charmoli, with "modern idioms based on classical forms being suggested by the five boroughs of New York City" (Hitchins, 1956, p. 13), and Hitchens' own Italian Concerto to music of Bach. Among the dancers associated with the Negro Dance Theater were Anthony Basse, Frank Glass, Nat Horne, Bernard Johnson, Charles Martin, Charles Moore, Joe Nash, Charles Queenan, Edward Walrond, and Arthur Wright. The company remained together only through 1955.
Edward Flemyng's New York Negro Ballet Company, founded as Les Ballets Nègres in 1955, began as a small group that took daily technique classes with Maria Nevelska, a former member of the Bolshoi Ballet. Flemyng, a charismatic and driven African-American dancer born in Detroit, organized private sponsorship of the company, which in 1957 led to a landmark tour of England, Scotland, and Wales. Among the dancers on that tour were Anthony Basse, Dolores Brown, Candace Caldwell, Sylvester Campbell, Georgia Collins, Theodore Crum, Roland Fraser, Thelma Hill, Michaelyn Jackson, Frances Jiminez, Bernard Johnson, Charles Neal, Cleo Quitman, Gene Sagan, Helen Taitt, Betty Ann Thompson, and Barbara Wright. The company's repertory included Ernest Parham's Mardi Gras; two Louis Johnson ballets—Waltze, a classical ballet for twelve dancers, and Folk Impressions, an American ballet set to music by Morton Gould; and a purely classical pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty danced by Dolores Brown and Bernard Johnson. Reviews of the company were flattering and encouraging, and the a reviewer in the London-based Dance and Dancers wrote: "New York Negro ballet amounts to a sincere attempt at establishing the Negro as an important contributor to the art of ballet as a whole" (1957, p. 9). Soon after the two-month tour, Flemyng's principal patron died and the company began to unravel. A 1958 performance in New York under the name Ballet Americana was noted by writer Doris Hering as having a "zest and high energy … yet to be cast in the careful mould of ballet" (Hering, 1958, p. 57), but the company could not find sufficient patronage and was completely disbanded by 1960.
Dances and Dancers
Documentation of African-American interest in the ballet exists well before the establishment of any of the all-black companies. Helena Justa-De Arms performed toe dances in vaudeville in the 1910s; Mary Richards danced on toe in the 1923 Broadway production of Struttin' Along; and Josephine Baker performed on toe for at least one number in her Paris Opera days. In 1940 Agnes De Mille created Black Ritual for the New York Ballet Theater, the precursor of the present-day American Ballet Theatre. Performed by a cast of sixteen women to a score by Darius Milhaud, the piece was intended to "project the psychological atmosphere of a primitive community during the performance of austere and vital ceremonies" (Martin, 1940, p. 23). Although this was not a classically shaped ballet, its cast had received dance training in a specially established "Negro Wing" of the Ballet Theater school. Critical reaction to the piece was muted but inspired dance writer Walter Terry's call for "a Negro vocabulary of movement … composed of modern dance movements, ballet steps, tap and others … [which] should enable the Negro to express himself artistically and not merely display his muscular prowess" (Terry, 1940).
The post–World War II era brought the beginnings of integrated classical dance in the United States. Talley Beatty, Arthur Bell, and Betty Nichols were briefly associated with New York's Ballet Society, where Beatty appeared in Lew Christiansen's Blackface (1947) and Bell in Frederick Ashton's Illuminations (1950). In 1952 Louis Johnson, a student of the School of American Ballet (SAB), created a role in Jerome Robbins's Ballade for the New York City Ballet. Johnson began his significant choreographic career with Lament (1953), a story ballet set to music of Heitor Villa-Lobos and first presented with an integrated cast at the third New York Ballet Club Annual Choreographers' Night.
Janet Collins, the most famous African-American classical dancer of this era, began her career in vaudeville and was a member of the original Katherine Dunham troupe. Born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, Collins danced with Lester Horton before moving to New York in 1948, where she won a prestigious Rosenwald Fellowship to tour the East and Midwest in her own dances. Her 1949 New York performance debut was greeted with exceptional enthusiasm by John Martin (1949) of the New York Times, who called her a "rich talent and a striking theatrical personality at the beginning of a promising career. Her style is basically eclectic; its direction is modern and its technical foundation chiefly ballet. The fusing element is a markedly personal approach." Collins won a Donaldson Award for her Broadway performance in Cole Porter's Out of This World (1951). Collins achieved her greatest fame as prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera from 1951 to 1954, where she danced in Aida (1951), La Gioconda (1952), and Samson and Delilah (1953).
Many African-American ballet artists found an acceptance in Europe unknown in the United States. Sylvester Campbell remained in Europe after the New York Negro Ballet tour and eventually became a principal with the Netherlands National Ballet, dancing leading roles in Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, and Le Corsaire. Gene Sagan and Roland Fraser, also of the New York Negro Ballet, joined the Marseilles Ballet and the Cologne Ballet, respectively. Brooklyn-born Jamie Bower danced with Roland Petit's Ballets de Paris and appeared with the company in the MGM film The Glass Slipper (1953). In 1954 Raven Wilkenson was admitted to the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo as that company's sole black female ballerina. Wilkenson stayed with the company for six years, although she was occasionally barred from performing in some southern theaters because of her race. Arthur Mitchell, who joined the New York City Ballet as its first permanent black dancer in 1955, experienced similar racial discrimination when U.S. television broadcasters refused to air programs in which he danced with white ballerinas.
The affiliation of African-American dancers with mostly white companies accelerated throughout the 1960s. The Harkness Ballet of New York ran an aggressive recruitment and educational program in consultation with New York Negro Ballet alumna Thelma Hill that, by 1968, had successfully placed five black members in that company. Choreographer Alvin Ailey, who created Feast of Ashes for the Joffrey Ballet in 1962, also made Ariadne (1965), El Amor Brujo (1966), and Macumba (1966) for the Harkness Ballet. Keith Lee joined the American Ballet Theatre in 1969, and in 1970 he created the popular ballet Times Past to music by Cole Porter. Lee achieved the rank of soloist in 1971 and left in 1974 to form his own company. Significant post–civil rights era dancers affiliated with major American ballet companies include John Jones, who danced with Jerome Robbins's Ballets: USA, the Dance Theater of Harlem, the Joffrey Ballet, and the Harkness Ballet; Christian Holder of the Joffrey Ballet; Debra Austin of the New York City Ballet and the Pennsylvania Ballet; and Mel Tomlinson of the Dance Theater of Harlem and the New York City Ballet.
The Dance Theater of Harlem Legacy
The founding of the Dance Theater of Harlem (DTH) in 1969 conclusively ended speculation about the suitability of African-American interest in ballet. Arthur Mitchell's company and its affiliated school provided training and performing opportunities for black dancers and choreographers from all parts of the world. Heralded as a major company of international stature within its first fifteen years, the DTH fostered an unsurpassed standard of black classicism revealed in the versatile technique of principal dancers Stephanie Dabney, Lorraine Graves, Christina Johnson, Virginia Johnson, Tai Jiminez, Andrea Long, Ronald Perry, Judith Rotardier, Eddie J. Shellman, Lowell Smith, and Donald Williams.
As DTH performances set a standard of black classicism, discernible African-American influences on ballet began to be understood and documented. Choreographer George Balanchine, who served on the original DTH board of directors, successfully articulated a neoclassical style of ballet that emphasized thrust hips and rhythmic syncopations commonly found in African-American social dance styles. Prominent in his masterpieces The Four Temperaments (1946) and the "Rubies" section of Jewels (1967) are references to the Charleston, the cakewalk, the lindy hop, and tap dancing.
The critical success of the DTH hinged upon its dancers' ability to embody these social movement styles within classical technique. The company excelled in its resilient performances of the Balanchine repertory. It also turned to African-American folk materials that underscored affinities between ballet and ritual dance, as in Louis Johnson's Forces of Rhythm (1972), which comically juxtaposed several styles, including generic "African" dance, vaudeville, Dunham-based modern, disco, and ballet; Geoffrey Holder's Dougla (1974), a stylized wedding-ceremony synthesis of African and Hindu motifs; and Billy Wilson's Ginastera (1991), a combination of Spanish postures and point dancing.
Black musicians inspired several important ballet collaborations, including Alvin Ailey and Duke Ellington's The River (1970), which was choreographed for the American Ballet Theatre and included both parody and distillation of social African dance styles in several sections; Wynton Marsalis and Peter Martins's Jazz (Six Syncopated Movements) (1993), created for the New York City Ballet and featuring African-American dance soloist Albert Evans; and the Joffrey Ballet production of Billboards, set to music by Prince (1993). In Atlanta, the company Ballethnic has successfully fused classical technique with other forms since 1990. Other choreographers who have worked in the classical idiom include Paul Russell, once
a leading dancer with the DTH, who became artistic director of the American Festival Ballet of Boise, Idaho, in 1988; former DTH principal Homer Bryant, who formed the Chicago-based Bryant Ballet in 1991; Barbados-born John Alleyne, who trained at the National Ballet School of Canada and in 1993 was appointed artistic director of Ballet British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada; and Ulysses Dove, former principal of the Alvin Ailey company. Dove's searingly physical point ballets predict a heightened awareness of African-American performance practice in their reliance on asymmetry, prolonged balance, and cool stance tempered by explosive power.
The profound artistic achievement of the DTH, innumerable individual African-American artists in companies around the world, and Balanchine's neoclassic fusion of ballet and African dance style created a contemporary ballet repertory that was indisputably African based, vividly realized in works by American choreographers Gerald Arpino, William Forsythe, Jerome Robbins, and Twyla Tharp. Ironically, core African-American dance styles, which value subversive invention, participatory interaction, and an overwhelming sense of bodily presence, diverge neatly from ballet's traditional conception of strictly codified body line, a silenced and motionless audience, and movement as metaphoric abstraction. The process of building an African-American audience base responsive to ballet, an action begun by the DTH, is necessary to expand the legacy of black classicism for generations to come.
Acocella, Joan Ross. "Van Grona and his First American Negro Ballet." Dance (March 1982): 22–24, 30–32.
Banes, Sally. "Balanchine and Black Dance." In Dance Writing in the Age of Postmodernism, pp. 53–69. Hanover, Mass.: University Press of New England, 1994.
Barnes, Clive. "Barnes on … the Position of the Black Classic Dancer in American Ballet." Ballet News 3, no. 9 (March 1982): 46.
DeFrantz, Thomas F. "Ballet in Black: Louis Johnson and Vernacular Humor." In Dancing Bodies, Living Histories: New Writings about Dance and Culture, edited by Lisa Doolittle and Anne Flynn, pp. 178–195. Banff, Alberta: Banff Centre Press, 2000.
Emery, Lynne Fauley. Black Dance in the United States from 1619 to 1970. Palo Alto, Calif.: National Press Books, 1972.
"Harlem Under Control, Negro Ballet Gives 'Fire Bird' and Park Ave. Approves." Newsweek (November 29, 1937): 28.
Hering, Doris. "Ballet Americana." Dance (August 1958): 57.
Hitchins, Aubrey. "Creating the Negro Dance Theatre." Dance and Dancers (April, 1956): 12–13.
Jackson, Harriet. "American Dancer, Negro." Dance (September 1966): 35–42.
Kisselgoff, Anna. "Limning the Role of the Black Dancer in America." New York Times (May 16, 1982): 10, 32.
Long, Richard. The Black Tradition in American Dance. New York: Rizzoli, 1989.
Martin, John. "The Dance: A Negro Art Group." New York Times (February 14, 1932): sec. 8, p. 11.
Martin, John. "De Mille Ballet Seen as Novelty." New York Times (January 23, 1940): 23.
Martin, John. "The Dance: Newcomer." New York Times (February 27, 1949): sec. 2, p. 9.
McDonagh, Don. "Negroes in Ballet." New Republic 159(1968): 41–44.
"Negroes in Ballet." Dance and Dancers (October 1957): 9.
"Newest Ballet Star." Ebony (November 1954): 36–40.
Stahl, Norma Gengal. "Janet Collins: The First Lady of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet." Dance (February 1954): 27–29.
Terry, Walter. "To the Negro Dance." New York Herald Tribune (January 22, 1940).
West, Martha Ullman. "On the Brink: DTH Men in Crisis."Dance (October 1990): 43–45.
Williams, Wilson. "Prelude to a Negro Ballet." Dance (American Dancer) (March 1940): 14, 39.
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thomas f. defrantz (1996)
Updated by author 2005
Even in the days of the ballerina Camargo (1710–70), who introduced many innovations, dress was ample, skirts still falling below the knees; however, she introduced a more vigorous style involving high jumps. J. G. Noverre (1727–1810) banished the conventions hitherto ruling as to the use of mythological subjects, set order of dances, elaborate dresses, etc., and thus made himself the founder of the dramatic ballet, or ballet d'action. He est. the 5-act ballet as an entertainment in its own right; collab. with Gluck and Mozart in operatic ballets, and wrote an important treatise on the ballet. Other great masters of this period were Dauberval (1742–1806), Gaetano Vestris (1729–1808), and Pierre Gardel (1758–1840). Vestris was the founder of a family of maîtres de ballet, active in 3 generations (1747–1825), and of several important ballerinas. The Italian choreographer Salvatore Vigano (1769–1819), for whom Beethoven wrote Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, continued Noverre's work. By the end of the 18th cent. the ballet had almost discarded the last of its stately court influences and had developed gymnastic virtuosity, although movement was still mainly confined to the legs and feet. Dancing on the pointe (on the tips of the toes) came in only about 1814; it calls for arduous practice, requires special shoes, and carries a danger of dislocation; Marie Taglioni (career from 1822 to 1847) was its first notable exponent. The Romantic Movement introduced into the ballet an attempt at ethereal informality. Costumes grew shorter and the skin-tight Maillot, named after its Parisian inventor, was daringly introduced.
From the mid-19th cent., spectacular ballets, of a realistic and topical character, became common, and much effective ballet mus. was written, esp. by Fr. composers: Adam's Giselle (1841) has remained a classic and the appearance of Delibes's Coppélia (1870) marks an epoch.
Ballet as an integral part of opera was at its height of popularity in the first half of the 19th cent. Some of the operas of Rossini and Donizetti incl. ballets, and Verdi, bowing to the demands of Paris, where a ballet was de rigueur in opera, incl. ballets in many of his operas for that capital, even writing ballet mus. for Otello for its Paris prod. (1894). The high priest of ballet-in-opera was Meyerbeer, and even Wagner had to introduce ballet into Tannhäuser to placate his Paris audiences (but enraged the blades of the Jockey Club by refusing to place it, as was customary, in the 2nd act, by which time they would have finished their coffee and cigars). The extent of the Parisian ‘craze’ can be judged from the fact that Berlioz's orchestration of Weber's Invitation to the Dance (Aufforderung zum Tanz, 1819) was commissioned for the 1841 prod. of Der Freischütz, and dances from Bizet's incidental mus. to L'Arlésienne were interpolated into Carmen.
Fr. influence on the Russ. Imperial court ths. also created a tradition of ballet in St Petersburg and Moscow to which national traditions were added. Both cities had long had their royal schs. of ballet where technique was highly polished but there was little of mus. worth for them to dance until the masterpieces of Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake (1876), The Sleeping Beauty (1889), and Nutcracker (1892). The outstanding choreog. was Marius Petipa (b Marseilles, 1818; d Gurzuf, Crimea, 1910) who was principal ballet master in St Petersburg from 1862 to 1903.
The 20th cent. saw reforms and revolutionary tendencies in the development of ballet which may be identified principally but not wholly with two individuals. The Amer. Isadora Duncan (1878–1927) was inspired by Gr. classicism and by the natural movements of the birds, the waves, etc., thereby rejecting many conventional choreographical formulae. She toured Russ. and was seen by the young dancer Mikhail Fokine (1880–1942) who was also working to free ballet from its 19th-cent. conventions, having been deeply impressed by the visit of Siamese dancers to Russ. in 1900. He achieved his ambition in collab. with the impresario and opera producer Serge Diaghilev (1872–1929). Taking advantage of the Franco-Russ. entente and realizing that radical reforms would not be allowed in the imperial ths., Diaghilev est. his Russian Ballet (Ballets Russes) in Paris, 1909, bringing together choreogs. such as Fokine, and dancers such as Nijinsky, Pavlova, and Karsavina. Ballet scores were commissioned from ‘progressive’ contemporary composers, e.g. Ravel (Daphnis et Chloé), Stravinsky (Firebird, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring), Strauss (Josephslegende), and Debussy (Jeux). The artists Bakst and Picasso were among those commissioned to design scenery. Ballet mus. ceased to be wholly subservient to the dancers’ demands. The impact of these Diaghilev prods. on Paris, London, Berlin, and other cities was electrifying and exercised considerable influence on all the arts. Diaghilev introduced 1-act ballets, making an evening from 2 or 3 short ballets. In this way there came about the ballet based on the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin's Prince Igor, the famous Spectre de la rose (to the Weber–Berlioz Invitation to the Dance) and, as a vehicle for Nijinsky, a ballet to the mus. of Debussy's Prélude à L'après-midi d'un faune. Diaghilev frequently used re-workings of mus. not comp. for dancing as the basis of successful ballets, the most famous being Les Sylphides (1909), from Chopin pieces. Other composers treated in this way were Rossini, Cimarosa, Scarlatti, and Handel. Stravinsky was adept at these re-workings, as can be heard from Pulcinella ( Pergolesi and others) and Le Baiser de la fée ( Tchaikovsky). After the 1914–18 war, Stravinsky continued for a time to collaborate with Diaghilev but other composers who wrote ballets for him were Satie (Parade), Falla (Three-Cornered Hat) and Prokofiev (Chout, Le Pas d'acier, and L'Enfant prodigue). Most of the outstanding figures of ballet between 1918 and 1939 came from the Diaghilev co., Serge Lifar, Léonide Massine and George Balanchine among them. The virtuosity of dancers and the constantly developing art of choreogs. has successfully brought a vast range of non-ballet mus. into the ballet th. Examples of scores to which ballets have been devised incl. Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel, Tchaikovsky's 5th Sym., Brahms's 4th Sym., Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, Elgar's Enigma Variations and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. Nevertheless the comp. of orig. ballet scores has prospered. Tchaikovsky's heir was undoubtedly Prokofiev, whose Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet, for the Bolshoy Ballet, are superb, and distinguished scores have been written for ballet by Bartók, Copland, Shostakovich, Henze, Hindemith, Britten, and others.
In Brit. ballet was imported after the days of the masque, but the impetus provided by the Diaghilev co. led to the formation of the Camargo Soc. in 1930, of whom the leading lights were the economist Maynard Keynes (married to Lydia Lopokova), his doctor brother Geoffrey Keynes, and Ninette de Valois. Among its first prods. was Vaughan Williams's Job, the first large-scale modern ballet score (though it is designated ‘a masque for dancing’) by a Brit. composer. The Camargo Soc. became the Vic-Wells Ballet, under the aegis of Lilian Baylis at the Old Vic and SW, later the SW Ballet, and eventually the Royal Ballet (based on CG). Leading figures assoc. with Brit. ballet have incl. Constant Lambert, Frederick Ashton, John Cranko, Antony Tudor, Anton Dolin, Alicia Markova, Robert Helpmann, Marie Rambert, Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, and Kenneth MacMillan. Beside the Royal Ballet, leading cos. working regularly in Brit. are Birmingham Royal Ballet, Ballet Rambert, and Northern Ballet. Orig. ballet scores by Brit. composers incl. Bliss's Checkmate and Miracle in the Gorbals, Britten's Prince of the Pagodas, Walton's The Quest, Arnold's Homage to the Queen and Solitaire, and Maxwell Davies's Salome.
In Europe after Diaghilev, and contemporary with him, leading influences in varying degrees were the Paris-based Ballets Suédois, under Rolf de Maré (1886–1964), the Ger. choreog. Kurt Jooss's Ballets Jooss, for which the mus. was written by one composer, Frederick Cohen (1904–67), Rudolf von Laban (1879–1958), Mary Wigman (1886–1973), Ida Rubinstein (c.1885–1960), Emile Jaques-Dalcroze (1865–1950) and Maud Allan (1883–1956). There has been a vigorous expansion of ballet and ballet potentialities in the USA. Ex-Diaghilev associates such as Balanchine worked there and other pioneers of ballet there incl. Ruth St Denis (1877–1968), Ted Shawn (1891–1972), and Adolph Bolm (1884–1951). Later the chief figures were Mary Wigman and especially Martha Graham (1894–1991), Paul Taylor (b 1930), and Louis Horst (1884–1964) who was director of the Denishawn Sch. 1915–25 and mus. dir. for the Graham co. 1926–48. Amer. composers have been prolific in writing mus. specifically for dancing and while ballet has invaded the popular Broadway musicals such as On Your Toes, Oklahoma!, and Kiss Me, Kate, avant-garde ballet developments have kept pace with those in music. The collab. between the composer John Cage and the choreog. Merce Cunningham (b 1919) pioneered new forms of presenting ballet as, to quote Cage, ‘an activity of movement, sound, and light’, using non-sequential, non-mimetic movement. The aleatory trend in mus. has had its parallel in ballet, where all formal organization has been thrown overboard. Elec. scores have become commonplace, and slide and film projections are used. As mus. is now prod. without instr. or performers, ballet can be prod. without dancers, by means of electrocybernetic devices. Mention should also be made, if briefly, of the influence on ballet of jazz, Latin-Amer. mus., African tribal dances, and the stylized ballets of China and Japan.
The origins of the Russian ballet, like those of most other Western art forms, can be traced to eighteenth-century St. Petersburg, where Empress Anna Ivanovna established the first dancing school in Russia in 1738. This school, whose descendant is the present-day Academy of Russian Ballet, was headed by a series of European dancing masters, the first of whom was Jean-Baptiste Landé.
By the 1740s, Empress Elizabeth employed three balletmasters. The continued presence of ballet in Russia was assured by Catherine II, who established a Directorate of Imperial Theaters in 1766, saw to the construction of St. Petersburg's Bolshoi Theater in 1783, and incorporated Landé's school into the Imperial Theater School she founded in 1779.
The tenure of French balletmaster Charles-Louis Didelot (1767–1837) in St. Petersburg (1801–1831) marked the first flowering of the national ballet. The syllabus of the imperial school began to assume its present-day form under Didelot, and his use of stage machinery anticipated the exploitation of stage effects to create atmosphere and build audiences for the ballet across Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century. After Didelot's departure, Jules Perrot led the Petersburg ballet from 1848 to 1859. Arthur Saint-Léon succeeded Perrot and choreographed in St. Petersburg until 1869.
Russian ballet began to assume its familiar form during the decades of Marius Petipa's (1818–1910) work in the Imperial Theaters. Petipa came to Petersburg as a dancer in 1847, and became balletmaster in 1862. The ballets Petipa choreographed in Russia functioned as a choreographic response to nineteenth-century grand opera; they featured as many as five acts with numerous scene changes. If Perrot is identified primarily with the development of narrative in Russian ballet, and Saint-Léon could be accused of overemphasizing the ballet's divertissement at the expense of the story line, Petipa combined the two trends to make a dance spectacle with plots as complex as their choreography. The ballets Petipa staged in St. Petersburg still serve as cornerstones of the classical ballet repertory: Sleeping Beauty (1890), Swan Lake (1895) (with Lev Ivanov), Raymonda (1898), Le Corsaire (1869), Don Quixote (1869), and La Bayadère (1877).
The distinctive features of nineteenth-century dance represent developments of the Russian school of dancing under Petipa's leadership. The new focus on the female dancer was the result of recent developments in point technique, which allowed the ballerina not only to rise up on the tips of her toes, but to remain posed there, and eventually to dance on them. Petipa's choreography emphasizes two nearly opposite facets of the new technique that these technical advances afforded: first, the long supported adagio, in which the woman is supported and turned on point by her partner; second, the brilliant allegro variations (solos) Petipa created for his ballerinas, to exploit the steel toes of this new breed of female dancer.
The work of two ballet reformers characterize the late- and post-Petipa era. Alexander Gorsky became the chief choreographer of Moscow's Bolshoi Theater in 1899 and attempted to imbue the ballet with greater realism along the lines of the dramas of Konstantin Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theater. Gorsky's ballets featured greater cohesion of design elements (sets and costumes) and an unprecedented attention to detail. In Petersburg, Michel Fokine fell under the spell of dancer Isadora Duncan and theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold. Influenced by the free dance of the former, and by the latter's experiments in stylized symbolist theater, Fokine pioneered a new type of ballet: typically a one-act work without the perceived expressive confines of nineteenth-century mime and standard ballet steps.
Fokine and his famed collaborators, Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova, achieved their greatest fame in Europe as charter members of Sergei Diagilev's Ballets Russes, which debuted in Paris in 1909. Fokine's ballets (Les Sylphides, Petrushka, Spectre de la Rose ) were the sensations of the early Diagilev season. The Diagilev ballet not only announced the Russian ballet's arrival to the European avant-garde, but also the beginning of a rift that would widen during the Soviet period: the rise of a Russian émigré ballet community that included many important choreographers, dancers, composers, and visual artists, working outside Russia.
The 1917 revolution posed serious problems for the former Imperial Theaters, and not least to the ballet, which was widely perceived as the bauble of the nation's theater bureaucracy and former rulers. Nonetheless, the foment that surrounded attempts to revolutionize Russian theater in the years following the October Revolution had limited impact on the ballet. With most important Russian choreographers, dancers, and pedagogues already working outside of Russia in the 1920s (Fokine, George Balanchine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Bronislava Nijinska, Anna Pavlova, and Tamara Karsavina, to name a few), experimentation in the young Soviet ballet was borne of necessity.
The October Revolution and the subsequent shift of power, both political and cultural, to Moscow, led to the emergence of Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet. The company that had long occupied a distinct second place to the Petersburg troupe now took center stage—a position it would hold until the breakup of the Soviet Union. The creative leadership of the company had traditionally been imported from Petersburg, but in the Soviet period, so would many of its star dancers (Marina Semyonova, Galina Ulanova).
A new genre of realistic ballets was born in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and dominated Soviet dance theater well into the 1950s. The drambalet, shorthand for dramatic ballet, reconciled the ballet's tendency to abstraction (and resulting lack of ideological content) to the new need for easily understandable narrative. The creative impotence of Soviet ballet in the post-Stalin era reflected the general malaise of the so-called period of stagnation of the Brezhnev years. When Russian companies dramatically increased the pace of moneymaking Western tours in the 1980s, it became clear that the treasure-chest of Russian classic ballets had long ago been plundered, with little new choreography of interest to refill it. As the history of the two companies would suggest, the loss of Soviet power resulted in the speedy demotion of the Moscow troupe and the rise of a post-Soviet Petersburg ballet.
See also: bolshoi theater; diagilev, sergei pavlovich; nijinsky, vaslav fomich; pavlova, anna matveyevna
Roslavleva, Natalia. (1956). Era of the Russian Ballet. London: Gollancz.
Scholl, Tim. (1994). From Petipa to Balanchine: Classical Revival and the Modernization of Ballet. London: Routledge.
Slonimsky, Yuri. (1960). The Bolshoi Ballet: Notes. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.
Souritz, Elizabeth. (1990). Soviet Choreographers in the 1920s, tr. Lynn Visson. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Swift, Mary Grace. (1968). The Art of the Dance in the USSR. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Wiley, Roland John, ed. and tr. (1990). A Century of Russian Ballet: Documents and Eyewitness Accounts, 1810-1910. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
BALLET. The "unofficial" ballet came to America with immigrant performers and dancing masters. Performances in the colonial and early federal periods were presented in the port cities on the East Coast and inland cities connected to them by navigable rivers. The first documented ballet presented in America was The Adventures of Harlequin and Scaramouch, with the Burgo'master Trick'd (4 February 1735), given in Charleston by Henry Holt, a British dancing master. The next major figure was Alexander Placide, who trained at the Paris Opéra in ballet before learning tightrope with the popular Les Grands Danseurs du Roi. He brought companies of ballet and rope dancers to Santo Domingo (1788), New York (1792), and Charleston (1794–1796). The latter seasons brought the first presentations of the Paris Opéra repertory, staged by Jean-Baptiste Francisqui.
Nineteenth-Century Touring Performers
European performers from opera houses and popular theater continued to tour and immigrate to the United States throughout the nineteenth century. Augusta Maywood and Mary Ann Lee, each raised in Philadelphia theater families, are jointly considered America's first native-born ballerinas. As adolescents, they studied with Paris Opéra–trained Paul H. Hazard and performed in Philadelphia and on the Mississippi River circuit from 1837 before going to Paris for further study. Maywood remained in Europe, becoming a prima ballerina at Milan's Teatro alla Scala. Lee returned to America, where she staged and starred in Giselle and other Romantic ballets of Jean Coralli before retiring in 1847. The tour of Fanny Elssler in 1840 imported the cults of Romantic ballet and performer celebrity to America. She was thronged from Boston south to Havana and New Orleans. Elssler's grace and pointe work inspired poems, music, laudatory odes, and engravings.
As transatlantic travel became safer, family troupes from opera-ballet and popular theater scheduled tours of North America and Central America. The gold rush brought an expansion of American audiences and theaters, especially in the San Francisco Bay area and mining communities in Nevada and Colorado. Tours for ballet on its own or as part of extravaganzas began in New York's Niblo's Garden and moved west to the theaters owned by Thomas Maguire or his rivals in San Francisco. La Scala ballerinas Maria Bonfanti, Rita Sangalli, and Giuseppina Morlacchi presented ballet solos and pas de deux interpolated into huge extravaganzas, most notably The Black Crook (1867). The corps de ballets for these productions were mostly local women, trained by European émigré dancing masters.
The Impact of the Russian Ballets
Meanwhile, in Europe, ballet itself was changing. Mikhail Fokine tried to shift the emphasis of the Imperial Russian Ballet away from full-length, three-or four-act plotted ballets. He choreographed shorter works, many of them more abstract music visualizations, such as his Les Sylphides (1907) to piano works by Chopin. This change was considered "too revolutionary" for the Imperial Ballet but was adopted by impresario Serge Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes tours of western Europe. Although some full-evening ballets, such as Swan Lake, Coppelia, and The Nutcracker, remained popular, the Fokine revolution took hold in twentieth-century ballet companies and served as the model for most ballet presentations in America.
Although Diaghilev's company did not reach the United States until 1916, many rival companies of dancers associated with the troupe brought its repertoire and designs to America, using names such as the All-Star Imperial Russian Ballet. Anna Pavlova, generally considered the greatest ballerina of the early twentieth century, presented music visualizations by (or after) Fokine on annual Western Hemisphere tours from 1910 through the 1920s. Like Elssler, she inspired America's love for Romantic ballet and had a major impact on the development of ballet schools, companies, and audiences.
A large number of Ballets Russes dancers chose to stay in America, becoming teachers, choreographers, and ballet masters for theaters, civic ballets, and opera houses across the country. Many worked in prologs (short vaudevilles that alternated with feature films in motion picture palaces of the 1920s–1940s). Among them were Theodore Kosloff, who became a popular choreographer for silent films, and Mikhail Mordkin, whose school and company were the incubators for Ballet Theatre.
Sol Hurok, an impresario based in New York, had a national network of local auditoriums and concert promoters. Hurok added the post-Diaghilev Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo to his roster in 1934 and presented it until 1939 and after 1946. The Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and the related Original Ballet Russe toured in some manifestation until 1962. These companies brought many more fine European dancers and teachers to the United States, where they worked with opera companies, ballet schools, and universities, raising the level of technical training available in America. Hurok maintained ballet on his national roster throughout his career, becoming known in the 1950s and 1960s for his importation of the (British) Royal Ballet and the Soviet Bolshoi and Kirov companies. He was often able to place excerpts from ballet and folklore on television variety shows, such as the Ed Sullivan Show, greatly expanding the audience for ballet.
Choreographers and companies have intermittently pursued the idea that ballet in America should be distinctly American. Ballet Caravan, Lincoln Kirstein's small troupe, existed from 1936 to 1941. Although generally remembered as an interim step between the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet (NYCB), it also represents an unusual ballet experiment with Americana, living composers, and popular front imagery. The Americana ballets created for and by company members included Lew Christensen's Pocahontas (1939, music by Elliott Carter) and Filling Station (1938, Virgil Thomson); William Dollar's Yankee Clipper (1937, Paul Bowles); and Eugene Loring's masterpiece Billy the Kid (1938), with a commissioned score by Aaron Copland. The Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo also occasionally experimented with Americana, commissioning Ghost Town (1939, choreographed by Marc Platt to music by Richard Rodgers) and Rodeo (1942, Agnes de Mille to Aaron Copland). That work, like De Mille's Fall River Legend (1948, to Morton Gould) and Billy the Kid, remains in the active repertory of the American Ballet Theatre (ABT). The short-lived Jerome Robbins' Ballets: USA, in the mid-1950s, experimented with American movement vocabularies, jazz music, and silence. One of the few companies independent of ABT and NYCB was the Joffrey Ballet (founded 1956), which became the City Center Joffrey Ballet (NYC) in 1966 and later relocated to Chicago. Joffrey and fellow choreographer Gerald Arpino created ballet works inspired by 1960s American counterculture.
Civic, Regional, and Professional Companies
Major professional ballet companies have been established and maintained across the country. Among the best regarded are the San Francisco Ballet, associated with long-term director Lew Christensen, and Utah's Ballet West, directed by his brother Willam. There have been major companies in Chicago since the rival troupes of Ballets Russes dancers Adolf Bolm and Andreas Pavley and Serge Oukrainsky. Bolm protégée choreographer Ruth Page ran the Chicago Lyric Opera Ballet for much of the latter twentieth century.
Former NYCB dancers directed companies across the country, among them the Christensens, Kent Stow-ell's Pacific Northwest Ballet, Arthur Mitchell's Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Edward Villella's Miami City Ballet. In the mid-1970s, two of ABT's dancers who had been experimenting with choreography left to form companies—Eliot Feld remained in New York with the Eliot Feld Ballet (later Ballet Tech), while Dennis Nahat established the San Jose Cleveland Ballet.
The schools that had been thriving since the Pavlova tours began to convert from annual recitals to established civic or regional ballet companies. Many had only two seasons per year—a Christmas presentation of The Nutcracker and a late spring "graduation" performance. But some companies became major cultural forces, performing regularly scheduled seasons with live music and professional dancers. The first Regional Ballet Festival was held in Atlanta in 1956. The National Association for Regional Ballet mounts festivals and seminars on choreography, teaching, and nonprofit management across the country. The Nutcracker is still the most popular presentation, giving American audiences a taste of ballet's history.
Barker, Barbara. Ballet or Ballyhoo: The American Careers of Maria Bonfanti, Rita Sangalli, and Giuseppina Morlacchi. New York: Dance Horizons, 1984.
Barzel, Ann. "European Dance Teachers in the United States." Dance Index III, no. 4–6 (April–June, 1944).
Delarue, Allison, ed. Fanny Elssler in America. Brooklyn: Dance Horizons, 1976. Anthology includes her memoir of the American tour as well as verses about her.
Hudson, Alice C., and Barbara Cohen-Stratyner. Heading West, Touring West: Mapmakers, Performing Artists, and the American Frontier. New York: New York Public Library, 2001.
MacDonald, Nesta. Diaghilev Observed by Critics in England and the United States, 1911–1929. New York: Dance Horizons, 1975.
Magriel, Paul, ed. Chronicles of the American Dance: From the Shakers to Martha Graham. New York: Da Capo Press, 1978. Anthology originally published in 1948.
Moore, Lillian. Echoes of American Ballet: A Collection of Seventeen Articles. New York: Dance Horizons, 1976. Anthology of historical articles from American Dancer, Dance Index, Dance Magazine, Dancing Times, and Etude.
Classical ballet is a form of theatrical entertainment that originated among the aristocracy of the sixteenth and seventeenth century royal court of France. In its original form it was performed by trained dancers as well as by members of the court themselves. The stories told in the ballet performances were usually based on mythical or allegorical themes. They contained no dialogue, but instead relied on pantomime to convey character, plot, and action. From its earliest days, ballets incorporated lavish costumes, scenery, and music. Although ballet dance performance often incorporated courtly ballroom dances, and even folk dances, it was organized around five basic dance positions—feet and arms rotated outward from the body with limbs extended. These positions maximize the visibility of the dancer's movements to the audience and thus serve as the grammar of ballet's language of communication.
The foundations of ballet were firmly established when King Louis XIV created a special dancing academy in order to train dancers for the court's ballets. That school continues to operate today as the school of the Paris Opera Ballet. During the nineteenth century French-trained ballet masters and dancers established vigorous dance companies and schools in Copenhagen and St. Petersburg. During this time Russia's Imperial ballet attracted several of the century's most talented ballet masters. The last of them, and the greatest, was Marius Petipa, who created the great classic works that define the Russian ballet tradition: Le Cosaire, Don Quixote, La Bayadere, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and Raymonda. All of these works are still in the repertory of ballet companies at the end of the twentieth-century, more than one hundred years later. Almost all of the great ballet companies of the late twentieth century are descended from the Imperial Russian ballet.
Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, which employed many dancers and teachers trained at the Imperial Ballet and exiled by the Russian revolution, was absolutely key to the transformation of ballet from a court-sponsored elite entertainment into a commercially viable art form with a popular following. Diaghilev and his company forged a synthesis of modern art and music that revolutionized ballet in the twentieth century. Diaghilev mounted modernist spectacles using music and scenic design by the most important modern composers and artists: Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Eric Satie, Serge Prokofiev, Pablo Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miro, Juan Gris, Georges Braque, and George Rouault. Among the company's brilliant dancers was Vaslav Nijinsky, probably one of greatest male dancers of century, but also an original choreographer. In ballets like L'Apres-midi d'un faune and Jeux, with music by Debussy, and Le Sacre du Printemps, with music by Stravinsky, Nijinsky created radical works that broke with the Russian tradition of Petipa and which relied upon an unorthodox movement vocabulary and a shallow stage space. The world famous 1912 premiere of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, choreographed by Nijinsky, provoked a riot among its stuffy bourgeois audience and is considered one of the great events marking the arrival of modernist art.
The United States had no classic ballet tradition of its own. Instead, many strains of vernacular and ethnic dances flourished, such as square dances which were adapted from English folk dances. There were also many vigorous forms of social dancing, particularly the styles of dancing which emerged from jazz and black communities, such as jitterbug and swing. Popular theatrical entertainment and vaudeville also drew on vernacular forms like tap dancing. One new form of theatrical dance that emerged around the turn of the century was modern dance, inspired by Isadora Duncan and developed by dancers and choreographers Ruth Denis, Ted Shawn, and Martha Graham. It has remained a vital theatrical dance tradition up until the present with Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, and Mark Morris among its most noted contemporary practitioners.
The New York appearance in 1916 of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes marks the most important step towards the popularization of ballet in the United States. Two of the greatest dancers of the early twentieth century—Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova—danced in the United States during those years. Nothing much of import occurred until 1933, when Lincoln Kirstein, a wealthy young admirer of ballet who was visiting Paris, invited George Balanchine to come to the United States and help establish ballet there. Balanchine accepted Kirstein's invitation only if they established "first, a school." Their School of American Ballet opened in 1934. Kirstein and Balanchine's School was an important link in the popularization of ballet in the United States. In 1913 Willa Cather had lamented that "we have had no dancers because we had no schools." European dancers—among them some of the greatest of their era, such as Fanny Essler—had been coming to the United States since the early nineteenth century. Many of them settled down to privately teach young American girls, because ballet at the time was centered primarily on the ballerina. However no one had a greater influence than the great Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, and her partner, Mikhail Mordkin, who starting in 1910 spent 15 years performing and teaching ballet in almost every corner of the country. The appeal of ballet and its cultural prestige had been consolidated by New York's rapturous response in 1916 to Diaghilev's Ballet Russes. In 1933 the founding of the School of American Ballet with its network of scouts, scouring small-town and regional ballet classes, created the foundations for the development of native-born American dancers.
Beginning in 1935 Kirstein and Balanchine went on to form the first of the many unsuccessful companies that eventually solidified into a stable company in 1948 as the New York City Ballet. Meanwhile another group, led by Richard Pleasants and Lucia Chase, was also trying to establish a permanent ballet company; they succeeded in 1939 by setting up the American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Since the 1930s these two companies have dominated ballet in the United States. Both companies employed many of the Russian dancers, choreographers, and teachers displaced by revolution and world war. American Ballet Theater has a long tradition of performing the great romantic ballets—such as Swan Lake, Giselle, and Sleeping Beauty —created for the European audiences of the late nineteenth century. George Balanchine's New York City Ballet, on the other hand, was almost exclusively the showcase for his original work, which rejected the narrative conventions of romantic ballet for a modern approach that emphasized musicality, speed, and a deep stage space.
During the 1970s ballet and modern dance in the United States were the beneficiaries of a wave of popularity which resulted in many new dance companies being founded in cities and communities throughout the country. The same period was also marked by the increasing amount of crossover activity between modern dance and ballet on the part of choreographers and dancers. Although the dance boom (and the funding that supported it) has partially receded both ballet and modern dance remain a vital form of cultural activity and popular entertainment.
Amberg, George. Ballet in America: The Emergence of an American Art. New York, Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1949.
Coe, Robert. Dance in America. New York, Dutton, 1985.
Garafola, Lyn. Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. New York, Oxford University Press, 1989.
Greskovic, Robert. Ballet 101. New York, Hyperion, 1998.
Ballet begins here — the head held high, the chest broad, the top half of the body generally quite rigid, with the waist downwards performing whatever skills tradition requires. Every position, from a simple demi-plié to the most complex enchaînement or batterie combination, places exacting, apparently unreal demands on the body. Demands that can, from the best performers, elicit movements of unimaginable agility, virtuosity, and beauty.
Surely, human beings must always have used stylized movement to communicate expression of mood and intent, from ritualistic tribal war ceremonies to dances expressing love or affirming the sense of community. Dance is a body language: one dancer's body is usually in dialogue or in full confrontation (aggressive or friendly) with that of another.
Ballet evolved from the formal bals and entertainments held for the pleasure of monarchs and courtiers in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century courts of Western Europe. The movements articulated in court dances were precise, measured, allowing only the best body lines to be exposed. Thus legs and feet were turned out. The trunk was usually three-quarters crossed (croisé) to the partner's body or to the audience, rather than full-face (en face) — certainly never side-on, exposing the ugly silhouette of over-prominent buttocks, knock-knees or large stomach. These conventions charted the route to the highly technical forms of classical ballet, as we know it at the start of the twenty-first century.
Louis IV, the Sun King of France (1638–1715), an ardent lover of dance and an enthusiastic dancer himself, established the Académie Royale de Musique. Here the steps and postures that he and his courtiers loved were formalized and refined, and the French terms that had been used well before Louis's reign were consolidated. French ballet terms are now a world-wide language. A classically trained dancer can follow without difficulty a ballet class in New York, Shanghai, Sydney, or Florence.
Over the centuries, ballet skills have become yet more rigorous and exacting. At the same time, poise and ethereal grace must never be lost. Odile's 32 fouettés (turning en pointe, on one leg, 32 times) in Swan Lake must be delivered with effortless finesse. (The audience will think less of the ballerina who does not achieve both the number of turns and the necessary grace associated with the role.)
As with art and music, the nineteenth century witnessed immense changes in ballet, from the aerial romanticism of the ballerinas Taglioni, Elssler, and Cerrito in the first decades to the strict formulaic style of master choreographer Marius Petipa later in the century. Petipa, ballet master and choreographer for the Imperial Russian Ballet in St Petersburg from 1862, sought, above all, sculpted perfection, epitomized in his ballets The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, to the music of Tchaikovsky. Not only the individual steps but the entire tableaux of corps de ballet represent precision itself. As a rebellion against Petipa's formality and rigidity of style came the more expressive works of Russian choreographer Michael Fokine. In the first decade of the twentieth century, after the Russian Revolution, Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes in Paris, extended the boundaries of ballet in experimental, sometimes controversial works, including Stravinsky's The Firebird, Petruschka, and The Rite of Spring. The most enigmatic of Diaghilev's dancers was Vaslav Nijinsky, who interpreted his roles with primitive sensuality and often abandoned classical techniques, such as turnout.
Through the twentieth century, the classical technique and the choreographic masterpieces of the nineteenth century survived, forever preserved, indeed refined in interpretation, especially by the great ballet companies of Europe and North America. But ballet (or modern dance as it became known, to distinguish it from classical ballet) also continued to develop, becoming ever more experimental, improvised, diverging from the rigours of classical ballet. Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham are but a few of the leaders in contemporary dance, in which expression of movement and mood is conveyed through contraction of the torso, flexing of the feet, parallel position of the legs, and many other movements that are out of bounds in classical ballet.
The arduous training pursued by a modern dancer in the search for near-perfect technique results in muscular and anatomical development of the physique — a striking contrast to the first professional ballet dancers of the nineteenth century as we see them depicted in illustrations. Marie Taglioni, who made her début in Paris in 1822, though considered technically brilliant, was ‘stoop-shouldered and skinny with over-long arms’. A famous dancer of the 1840s, Fanny Cerrito, captured in a black and white photograph, appears dumpy and awkward, resembling a mushroom with her legs protruding from a huge knee-length voile skirt. Théophile Gautier, the French poet and sometime dance critic, described her as
‘short of stature and round in frame … plump, dimpled arms … a delicate ankle and well-rounded leg. Her shoulders, her bosom do not have that scrawniness characteristic of female dancers whose whole weight seems to have descended into their legs.’
Dancers now jump higher, pirouette more times — more than the naked eye can count — spend hours in traction to stretch their limbs and torsos a centimetre or two more. Like modern athletes, their aim is perfection, speed of movement, flexibility of limbs. At the same time, they must retain grace and delicacy. ‘Graceful beyond all comparisons, wonderful lightness and absence of all violent effort, or at least the appearance of it, and a modesty as new as it is delightful to witness,’ as Marie Taglioni was described when dancing at the Paris Opéra in the 1820s.
Fonteyn, M. (1980). The magic of dance. BBC Books, London
See also body language; dance; female form.
The establishment of the Académie Royale de Danse in 1661 was rapidly followed by Lully and Molière's numerous comédie-ballets, and the strong influence of French dance and Lully's music is clearly apparent in late 17th-cent. English stage works such as Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Dance continued to be incorporated into opera. When Marie Sallé came to Covent Garden in 1734, creating a stir in the ballet Pygmalion with her loose muslin dress and free hair rather than panniered skirts and wig, Handel included dance music for her troupe in his operas. Also popular in London at this time was pantomime, often performed between the acts of plays or operas. The dancing-master John Weaver claimed credit for the first pantomime with The Tavern Bilkers: probably the ‘Comical Entertainment in a Tavern between Scaramouch, Harlequin and Punchanello’ advertised at Drury Lane theatre in 1703. The theatre director John Rich was a famous Harlequin in many productions, although Weaver's The Loves of Mars and Venus (1717) ignored grotesque commedia characters and offered what he termed ‘scenical dancing’ and mime.
Sallé's expressive dancing, together with the English pantomime and the acting style of David Garrick, influenced Jean-Georges Noverre, the greatest proponent of the new ballet d'action whose central dramatic narrative was conveyed entirely by dance, mime, and music without spoken or sung text. Among Noverre's pupils was Charles-Louis Didelot, who worked in London at the turn of the 19th cent. Carlotta Grisi, the first Giselle (Paris, 1841), married choreographer Jules Perrot, formerly partner of the great Romantic ballerina Marie Taglioni. The couple worked at Her Majesty's Theatre, London, in the 1840s, and Perrot's Pas de quatre (1845) brought together four of the world's leading ballerinas: Taglioni, Grisi, Cerrito, and Grahn.
As with Noverre, the concept of a unified art-work was also central to Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, whose company had annual London seasons from 1911 to 1914. Diaghilev commissioned many of the leading artists of his time: choreographers Fokine, Massine, and Balanchine; designers Bakst, Picasso, and Cocteau; and numerous composers including Stravinsky, Debussy, Satie, and Ravel. Diaghilev helped establish classical ballet as a serious art-form and trained many of the key figures in British ballet: Marie Rambert, who in 1926 formed the company that became known as the Ballet Rambert (from 1987 the Rambert Dance Company); Ninette de Valois, who established the Vic-Wells Ballet at Sadler's Wells (known as the Royal Ballet from 1956); and Alicia Markova, whose mantle as the leading British ballerina passed to Margot Fonteyn. Renowned for her effortless technique, grace, and dramatic involvement, Fonteyn's later career included an acclaimed partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
Among leading British choreographers are Frederick Ashton, John Cranko, Kenneth MacMillan, and Antony Tudor, while important composers writing specific ballet scores included Vaughan Williams, Bliss, and Britten. Britten also exploited dance in his operas Gloriana (1953) and Death in Venice (1974). There are now numerous touring dance companies in Britain, some specializing in modern dance.
bal·let / baˈlā/ • n. an artistic dance form performed to music using precise and highly formalized set steps and gestures. Classical ballet is characterized by light, graceful, fluid movements and the use of pointe shoes. ∎ a creative work of this form or the music written for it. ∎ a group of dancers who regularly perform such works: the New York City Ballet. ∎ [in sing.] fig. an elaborate or complicated interaction between people: that delicate and cautious ballet known as the planning process.