The History of Classical Ballet

Ballet originated during the Italian Renaissance and was first experienced in 1489 during a royal wedding banquet where the dancers performed short combinations representing each of the dishes being served. The words ballet and ball are both derived from the Italian word ballare which means to dance. Ballet spread to the ballrooms of France were it was performed only by the nobility and was restricted to the royal courts where it remained their domain for the next 200 years. Both France and Italy contributed to the development of court dance.

The dancers in the earliest ballets were not highly skilled professionals like today but were instead noble amateurs. The steps and movements they executed derived from the social dances of the time alongside ancient folk dances. These amateurs performed in large chambers with their audiences seated on tiers surrounded on three sides of the dance floor. Viewed from above the spectator’s attention was focused on the floor patterns traced by the dancers as they moved about. 


Over time these dance combinations developed into dances such as the Allemande, Gavotte, Menuet (minuet) Sarabande Tambourin, each with their own style which emphasized the grace, decorum and refined elegance of the Baroque period rather than feats of strength and agility tht we see today. Such dances acknowledged polite society of the genteel nature of 17th century courts, and performances were usually quite lengthy and performed at a leisurely pace often for up to 5 hours. However, their dancer’s costumes were based on the fashionable court dress of the day and were meant primarily to impress the audience with their opulence rather than for freedom of movement and comfort, which was only a secondary consideration.


King Louis XIV of France an accomplished dancer appeared as the Sun god, Apollo in Le Ballet de la Nuit at the age of 15 in 1653. Louis love to dance and frequently performed in court ballets during the early half of his reign. In general, Louis was an eager dancer who performed 80 roles in 40 major ballets. 

The playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Moliere is considered very influential in transitioning what was simply amateur court room ballet into a more professional theatrical art form. Having been invited to stage both a ballet and a play for the Louis XIV in 1661 Moliere created his dance Comedies-ballets, alongside his play Les Facheux. Finding that he had a lack of dancers he decided to combine both the dance and play together thus introducing, more by luck, what we might recognize today as the modern art form of classical ballet, a story based dance.

Later that year ballet got a great boost when Louis XIV opened a dance academy in Paris, inside an old abandoned indoor tennis court, where he was personally instructed by Beauchamp. This small academy, the Académie Royale de Danse would emerge to become the world’s first professional theatrical ballet company, eventually known later as The Paris Opera Ballet, Beauchamp would in 1671 became its first director. It was here that the first professional theatre dancers were trained, and dance moved from the court into the public theatres.


As director of the Academy Beauchamp recruited only the most talented males from the Parisian masters to enrol in his school. Professional dancers began to evolve technical feats that demanded a high degree of training and skill such as pirouettes, cabrioles and entrechat. Ballet had become more structured and elaborate, demanding from its dancer’s greater strength and balance with increased virtuosic technique. The professional achievements exceeded the range of even the most accomplished amateur. 

Ballet was now for athletes, and as it was considered inappropriate for women at time to participate in such bold and daring moves girls were not permitted into the academy. All the female parts were instead performed by males. It was during this period that the dance language and vocabulary we know today developed which is why to this day all ballet vocabulary is in French. 


As the 17th century progressed ballet in France gradually transformed away from the diversion of the noble amateur into a professional art. The Italian composer Jean-Baptiste Lully, who was an accomplished court dancer, was instrumental in helping to transfer ballet from a royal court entertainment into a professional art. Music and dance was closely linked during this time and ballet and opera were often performed together as they were not yet considered separate art forms. Ballet and opera began to develop independently. 

During the 17th century Russia had taken pride in its isolation, choosing not to meddle in Western customs, art and traditions. However, this stance shifted with the rise of Peter the Great in 1696 whose vision was to challenge the West with grand architectural feats and renewed art and cultural norms. Unlike France, where ballet was exclusively enjoyed by the rich upper gentry, Russian ballet was inexpensive and beloved by the humblest of classes.


Following the French Revolution of 1789, women abandoned paniers and corsets for floating Grecian style dresses, which emphasized the body. Dancers followed fashion and these dresses meant they could perform a greater range of movement. They now wore flat slippers, which allowed greater flexibility in the foot, and women developed the trick of rising on tiptoe (on demi-pointe). Now that costumes had become freer, men and women could dance together. 

In 1798 the Bishop made a furious speech in the House of Lords accusing contemporary society of loose morals. He blamed this corruption on the influence of Catholic France and spoke of 'the allurements of the most indecent attitudes, and the most wanton theatrical exhibitions' of the dancers at the King's Theatre. He was convinced that the French government had sent the dancers over to 'taint and undermine the morals of our ingenuous youth' in a deliberate attempt to weaken Britain in preparation for invasion.


In the 1840s, the centre of the ballet world shifted from Paris to St Petersburg in Russia when a French dancer named Marius Petipa went to Russia. Petipa worked with the composer Peter Tchaikovsky and went on to produce more than 50 ballets including some of the most famous masterpieces such as, Don Quixote 1869 Swan Lake 1875, Sleeping Beauty 1890, and the Nutcracker 1892. He combined the best of the French and Italian schools giving ballet a new artistic direction. During the Romanic period of the 19th century ballet achieved its modern identity with the introduction of pointe technique and the bouffant skirts, all designed to create the illusion of weightlessness and effortlessness. Created for the female dancer the prestige and honour that had been experienced by the male dancer until that point was lost. 

As the Paris opera Ballet fell into decline at the late 1900s  (p133 Au) the renowned choreographer Alexander Gorsky was appointed ballet master at the Bolshoi in Russia. With Gorsky’s influence, the Bolshoi developed its own signature style, and helped to cement the Bolshoi as Russia’s leading ballet troupe.During this ’Golden Age’ the words ‘Russian Ballet’ simply spelt magic to the general public during the first two decades of the 20th Century and it was during this time that dancers such as Vaslam Nijinsky and Mikhail Baryshnikov passed into legend. 

However, as the world looked on in awe the rest of Europe began to experience the art deco movement.  Russia during the repressive era of 1920’s, was closed to the influences of this new movement As a result a quiet exodus began as Russian dancers craved more artist freedom. The Russian monopoly on western ballet began to weaken.


Amongst those who left Russia was Sergei Diaghilev who left for France in 1909 and formed ‘Ballet Russes’. Passionate about protecting the arts Diaghilev took it upon himself to ensure that the great Russian ballet heritage could continue to be enjoyed by everyone. Although neither a dancer of a choreographer Diaghilev recognized that for ballet to survive it needed a new approach. It was ballet technique rather than the sheer feat of virtuosity that had to be used as a vehicle of expression, and it was through his company that he was able to do this. Bringing together the most talented group of artists Ballet Diaghilev performed around the world introducing ballet to people for the first time. 

However, Diaghilev, was renowned for creating ‘shocking’ Neo-classical works considered scandalous at the time. In1913 riots broke out during one ballet performance of ‘Le  Sacre du printemps’’ with the audience making so much noise the dancers could hardly hear the music. Even before the conductor had stated the overture sections of the audience attacked another and then proceeded to throw vegetables at the orchestra. With Diaghilev’s unexpected death in 1929, Ballet Russes ceased to exist crushed by massive debt as much as by lack of leadership’ (Shearer, M, 1986, p79) In 1932 however Ballet Russes was reformed pulling together many of the original dancers who then went on to perform around the world until the outbreak of World War Two


During this time the renowned Paris Opera dancer Leon Espinosa  settled in London with his family along with his son Edouard. A Russian born dancer Edouard Espinosa recognized that the teaching profession in Britain was completely disorganized and unregulated. He was deeply concerned about the quality of teaching and as a response developed the graded examination syllabus, the same system we still use to this day. His school, founded in 1908. was the first to hold examinations and issue certificates to students. 

In an article written in the Dancing Times in 1916 he also advocated the testing of ballet teachers, something unheard of in England at the time (Linton 2014) His passion for sound teaching pedagogy was endless and he was the leading force in the instigation of setting up the Association of Operatic Dancing which later become the Royal Academy of Dance. Espinosa resigned from the committee of the AOD probably because he was unhappy with the changed that were being made to the examination process, primarily that candidates were no longer to be asked questions from their execution. As a result, in 1930 Espinosa went on to set up the British Ballet Organization now known as BBOdance.


Another young dancer, George Balanchine who had spent his formative years dancing the lavishly produced romantic ballets of Marius Petipa was also eager to explore his choreographic interests. Eventually in 1925, having secured permission to tour Europe Balanchine left Russia with ‘Young Ballet’, the group he had formed as a vehicle for his own choreographic experiments. With no intention of returning ‘Young Ballet’ toured Europe for three seasons before Diaghilev, who had been touring Europe creating ‘shocking’ Neo-classical works considered scandalous, convinced Balanchine to join his dance company where he choreographed several works including, Apollo, (1928) and Prodigal Son (1929) before Diaghilev’s unexpected death two years later. 

Balanchine continued working around Europe until in 1933 a wealthy young Bostonian, Lincoln Kirstein approached Balanchine with the offer of creating a truly American ballet. Kirstein realized he was not equipped to be a dancer, but was determined to emulate Diaghilev, of whom he was to write ‘He created a taste in and of his own period, he set up the only referable standards of the aesthetic excellence in the first quarter of the twentieth century’. (Gottlieb, R, 2004, p68)An admirer of Balanchine’s work since watching Prodigal Son several years earlier Kirstein understood his dance style, ‘Ballet is about dancing to music, not painting to pantomime’ he said. (Taper, B, 1984, p150)  Whilst travelling around Europe in the summer of 1929 Kirstein had accidently stumbled upon Diaghilev’s funeral cortege in Venice : an omen if there ever was one. 

Understanding the indelible link between training and choreography Balanchine accepted Kirstein’s offer to move to America with a famous proviso: ‘But first, a school’ realized in 1934 in the form of The School of American Ballet. Balanchine invented a new kind of dancer for his ballets, fast, flexible, mobile, energetic, conspicuous and distinctly American. What Balanchine imparted was ‘Essentially what he learned at the Imperial Theatre School but speeded up the process’.


Balanchine’s revolution was to dethrone the ballerina and established the sovereignty of choreography seeing dancers as just an extension of the scenery. Elaborate sets gave way to clean stages and replaced traditional tutus with plain leotards and tights, termed ‘The House Style’ This simplified style allowed for the dancers’ movement to become the main artistic medium, the hallmark of neoclassical ballet. ‘Balanchine moved away from Petipa’s extravagant, lavish ballets and changed the image of the ballerina from a graceful fairy into a sleek greyhound’, 

Balanchine believed that ‘Dance is its own language’ and trained the audience to look at dance in an impersonal way, in a move away from classical ballet’s star-struck focus of the prima ballerina’. Balanchine pushed boundaries and in 1960 used Arthur Mitchell to perform ‘Agon’. Mitchell was the first African American principal dancer in any major ballet company. Balanchine not only went on to form New York City Ballet in1948 but often working alongside Stravinsky went on to produce an enormous body of 425 works which remain a standard-bearer of modern choreography.

It wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980’ that evidence of Kasian Goleizovsky and Fyodor Lopukhov, both at the vanguard of 1920s Russian experimentalism, began to surface. When Balanchine was dancing at the Imperial Ballet, Lopukhov who believed dance should spring from and correspond to the music, and Goleizovsky who believed the flow of movement was the essential ingredient to dance and introduced into his choreography elements from gymnastics acrobatics and popular social dances. (Au, S, 2016, p104) The influence of Lopukhov and Goleizovsky, ‘Showed itself most obviously in Balanchine’s penchant for unconventional movements