Thursday, January 4, 2018

Ballet: The beginning of ballet

Ballet comes from the Italian word, ballareto, to dance. The word ballet first appeared in 1416 when Domenico di Piacenza wrote "On the Art of Dancing and Conducting Dances" (De Arte Saltandi ed Choreas Ducendi). He described the components of various dances and divided them into 12 movements i.e. nine natural and three artificial. Ballet describes the classic, formalised solo or ensemble dancing of a disciplined, dramatic nature performed to music. Foreshadowed in mummeries and masquerades, it emerged as a distinct form in Italy before the 16th cent.

During the Renaissance (from the 14th to the 17th century) there were huge pageants where dancers were both members of the aristocracy and hired performers. These occasions were often used to impress the nobility of neighbouring states. Dancers wore "contemporary" court fashions with full wigs, bloomers for men, and hard shoes. Ladies wore heavy long-skirted gowns for the women. Court spectacles had casts of hundreds and audiences numbering in the thousands. Some people consider the first ballet took place in 1489 at a banquet in Italy directed by Bergonzio di Botta. Each course of the meal was heralded with a dance called an "entree". On at least one occasion the scenes and stage machinery was made by Leonardo da Vinci.

In 1490, da Vinci designed an extravaganza to entertain the Duke of Milan. In keeping with his genius, the presentation was based on astronomy. The ancient Greek concept of the cosmic dance was incorporated into the Renaissance worldview. The motions of the dancers were understood to mirror the harmony and order to the celestial bodies. Dance was thought to establish order out of chaos and bring peace and harmony to those involved in the event, either as participants or spectators. During the 1400s men were considered the earliest "ballet masters, " but most historians, believe the performance of the Ballet Comique de la Royne (Circe) at the Palais du Petit Bourbon in Paris was the birth of ballet (1581). Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx staged the ballet in front of an audience of ten thousand people for Queen Louise of France. The first ballet combined dance, decor, and special effects with drama (comique) and lasted five hours. When in the same year Fabritio Caroso published Il Ballarino, Italy became the world centre for ballet.

Guglielmo Ebreo da Pesaro (William the Jew) was a fifteenth century dancing master who wrote a treatise on dancing called Trattato dell' Arte del Ballare. Not only is this one of the earliest written references to dancing choreography it was also written for professionals and amateurs to perform balletti at festive balls. When dancing became popular in theatre it was called intermezzos and performed between the acts of classical comedies, tragedies, or operas.

A few years later Thoinot Arbeau (1519 - 1595) wrote 'Orchesoraphie' which set forth the dance steps and rhythms that became the ballet postures and movements in the 17th and 18th centuries. The 17th century court ballets were danced by males and only until 1681 and incorporated dance and drama. Choreographic notation came be traced to the 18th century when ballet was used to explore mythological themes.

In 1700 Choreographie, ou l'art de decrire la danse was published by Raoul Auger Feuillet (c1653– c1709)in France. The author recorded both conventions of stage and ballroom dancing and attempted to create a dance notation similar to music. Although this notation was never finalised and standardised, it remains the system still in use today. The word choreographie translated became choreography and is derived from the Greek khorea, (to dance), and graphein, (to write).

By 1700 many of the words and movements common in today's ballet were already in use, including jete, sissone, chasse, entrechat, pirouette, and cabriole. In 1713 the Paris Opera established its own dance school, which taught a technique based on Feuillet's writings. Italian influence brought elevated and less horizontal movement, and Pierre Beauchamps established the five basic foot positions.

Marie Camargo (1710 - 1770) introduced a shortened skirt, tights, and the first ballet slippers, allowing great freedom of movement. Her rival, Marie SallĂ© (1707–1756), the first female choreographer), wore a liberating, Grecian-style costume.

The ballet d'action, was developed circa 1760 by Jean Georges Noverre and told a story through movement and facial expression. Modern ballet technique, stressing the turned-out leg and resulting variety of movement, was set down in 1820 by Carlo Blasis. With La Sylphide (1832) the romantic period began. Brilliant choreography emphasised the beauty and virtuosity of the prima ballerina whereas the male dancer functioned only as her partner until the 20th century, when virtuoso male dancing was revived. Conflicts of reality and illusion, flesh and spirit were revealed in romantic love stories and fairy tales.

Under the pressure of naturalism in the theatre, ballet declined through the mid 19th century but after 1875 a renaissance in romantic ballet began in Russia, where Marius Petipa and other European masters created many of the great standard ballets, like Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake.

In 1909 the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev brought his Ballets Russes to Paris. In the following 20 years the Russian style, with the revolutionary music of composers like Stravinsky and modified by the modern dance influences of Isadora Duncan and others, brought the ballet renaissance to Europe and America. Paris, London, and New York City became major centres.

Today Russian and English ballet continues to exemplify one major trend, toward storytelling and lavish production. American ballet, under the influence of George Balanchine, displays an opposing tendency toward abstraction in theme and simplicity in design.


Light foot binding was known to take place in both the French and Italian Courts, practised by courtesans keen to attract the attention of the regent. Ballet shoes are thought, by some, to be an historic remnant of this practice.

Reviewed 7/01/2016

No comments: