History of dance


The earliest precursors to ballets were lavish entertainments given in the courts of Renaissance Italy. These elaborate spectacles, which united painting, poetry, music, and dancing, took place in large halls that were used also for banquets and balls. A dance performance given in 1489 actually was performed between the courses of a banquet, and the action was closely related to the menu: For instance, the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece preceded the roast lamb. The dancers based their performance on the social dances of the day.

The Italian court ballets were further developed in France. Le Ballet Comique de la Reine (The Queen’s Ballet Comedy), the first ballet for which a complete score survived, was performed in Paris in 1581. It was staged by Balthazar de Beaujoyeux, a violinist and dancing master at the court of Queen Catherine de M.dicis. It was danced by aristocratic amateurs in a hall with the royal family on a dais at one end and spectators in galleries on three sides. Since much of the audience saw the ballet from above, the choreography emphasized the elaborate floor patterns created by lines and groups of dancers. Poetry and songs accompanied the dances.

Most French court ballets consisted of dance scenes linked by a minimum of plot. Because they were designed principally for the entertainment of the aristocracy, rich costumes, scenery, and elaborate stage effects were emphasized. The proscenium stage (see Theater Production) was first adopted in France in the mid-1600s, and professional dancers made their first appearance, although they were not permitted to dance in the grand ballet that concluded the performance; this was still reserved for the king and courtiers.
The court ballet reached its peak during the reign (1643-1715) of Louis XIV, whose title the Sun King was derived from a role he danced in a ballet. Many of the ballets presented at his court were created by the Italian-French composer Jean Baptiste Lully and the French choreographer Pierre Beauchamp, who is said to have defined the five positions of the feet. Also during this time, the playwright MoliSre invented the com, die-ballet, in which danced interludes alternated with spoken scenes.
Professional ballet began with the king’s dancing academy. With serious training, the French professionals developed skills that had been impossible for the amateurs. Similar companies developed in other European countries. One of the greatest was the Russian Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg, whose school was founded in 1738.

Ballet today. During the mid-1900’s, many choreographers based their works on dramatic action. For example, Pillar of Fire (1942), by Antony Tudor of the United Kingdom, told a story of rebellion and repentance. Fancy Free (1944), by the American choreographer Jerome Robbins, featured three sailors looking for fun in New York City. In Germany, the British choreographer John Cranko created full-length ballets for the Stuttgart Ballet based on plots from works by William Shakespeare and Alexander Pushkin.

Today however, many choreographers prefer to display dancing without a story-either as an expression of the music or as a study in a particular style of movement. The greatest influence in this type of ballet was George Balanchine of the New York City Ballet. Balanchine’s works included a series of collaborations with the Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky, which reached its height in the masterpiece Agon (1957). Balanchine also created choreography for more romantic music, such as Vienna Waltzes (1977). Sir Frederick Ashton of the United Kingdom’s Royal Ballet also choreographed nondramatic ballets, such as Symphonic Variations (1946) and Monotones (1966). Outstanding teachers of the art of ballet during the 1900’s have included the Irish-born Dame Ninette de Valois, founder of the company that eventually became the Royal Ballet; the Polish-born British ballet director Dame Marie Rambert; and the gifted Russian-British teacher Vera Volkova.

Great ballerinas of the mid-1900’s included Melissa Hayden and Nora Kaye of the United States, Maya Plisetskaya of Russia, and Dame Margot Fonteyn of the United Kingdom. Famous male dancers of that period included Jacques D’Amboise and Edward Villella of the United States and Erik Bruhn of Denmark. Three performers who were born and trained in what was then the Soviet Union successfully continued their careers after settling in the West. They were Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova, and Rudolf Nureyev. Other stars include the American ballerina Darci Kistler, the Russian dancer Irek Mukhamedov, and the French ballerina Sylvie Guillem.