Ballet, as we know it today, had its origin during the Renaissance period in the year 1500. In fact, the term “ballet” comes from the Italian ballare, which means to dance. Ballet, like opera and other opulent occasions, was a lavish event among the nobility. To give a historical account, this dance form originated when Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France funded ballet in the French courts in the 16th century. The aim was to express social superiority by hosting magnificent and artistic spectacles for the noblemen of the court.
Following this, King Louis XIV of France assisted in disseminating ballet as an art form and he himself took part in various productions, including the role of ‘The Sun King’ in Ballet de la Nuit. A few years later, the Paris Opera Company was established and the aristocracy no longer performed in ballets. There onwards this dance was considered a profession, rather than a hobby, based on specialized training. Slowly, Ballet began to be accepted in society as the court dances grew in size and grandeur to the point where performances were presented on elevated platforms so that a greater audience could watch the increasingly elaborate spectacles.
In the 19th century, female ballerinas progressed in the period known as the romantic era, full of classical ballet, art, music and literature. Ballerinas at this time were perceived as passive and fragile. In this way, the characters that female ballerinas portrayed on stage emphasised that identity struggle. From Italian roots, ballet in Russia developed its own stylistic character. Dancing en pointe (on toe) in Russia became popular during the early part of the 19th century, with only women performing in white, bell-like skirts that ended at the calf.
However, moving onto the 20th & 21st century of ballet, choreographers such as Vaslav Nijinsky, Isadora Duncan and Matthew Bourne pushed the boundaries of ballet, and experimented with storytelling, set, lighting and costume. This was done in order to break the conventions of classical ballet and establish their own creative choreography. The transition between ballet and contemporary dance was viewed as controversial in the early 20th century. Vaslav Nijinsky, a Russian ballet dancer, was notorious for his contentious choreographic ideas. His works were branded as radical and unorthodox that turned their backs on the classical heritage and thus garnered the accolade of being ballet’s first ‘modern’ choreography’. His famous and controversial work, ‘The Rite Of Spring’, in 1913, outraged the audience by depicting themes of pagan rites and sacrificial virgins.
Another contemporary ballet dancer who brought changes to this dance form was Isadora Duncan, who was recognised for her inspiration from Greek dance and art. During this period, women were fighting for equality during the Suffragette Movement, which suggests that Isadora Duncan’s work was to make a political statement. She became apparent in her choreographic choices as the movements were more self-expressive rather than typical balletic suspension. Her costume choices represented what she stood for as the Greek inspired dresses were non-restricting, thereby breaking away from corsets and allowing the dancer to glide freely. Duncan’s outspokenness came in the form of telling outrageous stories and expressing painful truths.
Storytelling was one of the main attributes of classical ballet. A dancer who utilized this form of performance and coupled it with ballet in a contemporary style, was Matthew Bourne. His most popular production, ‘Swan Lake’, with men dancing as swans became an acclaimed success. Male stereotyping in ballet was a cause for concern for young male dancers as people associated ballet with girls and therefore assumed that boys who took part in it were homosexual. Swan Lake invited the audience to see that male dancers could also find the grace and articulation of a corps de ballet, similar to female dancers, and yet make it appear strong and masculine.
Today’s ballet dancers are expected to perform a wider range of movements and dance styles than ever before. Since the 1990s, an intensified interest in athleticism, speed and hyper-flexibility has seen many contemporary ballets explore the aesthetics of endurance itself and is increasingly being viewed as a sport. The famous French ballerina Sylvie Guillem, with her “six-o’clock” extension and sculpted muscles, has inspired the new frontier of technique. Looking into the future, some will continue to view Ballet as an art to be enjoyed as an entertainment. Others will refer to its athleticism and and consider it a competitive sport. Those who take part in ballet may see it as an opportunity for self-expression, such as Isadora Duncan, who will see it as a gift to move and to train equally with others, no matter the gender, age, race or size.