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History of ballet
Laura Tong in Les Sylphides. Photography Alex Makeyev

Laura Tong in Les Sylphides. Photo Alex Makeyev

The 17th – 19th centuries

As civilisation progresses so does dance. Originally a way to express spiritual beliefs, to honour past achievements or to pass on knowledge, dance continues to be an important part of our lives.

Ballet began as a clever way to fill the time between the courses at a banquet. To celebrate the marriage of Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan and Isabel Aragon of Torrona in 1489, Bergonzio di Botta presented a series of entrées, choreographed to complement the many different courses he was serving. It started a fashion. Ballet became an elegant pastime for royalty; a way for them to show how cultured, talented and wealthy they were.

One of the most talented, cultured and wealthy women of the time was Catherine de Medici who married Henry II of France. At the French court in 1581 she staged what is regarded as the first court ballet, Ballet Comique de la Reine Louise. Instead of a series of divertissements, it was based on a story, the legend of Circe, about an enchantress who turned men into animals. Performed almost entirely by royalty, it lasted five and a half hours, and cost more than three and a half million gold francs, almost bankrupting the French court. However it was immensely successful and served to underline the power and majesty of France.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in La Fille mal gardee

Artists of The Australian Ballet in La Fille mal gardee. Photo Stephen Gray

All of the kings of France danced, but it was during the reign of Louis XIV (1643–1715) that court ballet reached its peak. Louis XIV loved to dance, becoming known as 'The Sun King' after the role he portrayed in the Ballet de la Nuit in 1653. In 1661 he ensured that dancing would be regarded as an art and not merely a craft by founding the Academie Royale de Danse, consisting of 13 ballet masters who he charged with the task of “re-establishing the art in its perfection”. It was the king's ballet master Pierre Beauchamps who established the important principle that each leg must be 'turned-out' – a theatrical adaptation of the fencer's stance – and that the feet must move to and from the five fundamental foot positions of classical ballet.

When Louis XIV retired from dancing in 1670, ballets moved from the court to the theatre and fewer of the nobility appeared in them. At first the only dancers on stage were men. Female roles, as in Shakespeare's plays, were performed by slender young men wearing women's costumes, wigs and masks. This all changed in 1681 when, led by Mademoiselle de Lafontaine, the first female dancers to perform professionally in a theatre appeared in Le Triomphe de l'Amour.

Well into the eighteenth century, dancers of both sexes were encumbered by masks, wigs or large headdresses, and heeled shoes. Women wore panniers, hoop skirts draped at the sides for fullness. Men also often wore a hooped skirt, the knee-length tonnelet. These costumes made it difficult for dance technique to progress. When Marie Camargo shocked French audiences by shortening her skirt to ankle length, she not only allowed her sparkling jumps and beats to be seen, but also encouraged cleaner and more accurate footwork.

While the dancers of the Paris Opéra concentrated on the brilliance of their technique, choreographers in other centres of ballet were experimenting with the dramatic side of dance. In London, the English choreographer John Weaver tried to convey dramatic action solely through dance and pantomime, and in Vienna the Austrian choreographer Franz Hilferding and his Italian pupil Gasparo Angiolini experimented with dramatic themes and gestures.

Olivia Bell in Scheherazade. Photography Justin Smith

Olivia Bell in Scheherazade. Photo Justin Smith

The most famous 18th century advocate of the dramatic ballet was Frenchman Jean George Noverre, whose Letters on Dancing and Ballet (1760) influenced many choreographers both during and after his lifetime. He advocated costume reform, especially the removal of masks; believed that all movements should be natural and easily understood; and emphasised that all the elements of a ballet should work in harmony to express the ballet's theme. Noverre found an outlet for his ideas in Stuttgart, Germany where he first produced his most famous ballet, Medea and Jason (1763).

One of Noverre's most famous pupils was Jean Dauberval, whose ballet La Fille mal gardée (1789) applied Noverre's ideas to a comic theme. Dauberval's ideas were further developed by his Italian pupil Salvatore Vigano, who worked at La Scala in Milan, where he experimented with a variety of expressive pantomime performed in strict time to the music. Meanwhile in London, Charles Didelot, a French student of both Noverre and Dauberval, produced the ballet Flore et Zephire (1796), in which invisible wires helped dancers appear to fly.

Dancing on toe began to develop at about this time, although dancers were only able to balance on the tips of their toes for a moment or two, because blocked toe shoes had not yet been invented, and dancers merely strengthened their light ballet slippers with darning. Meanwhile dance technique was continuing to evolve in Italy where Carlo Blasis recorded the latest advances in his Code of Terpsichore (1830). He is credited with inventing the attitude, derived from a famous work by the Flemish sculptor Giambologna, a statue of the god Mercury poised lightly on the toes of the left foot.

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Fun facts

Igor Stravinsky's first composition for ballet was Firebird in 1910. He produced 12 more scores, the last being Agon.



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