A SHORT HISTORY OF BALLET
Dancing, like music, is one of mankind's oldest art forms. In villages and towns around the world, dancing has always been a form of entertainment and celebration and, in many instances, helped to mark religious occasions.
Dance evolved over the centuries, achieving great heights during the Renaissance when theatrical, rather than social, dancing took shape through the introduction of the ballo. This was an Italian form of entertainment in which simple country dances were adopted by the nobility and executed by the men and women of the court.
When Catherine de Medici of Italy married Henry II of France in the 15th century, she brought the ballo tradition with her to France. Ballet was born during the 16th century as Medici devised the ballet de cour entertainment at court in which courtiers danced, sang, recited dialogues and mimed or gestured to an accompaniment of instrumental music.
The first ballet that told a story through dancing was Le Ballet Comique de la Reine, which was presented at the French court in 1581. This type of entertainment became so popular that the members of the nobility all acquired dancing masters to give them lessons in ballet.
In the 17th century, King Louis XIV of France, known as the Sun King, not only greatly admired ballet spectacles but participated in them. He had his own private dance master and he founded the first dance academy in Paris in 1661. In the academy, the ballet masters of the period took on the task of codifying the numerous steps and combinations of moves. It is these same steps that have been handed down through the centuries and form the basis of today's classical ballet vocabulary.
Ballet thus became a very popular art form. At first performances were restricted to the royal courts and the dancers were courtiers, but soon ballets began appearing on the newly built proscenium-arch stages (after which today's theatre stages are modelled). In time, learning to dance stopped being only a hobby for the nobility. Dance became a profession and dancers were trained and developed strong technique.
At first only men appeared on the stage and wore masks to distinguish the sex of the characters they played, but by 1685 women began appearing on professional stages.
In productions of the 17th century, dancers' movements were greatly restricted, not only by the masks they wore but also by heavy brocade costumes and large head-dresses and ornaments. Dancing shoes also had tiny heels that made pointing the toes rather difficult.
In the early 18th century, the great ballerina Marie Camargo shocked audiences by shortening her skirts to just above the ankle. She did this to be freer in her movements and, since she performed intricate footwork and jumps, she wanted her audience to see and appreciate her technique.
By 1830, ballet came truly into its own as a theatrical art. Influenced by the Romantic movement, which was sweeping the world of art, music, literature and philosophy, ballet took on a whole new look. Writers such as Thophile Gautier paid tribute to the female dance muses of the time who inspired flights of fantasy and amorous liaisons. The beautiful, light and elusive ballerina reigned supreme. Female dancers wore calf-length, white, bell-shaped tulle skirts. And with the introduction of the pointe shoe they began dancing on the tips of their toes.
Male dancers began wearing tights, long-sleeved shirts and shorter jackets that greatly facilitated their movements. Ballet technique for both men and women expanded and developed because of these lighter costumes. Many ballets from this period, including Giselle, La Sylphide and Napoli, remain in the ballet repertoire and are a constant challenge for today's dancers.
Just before the turn of the century, in the 1890s, the centre of ballet moved from France to Russia. There the renowned French-born choreographer Marius Petipa collaborated with composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky on lavish story ballet spectacles that brought ballet to a pinnacle of technical virtuosity. These ballets included Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker . Petipa also created works that continued to challenge dancers with their technical and artistic demands for razor-sharp precision graced with flowing ease. These works included La Bayadère Act II, Paquita and Don Quixote.
In 1909, the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev brought together some of Russia's most talented dancers, choreographers, composers, singers, artists and designers in his company, the Ballets Russes. The troupe took Paris by storm as it introduced whole new aspects of classical ballet to the world. Diaghilev's company presented the first one-act ballets. Tightly constructed, exotic and often abstract, these works challenged preconceived notions of the potential of classical dance. Such works included Michel Fokine's Schhrazade, The Firebird, Petrouchka and Les Sylphides; Vaslav Nijinsky's The Rite of Spring and L'Apres Midi d'un Faune; Bronislava Nijinska's Les Noces and Les Biches and George Balanchine's Apollo and Prodigal Son.
Almost all contemporary ballet companies and dancers have been influenced by the impact of the Ballets Russes. George Balanchine left Diaghilev's company and went to the United States to found the New York City Ballet; Ninette de Valois and Marie Rambert went on to found, respectively, England's Royal Ballet and the Rambert Ballet Company. It is from these roots in England that Celia Franca came to Canada in 1951 to found The National Ballet of Canada.
Modern dance developed at the beginning of the 20th century from the barefoot, free-style dances performed by Isadora Duncan and the colourful light spectacles of Loie Fuller. In Germany, Mary Wigman and Rudolf von Laban established modern dance vocabularies based on natural body shapes and movement. In the United States, Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis turned to Eastern philosophies for inspiration. From the companies of Shawn and St. Denis emerged modern dance pioneers Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham. Humphrey and Graham developed definitive styles of movement that are today incorporated in the works of many choreographers.
The American choreographer Glen Tetley studied with Graham as well as with Hanya Holm, who was a student of Wigman's; Toronto's Danny Grossman and David Parsons studied and worked with Paul Taylor, who was a student of Graham's; and Jose Limon was a disciple of Humphrey's. As you can see, the world of dance is all inter-connected and its rich history and tradition has been passed down from generation to generation.
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