Ballet is a lovely poem in movement, a dreamy floating cloud, grace itself. I love ballet, since I was a little girl, and for some years, I had classes with a very talented ballerina. Once I even danced the rôle of Titania, in Mendelssohn’s “Midnight Summer Dream”. I felt like the queen of the fairies, with my vaporous light gray costume, embroidered with tiny crystal beads. They shone at each movement I made. I will never forget the enchantment.
And whenever I look at them,I am amazed at the delicate grace of Edgar Degas’ precious figurines…
Ballet is a form of dancing performed for theatre audiences. Like other
dance forms, ballet may tell a story, express a mood, or simply reflect the music. But a ballet dancer’s technique (way of performing) and special skills differ greatly from those of other dancers. Ballet dancers perform many movements that are unnatural for the body. But when these movements are well executed, they look natural.
Ballet dancers seem to ignore the law of gravity as they float through the air in long, slow leaps. They keep perfect balance while they spin like tops without becoming dizzy. During certain steps, their feet move so rapidly that the eye can hardly follow the movements. The women often dance on the tips of their toes, and the men lift them high overhead as if they were as light as feathers.
The dancers take joy in controlling their bodies, and ballet audiences share their feelings. The spectators can feel as though they are gliding and spinning with the dancers. Simply by using their bodies, ballet dancers are able to express many emotions, such as anger, fear, jealousy, joy, and sadness. The lines of the dancers’ bodies form beautiful, harmonious designs. Ballet technique is called classical because it stresses this purity and harmony of design.
In addition to the dance form called ballet, an individual dance work or performance using classical ballet technique is called a ballet. Any dance work involving a group of dancers may also be called a ballet even though it may not use classical ballet technique. For example, works of modern dance, musical comedy, and dance on television programmes may or may not include this technique, but many of them are called ballets. Classical ballet technique originally developed in France during the 1600’s. Today, French words are used in all parts of the world for the various steps and positions of classical ballet.
Ballets are staged and performed by ballet companies. The artistic director of a company is in charge of staging a ballet. In some companies, he or she is also the choreographer, who arranges a ballet’s dance movements and teaches them to the dancers. After a company decides to perform a ballet, the artistic director tries to produce a harmonious work of art by blending all the parts of the ballet. These parts include the dancing, music, scenery, and costumes–all based on the ballet’s story or mood. A ballet can be performed without music, scenery, or costumes. But most ballets use all three parts.
The choreographer, composer, and scenery and costume designer work together as a team. But the dancing is the most important part of a ballet. The designer must plan scenery and costumes that allow the dancers space and freedom of movement.
Different ballet styles have developed in various countries. For example, the style that developed in the United States tends to be energetic and fast. Ballet in Russia is often forceful and showy, and French ballet is generally pretty and decorative. Ballet dancers travel throughout the world and adopt different features of foreign styles. As a result of these international influences, all ballet is continually being broadened and enriched.
BALLET : Dancers and their training
A ballet dancer can perform the difficult steps of ballet only after many years of hard training. The best age for a person to begin ballet lessons is when he or she is between 8 and 10 years old. A serious student–one who plans a professional dancing career–may be taking three to six lessons a week by the age of 12. Most dancers become professionals before they are 20, and retire by 45. It is difficult for a dancer to practise at home, and most dancers go to a studio and enrol in a class. Practice requires the space of a studio, and a piano accompaniment is helpful.
Even professional ballet dancers practise daily to remain skilled and to stay in top physical condition. During a performance, they should show no sign of strain or effort, and should appear to be completely absorbed in their dramatic role or in the music. The audience should be aware only of the beauty and expressiveness of the performance, not its technical difficulties.
To dancers, technical ability is a means to an end, not the goal itself. For example, they develop the skill to stay in balance while standing on one leg and extending the other backward. But a dancer who takes this position is not saying to the audience: “See what I can do.” Instead, he or she may be saying: “I am striving to reach something so beautiful that it does not seem to belong to this world.”
The ideal ballet dancer. Desirable physical characteristics for a ballet dancer include long arms and legs, a long neck, and a comparatively short torso. The ideal body for ballet is flexible, slim, and strong. Dancers cannot change their body proportions, but they can develop most other desirable physical features by proper training. Every great dancer began with a less than perfect body for ballet.
Ideal dancers also have certain mental characteristics. They have a feeling for rhythm and an understanding of music. They are aware of the relationships between objects in space so that they can move exactly in any direction on the stage. Like good actors, they can express a mood and make a character believable. Above all, they love ballet and dedicate themselves to it completely. Otherwise, they could not train their bodies to move beautifully and expressively in unnatural ways.
Some ballet schools do not accept beginners whose physical and mental characteristics differ too much from those of the ideal dancer. Most of these schools are operated by ballet companies, which train students for work in their organizations. The schools give children a complete physical examination to make sure nothing is seriously wrong with their bodies. Most of them also test the beginners’ feeling for rhythm and space relationships. Expressive abilities are harder to discover.
Selecting a teacher. Parents should be careful when choosing a ballet teacher for their children. A poor teacher not only is unable to teach ballet well, but also may cause the students physical harm. To please parents, he or she may force beginners to learn the difficult movements and positions of ballet too soon. For example, a girl should not be taught to dance sur les pointes (on the toes) until her feet are strong enough. She must first have a few years of training to develop her foot and leg muscles. Short cuts in training can cause serious and even permanent physical damage. Good teachers go slowly. They want to produce good dancers, not to assure parents that their children are unusually gifted.
During the early 1900’s, most ballet instruction outside France and Russia was poor. Russian companies such as Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes toured western Europe and the United States and raised public interest in ballet. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, some of Russia’s finest dancers came to stay in the West and opened excellent ballet schools. Dancers from many Western countries studied under these great Russian teachers. Many of these students later set up ballet companies in their own lands and established schools to train new generations of dancers.
Today most countries have at least one ballet company and school. Famous schools include the Russian schools of the Kirov Ballet Company in St. Petersburg and the Bolshoi Ballet Company in Moscow; the School of American Ballet in New York City; the Royal Ballet School in London; and the Rambert School of Ballet, also in London.
Ballet classes are held for both professional dancers and beginners. Professional dancers must perform various technical exercises throughout their career to keep in practice. They usually take a daily class in a dance studio and a warm-up class before each performance. Some professional dancers like to practise alone, but most prefer to work with other dancers under the watchful eye of an instructor.
Classes begin with exercises at the barre, a wooden rod attached to a wall at about waist level. Dancers rest one hand on the barre for support. This support permits them to work without having to concentrate on keeping their balance. The exercises at the barre strengthen and stretch the muscles, and warm them up for more energetic work. Beginners develop their leg and foot muscles at the barre. They also learn and practise difficult ballet positions there. Barre exercises may take from 20 to 60 minutes of a 90-minute class.
Exercises at the barre include such movements as stretching the leg and bending the knees. All the exercises are done many times to develop good dancing habits and endurance. After the students have learned the basic exercises, the teacher may speed them up. The teacher may also combine several exercises into a difficult series of movements that the students must learn quickly and perform exactly.
After the barre work, the dancers do centre work–exercises done without support. First comes practice in adagio (slow movements that develop balance and control). Then the teacher calls for allegro (fast steps that increase speed and exactness). The class ends with big, energetic jumps for the boys or men, and pointe (toe) work for the girls or women.
Classical ballet technique is based on a position of the legs called the turnout. For the turnout, dancers rotate the legs in the hip socket as far to the side as possible. The feet are in a straight line, with the heels together and the toes pointed away from the body. A perfect turnout is difficult because it is an unnatural position in which the thighbones are rotated sideways. But ballet dancers must work hard to achieve their maximum turnout, which varies from dancer to dancer. The legs can be moved more freely from the turned-out position than from a natural one. When lifted and bent, the turned-out leg helps the dancer to spin. The turned-out feet give a firm base for starting a jump. The turnout also gives a pleasing line to the design formed by the body.
The turnout is the basis of the five established positions of the dancer’s feet. Every ballet movement and pose begins and ends with one of these positions. Starting from any one of them, the dancer can move freely in any direction.
Ballet dancers can vary their movements and poses in an almost endless number of ways. For example, they may start from the fourth position of the feet to form an arabesque. This is done by extending the back leg straight behind and pointing the foot. If the raised knee is bent, an attitude is formed. In either pose, the supporting leg may be bent or straight. Dancers may keep their feet flat on the floor or stand on the balls of their feet. Women dancers are specially trained to stand on the tips of their toes. During this kind of dancing, women wear special pointe shoes. Dancers can hold their arms in any of many positions, or change their position during the pose. They may hold the pose during a jump or a turn. They may also move into a pose quickly or slowly, and hold it for a note of music or for several phrases (units) of music.
A dancer expresses different moods through variations in movement and pose. A quick, sharp arabesque may indicate anger, and an arabesque held in a light jump may show joy.
BALLET : Choreography
A ballet’s choreography (arrangement of dance movements) may be based on such sources as a story, a musical composition, or a painting. If a choreographer’s idea comes from a story, the dancers take the roles of the story’s characters. If a choreographer’s idea comes from music or a painting, the dancers create a mood or image like that of the original work.
Developing a ballet. Few choreographers know what they are going to do when they start to rehearse a new ballet. Choreographers usually have only basic plans about what they want to create and the style of movement they want to use. They develop these plans with dancers at a rehearsal. It is almost impossible for choreographers to picture what the ballet will look like. Unlike most other artists, they cannot create alone.
Choreographers seldom use words to develop and teach a new ballet. Most of them can dance, and they show the dancers the movements they want. The dancers imitate the movements until they learn their roles. Some choreographers demonstrate steps exactly. Others give a general demonstration, watch the dancers try it, and then get more ideas from them. Sometimes the choreographer may simply say something like “Please waltz around a bit,” and then adapt something a dancer happens to do. Although all choreographers have their own methods, most of these specialists are influenced by the dancers with whom they work.
If new music, costumes, and scenery are planned for a ballet, choreographers discuss their ideas with the composer and designer. Choreographers usually select these partners themselves, but sometimes the company’s artistic director may make the decision.
Recording choreography. For hundreds of years, choreographers tried to work out a usable, accurate system for recording ballets. In the 1920’s, such a system of dance notation was finally developed. It became known as Labanotation, after its inventor, Rudolf von Laban, a choreographer and teacher. The system can be used to record the choreographies of today’s ballets. See the example of Labanotation in this section.
A few great ballets of the past, including Giselle (1841) and Swan Lake (1877), have been preserved. They were performed continually because they were so successful, and were passed down from one dancer to another. But we cannot know how much of the original ballets still exist. Dancers often change the steps somewhat. Dancers may find a certain movement too difficult, they may not like a step, or they may do another step better. Some choreographers object to changes in their work. Others do not mind. In fact, choreographers may change their ballet to suit a new dancer in the cast. In dance notation, all versions can be recorded.
Films may seem to be the simplest way to record the choreography of a ballet. But films provide a better record of a ballet’s performance than of its choreography. Films move too quickly to record choreography, and they cannot show each detail of the movements performed by each dancer. In the future, films will be a valuable record of today’s great performers. But they might not show what the choreographer wanted because the greatest dancers sometimes make the most individual variations in choreography.
BALLET : Music, scenery and costumes
Music may be written especially for a ballet. But original music is expensive, and only a few large ballet companies can occasionally afford it. A choreographer usually selects music that has already been written, such as a symphony or a concerto. The music may even have given the choreographer the idea for the ballet.
Most ballets are composed to music that is no longer protected by copyright. Therefore, no payment is required to use it.
Existing music. When choreographers select music that has already been written, they think first about what appeals to them. There is no rule for selecting the music. Most people would agree that the lovely, melodic music of Franz Schubert is danceable. They might also agree that the harsh, jagged sounds and rhythms of Arnold Schoenberg’s music are not danceable. But choreographer Antony Tudor composed one of his greatest ballets, Pillar of Fire (1942), to the music of a work by Schoenberg.
After selecting the music, choreographers listen to it until they feel they understand its mood and structure. Then they begin work on the choreography of the ballet with the dancers and a pianist or a recording of the music.
Many people believe that the most musical choreographers are those who make the ballet movements follow the music’s rhythms exactly. But any beginner can do that–and such a ballet would be dull. Skilled choreographers want their ballets to express more than the music expresses. Instead of following the beats of the rhythm, they arrange dance steps that go with the longer phrases of music. To create special effects or dramatic effects, choreographers may make the steps go against the music.
Original music. In writing music for a ballet, composers work in different ways, depending on the choreographer. Some composers work from a detailed outline in which the choreographer describes the kind of music wanted for each section of the ballet. The outline may also give the number of bars of music for each section. Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky composed the music for The Nutcracker (1892) in this way. The choreographer Marius Petipa wrote to Tchaikovsky: “The Christmas tree grows and becomes huge–48 bars of fantastic music. … The nutcracker is transformed into a prince–one or two chords.”
Some choreographers prefer to describe only the mood of the ballet, leaving the composer free to create. The choreographer may call later for such changes as increasing the tempo of a slow section or shortening a long section. Most choreographers must hear the music before they can begin to work.
Some composers will not write for ballet. They fear that the choreographer may ask for changes that would ruin their music. But some of the greatest music of modern times has been written especially for ballet. Outstanding examples of such music include Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird (1910), Petrouchka (1911), The Rite of Spring (1913), Orpheus (1948), and Agon (1957). Other composers who have written great ballet music include Aaron Copland, Leo Delibes, Sergei Prokofiev, and Maurice Ravel.
A ballet’s scenery and costumes must be in harmony with each other, and both must blend with the choreography and the music. Above all, neither the set (scenery) nor the costumes should interfere with the movements of the dancers.
Most choreographers meet the set and costume designer after selecting the music for a ballet. If possible, one person should design both the set and the costumes. This seems to be the case in most European productions. Some of the world’s greatest painters have also designed ballet scenery and costumes. They include Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Rouault, and David Hockney.
Scenery. During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, a curtain called a backdrop hung at the rear of most ballet stages. A scene–for example, a castle, a forest, a lake, or a village–was painted on the curtain. Designers also built realistic reproductions of actual scenes on the stage. But such scenery took up too much room and limited the dancers’ freedom of movement.
Today, backdrops and realistic scenery are used chiefly for traditional ballets. Set designers for most new ballets prefer to suggest a ballet’s mood or scene with simple objects. They might use a piece of sculpture or folds of colourful cloth. In this way, they create a ballet’s atmosphere without crowding the stage.
More and more set designers are using modern lighting techniques to establish the mood or scene of a ballet. To create different effects, they may vary the colour or brightness of the stage lighting, either gradually or in sudden bursts. Another lighting technique is to show slides or films on the back of the stage, or even on the dancers themselves. Robert Joffrey’s ballet Astarte (1967) is an outstanding example of this technique. In Astarte, the audience sees the dancers in filmed close-ups, as well as dancing on the stage.
Costumes. In the early days of ballet, dancers wore heavy, fancy costumes. Ballet skirts came down to the floor. Dancers were less skilled than they are now, and so they were not bothered by bulky costumes. As dancers became more skilled, they wanted costumes that would not hide their steps or interfere with their movements.
During the early 1700’s, fashions in ballet costumes began to change. The great dancer Marie Camargo shortened her ballet skirt to above her ankles, and removed the heels from her dancing slippers. Ballet technique grew increasingly spectacular, and the skirts became shorter and shorter. Marie Taglioni, a dancer of the 1800’s, had a major influence on ballet fashions. For a discussion of this influence, see the Romantic Ballet section of this article. Today, the standard ballet skirt, the tutu, ends well above the knees.
The best ballet costumes are light and simple. They show all the lines of the body and never interfere with the dancer’s movements. Even in historical ballets, freedom of movement is more important than costumes that look exactly like the clothing of the time.
Ballet performers who dance on their toes wear special shoes. The tips of these shoes are made with layers of cloth and glue. The layers strengthen the tips, giving the dancer support.
BALLET : History
The beginnings of ballet can be traced to Italy during the 1400’s at the time of the Renaissance. During the Renaissance, people developed a great interest in art and learning. At the same time, trade and commerce expanded rapidly, and the dukes who ruled Florence and other Italian city-states grew in wealth. The dukes did much to promote the arts. The Italian city-states became rival art centres as well as competing commercial centres.
The Italian dukes competed with one another in giving costly, fancy entertainments that included dance performances. The dancers were not professionals. They were noblemen and noblewomen of a duke’s court who danced to please their ruler and to stir the admiration and envy of his rivals.
Catherine de Medicis, a member of the ruling family of Florence, became the queen of France in 1547. Catherine introduced into the French court the same kind of entertainments that she had known in Italy. They were staged by Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx, a gifted musician. Beaujoyeulx had come from Italy to be Catherine’s chief musician.
Ballet historians consider one of Beaujoyeulx’s entertainments, the Ballet Comique de la Reine, to be the first ballet. It was a magnificent spectacle of about 51/2 hours performed in 1581 in honour of a royal wedding. The ballet told the ancient Greek myth of Circe, who had the magical power to turn men into beasts (see CIRCE). The ballet included specially written instrumental music, singing, and spoken verse as well as dancing–all based on the story of Circe. Dance technique was extremely limited, and so Beaujoyeulx depended on spectacular costumes and scenery to impress the audience. To make sure that the audience understood the story, he provided printed copies of the verses used in the ballet. The ballet was a great success, and was much imitated in other European courts.
French leadership. The Ballet Comique de la Reine established Paris as the capital of the ballet world. King Louis XIV, who ruled France during the late 1600’s and early 1700’s, strengthened that leadership. Louis greatly enjoyed dancing. He took part in all the ballets given at his court, which his nobles performed, but stopped after he became fat and middle-aged. In 1661, Louis founded the Royal Academy of Dancing to train professional dancers to perform for him and his court.
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.
The French professional dancers became so skilled that they began to perform publicly in theatres. But in 1760, the French choreographer Jean Georges Noverre criticized the professional dancers in his book Lettres sur la danse, et sur les ballets (Letters on Dancing and Ballets). Noverre complained that the dancers cared too much about showing their technical skills, and too little about the true purpose of ballet. This purpose, he said, was to represent characters and express their feelings.
Noverre urged that ballet dancers stop using masks, bulky costumes, and large wigs to illustrate or explain plot and character. He claimed that the dancers could express these things using only their bodies and faces. So long as the dancers did not look strained or uncomfortable doing difficult steps, they could show such emotions as anger, joy, fear, and love. Noverre developed the ballet d’action, a form of dramatic ballet that told the story completely through movement.
Romantic ballet. Most of Noverre’s ballets told stories taken from ancient Greek myths or dramas. But during the early 1800’s, people no longer cared about old gods and heroes. The romantic period began as people became interested in stories of escape from the real world to dreamlike worlds or foreign lands.
Ballet technique was expanded, especially for women, to express the new ideas. For example, women dancers learned to dance on their toes. This achievement helped them look like heavenly beings visiting the earth but barely touching it. Romantic ballet presented women as ideal and, for the first time, gave them greater importance than men. Male dancers became chiefly porters, whose purpose was to lift the ballerinas (leading female dancers) and show how light they were.
The Italian choreographer Filippo Taglioni created the first romantic ballet, La Sylphide (1832), for his daughter Marie. She danced the title role of the sylphide (fairylike being) in a costume that set a new fashion for women dancers. It included a light, white skirt that ended halfway between her knees and ankles. Her arms, neck, and shoulders were bare. Marie Taglioni, with her dreamlike style, became the greatest star of the Paris stage. But soon afterward, her chief rival, the Austrian ballerina Fanny Elssler, danced in Paris and gained many followers. Her style expressed strong, human feelings. She was outstanding in the title role of La Gypsy (1839), and also became famous for her lively Spanish character dances.
Another Italian ballerina, Carlotta Grisi, combined the qualities of Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler in Giselle (1841), the outstanding ballet of the romantic period. In the first act, she portrayed a simple peasant girl who dies for love. In the second act, she played the spirit of the dead girl in an unearthly style.
Russian ballet. Paris remained the capital of the ballet world during the early 1800’s. But many dancers and choreographers who trained and worked there took their technique to cities in other countries. Perhaps the most important of this group was Marius Petipa, who joined the Russian Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg (now the Kirov Ballet). He helped to make St. Petersburg the world centre of ballet. Petipa’s speciality was creating spectacular choreography for women. The leading roles in his Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, created in the 1890’s, are still the parts desired most by ballerinas.
The St. Petersburg company produced some of the greatest ballet dancers of all time. Among the best known were Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky. Pavlova became world famous for her outstanding grace. Nijinsky thrilled audiences with his great expressiveness and his magnificent leaps, during which he seemed to float through the air. Both Pavlova and Nijinsky also danced with another famous Russian company, the Diaghilev Ballets Russes. Sergei Diaghilev, one of the world’s greatest ballet producers, established the Ballets Russes in 1909.
Michel Fokine was the first choreographer of the Ballets Russes. He had worked earlier with the St. Petersburg company, which did not accept his advanced ideas. Fokine urged that technique be a means to express character and emotion. He felt that a dancer’s entire body, rather than separate mimed gestures, should express the story at all times. He also urged that all the arts involved in a ballet be blended into a harmonious whole. With Diaghilev’s company, Fokine had the opportunity to carry out his ideas. He created such brilliant works as Prince Igor (1909), The Firebird (1910), and Petrouchka (1911).
Diaghilev’s company broke up with his death in 1929. His dancers and choreographers then joined companies in many parts of the world, and strongly influenced ballet wherever they went.
Ballet in the United States. The growth of ballet in the United States was largely a result of Russian influence. George Balanchine, who worked for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes as a young man, cofounded the company that became the world-famous New York City Ballet. Mikhail Mordkin, a principal dancer from Moscow, started the company that eventually became American Ballet Theatre under the direction of Lucia Chase.
American-born choreographers and dancers also contributed to the development of American ballet. Choreographers such as Ruth Page, Agnes de Mille, and Jerome Robbins created dances to specifically American themes. American dancers who have gained fame in the 1900’s include Maria Tallchief, Suzanne Farrell, Cynthia Gregory, Edward Villella, and Arthur Mitchell.
Ballet in Australia and New Zealand. Ballet became firmly established in Australia in the early 1900’s after visits by the ballerinas Adeline Genee of Denmark and Anna Pavlova of Russia. Pavlova in particular inspired Misha Burlakov and Louise Lightfoot to found the first Australian Ballet Company at the end of the 1920’s.
Many dancers who visited Australia with touring ballet companies stayed on to form companies of their own. The most influential of them include Helene Kirsova, Edouard Borovansky, and the Austrian-born Gertrud Bodenwieser. The Australian Ballet opened its first season in November 1962. Among the most famous people associated with the company are Sir Robert Helpmann, Anne Woolliams, and Marilyn Jones.
The first professional ballet company in New Zealand was formed in 1953 by the Danish dancer Poul Gnatt. The New Zealand Ballet Trust, formed in 1960 and renamed the Royal New Zealand Ballet in 1984, performs both classical and modern ballets.
Ballet in Europe. Opera houses throughout Europe benefitted from the emigration of Russian dancers during and after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Touring companies, such as de Basil’s Ballets Russes, also helped popularize ballet in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
In France, the Paris Opera (in decline since the 1860’s) regained its status in the mid-1900’s under choreographer Serge Lifar. Outside the Opera, Roland Petit defined a new and vibrant style of French choreography with his companies Les Ballets des Champs-Elysees and Les Ballets de Paris. In the 1980’s, Rudolf Nureyev brought added prestige to the Paris Opera, where he was ballet director until 1989.
In Denmark, Danish ballet has maintained its distinction as the major guardian of the Bournonville style, named after August Bournonville, a French choreographer. Bournonville made the Royal Danish Ballet famous from the 1830’s onward.
In the United Kingdom, the Royal Ballet is widely recognized as the national ballet company. It was founded as the Vic-Wells Ballet, by Dame Ninette de Valois, and adopted its present name in 1957. Its most gifted choreographers were Sir Frederick Ashton, Sir Robert Helpmann, John Cranko, and Sir Kenneth MacMillan.
The Ballet Rambert was founded by Dame Marie Rambert as a classical ballet company. It was renamed the Rambert Dance Company in 1987, to reflect its emphasis on contemporary dance. Dame Marie trained many of the United Kingdom’s most famous choreographers, including Ashton and Antony Tudor.
The Royal Ballet has trained many fine dancers, the greatest of whom was probably Margot Fonteyn. Alicia Markova was the first British ballerina to win international renown. Anton Dolin won fame as a solo dancer and as Markova’s partner in many pas de deux (dances for two people).
The London Festival Ballet, now the English National Ballet, was founded by Markova, Dolin, and Julian Braunsweg, and has a wide repertoire of classical ballets. The Scottish Ballet, which was founded by Elizabeth West and Peter Darrell as the Western Theatre Ballet, is noted for its new and experimental ballets.
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, 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.
Contemporary ballets reflect a wide variety of styles. During the 1970’s, some ballet companies began to perform modern dance works. For example, the American Ballet Theatre commissioned modern-dance choreographer Twyla Tharp for Push Comes to Shove (1976).
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.
Leading British ballet company and school, based at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. Until 1956 it was known as the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. It was founded 1931 by Ninette de Valois, who established her school and company at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre. It moved to Covent Garden 1946. Frederick Ashton became principal choreographer 1935, providing the company with its uniquely English ballet style. Leading dancers included Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, Alicia Markova, and Antoinette Sibley.
The company’s roots can be traced to the invitation by Lilian Baylis to Ninette de Valois to establish her school and company at the rebuilt Sadler’s Wells Theatre 1931. The Vic-Wells Ballet, as it was then known, developed its popularity largely through the performances of Alicia Markova and through de Valois’ shrewd artistic policies and organizational prowess. In 1946, the company changed its name to Sadler’s Wells Ballet and shifted base from the Wells Theatre to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The same year saw the founding of a second, touring troupe, the Sadler’s Wells Opera Ballet (later Theatre Ballet). The touring company again changed its name 1976 to Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. In 1963 de Valois resigned in favour of Frederick Ashton as director. He was responsible for creating such ballets as Marguerite and Armand for Margot Fonteyn, whose partnership with Rudolf Nureyev ushered in the Royal Ballet’s golden age. Kenneth MacMillan took over from Ashton 1970 and strengthened both companies’ modern-ballet styles with works from US choreographers such as Jerome Robbins and Glen Tetley. Anthony Dowell took over from Norman Morrice 1986 and declared a policy of rejuvenating the classics, as in his Swan Lake 1987, which he recreated the nearest approximation to the original 1895 choreography. He also commissioned new works such as MacMillan’s The Prince of the Pagodas 1989.
Russian ballet company founded 1776 and based at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. With their mixed repertory of classics and new works, the Bolshoi is noted for its grand scale productions and the dancers’ dramatic and eloquent technique. From 1964 its artistic director has been the choreographer Yuri Grigorovich (1927- ).
The Bolshoi was formed by English entrepreneur Michael Maddox and Prince Urusov, a patron of the arts. Its dancers were recruited from the Moscow Orphanage where the first classes were conducted 1773. It provided dancers for the Petrovsky Theatre, established 1780, on the site of the present Bolshoi Theatre, which was opened 1825. In contrast to the Kirov Ballet where the dancing was more purist, the Bolshoi tended to be earthier and more contemporary in style and theme. Initially overshadowed by the Kirov, the Bolshoi came into its own in the late 19th century with the first staging of Petipa’s Don Quixote 1877 and Swan Lake 1877. Under Alexander Gorsky (died 1942), the Bolshoi’s style of highly dramatic action woven into the dance, innovative stage designs, and symphonic music, was developed. It was not until Leonid Lavrovsky (1905-1967) transferred as artistic director from the Kirov to the Bolshoi 1944, along with prima ballerinas Galina Ulanova and Maya Plisetskaya that the creative emphasis shifted to Moscow. Since the 1960s the Bolshoi has concentrated on highly spectacular and heroic productions of the classics and modern works, such as Spartacus 1968 and The Golden Age 1982.
Russian ballet company based in St Petersburg, founded 1738. Originally called the Imperial Ballet, it was renamed 1935 (after an assassinated Communist Party leader). The Kirov dancers are renowned for their cool purity of line, lyrical mobility, and gravity-defying jumps; the corps de ballet is famed for its precision and musicality. The classical ballets of Marius Petipa make up the backbone of the company’s repertory and many of the world’s most acclaimed classical dancers, such as Anna Pavlova, Rudolf Nureyev, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, are graduates of the company. Oleg Vinogradov (1937- ) has been its artistic director since 1972.
Formed 1738 as the St Petersburg School of Ballet by French dancing master, Jean-Baptiste Landé, and Empress Anna Ivanovna, the company performed for the court during the mid-18th century. With the influx of French and Italian teachers, virtuoso dancers, and choreographers during the 19th century, the company grew in strength. It was under the directorship of Marius Petipa that the company was given a permanent home at the Maryinsky Theatre 1860 (still the Kirov’s base). Petipa’s ballets of the 1890s, The Sleeping Beauty 1890, Raymonda 1898, La Bayadère 1877, and Swan Lake 1895 form the bedrock of the classical, in particular the Kirov’s, repertory. After the 1917 revolution, the company was renamed the Maryinsky State Theatre and an attempt was made to bring dance within the reach of the people rather than as a diversion for the aristocracy. During the 1920s and 1930s, the company, called the State Academy Theatre for Opera and Ballet (GATOB), created some of the most important Soviet ballets, culminating in Romeo and Juliet 1940.
After World War II, the emphasis shifted from Leningrad to Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet, but the Kirov’s reputation was enhanced when it first visited Paris, London, and New York 1961. It was during these visits abroad that some of the company’s most acclaimed dancers defected - Rudolf Nureyev 1961, Natalia Makarova 1970, and Mikhail Baryshnikov 1974 - artists who suffered from the isolation and creative sterility that marked the company since the 1950s. In the 1990s the company continued to tour the cultural centres of the West.