Ballet is the traditional European art of dance performance. Every culture has dance, I suppose, and many have "dancing girls" or other groups especially good at and trained in dance, but often dancing is something that everyone in a certain section of society is supposed to do, either because it is part of rituals, or because it is a worthy accomplishment for a certain social rank.

Ballet as a distinctive form began in the court of the French kings, and I suppose may be considered what the court watched instead of what they themselves did. Dancers were valued for their skills, so dancers became professionals.

It is European, in that we do not think of Arab-world raqs sharqi or Indian classical dance as ballet, though they're its cultural equivalent, at least in part.

It is also traditional, having evolved into a "high art", and picking up influences from "popular" arts, without being the same as them. The allemandes and gigues of the old courts developed from country dancing, ballet developed from these, took in the folk dancing and waltz of later centuries, and more recently has consciously sampled styles such as charleston and foxtrot and jazz, but without fusion.

One final distinctive feature is that there is no voice. There is no spoken dialogue to help the tale along, and there are no songs, neither sung by the dancers nor used as the music behind it (though modern ballets may use these occasionally). This distinguishes ballet from combined arts like opera and the modern musical. However, many operas do contain ballets, that is at least one scene of ballet; into the middle of the nineteenth century audiences regarded this as compulsory, and many great operas were slightly bogged down by this necessity.

Ballet reached a height of popularity in the early nineteenth century, and the modern image of it may be said to have arisen from a single work, La Sylphide (1832), a fairy romance in which Marie Taglioni brought together the tutu, the pointe shoes, the otherwordly atmosphere, and the emphasis on the female star. This work is still performed (not the same as a later classic, Les Sylphides), but the best ballet from this period of renewal is Giselle (1841), a star vehicle for Carlotta Grisi.

After a while it declined, and France even looked to England as the centre of ballet performance now, though in England there was no professional company and ballet scenes were only put on as part of music hall entertainments.

But it was in Russia that modern ballet began, under the guidance of French-trained choreographers and dancers. Two of the greatest choreographers were Marius Petipa and Michel Fokine, and around the turn of the century, we get many of the great foundation ballets created in Russia: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Rite of Spring. This was the greatest flourishing of the art.

In the 1920s the impresario Serge Diaghilev toured Europe with his Ballet Russe company, and other Ballets Russes were formed to take the new art across the world, as far afield as Australia, and spawning the creation of revitalised ballet companies such as, in Britain, the Sadler's Wells Ballet of Dame Ninette de Valois, which became the Royal Ballet. Australia's national ballet company wasn't formed until the 1960s, but it like the others was under the direct influence of the Ballets Russes that had visited.

Some star dancers are legendary, and their names will forever be known: Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky, who could have been the greatest partnership ever, if Pavlova had worked with Diaghilev instead of touring the world on her own, and if Nijinsky had not gone insane and died too young: and Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, who quite simply were the greatest partnership of all. Today Sylvie Guillem stands alone as the most gifted dancer of the age.

There were many other names, many of them Russian (and many of the English ones changing their names to look Russian!), that all ballet lovers, all balletomanes as we call ourselves, "mad with ballet", should recognize: Galina Ulanova, Olga Spessivtseva, Mathilde Kschessinskaya, Pierina Legnani, Tamara Karsavina, Tamara Toumanova, Alicia Markova, Robert Helpmann, Anton Dolin, Lynn Seymour, Carla Fracci, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Altynai Asylmuratova, ...

Choreography continues to develop. Modern ballet can use old music, like Bizet's gloriously leaping Symphony in C; or those like Steptext and Hermann Schmermann can use thoroughly modern music, with discord and tape loops. Of the living dancers I see on stage in London, the best by far is Sylvie Guillem; others who are wonderful include Darcey Bussell, Tetsuya Kumakawa, Jonathan Cope, Sarah Wildor, and Irek Mukhammedov.

The present write-up is an expanded one posted on 20 May 2002 to replace my inadequate E1 one. It's not remotely long enough to do this lovely spectacle justice, but it's a bit more than was. I don't want to encroach on the excellent nodes below it.

Ballet is an art form that has been developed for hundreds of years. Classical ballet places emphasis on grace and beauty in movement.

One of the first things that is learnt in ballet is the position of the arms and feet. There are five "basic" positions for the feet:

  • First position: Stand with the heels together and the toes turned out. Turnout is very important in ballet, as it allows execution of some of the movements in a much easier manner.
  • Second position: From first position, the feet are moved apart. The distance between them is debatable. When learning, shoulder width apart is usually most comfortable.
  • Third position: One foot is brought slightly in front of the other, so that the heel of the front foot is touching the arch of the back foot. This is used mainly as a "training" position for fifth position.
  • Fourth position: From third position, the front foot is slid forward and placed so it lines up with the back foot.
  • Fifth position: From fourth position, the front foot is slid back until the heel is touching the big toe of the front foot.
There are six "basic" positions for the arms.
  • Bras bas: The arms are held in front of the body and are slightly curved.
  • First position: The arms are held as in bras bas, except in front of the body, at about chest level.
  • Second position: From first position, the arms are opened and held outwards.
  • Third position: One arm is held as if it first position, and the other arm is held as if in second position.
  • Fourth position: This position is with one arm held in fifth (see below) and the other held either as in first or second.
  • Fifth position: From first position, the arms are raised above the head, making a nice rounded shape.

Basic exercises are often done at the barre, a wooden rod for dancers to hold to help keep their balance when they are learning.

One of the basic movements is pliés, in which dancers stand in any of the five positions and bend their knees. A demi plié has dancers bending their knees about half way, and a grande plié has dancers bending their knees almost all the way.

Another basic movement is battement tendus. Dancers move one foot forward by sliding it along the floor, and end up pointing it. This can also be done to the sides and the back.

Battement glissés are done in a similar fashion to battement tendus, but are quicker and the foot rises off the floor several inches. It is usually a sharp movement.

These are only a few of the barre exercises. Many more are practised, but in the sake of space, I will move on.

Floor exercises are done in a large space. They include slower or "adage" exercises, port de bras or arm movements, pirouettes, and faster, or "allegro" movements.

Ballet is performed by both men and women, but professional ballerinas (female ballet dancers) generally wear pointe shoes. Pointe shoes are specially designed shoes which have toes made of paper maché or cloth and glue layers. The pointe shoes are covered in satin and are tied on the dancer's feet with ribbon. Pointe shoes allow ballerinas to stand on the tips of their toes.

Ballets are usually performed by a large company, with an orchestra, sets, lights, and beautiful costumes. Ballerinas will usually wear tutus, short, stiff skirt made to show of their legs movements. Professional classical ballets, which incorporate elements of mime, can be quite beautiful and moving.

As I am not an expert on modern ballet, I will leave that for someone else.

I think that in the past century, ballet, along with every other art form, has undergone a great deal of changes; it has evolved from its initial image.

Ballet first became widely popular in the Romantic time period, when beauty was defined in a completely different way than today. Women were considered beautiful when they looked healthy. Extreme thinness was seen as a mark of a poor lifestyle - not beauty. This mentality lasted for quite some time. Some of the most prominent ballerinas in history were quite normal in their size and shape. Look at the photographs of Anna Pavlova.... she was not skeletally thin, and yet she is considered one of the best ballerinas that has ever been. But along came George Balanchine, and introduced a whole new concept of beauty.

Balanchine wanted a change from that romantic, ultra-feminine ballerina, and that's what he achieved. His ideal dancer was six feet tall, very thin, and angular. I acknowledge that there are many body types in world, but I think I will be correct in saying that the body type favored by Balanchine was not very common naturally. Balanchine started this new mania of extreme thinness. Dancers who wanted to be successful, but did not naturally fit his mold of an ideal dancer, resorted to artificial methods of forcing their bodies to be thin.

This is the mentality that prevails today. Thousands of dancers all over the world fret and worry endlessly about their body. I think it is ridiculous to constrain ballet to people who look like walking stick insects. The ballet world needs to realize that there are others out there with a passion for ballet who do not fit the mold. This is important not only to include everybody, but also to prevent the art of ballet from becoming extinct. Any art requires a circulation of ideas, of new images. Ballet is no different. I do not think that ballet will be popular much longer if the dancers keep on getting skinnier and skinnier. It will be no longer pleasant to watch ballet; it will be disgusting.

Bal"let` (?), n. [F., a dim. of bal dance. See 2d Ball, n.]

1.

An artistic dance performed as a theatrical entertainment, or an interlude, by a number of persons, usually women. Sometimes, a scene accompanied by pantomime and dancing.

2.

The company of persons who perform the ballet.

3. Mus.

A light part song, or madrigal, with a fa la burden or chorus, -- most common with the Elizabethan madrigal composers.

4. Her.

A bearing in coats of arms, representing one or more balls, which are denominated bezants, plates, etc., according to color.

 

© Webster 1913.

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