Dance is a beautiful form of art that uses the body as its canvas.
Classical ballet is a form of theatrical entertainment that originated among the aristocracy of the sixteenth and seventeenth century royal court of France. In its original form it was performed by trained dancers as well as by members of the court themselves. Ballet performances were meant to tell silent stories that were often mythical and majestic. Ballerinas did not use words to tell these stories, but instead relied on mime like acting to convey character, plot, and action.From its earliest days, ballets incorporated a variety of extravagant costumes, scenery, and music. Although ballet dance performance often used courtly ballroom dances, and even folk dances, it was organized around five basic dance positions: first, second, third, fourth and fifth- feet and arms rotated turned out from the body with limbs extended.
These positions maximize the visibility of the dancer’s movements to the audience and served as the guide lines. The foundations of ballet were firmly established when King Louis XIV created a special dancing academy in order to train dancers for the court’s ballets.That school continues to operate today as the school of the Paris Opera Ballet. During the nineteenth century French-trained ballet masters and dancers established vigorous dance companies and schools in Copenhagen and St. Petersburg. During this time Russia’s Imperial ballet attracted several of the century’s most talented ballet masters. The last of them, and the greatest, was Marius Petipa, who created the great classic works that define the Russian ballet tradition: Le Cosaire, Don Quixote, La Bayadere, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and Raymonda.
All of these works are still in the repertory of ballet companies at the end of the twentieth-century, more than one hundred years later. Almost all of the great ballet companies of the late twentieth century are descended from the Imperial Russian ballet. Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which employed many dancers and teachers trained at the Imperial Ballet and exiled by the Russian revolution, was absolutely key to the transformation of ballet from a court-sponsored elite entertainment into a commercially viable art form with a popular following.Diaghilev and his company forged a synthesis of modern art and music that revolutionized ballet in the twentieth century. Diaghilev mounted modernist spectacles using music and scenic design by the most important modern composers and artists: Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Eric Satie, Serge Prokofiev, Pablo Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miro, Juan Gris, Georges Braque, and George Rouault.
Among the company’s brilliant dancers was Vaslav Nijinsky, probably one of greatest male dancers of century, but also an original choreographer.In ballets like L’Apres-midi d’un faune and Jeux, with music by Debussy, and Le Sacre du Printemps, with music by Stravinsky, Nijinsky created radical works that broke with the Russian tradition of Petipa and which relied upon an unorthodox movement vocabulary and a shallow stage space. The world famous 1912 premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, choreographed by Nijinsky, provoked a riotamong its stuffy bourgeois audience and is considered one of the great events marking the arrival of modernist art.The United States had no classic ballet tradition of its own. Instead, many strains of vernacular and ethnic dances flourished, such as square dances which were adapted from English folk dances.
There were also many vigorous forms of social dancing, particularly the styles of dancing which emerged from jazz and black communities, such as jitterbug and swing. Popular theatrical entertainment and vaudeville also drew on vernacular forms like tap dancing.One new form of theatrical dance that emerged around the turn of the century was modern dance, inspired by Isadora Duncan and developed by dancers and choreographers Ruth Denis, Ted Shawn, and Martha Graham. It has remained a vital theatrical dance tradition up until the present with Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, and Mark Morris among its most noted contemporary practitioners.
The New York appearance in 1916 of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes marks the most important step towards the popularization of ballet in the United States.Two of the greatest dancers of the early twentieth century—Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova—danced in the United States during those years. Nothing much of import occurred until 1933, when Lincoln Kirstein, a wealthy young admirer of ballet who was visiting Paris, invited George Balanchine to come to the United States and help establish ballet there. Balanchine accepted Kirstein’s invitation only if they established “first, a school. ” Their School of American Ballet opened in 1934.
Kirstein and Balanchine’s School was an important link in the popularization of ballet in the United States. In 1913 Willa Cather had lamented that “we have had no dancers because we had no schools. ” European dancers, among them some of the greatest of their era, such as Fanny Essler,had been coming to the United States since the early nineteenth century. Many of them settled down to privately teach young American girls, because ballet at the time was centered primarily on the ballerina.However no one had a greater influence than the great Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, and her partner, Mikhail Mordkin, who starting in 1910 spent 15 years performing and teaching ballet in almost every corner of the country. The appeal of ballet and its cultural prestige had been consolidated by New York’s rapturous response in 1916 to Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. In 1933 the founding of the School of American Ballet with its network of scouts, scouring small-town and regional ballet classes, created the foundations for the development of native-born American dancers.Beginning in 1935 Kirstein and Balanchine went on to form the first of the many unsuccessful companies that eventually solidified into a stable company in 1948 as the New York City Ballet.
Meanwhile another group, led by Richard Pleasants and Lucia Chase, was also trying to establish a permanent ballet company; they succeeded in 1939 by setting up the American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Since the 1930s these two companies have dominated ballet in the United States.Both companies employed many of the Russian dancers, choreographers, and teachers displaced by revolution and world war.
American Ballet Theater has a long tradition of performing the great romantic ballets; such as Swan Lake, Giselle, and Sleeping Beauty, created for the European audiences of the late nineteenth century. George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, on the other hand, was almost exclusively the showcase for his original work, which rejected the narrative conventions of romantic ballet for a modern approach that emphasized musicality, speed, and a deep stage space.During the 1970s ballet and modern dance in the United States were the beneficiaries of a wave of popularity which resulted in many new dance companies being founded in cities and communities throughout the country. The same period was also marked by the increasing amount of crossover activity between modern dance and ballet on the part of choreographers and dancers.
Although the dance boom (and the funding that supported it) has partially receded both ballet and modern dance remain a vital form of cultural activity and popular entertainment.