The history of Ballet dance can be traced back to about 500 years ago in the Italian Renaissance. It began in Italy as a form of entertainment in the courts of the 15th and the 16th centuries. The word ‘ballet’ is derived from the French, Italian, Latin and German terms. It comes from the Italian word ‘balletto’ meaning ‘to dance’, again from the Latin word ‘ballo’ meaning ‘to dance’ and the German word ‘ballizo’ meaning ‘to dance, to jump about’. The custom of performing in the court to please the king or surprise and welcome foreign visitors turned into an arranged act before time. It was when an Italian noble Catalina de Medici married Henry II, the second son of the King of France that the court dances moved to that country. Ballets, at that time, were performed by the people of the court, including the king. The shows had no professional dancers. The scenic tricks used include animal parades, special effects machinery, poetry, live music and juggling. The first event recorded in the Ballet history is the performance of ‘The Queen’s Comical Ballet’ in 1581. The subject for these Ballets was taken from the ancient Greek’s mythology. The Ballet was considered as an action of comforting and strengthening the image of the King and its power and justice, accomplishing an important political function. The characters and stories depicted in the Ballet affirm the monarchic principle. With its roots from Italy, Ballets have developed their own stylistic character in France and Russia. Russia, by 1850, had become a leading creative centre of the dance world. Women started performing dancing en pointe (on toe) during the early part of the 19th century.
Ballet has been a very formal and strict type of performance dance. Hence, years of training is required to retain proficiency. Ballet schools around the world have historically identified their own cultures and used them to evolve the art. Trained artists choreograph and perform the works of the Ballet dance. There are professionals who perform Ballet. It is usually performed by twirling around on special ballet shoes, walking ‘en pointe’ with different moves involving piles and leaping into the air. Some of the movements require splits and the use of arms and the boys sometimes assist the girls in their moves lifting them up into the air.
Since the Italian Renaissance, stylistic classical variations have been primarily associated with geographic origin, examples of which include the Russian Ballet, the French Ballet and the Italian Ballet. However, gradually there had been variations which incorporated both classical Ballet and non-traditional techniques and movements. These include:
- Classical Ballet: As the name suggests, it is based on the traditional Ballet technique and vocabulary. As mentioned above, its different styles include French Ballet, Italian Ballet and the Russian Ballet. Most of the classical type Ballets is often associated with specific training methods that are often named after its creators.
- Neoclassical Ballet: A Ballet style that uses traditional Ballet vocabulary and is comparatively less rigid than the Classical Ballet is the Neoclassical Ballet. In this style, the dancers often dance at more extreme tempos and perform more technical feats. Also, its spacing is more modern and complex.
- Contemporary Ballet: It is influenced by both the Classical as well as the Modern Ballet. It does not adhere to the strict body lines and permits a greater range of movement with its technique and use of pointe work from the Classical Ballet. Most of its concepts are inspired from the ideas and innovations of the 20th century modern dance, which include floor work and turn–in of the legs. The first pioneer of contemporary dance through the development of the Neoclassical Ballet is George Balanchine.
Ballet costumes are decided keeping the comfort and simplicity in mind. The dancers are usually seen wearing tight–fitting leotards along with prop costumes depending upon the performance. In order to ensure flexible movements, both men and women wear tight–fitting clothing. Women wear a simple leotard and a pair of tights available in several colours and designs which include sleeveless, short–sleeved and the long–sleeved. Young dancers adorn themselves with small skirts and tutus over their leotards. Men wear tight sweatpants or shorts paired with a tank top or T-shirt tucked in at the waist. Some dancers prefer traditional leotards and tights but with tights worn on the outside.
Ballet music has undergone transformation since the 19th century from being incidental background music into an integral part of the performance. Common instruments of Ballet dance include:
- Strings: In order to create sweeping textures and the moments of surprise, Strings are commonly used in almost every Ballet composition. The string instruments include violins, violas, violoncellos, double basses and cellos.
- Woodwind: Variety of sounds from a high–pitched flutter to an extremely low stomp is produced with the help of Woodwind. The Woodwind instruments include flutes, piccolo, oboes, an English horn, clarinets in A and B–flat, a bass clarinet in A and B–flat and bassoons.
- Brass: They are not subtle and hence are usually used during moments of great urgency or celebration. It requires the use of 4–6 horns, trumpets, cornets, tenor and bass trombones and tubas.
A small sampling of some of the world’s most beloved Ballet includes:
- Don Quixote: Based on the epic masterpiece by Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, an ageing nobleman, becomes obsessed with stories of ancient rivalry as the Ballet begins.
- Swan Lake: It was Tchaikovsky’s first Ballet and is considered as one of the greatest classical Ballets of all times. The audiences have been mesmerized by its romance and beauty for more than 100 years.
- The Nutcracker: It was first presented at the Mayinsky Theatre on December 17, 1892. It was written by E.T.A Hoffman and is based on the story of ‘The Nutcracker and the King of Mice’.
- The Sleeping Beauty: The first successful Ballet composed by Tchaikovsky, it wasn’t that popular like the Swan Lake. The production underwent heavy criticism for being too lavish. However, it was within a period of three years that it gained enough popularity to be performed at least 50 times.