Ballet was invented in 1459 in Italy for a royal wedding. At the banquet, the performers did dances representing the dishes being served. For instance, imagine a ‘broccoli dance.’ Ballet got a great boost in the 1700s in France when King Louis XIV (14th) appeared on stage as a dancer. He founded the Paris Opera Ballet in an old abandoned indoor tennis court. King Louis’ teacher was a man named Pierre Beauchamp who in 1671 became the first director of the first ballet training school in Paris. Pierre Beauchamp invented the concept of ‘turnout’, which is what we now call the ‘five classical positions of the feet’.
Another important historic figure in ballet is Gaetano Vetris. He was one of the most famous dancers in ballet’s early years. He called himself ‘God of the Dance.’ He thought so highly of himself that one time, when a woman happened to step on his foot, he said to her that she just put all of Paris in mourning.
In the beginning, ballet dancers would dress in long heavy dresses, down to the floor. In the 1700s, a Belgium dancer named Marie-Anne Cupis De Camargo shortened her dress just enough so people could see her fancy footwork. It was only short enough to show her ankles, but the audience was still shocked. In the 1800s, dancers started wearing “Romantic Tutus,” which are long, fluffy, lightweight skirts. These skirts became shorter and shorter and a lot stiffer until eventually the skirt stuck straight out. This is now called the “Classic Tutu.”
Marie Taglioni made dancing on Pointe popular in the 1830s when she danced a ballet called La Sylphide created for her by her father Filipo Taglioni. After Marie’s last performance, the audience was so sad to see her go that a chef took one of her ballet slippers, cooked it, and her most devoted admirers ate it. (Crazy!)
In the 1840s, a Frenchman named Marius Petipa went to Russia to produce more than 60 ballets. In fact, Petipa and his assistant Lev Ivanov choreographed three of the most popular ballets stil performed in the world today, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty. The great composer, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, set these ballets to music.
In the early part of the 20th century, Sergei Diaghilev was a Russian impresario (a producer who was part showman and part businessman) who founded the Ballet Russes Company.
This company never performed in Russia; instead it only traveled outside of the country to introduce Ballet to the rest of the world. When Diaghilev died in 1929, the Ballet Russes died with him. However, his influence on Ballet was felt around the world for many years to come.
Some other famous European dancers are: Anna Pavlova (b. 1881), a Russian dancer who was famous for her astonishing performance of the Dying Swan, a dance created just for her; and, Vaslav Nijinsky who began studying ballet at the Imperial School of Dance in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Margot Fonteyn, Michel Fokin, Leonid Massine, and Galina Ulanova are all great ballet dancers from European history.
In the 1920s and 1930s ballet was not yet popular in the United States, but American audiences were fascinated with “toe dancing.” (This was a combination of Pointe with acrobatics and stunts.) Another popular dance was “toe-tapping” known today as Tap Dancing. A famous toe-tapper of her time was Harriet Hoctor who once tapped up and down an escalator in Pointe-Tap shoes. (Not an easy feat!)
In America, great dancers performed on Broadway and in Hollywood and people loved
to do all kinds of social dances (i.e., square dancing, fox trot, etc.) but when it came to Ballet, Americans only had the few touring troupes from Europe and Russia. All this changed when George Balanchine, a famous dancer with the Ballet Russes, came to America after the death of Diaghilev, and decided to form his own company. Balanchine saw Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the movies and thought that there must be people who could become great ballet dancers in America. In 1934, he founded the School of American Ballet in New York City along with the dance company that would become the New York City Ballet. Balanchine created many new, interesting ballets and restaged many of the classics. Thanks to Balanchine, The Nutcracker has become a holiday tradition.
Frederick Ashton, an English choreographer, created the ballet Daphnis and Chloe for a great British ballerina named Margot Fonteyn, who in the 1960s, at the age when most ballet dancers are ready to retire, partnered with the young ballet sensation Rudolph Nureyev. At one performance of Swan Lake in Austria, they set a world record for curtain calls, eighty-nine!
Nureyev was born in 1938 on a moving train somewhere in Syberia, Russia. When Rudolph was 7 years old he and his sister sneaked in to see the Bashkir Opera and Ballet Theatre, and from then on he knew that he would be a ballet dancer. At the age of 17, Nureyev began his ballet training in Leningrad. After three years of study, he was offered a contract to dance with the Kirov Ballet. Three years after that, while performing in Paris, Nureyev defected to France and became one of the most famous ballet dancers in the world. He choreographed many ballets including his own versions of Don Quijote and Romeo and Juliet.
American ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov was born in 1948 in Riga, Latvia, then part of the Soviet Union. Like Nureyev, he was another late-starter and began studying ballet at the age of 15 in Russia. He joined the Kirov Ballet and was so good that he was offered solo roles immediately. He wanted to explore everything from classical ballet to modern dance and Broadway. So, when the Kirov Ballet was touring in Canada, Baryshnikov stayed behind, defecting to Canada. He became a member of the National Ballet of Canada. Later on, Mikhail became an American citizen and worked with the American Ballet Theater and the New York City Ballet. He was America’s first huge ballet star, famous for his breathtaking leaps and original takes on traditional steps. He has been in several movies including The Turning Point and White Nights.
Today there are great ballet companies in America including American Ballet Theater (ABT), the New York City Ballet, the Alvin Ailey Company, the Boston Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet Company, and the San Francisco Ballet, to name just a few. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of all the artists listed above as well as thousands
more that are not mentioned, ballet is a very important part of the arts today, and American ballet now competes
with the greatest ballet troupes in the world.