The word Ballet comes from the French language and was appeared in the English language around 1630. The French word in has its origin in Italian balletto, which means a small type of dance. In Italian ballo means to dance, which comes from Latin ballo, or ballare, meaning to dance. This word comes from the Greek ballizo, to dance, or to jump about.That simple word, ballet, that we dancers use daily, sure came a long way into our language!
The one of the best definitions of the word ballet is listed in the handbook that no ballet teacher should be with out, The Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet by Gail Grant. This definition was first and foremost on my exams that I took so long ago and is embedded in my head to this day. It states that Ballet is “A theatrical work or entertainment in which a choreographer has expressed his ideas in group and solo dancing to a musical accompaniment with appropriate costumes, scenery and lighting.” This definition in my opinion is not complete. Ballet is a study of a style of dance that is the foundation of all dance forms. Steps and theory that no dancer can be without.
Ballet originated in the Italian Renaissance courts in the 15th century, and was developed further in France and Russia. The early renditions of ballet came before the invention of the theatrical stage that we know of today and were presented in large chambers with most of the audience seated in rows of seats on three sides of the dance floor. Since those days, it has become a technical dance form with its own vocabulary.
In the late 17th century Louis XIV founded the Academie Royale de Musique, the Paris Opera. From within the Paris Opera, emerged the first professional theatrical ballet company, The Paris Opera Ballet. Theatrical ballet soon became an independent form of art, and spread from Europe to other nations. The Royal Danish Ballet and the Imperial Ballet of the Russian Empire, were founded in the 1740s. In 1907 the Russian Ballet moved back to France. Soon ballet spread around the world with the formation of new companies, including London’s Royal Ballet in 1931, The San Francisco Ballet in 1933, The American Ballet Theatre in 1937, The Australian Ballet in1940, The New York City Ballet in 1948, The National Ballet of Canada in 1951. Others were to follow from this point in history.
Following the move of The Russian Ballet back to France, ballet began to have a broader influence, particularly in the United States. From Paris, choreographer Michel Fokine went to Sweden and then the United States and settled in New York City. He believed that traditional ballet offered little more than prettiness and athletic display. For Michel Fokine that was not enough. In addition to technical excellence in ballet steps and choreography, he demanded drama, expression and historical authenticity. He felt that the choreographer must research the period and cultural context of the ballet story and setting and reject the traditional tutu in favor of accurate period costuming of the story being choreographed.
Michel Fokine choreographed Scheherazade and Cleopatra. He also re-choreographed Petrouchka and The Firebird. One of his most famous works was the Dying Swan , performed by Anna Pavlova. Besides her talent as a ballerina, Anna had the theatrical gifts to fulfill Michel Fokine’s vision of ballet as drama. Legend has it that Pavlova identified so much with the swan role, that she requested her swan costume from her deathbed. See Ballerina Biographies on this blog to learn more about Anna Pavolva.
George Balanchine developed a more modern , up to date style of technique in America by opening a school in Chicago and New York city. He was the choreographer who adapted ballet to the movies and television. George Balanchine re-choreographed Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty as well as creating new ballets. He produced original interpretations of the dramas of Romeo and Juliet, The Merry Widow and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, all Shakespeare’s dramas.
In 1967, George Balanchine’s piece entitled Jewels broke the narrative tradition and dramatized a theme rather than a plot. Today, partly thanks to George Balanchine, ballet is one of the most well-preserved dance styles in the world.