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The History of Ballet

The History of Ballet

Early Ballet Development

The word ballet is French in origin, yet in the early 1400's Domenico di Piacenza, an Italian, described theatrical dances called balletto. Lavish pageants of music and dance were held during which the men were fully garbed in wigs, blouses, jackets and bloomers. The women wore ornate gowns of many layers, the weight of which was encumbering to stand in, let alone perform in. The troupes, composed of hundreds, included not only hired performers, but members of the duke's court whose purpose it was to impress the nobility of neighboring states. The performances accompanied elaborate banquets, each course of the meal was prefaced by a dance called an "entrée". For the aristocracy, these extravaganzas took on a magnitude of competitiveness. It is said that in 1490, Leonardo da Vinci designed a balli spectacular for Bergonzio di Botta to entertain the Duke of Milan. The artistic interpretation of the dance was to mirror the harmony of the celestial bodies, to establish order out of chaos, and to bestow peace upon those in attendance. Was it competition or art, balletto or ballet?

Although Catherine de Medicis, a member of the ruling family of Florence, left Italy, she did not leave her love for the arts behind. When she married the King of France, Henri II in 1553, she introduced the same kind of culture to France as she had known in Italy. She brought Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx with her to France to be her chief musician. Those historians inclined to reject the less defined techniques of the Italian balletto as the historical root of ballet, might consider the performance of the Ballet Comique de la Reine at the Palais du Petit Bourbon in Paris as the true birth of ballet. In 1581, the gifted Beaujoyeulx, violinist and dance master, orchestrated a five hour drama depicting the ancient Greek myth of Circe, who had the magical power to turn men into beasts. Song and poetry, spectacular stage effects, meticulously prepared costumes designed to impress the aristocratic audience peering down from their perches above proved to be a success worthy of imitation in other European courts. Although balance and control were essential to this style of performance, the development of ballet technique was thwarted by showy, unwieldy costumes.

First Ballet Instruction

To further define Paris as the capital of the ballet world, King Louis XIV, who ruled France during the late 1600s, and his nobles, took part in the ballets given at his court. In 1661, the Sun King, a name he acquired from a role he danced in high-heeled shoes with large guilt buckles complete with shining sun rays, founded the Royal Academy of Dance, which later became the Paris Opera Ballet, the first professional instruction for ballet. Oddly enough, the outward pointing of toes to show off his shiny shoe buckles laid the foundation for the five basic ballet positions set down by ballet master Pierre Beachamps. It should be noted that up until 1681 all female roles performed at RAD were danced by young men. This was supposedly a strength issue. Enormous headdresses, full heavy skirts and weighty corsets were thought incapable of being carried by the frame of a woman. It was not until the performance of Le Triomphe de l'Amour in 1681 that the first female dancers performed professionally.

By 1700 many of the words we recognize to display movements were already in use, including jete, sissone, chasse, entrechat, pirouette, and cabriole. The French ballet master, Raoul Feuillet included steps and positions in his book Choregraphie much like the technique of today. Ballet companies developed throughout Europe. In Russia, the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg, whose school was founded in 1738, demonstrated superlative teachings.

Six decades later, a metamorphosis was about to unfold. French choreographer Jean Georges Noverre criticized professional dancers in his book, Lettres sur la danse. He stated that the purpose of ballet was to express feelings. He urged dancers to stop wearing masks, bulky costumes and headdresses. He felt that a dancer's body should be able to express emotions such as anger or joy or love. Noverre developed the ballet d'action, a form of ballet that conveys a story through movement.

Prominent Roles Assumed by Women

In time, dramas and stories depicting mythology faded and more romantic themes emerged. By the early 1800's, women to assumed the primary roles in romantic ballet. The idea that a dancer could float angelically upon her toes, barely touching the earth, gave women newfound superiority over men. The role of men became that of porters whose purpose was to lift the ballerinas and make it look easy.

Italian choreographer, Filippo Taglioni created the first romantic ballet for his daughter, Marie. She appeared in a costume style never before seen on stage by any ballerina as she danced the role of a fairy who allowed her heart to be broken by a mortal man. Dressed in white, her skirt cascaded halfway below her knees and her ankles. More astonishing was that, Marie Taglione's arms were not covered with heavy sleeves. In fact, there were no sleeves at all. She became the star of the Paris stage. Soon afterward, other ballerinas became known. From Austria, ballerina Fanny Elssler danced in La Gypsy. Italian ballerina, Carlotta Grisi played the spirit of a girl who died for love in the ballet, Giselle. Most notorious of all women's roles in ballet are those created in the 1890's by Marius Petipa, who left Paris to join the Russian Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg, which later became the Kirov Ballet. The leading roles in his Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, both set to scores by Peter Tchaikovsky, are still the most loved and the most coveted by every ballerina.

Professional Ballet Dance Companies Emerge

The St. Petersburg company experienced the seemingly effortless talents of Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky. Both Pavlova and Nijinsky also danced with another famous Russian company, the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, established in 1909. Michel Fokine was the first choreographer of the Ballets Russes. He instructed a technique that used the dancer's entire body at all times while expressing the story. Over the next several years, the Ballets Russes performed many ballets that have since become famous including Scheherazade and Firebird in 1910, and Petroucha in 1911.One of the dancers of the Ballet Russes, Enrico Checchetti, later became famous as the creator of the Cecchetti method of teaching ballet.

England had been a place where foreign ballet dancers performed, not a place where ballet was taught, until 1922, when a group of Checchetti followers, Édouard Espinosa and Philip Richardson founded what would become the Royal Academy of Dancing.

Agnes De Mille moved to London in 1932 where she received dance training at the Madame Marie Rambert's Ballet Club. She went on to become a prominent American ballet choreographer and dancer. The neice of famous producer, Cecil B. De Mille, Agnes De Mille brought ballet techniques to musicals, such as Oklahoma and The Sound of Music. She continued to be actively involved with artistic dance until her death in 1993.

Ballet In America

More than anyone, it was the Russian influence of choreographer George Balanchine that brought ballet to America. The now world-famous New York City Ballet was cofounded by Balanchine, who worked for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes as a young man, and who was invited to work in the United States by a wealthy patron of the arts, Lincoln Kirstein. Kirstein knew little about ballet and Balanchine knew just as little about America. Balanchine moved towards the creation of plotless ballets where the motivation was movement in response to music rather than to a storyline. His ballet Jewels, which he choreographed in 1967 was the first evening-length ballet of this type.

The Russian Men

In 1961, the world spotlight was on a powerful dancer of the Russian Kirov ballet, Rudolf Nureyev. When the Kirov began to organize a Paris and London tour, his offstage, personal disregard for Soviet ideals placed him in jeopardy of not going on the tour. He sought political asylum in France. After defecting, he paired with Margot Fonteyn as a dance partner with many companies.

Yet another young dancer at the Kirov Ballet, by the name of Mikhail Baryshnikov, was gaining notoriety. In 1974, while touring with the Bolshoi Ballet in Canada, Baryshnikov requesting political asylum. Soon after, he came to the United Stated and became principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre where he mesmerized audiences for five years. He went on to join New York City Ballet, where he worked with choreographer George Balanchine before returning to ABT in 1980 as dancer and artistic director. Baryshnikov never danced in ballets that required the male character to carry height, he was not tall and was rather known for his textbook form and technical excellence.

A Style of Her Own

Finally, a mention of Twyla Tharp, an American dancer and choreographer who made ballet interesting, even for those who knew nothing of technique, by adding her own inventive style to the traditional dance. Tharp won three Emmy Awards for her 1985 television production Baryshnikov by Tharp in 1985. She began her dance company in 1988 and merged with American Ballet Theatre. In 1991, Tharp regrouped her company, Twyla Tharp Dance, and created a program with Mikhail Baryshnikov called Cutting up, which became one of contemporary dance's most successful tours. More than that, she infused intelligent humor into the soul of ballet.

The Evolution of Ballet Slippers

Primitive Shoes for Performances

When in the early 1400's the Italians held their pageants of music and dance called balletto, what was worn on their feet was the fashion of the times, not a shoe specifically designed for dance. And when Catherine de Medicis brought ballet to France, in the mid 1600's, the Parisian version of ballet although less cumbersome in costuming than the earlier Italian displays, still did not have a shoe created for the express purpose of dance.

It was not until the late 1600's that King Louis XIV wore his high-heeled shoes with the large guilt buckles complete with shining sun rays, that shoes took on a more important role in the ballet. The shoes worn at Court were made of a very delicate upper, such as damask, silk or other fine fabrics, with a leather sole. King Louis made a habit of turning his toes outward to pompously show off his shoes. Oddly enough, that simple motion of turn out was perceived as extremely graceful and had some influence on what became the five basic positions of ballet.

Soft Ballet Shoes on Stage

In 1700 many of the words and movements common in today's ballet were already in use, including jeté, sissone, chasse and pirouette. But in 1730 ballet began to change. No longer were elegantly performed poses enough to quench the pallets of ballet audiences. Dancers took to the air, they began to leap. Because of their slighter stature and greater agility, women started to replace men in principal roles. Next came the discarding of restrictive costumes. Marie Sallé literally let her hair down and donned looser clothes for her ballet d'action, and Marie Ann Cupis de Camargo took the heels off of her shoes and shortened her skirts to perform the techniques of entrechat quatre and cabriole.

Toe dancing began to develop at the very tail end of the 1700's. Dancers balanced on their toes in attitude for just moments, wearing soft ballet slippers. Mind you, not like the soft leather ballet slippers worn today, by any stretch of the imagination. Today's ballet shoes are constructed of thin, flexible leather, the pleats of which are precisely stitched flat to a sueded sole so soft and smooth that the dancer hardly feels anything on their feet at all. No, these were the less refined, simple shoes of the times, radical changes in dancewear would take place over the next hundred years.

Ballet Dancing en Pointe

The ballerina who is traditionally credited with being the first dancer to dance en pointe was the Italian, Marie Taglioni. Taglioni wore satin ballet slippers that had leather soles. Her ballet shoes had to be darned on the sides for strength . But they were not darned on the tip of the shoe. She danced without shoe support, as though barefoot. The blocked pointe shoe with a shanked sole did not evolve until much later.

Italian schools pushed technique to the limit. Pierina Legnani was the first to perform thirty-two fouettés on pointe which caused a huge sensation. The Italians were keeping a closely guarded secret, however, they were developing better shoes. Italian ballerinas were dancing in shoes that were harder, stronger and more supportive than those worn by Marie Taglioni. Russian ballerinas had to catch up technically, but could not do so because of their shoes. In time, Russian shoes were made firmer, and eventually grew quite hard and stiff. Even today Russian made pointe shoes are stiffer than other makes.

Satin, leather, paper and paste were, and still are, the primary components of a blocked pointe shoe. Contrary to some people's belief, there is no wood involved in this construction. Pointe shoes are made inside out and turned after the box has been formed which is achieved by building layer upon layer of paper and special paste, the formula to which each manufacturer held sacred. When the heat of a dancer's foot warms the box of the shoe, the special paste then moulds it to the shape of her foot. The foot is supported from underneath the arch by a stiff spine, called a shank. The outer material of a pointe shoe is usually pink satin.

Noted Ballet Shoe Designers

In 1887, Salvatore Capezio opened his cobbler shop on Broadway and 39th Street, across from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. He soon made the transition from repairing shoes to shoemaker. He found that making dance shoes, particularly pointe shoes, was an art he enjoyed. As his notoriety grew, dancers from around the world made it a point to visit his shop and purchase his shoes. In fact, Anna Pavlova purchased Capezio pointe shoes for herself and her entire company during her first tour of the United States in 1910. Since choreographers asked more from their dancers, ballerinas required more from their shoes. The shanks were made harder, the boxes were reinforced, and the platforms got wider. It is rumored that Pavlova, who danced on the new broader platform, is said to have had photographs retouched to remove some of the tip of her pointe shoe for the sake of preserving the Nineteenth Century ideal that ballerinas balanced on the tiniest of shoes.

Russian born, Jacob Bloch arrived in Australia in 1931 at the height of the Great Depression and began making shoes by hand in a workshop where he lived. His reputation for piecing together fine leather that hugged the arch of a dancer's foot spread rapidly. In the late 1930's many overseas ballet companies toured Australia. Among these companies, was De Basil's Monte Carlo Russian Ballet, the original Ballet Russe. Jacob made ballet shoes for Spessiva, Baranova, Riabouchinskaya, Toumanova, David Lichine and many others. The Bloch brand has come to be recognized as one of the most distinguished among dancewear manufacturers in the world. Any dancer who has worn one of their many split-sole ballet shoe styles can attest to that.

Grishko, Ltd. started the production of a Russian pointe shoe as a small cooperative in 1989. A shoe of high quality, Grishkos are firmer and stiffer than American made pointe shoes. The brand Grishko is very popular in more than 70 countries of the world.

While other pointe shoe manufacturers remain faithful to the original turned last style of building a pointe shoe box, one new-comer has made inroads to the development of high-tech pointe shoe styles. Gaynor Minden opened its doors in the Chelsea section of Manhattan in 1993 with one employee and one product, the patented pointe shoe that Eliza Minden had taken eight years to develop. Her brand includes a variety of ultra-flexible shanks and boxes made from the most advanced elastomers - materials only recently developed. Today, they are proud to serve hundreds of dance specialty stores nationwide as well as numerous overseas distributors, and almost every major professional ballet company in the world including American Ballet Theatre, England's Royal Ballet and Russia's Kirov Ballet. Their motto: Having sore feet does not make a better dancer.

There are as many ballet shoe designs as there are foot shapes. Finding the style that works for you is what it is all about. From kids beginner full-sole pink and white ballet slippers, to intermediate split-sole styles of leather or hybrids with canvas inserts, or perhaps all canvas ballet shoes, to the best fitting pointe shoes, it's clear to see that technology has a challenge to keep up with the strides of today's artistic talent.

Dance Attire Through the Ages

Too Heavy to Dance In

In the 1400's, dancers were ladened with so much costuming that one could barely relate the word ballet to their presentations. The attire consisted of layers and layers of weighty fabric that disallowed the performance of much more than graceful poses.

Later during the time of Catherine de Medicis, dancers wore masks, wigs, large headdresses and heeled shoes. Woman wore panniers and hoopskirts that draped at the sides for fullness. Men wore tonnelets, which were basically knee-length bloomers that bubbled out like pumpkin pants. Although balance and control were essential to this style of performance, the development of ballet technique was thwarted by these showy costumes.

Shocking Above the Ankle Dancewear

The French dancer Marie Camargo, however, rebelled and shortened her skirts to above her ankles. She danced in heel-less slippers to show her jumps and beats, or batterie. Her rival, Marie Sallé, also broke with custom when she put on Greek robes to dance in her ballet, Pygmalion, which was performed in 1734. Both dancers were required to wear "calcons de precaution," easily translated to "precautionary drawers," so as not to expose anything inappropriate.

In the year 1763, Jason and Madea was performed without masks or the huge costumes typically worn by ballet dancers of the day. This was considered a daring step for Jean Noverre to break from traditional costuming and shocked the audience.

Relaxing of the Dancewear Code

During the time of the French revolution, Salvatore Viganò, a theatrical genius of many talents,and his wife, were shown in much lighter costumes. His wife wore light flowing dresses cut similar to the French Empire line. Both Vigano and his wife wore soft flexible ballet shoes.
Carlo Blasis published the technical manual Trait Elementaire et Pratique de la Danse, in 1820, which included drawings for which Blasis had posed, dressed in nothing but shorts and ballet shoes. Though Blasis did not recommend the wearing of shorts as practice wear for fear that the dancers might catch cold, he was very much concerned with the specifics of practice clothing and designed official dancewear. He thought that girls should wear white muslin dresses with black sashes at the waist, and males should wear white close fitting jackets and trousers with a black leather waistband for support.

The 1832 new Paris Opéra regulations replaced the long, loose trousers with knee breeches and silk hose since it had been decided that the long pants hid too many technical faults and anatomical defects. August Bournonville invented the "Bournonville slipper" for male dancer which is still worn today in all Bournonville ballets. These black slippers have a white, V-shaped vamp in the front, making for a betterlooking, long and pointed foot.

In 1832 Marie Taglioni's father choreographed a ballet for her to perform. La Sylphide, was one of the first major ballets and is still performed today. In La Sylphide, Taglioni wore a bell shaped dress with a fitted bodice, the fashion of which would become the romantic tutu, fifty years later.
By 1844, it was reported that the dancers of the Paris Opéra were appearing in ballet class in attire sounding very much like the attire prescribed and outlined by Carlo Blasis.

On stage in the 1890s, Victorian sensibilities caused a return to very elaborate dancewear. Off stage in the rehearsal room, ballerinas wore very involved outfits that included a chemise tied at the waist with ribbon, then a little corset that was laced up tight, cotton panties and long cotton stockings that were fastened with suspenders and over that were bloomers. They wore a white sleeveless batiste bodice, with a ruffle around the neck and double tarleton skirts of the tutu with a sash around the waist.

The bell-shaped Romantic dress of the mid-1800s gave way to the tutu in the 19th century that extended only to the knee. This allowed the ballerina much more mobility and displayed her technique.

Mikhail Folkine, started to push the rules of costume in the imperial theatre during the early 1900's.In his Greek style ballet, Eunice, he made it look like the dancers were in bare feet by having toes painted on the dancers' shoes. Bare feet would have defied the rules of the imperial theatre.

It was in the early part of the 20th century that dance attire began to change. Isadora Duncan, one of the first innovators, was considered to be an extremist when she discarded her shoes and stockings and danced on stage in bare feet. Her flimsy Greek tunics soon became the practical and acceptable style of dancewear worn for rehearsal.

When in 1946, George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein had formed the Ballet Society, they decided to discard the very constricting costumes designed for their premier performance. The dancers danced on stage in what were referred to as rehearsal costumes. This look allowed audiences to see the full dance and the costume style became common in Balanchine's ballets.

The Introduction of the Leotard

Not much longer would it be before dancers adopted the trendy one-piece bathing suit rompers became popular rehearsal dancewear. Needless to say, this was the predecessor of today's leotard. Dupont bagan commercial production of a fabric called nylon, synthesized completely from petrochemicals, in 1939 and it found its way into the hosiery market before the start of World War II.

Nylon was one of the first fabrics used in the manufacture of bodysuits. Black short sleeve leotards for kids were worn with nylon ankle socks and pink ballet slippers. Adults donned the classic long sleeve version of ballet leotard with a scoop neckline. Bare legs were never very popular with dancers for practice sessions, since the leg muscles should be kept warm. When nylon was used to create the early versions of tights, scratchy or not, they were a marvel.

It would not be until 1959 that Spandex, another man made fabric, would come to revolutionize many areas of the clothing industry, especially those dependent on fabrics that had the ability to stretch. It would take a few years to reach the marketplace, but fashions extended to include tank style and camisole or spaghetti strap style leotards, some with pinched fronts. Legwear became smoother, less scratchy and stopped bagging at the ankle. Dancers were set free to fly!

The Adaptation of Tights

First came the 100% nylon products introduced and marketed as durable, and they were. Classic pink mesh ballet tights were manufactured with a seam up the back and were practically indestructible, itchy, but indestructible. Then came versions of shiny tights that had a stretchy consistency, and tights that were named after what they did, they held and they stretched. These were made of a blend of mostly nylon with a little lycra added. Ballerinas could wear tights with their bodysuits, top them off with some knitted legwarmers and they were able to solve the long-time problem of keeping their muscles warm. But wait, it gets better. In the l990's tights started to be manufactured with a Supplex yarn added to their content. Ultrasoft and total-stretch, were descriptions new to dancewear shelves around the globe. All of the major manufacturers jumped on this one. One more problem solved was that dancers no longer had to slice the bottom of their tights to expose their bare feet when needed. The new fabric sparked the lightbulb that this stretchable factor could be extended far enough to stretch out over the foot. The end result was the new style called convertible, transition, adaptatoe and many other never before used words to describe tights. Companies like PrimaSoft and Body Wrappers were some of the first to recognize this and were joined by Capezio and Bloch early on. No more itch, no more baggy ankles, Supplex ballet tights have technique.

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