History of Ballet
Ballet emerged in the late 15th-century Renaissance court culture of Italy as a dance interpretation of fencing, and further developed in the French court from the time of Louis XIV in the 17th century. This is reflected in the largely French vocabulary of ballet. Despite the great reforms of Noverre in the 18th century, ballet went into decline in France after 1830, though it was continued in Denmark, Italy, and Russia. It was reintroduced to western Europe on the eve of World War I by a Russian company: the Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev, who came to be influential around the world. Diaghilev's company came to be a destination for many of the Russian trained dancers fleeing the famine and unrest that followed the Bolshevik revolution. These dancers brought many of the choreographic and stylistic innovations that had been flourishing under the czars back to their place of origin.
Classical ballet is the most formal of the ballet styles; it adheres to traditional ballet technique. There are variations relating to area of origin, such as Russian ballet, French ballet, and Italian ballet. Although most ballet of the last two centuries is ultimately founded on the teachings of Blasis. The most well-known styles of ballet are the Russian Method, the Italian Method, the Danish Method, the Balanchine Method or New York City Ballet Method, and the Royal Academy of Dance and Royal Ballet School methods, created in England. The first pointe shoes were actually regular ballet slippers that were heavily darned at the tip. It would allow the female dancer to briefly stand on her toes to appear weightless. It was later converted to the hard box that is used today.
Pictured: Brooklyn Mack and Misty Copeland by Theo Kossenas | media4artists
Neoclassical ballet is a ballet style that uses traditional ballet vocabulary but is less rigid than the classical ballet. For example, dancers often dance at more extreme tempos and perform more technical feats. Spacing in neoclassical ballet is usually more modern or complex than in classical ballet. Although organization in neoclassical ballet is more varied, the focus on structure is a defining characteristic of neoclassical ballet.
The style of 20th century classical ballet draws on the advanced technique of 19th century Russian Imperial dance, but strips it of its detailed narrative and heavy theatrical setting. Balanchine used flexed hands (and occasionally feet), turned-in legs, off-centered positions and non-classical costumes (such as leotards and tunics instead of tutus) to distance himself from the classical and romantic ballet traditions. What is left is the dance itself, sophisticated but sleekly modern, retaining the pointe shoe aesthetic, but eschewing the well-upholstered drama and mime of the full length story ballet.
Balanchine brought modern dancers in to dance with his company, the New York City Ballet. One such dancer was Paul Taylor, who, in 1959, performed in Balanchine's Episodes. Balanchine worked with modern dance choreographer Martha Graham, expanding his exposure to modern techniques and ideas. During this period, choreographers such as John Butler and Glen Tetley began to consciously combine ballet and modern techniques in experimentation.
Contemporary ballet is a form of dance influenced by both classical ballet and modern dance. It takes its technique and use of pointe work from classical ballet, although it permits a greater range of movement that may not adhere to the strict body lines set forth by schools of ballet technique. Many of its concepts come from the ideas and innovations of 20th century modern dance, including floor work and turn-in of the legs.
George Balanchine is often considered to have been the first pioneer of contemporary ballet through the development of neoclassical ballet.
One dancer who danced briefly for Balanchine was Mikhail Baryshnikov, an exemplar of Kirov Ballet training. Following Baryshnikov's appointment as artistic director of American Ballet Theatre in 1980, he worked with various modern choreographers, most notably Twyla Tharp. Tharp choreographed Push Comes To Shove for ABT and Baryshnikov in 1976; in 1986 she created In The Upper Room for her own company. Both these pieces were considered innovative for their use of distinctly modern movements melded with the use of pointe shoes and classically-trained dancers -- for their use of "contemporary ballet".
Twyla Tharp also worked with the Joffrey Ballet company, founded in 1957 by Robert Joffrey. She choreographed Deuce Coupe for them in 1973, using pop music and a blend of modern and ballet techniques. The Joffrey Ballet continued to perform numerous contemporary pieces, many choreographed by co-founder Gerald Arpino.
The history of this great artform can be seen on stage in works performed by The Washington Ballet. TWB’s company of outstanding artists tackles the full range of ballet repertoire from the classics to more contemporary works.
Pictured: Maki Onuki by Theo Kossenas | media4artists
The Famous Ballets
“A ballet may contain a story, but the visual spectacle, not the story, is the essential element. The choreographer and the dancer must remember that they reach the audience through the eye – and the audience, in its turn, must train itself actually to see what is performed upon the stage. It is the illusion created which convinces the audience, much as it is with the work of a magician. If the illusion fails the ballet fails, no matter how well a program note tells the audience that it has succeeded”
~George Balanchine, 1945, “Notes on Choreography”
For more than six centuries, brilliant choreographers and dancers have created for the stage masterworks of romance, tragedy and great comedy. The following represents a small sampling of some of the ballet world’s most beloved works:
Don Quixote is a famous ballet based on the epic masterpiece by Miguel de Cervantes. The most noted choreography for the ballet was created by Marius Petipa at the height of his career.
Plot Summary of Don Quixote:
As the ballet begins, an aging nobleman named Don Quixote becomes obsessed with stories of ancient rivalry. Appearing a little silly, he uses his imagination and pretends to be a brave night. He imagines that he sets out to rescue the lady of his dreams, named Dulcinea. He transforms his servant, Sancho Panza, into a trusty squire and off they go. Don Quixote leads a charge against imaginary enemies, which he sees everywhere. He proceeds to fight invisible rivals, puppets, and windmills.
Interesting Facts About Don Quixote:
The role of Don Quixote, the title character in the ballet, is usually portrayed by an older dancer. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are not heavily involved in the storyline. The ballet's best dance is a wonderful wedding pas de deux, performed by young lovers Kitri and Basilio.
The Washington Ballet featured Don Quixote in its October 2009 program.
Pictured: Miguel Anaya and Maki Onuki by Dean Alexander
Tchaikovsky’s first ballet, Swan Lake is considered by many to be one of the greatest classical ballets of all time. Its romance and beauty has allowed the classic ballet to mesmerize audiences for more than 100 years.
Plot Summary of Swan Lake:
While hunting, Prince Siegfried sees an amazing swan. As he takes aim to shoot, the swan turns into a beautiful woman. The woman, Odette, tells the prince that she is a princess who has come under the spell of an evil sorcerer. During the day she must be a swan and swim in a lake of tears. At night she is allowed to be a human again. The spell can only be broken if a virgin prince swears eternal fidelity to her. She tells Prince Siegfried, who happens to be a virgin prince, that if he refuses her she must remain a swan forever.
Prince Siegfried falls madly in love with Odette. However, through a spell by the evil sorcerer, he accidentally proposes to another woman at a party, believing that the woman is really Odette. Princess Odette feels doomed. She threatens to kill herself and throws herself into the lake. The Prince feels terribly sorry and throws himself into the lake with her. In an incredibly touching moment, the two are transformed into lovers in the afterlife.
Interesting Facts About Swan Lake:
Although Swan Lake was Tchaikovsky's first ballet score, the first production in Moscow wasn't well-received. Although several versions exist, most ballet companies stage the ballet according to the choreography of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov after their St. Petersburg performance of 1895. The first American production was performed by the San Francisco Ballet.
Pictured: Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack by Theo Kossenas | media4artists
More than 100 years old, The Nutcracker Ballet was first presented at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, on December 17, 1892. Peter Tchaikovsky, the famous Russian composer, was commissioned by mastermind choreographer Marius Petipa to compose the ballet score based on Alexandre Dumas’s adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s tale "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King." Tchaikovsky and Petipa had previously worked together on another classical ballet, Sleeping Beauty.
Plot Summary of The Nutcracker:
The Nutcracker ballet is based on the story "The Nutcracker and the King of Mice" written by E.T.A. Hoffman. Although what is seen on the stage today is different in detail from the original story, the basic plot remains the same; The story of a young German girl who dreams of a Nutcracker Prince and a fierce battle against a Mouse King with seven heads.
When Marius Petipa had the idea to choreograph the story into a ballet, it was actually based on a revision by Alexander Dumas, a well known French author. His version reflects more of what we have come to love as The Nutcracker ballet.
Interesting Facts about The Nutcracker:
The first production of The Nutcracker was a failure. Neither the critics nor the audience liked it, however Czar Alexander III was delighted with the ballet, The Nutcracker was not an instant success, but the ballet gained popularity with future productions, especially in the United States. The first performance of The Nutcracker in the United States was by the San Francisco Opera Ballet, in 1944. The production was directed by William Christensen. However, by changing a few characters, choreographer George Balanchine brought new life to The Nutcracker. His 1954 production for the New York City Ballet popularized the ballet, establishing it as a holiday tradition. Many of the versions of The Nutcracker performed today are based on the version created by George Balanchine.
Septime Webre re-imagined The Nutcracker for The Washington Ballet in 2004, and to this day, his adaptation with its uniquely American themes remains a holiday “must” in Washington, DC.
Photo by Theo Kossenas | media4artists
The Sleeping Beauty
The Sleeping Beauty was the first successful ballet composed by Tchaikovsky. However, it was no more popular than his first ballet, Swan Lake. The production was heavily criticized for being too lavish. Within three years, the ballet gained enough popularity to be performed at least 50 times.
Summary of The Sleeping Beauty:
As the ballet begins, baby Princess Aurora is being christened. The evil Carabosse storms in and curses the baby, as her invitation to the event had been overlooked. The curse states that on her 18th birthday, the princess will prick her finger and die, however, the Lilac Fairy weakens the curse. She proclaims that instead of dying, Princess Aurora will fall into a deep sleep for 100 years. She will then be awakened by the kiss of a handsome prince. During Aurora's 16th birthday party, a mysterious guest (the evil Carabosse) offers her a gift...a lovely spindle. Aurora pricks her finger and the whole court falls into a deep sleep.
Several years later, the Lilac Fairy produces a vision of Aurora which Prince Desire notices while hunting. The Prince is led to the castle, where he battles the evil Carabosse. After the battle, he kisses the sleeping princess, upon which everyone wakes up. A beautiful and joyous wedding ceremony follows.
Interesting Facts About The Sleeping Beauty:
The Sleeping Beauty presents many challenges for both the principal dancers and soloists, and plenty of active choreography for the rest of the ballet cast. Aurora is one of the greatest and most challenging female roles, as it demands tremendous athletic ability as well as extremely clean technique.
Pictured: Claire Rathbun and Federico D'Ortenzi
Considered one of the great Romantic ballets, Giselle was first performed in Paris in 1841. Originally choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, the modern production seen today was choreographed by Marius Petipa for the Imperial Ballet.
Plot Summary of Giselle:
As the ballet begins, a nobleman named Albrecht is busily wooing a young, beautiful peasant girl named Giselle. Albrecht leads the young maiden to believe that he is a farmer named Loys. Giselle falls in love with the man, unaware that he is already betrothed to Bathilde, daughter of the Duke. She agrees to marry the man, despite the romantic advancements of another peasant, Hilarion, who suspects that Albrecht is an imposter. Giselle wants badly to dance, but her mother warns her that she has a weak heart.
A Prince and his entourage are soon announced by a hunting horn. When the prince's daughter realizes that she and Giselle are both engaged, she gives her a gold necklace. Hilarion tells Giselle that Albrecht has been deceiving her, that he is actually a nobleman. Bathilde quickly reveals to Giselle that Albrecht is indeed her fiancé. Horrified and weak, Giselle goes mad and dies of a broken heart.
The second act of the ballet takes place in a forest beside Giselle's grave. The Queen of the ghostly Wilis, virgins who have died of unrequited love, calls upon them to accept Giselle as one of their own. When Hilarion stops by, the Wilis make him dance to his death. But when Albrecht arrives, Giselle (now a Wili herself) dances with him until the Wilis' power is lost, when the clock strikes four. Realizing that Giselle has saved him, Albrecht cries at her grave.
Interesting Facts About Giselle:
The role of Giselle is one of the most sought-after in ballet. To win the role, a ballerina must have near perfect technique, outstanding grace, and great drama skills. Giselle revolves around the themes of forest spirits, forces of nature, and death. The second act of the ballet, in which everyone is wearing white, is known as the "white act."
One of the first romantic ballets, La Sylphide was first performed in Paris in 1832. The original choreographer of the ballet was Philippe Taglioni, but most people are more familiar with the version choreographed by August Bournonville. His version of the ballet, first performed in Copenhagen in 1836, became the cornerstone of the Romantic ballet tradition.
Plot Summary of La Sylphide:
On the morning of his wedding day, a Scottish farmer named James falls in love with a vision of a magical sylph, or spirit. An old witch appears before him, predicting that he will betray his fiancée. Although enchanted by the sylph, James disagrees, sending the witch away. All seems fine as the wedding begins. But as James begins to put the ring on his fiancée’s finger, the beautiful sylph suddenly appears and snatches it away from him. James abandons his own wedding, running after her. He chases the sylph into the woods, where he again sees the old witch. She offers James a magical scarf. She tells him that the scarf will bind the sylph's wings, enabling him to catch her for himself. James is so enamored by the sylph that he wishes to catch her and keep her forever. James decides to take the magical scarf. He wraps it around the sylph's shoulders, but when he does, the Sylph's wings fall off and she dies. James is left all alone, heartbroken. He then watches his fiancée marry his best friend.
Interesting Facts About La Sylphide:
A sylph is a mythological creature, or spirit. The ballet tells the story of an impossible love between a human and a spirit, and man's inherent temptation for the unknown and sometimes dangerous life. La Sylphide remains a captivating, fascinating ballet that appeals to both audiences and dancers. The ballet is presented in two acts, usually running about 90 minutes. Many people confuse La Sylphide with Les Sylphides, another ballet that involves a mythical sylph, or forest spirit. The two ballets are unrelated.
The Washington Ballet added La Sylphide to its repertoire in 2009 to great critical and box office acclaim.
Warm-up: Doing exercises that stretch and loosen the muscles to prepare your body for dancing.
Barre: A horizontal wooden hand rail that runs around the wall of a ballet studio.
Alignment: The lining up of parts of your body to make a balanced and graceful line.
Posture: The position and carriage of the body.
Pointe: A position of the foot in which your heel is held up, your big toe is stretched down toward the ground, your leg is turned out, and your foot is in line with your leg.
Positions of the feet: Five different positions in which your weight is evenly distributed over your feet no matter what position you body is in, with your legs turned out from the pelvis.
Port de bras: Carriage of the arms. Set movements of the arms from one position to the other.
Plié: An exercise in which, standing erect and with back straight, you move down and up with the bend of the knees.
Demi-plié: A half knee-bend. Nearly every step begins and ends with a demi-plie´.
Grand plié: A full knee-bend with heels off the floor.
Elevé: A movement in which you rise up high on to the balls of your feet. A similar position is also referred to as Releve´.
Coupé: A position of your foot, lifted and held flexed, tight against your ankle.
Battement: A generic term which describes the various movements in which the leg makes a beating motion.
Battement tendu: An exercise in which you stretch your foot along the floor and end in a point.
En croix: In the shape of a cross (front, side, back)
Degagé: An exercise similar to a tendu that finishes with the foot lifted from the ground in a point.
Rond de jambes à terre: Circle of the leg, on the ground (à terre). An exercise in which you mark out a semi-circle on the floor with your pointed foot.
Balance: In dance, a term which describes the holding of your body in a stable position.
Centre Practice: A group of exercises similar to those à la barre but performed in the centre of the room without the support of the barre. These exercises are usually performed with alternate feet and are invaluable for obtaining good balance and control
Balance: In dance, a term which describes the holding of your body in a stable position
Passé: A movement that resembles a pass.
Arabesque: A position in which you balance on one straight leg (or bent leg) with the other stretched out behind you.
Grand Battement: Meaning large beats. An exercise in which you raise your pointed foot high off of the ground keeping both legs straight.
Allegro: An Italian musical term meaning quick and lively. In ballet, allegro steps are completed in fast tempo without your arms flapping about.
Petit Allegro: Small jumping and turning steps.
Glissade: Gliding or sliding steps. A traveling step in which you glide your foot along the floor with your front knee bent and you transfer your weight. During the moment of transition, your legs are fully stretched.
Demi-pointe: Half point, meaning standing on the balls of your feet.
Bourrée: A linking step in which you rise up on the balls of your feet (on to your half point) and glide across the floor with quick, tiny steps.
Pas de Bourrée: A small stepping movement, executed on the balls of the feet or on pointe, in which you either skim smoothly across the floor or transfer the weight from foot-to-foot three times as a transition into another movement. A pas-de-bourrée consists of bending both legs, extending one, then stepping up, up, down, finishing with bent knees.
Pas de chat: A traveling step-of-the-cat in which you bring one foot up along you leg to the knee, and transfer your weight to the other leg with a spring in the air, landing with your feet in 5th position.
Routine: In dance, a term meaning a sequence of steps.
Marking: Going through the movements of a dance routine without dancing them fully, to familiarize yourself with the steps before performing.
Finale: The concluding part of a performance.
Grand Allegro: A combination of large traveling steps and jumps.
Pas Marché: The graceful walk to center stage to take a curtsey or bow.
Curtsey: A movement by the female dancer (ballerina) that acknowledges the instructor at the end of a class, or an audience at the end of a performance.
Bow: A movement by the male dancer (danseur noble) that acknowledges the instructor at the end of a class, or an audience at the end of a performance.
Reverence: A movement, generally made by the sweep of an arm to acknowledge the rest of the ensemble cast (corps), the instructor, the choreographer, and/or the orchestra.
August Bournonville:1805-1879, choreographer of La Sylphide (1836)
Marius Petipa: 1818-1910
Lev Ivanov: 1834-1901
Michel Fokine: 1880-1942, first Dhiagalev choreographer
Vaslav Nijinsky: 1889-1950
Martha Graham: 1894-1991
George Balanchine: 1904-1983
Frederick Ashton: 1904-1988, British
Jerome Robbins: 1918-1998
Merce Cunningham: 1919-2009
Kenneth Macmillan: 1929-1992
Paul Taylor: 1930
Alvin Ailey: 1931-1989
Twyla Tharp: 1941
Jiří Kylián: 1947
Choo San Goh: 1948-1987
William Forsythe: 1949
Mark Morris: 1956
Nacho Duato: 1957
Alexi Rathmansky, 1968
Trey McIntyre, 1969
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, 1973
Christopher Wheeldon, 1973
Edwaard Liang, 1975
Justin Peck, 1988