The Development of Ballet in Western Europe

Foreshadowed in earlier mummeries and lavish masquerades, ballet emerged as a distinctive form in Italy before the 16th cent. The first ballet that combined movement, music, decor, and special effects was presented in France at the court of Catherine de' Medici in 1581. Organized by the violinist Balthasar de Beaujoyeux, it had a classical theme, lasted six hours, was performed among the guests (there were no elevated stages), and was entitled Le Ballet comique de la Reine. This production was the first ballet de cour, the ancestor of the modern ballet, which influenced the English court masque, a 16th-century entertainment with dance interludes. The first treatise on ballet dancing was the Orchésographie of Thoinot Arbeau (1588).

The 17th cent. saw the major development of ballet in France. At first a court entertainment, the simple entrées were extended c.1610 and joined together to form scenes, called divertissements, which culminated in a grand ballet. Ballet also became a court pastime and a royal obsession. Louis XIV himself studied with ballet master Pierre Beauchamps for 20 years. The "Sun King" founded the Royal Ballet Academy (1661), the Royal Music Academy (1669), which became the Paris Opéra, and the first National Ballet School (1672). All parts were performed by male dancers; boys in wigs and masks took the female roles.

The first ballet using trained women was The Triumph of Love (1681) with music by Lully. Ballet remained a court spectacle and included opera or drama until about 1708, when the first ballet was commissioned for public performance. Thereafter the form, infused with new ideas, developed as a separate art (although the court ballet continued its historic traditions). Choreographic notation came into being, and mythological themes were explored.

With the increased influence of the Italian school of ballet, movement became elevated and less horizontal, and the five classic positions of the feet, which form the base for the dancer's stance and movement, were established by Pierre Beauchamps. The costumes, which had been cumbersome with decoration, long skirts, and high heels (for both men and women) were newly designed to allow greater freedom of movement. The virtuosa dancer Marie Camargo, who introduced the entrechat (elevation) for women, shortened her skirt to the middle of the calf and wore tights and what were to be the first ballet slippers (heelless shoes). Her rival, Marie Sallé (who was also the first female choreographer), was the first dancer to wear a filmy, liberating Grecian-style costume, made popular two centuries later by Isadora Duncan.

Jean Georges Noverre, a revolutionary 18th-century maître de ballet, established the determining principles of the ballet d'action, which he described in his Lettres sur la danse et les ballets (1760). He wanted the ballet to tell a story, aided by the music, decor, and dance; he wanted the performer to interpret his role through the dance and through his own body and facial expression. In stressing naturalism, Noverre simplified the costume and c.1773 abolished the mask. Other important innovations came from the great artists of the period, Gaetan and Auguste Vestris, Salvatore Vigano, and Charles Didelot. Technical innovation in dance movement was increased after further modification of the ballet costume.

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