Feb 20, 2016

Displaying Sophistication with Masks and Curtsies: The Early History of Ballet


The Royal Ballet of the Dowager of Bilbao's Grand Ball, 1626.

Ballet has been described as an art form created by the movement of the human body. It is a type of dance performed on a stage in front of an audience. The word ballet is derived from the French word ballette, which in turn was taken from the Italian word balletto, the diminutive of the word ballo, which means a dance.

Today this word conjures, in most people’s minds, the image of graceful female dancers leaping through the air in their tutus. The centuries-long history of ballet, however, is not pervaded by the modern stereotypical image of this art form. In fact, the ballets of the past, especially from this dance’s earlier period, looked quite different from the performances of today.

The Origins of Ballet

Ballet is commonly said to have originated in Renaissance Italy. Whilst some suggest that it began sometime between the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century, others date this type of dance to the 17th century.

For those who subscribe to the former suggestion, ballet is said to have begun as a type of entertainment to fill the time between the various courses at a banquet. For example, 1489 saw the marriage of the Duke of Milan, Galeazzo Visconti, to Isabella of Aragon in Tortona. To celebrate this joyous occasion, a choreographer by the name of Bergonzio di Botta prepared a series of dances (known as ‘entrées’) to complement the different courses that were being served at the wedding banquet. These dances were closely related to the menu, and drew inspiration (to some extent) from Classical mythology. For instance, the roast lamb was preceded by the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. 
 


Representation of a Ballet before Henri III and his Court, in the Gallery of the Louvre. Re-engraving from an original on Copper in the ‘Ballet comique de la Royne by Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx’ (Paris: Ballard, 1582). (Public Domain)

Di Botta’s dances were well-received, and soon became fashionable, especially amongst the upper classes of Italian society. By performing such dances, members of this social class believed that they were showing off their talent, wealth, and, above all, cultural sophistication, one of the values most associated with the Italian Renaissance.

From Italy, ballet would spread to France during the first half of the 16th century. This was made possible thanks to the marriage of the Italian noblewoman, Catherine de’ Medici to the future King of France, Henry II. As she was a great patron of the arts, ballet was introduced to, and funded by, the French court.


Modern grace, - or - the operatical finale to the ballet of Alonzo e Caro, by James Gillray. (Public domain)

Elaborate Costumes

At this point of time, ballet consisted of a number of theatrical elements. Similar to the ballets which are performed today, these spectacles involved music and dances. Apart from these familiar elements, ballet at this early stage also involved poetry and pantomime.

Additionally, the outfits used by ballet dancers during this period are quite different from that used today. For instance, dancers wore “masks, layers upon layers of brocaded costuming, pantaloons, large headdresses and ornaments”. Such an outfit may be said to be an ostensive display of its wearer’s wealth.

Nevertheless, this mass of clothing was rather cumbersome, and inhibited a dancer’s movement. Thus, dance steps consisted of relatively simple movements, including “small hops, slides, curtsies, promenades and gentle turns”.


A publicity photo for the premiere of Tchaikovsky's ballet ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ (1890). (Public Domain)

The social context of ballet may also be said to have been quite different at this early period. Although the di Botta’s dances were meant to entertain, by the time it arrived in France, it became somewhat more serious.

A King’s Role

Like the Italians of the Renaissance, ballet was performance by the upper classes of French society. Unlike the audience-orientated performances of today, such dances were meant to entertain the dancers. As court life could be monotonous and boring at times, ballet was seen as a form of amusement. Additionally, being able to dance was “necessary social accomplishment” for the people at court. Thus, kings, princes, aristocrats and courtiers learnt the ballet. Interestingly, it may be noted that during this time, ballet was a male dance, and female dancers only became prominent after the French Revolution.

One of the most famous figures who danced the ballet was Louis XIV of France. This king was a passionate ballet dancer, and is also known as ‘The Sun King’, since he played the role of the Sun (personified by the Greek god Apollo) in the Ballet de la Nuit in 1653.


Louis XIV in Lully's Ballet de la nuit (1653). (CC BY-SA 3.0)

One of the greatest contributions of this king to ballet was the establishment of the Academie Royale de Danse in 1661. It was in this academy that the first professional ballet dancers were trained. As a consequence, ballet would no longer be enjoyed only by the court, but would, through theaters, gradually be disseminated to all levels of society.

Another important achievement of the academy was the codification of the five positions of the feet and arms by one of its ballet masters, Pierre Beauchamp (who was also Louis XIV’s personal ballet tutor). These positions continue to be taught and used even today. From France, ballet would eventually spread to the rest of the world, and continue its evolution as an art form.

Featured image: The Royal Ballet of the Dowager of Bilbao's Grand Ball, 1626. Photo source: Public Domain.

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