Ballet is the traditional European art of dance
performance. Every culture has dance, I suppose, and many have "dancing girls
" or other groups especially good at and trained in dance, but often dancing is something that everyone in a certain section of society is supposed to do, either because it is part of rituals, or because it is a worthy accomplishment
for a certain social rank.
Ballet as a distinctive form began in the court of the French kings, and I suppose may be considered what the court watched instead of what they themselves did. Dancers were valued for their skills, so dancers became professionals.
It is European, in that we do not think of Arab-world raqs sharqi or Indian classical dance as ballet, though they're its cultural equivalent, at least in part.
It is also traditional, having evolved into a "high art", and picking up influences from "popular" arts, without being the same as them. The allemandes and gigues of the old courts developed from country dancing, ballet developed from these, took in the folk dancing and waltz of later centuries, and more recently has consciously sampled styles such as charleston and foxtrot and jazz, but without fusion.
One final distinctive feature is that there is no voice. There is no spoken dialogue to help the tale along, and there are no songs, neither sung by the dancers nor used as the music behind it (though modern ballets may use these occasionally). This distinguishes ballet from combined arts like opera and the modern musical. However, many operas do contain ballets, that is at least one scene of ballet; into the middle of the nineteenth century audiences regarded this as compulsory, and many great operas were slightly bogged down by this necessity.
Ballet reached a height of popularity in the early nineteenth century, and the modern image of it may be said to have arisen from a single work, La Sylphide (1832), a fairy romance in which Marie Taglioni brought together the tutu, the pointe shoes, the otherwordly atmosphere, and the emphasis on the female star. This work is still performed (not the same as a later classic, Les Sylphides), but the best ballet from this period of renewal is Giselle (1841), a star vehicle for Carlotta Grisi.
After a while it declined, and France even looked to England as the centre of ballet performance now, though in England there was no professional company and ballet scenes were only put on as part of music hall entertainments.
But it was in Russia that modern ballet began, under the guidance of French-trained choreographers and dancers. Two of the greatest choreographers were Marius Petipa and Michel Fokine, and around the turn of the century, we get many of the great foundation ballets created in Russia: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Rite of Spring. This was the greatest flourishing of the art.
In the 1920s the impresario Serge Diaghilev toured Europe with his Ballet Russe company, and other Ballets Russes were formed to take the new art across the world, as far afield as Australia, and spawning the creation of revitalised ballet companies such as, in Britain, the Sadler's Wells Ballet of Dame Ninette de Valois, which became the Royal Ballet. Australia's national ballet company wasn't formed until the 1960s, but it like the others was under the direct influence of the Ballets Russes that had visited.
Some star dancers are legendary, and their names will forever be known: Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky, who could have been the greatest partnership ever, if Pavlova had worked with Diaghilev instead of touring the world on her own, and if Nijinsky had not gone insane and died too young: and Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, who quite simply were the greatest partnership of all. Today Sylvie Guillem stands alone as the most gifted dancer of the age.
There were many other names, many of them Russian (and many of the English ones changing their names to look Russian!), that all ballet lovers, all balletomanes as we call ourselves, "mad with ballet", should recognize: Galina Ulanova, Olga Spessivtseva, Mathilde Kschessinskaya, Pierina Legnani, Tamara Karsavina, Tamara Toumanova, Alicia Markova, Robert Helpmann, Anton Dolin, Lynn Seymour, Carla Fracci, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Altynai Asylmuratova, ...
Choreography continues to develop. Modern ballet can use old music, like Bizet's gloriously leaping Symphony in C; or those like Steptext and Hermann Schmermann can use thoroughly modern music, with discord and tape loops. Of the living dancers I see on stage in London, the best by far is Sylvie Guillem; others who are wonderful include Darcey Bussell, Tetsuya Kumakawa, Jonathan Cope, Sarah Wildor, and Irek Mukhammedov.
The present write-up is an expanded one posted on 20 May 2002 to replace my inadequate E1 one. It's not remotely long enough to do this lovely spectacle justice, but it's a bit more than was. I don't want to encroach on the excellent nodes below it.