Ballet /ˈbæl/ (French: [balɛ]) is a type of performance dance that originated during the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century and later developed into a concert dance form in France and Russia. It has since become a widespread, highly technical form of dance with its own vocabulary based on French terminology. It has been globally influential and has defined the foundational techniques used in many other dance genres and cultures. Ballet has been taught in various schools around the world, which have historically incorporated their own cultures to evolve the art. See glossary of ballet.

A ballet, a work, consists of the choreography and music for a ballet production. A well-known example of this is The Nutcracker, a two-act ballet originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a music score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Ballets are choreographed and performed by trained ballet dancers. Traditional classical ballets are usually performed with classical music accompaniment and use elaborate costumes and staging, whereas modern ballets, such as the neoclassical works of American choreographer George Balanchine, often are performed in simple costumes (e.g., leotards and tights) and without the use of elaborate sets or scenery.

This is a photo of a ballerina up on pointe in relevé with an attitude derriere.


Ballet is a French word which had its origin in Italian balletto, a diminutive of ballo (dance) which comes from Latin ballo, ballare, meaning "to dance",[1][2] which in turn comes from the Greek "βαλλίζω" (ballizo), "to dance, to jump about".[2][3] The word came into English usage from the French around 1630.


Louis XIV as Apollo in the Ballet Royal de la Nuit (1653)

Ballet originated in the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th and 16th centuries before it had spread from Italy to France by an Italian aristocrat, Catherine de' Medici, who became Queen of France. In France, ballet developed even further under her aristocratic influence.[4] The dancers in these early court ballets were mostly noble amateurs. Ballets in this period were lengthy and elaborate and often served a political purpose. The monarch displayed the country's wealth through the elaborate performances' power and magnificence. Ornamented costumes were meant to impress viewers, but they restricted performers' freedom of movement.[5]

The ballets were performed in large chambers with viewers on three sides. The implementation of the proscenium arch from 1618 on distanced performers from audience members, who could then better view and appreciate the technical feats of the professional dancers in the productions.[citation needed]

French court ballet reached its height under the reign of King Louis XIV. Known as the Sun King, Louis symbolized the brilliance and splendor of France. Influenced by his eager participation in court ballets since early childhood, Louis founded the Académie Royale de Danse (Royal Dance Academy) in 1661 to establish standards and certify dance instructors.[6] In 1672, Louis XIV made Jean-Baptiste Lully the director of the Académie Royale de Musique (Paris Opera) from which the first professional ballet company, the Paris Opera Ballet, arose.[7] Lully is considered the most important composer of music for ballets de cour and instrumental to the development of the form. Pierre Beauchamp served as Lully's ballet-master, the most important position of artistic authority and power for the companies during this century. Together their partnership would drastically influence the development of ballet, as evidenced by the credit given to them for the creation of the five major positions of the feet. The years following the 1661 creation of the Académie Royale de Danse shaped the future of ballet, as it became more evident to those in the French Nobility that there was a significant need for trained professional dancers. By 1681, the first of those who would now be called "ballerinas" took the stage following years of training at the Académie, influenced by the early beginnings of codified technique taught there.[5]

Ballet started to decline in France after 1830, but it continued to develop in Denmark, Italy, and Russia. The arrival in Europe of the Ballets Russes lead by Sergei Diaghilev on the eve of the First World War revived interest in the ballet and started the modern era of the art. The Russian choreographer Michel Fokine challenged tradition and called for reforms that reinvigorated ballet as an art form.[8]

In the 20th century, ballet had a wide influence on other dance genres,[9] and subgenres of ballet have also evolved. In the United States, choreographer George Balanchine developed what is now known as neoclassical ballet. Other developments include contemporary ballet and post-structural ballet. Also in the twentieth century, ballet took a turn dividing it from classical ballet to the introduction of modern dance, leading to modernist movements in several countries.[10] Famous dancers of the 20th century include Anna Pavlova, Galina Ulanova, Rudolf Nureyev, Maya Plisetskaya, Margot Fonteyn, Rosella Hightower, Maria Tall Chief, Erik Bruhn, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Suzanne Farrell, Gelsey Kirkland, Natalia Makarova, and Arthur Mitchell.[11]


Marie Sallé, classical ballet dancer

Stylistic variations have emerged and evolved since the Italian Renaissance. Early, classical variations are primarily associated with geographic origin. Examples of this are Russian ballet, French ballet, and Italian ballet. Later variations, such as contemporary ballet and neoclassical ballet, incorporate both classical ballet and non-traditional technique and movement. Perhaps the most widely known and performed ballet style is late Romantic ballet (or Ballet blanc), a classical style that focuses on female dancers (ballerinas) and features pointe work, flowing and precise movements, and often presents the female dancers in traditional, long white tutus.[citation needed]

Classical ballet

The Valse des cygnes from Act II of the Ivanov/Petipa edition of Swan Lake

Classical ballet is based on traditional ballet technique and vocabulary.[12] There are different styles of classical ballet that are related to their areas of origin, such as French ballet, Italian ballet, English ballet and Russian ballet. Several of the classical ballet styles are associated with specific training methods, which are typically named after their creators. For example, the Cecchetti method is named after its creator, Italian dancer Enrico Cecchetti and the Vaganova method is named after Russian ballerina Agrippina Vaganova.[4] The Royal Academy of Dance method is a ballet technique and training system that was founded by a diverse group of ballet dancers. They merged their respective dance methods (Italian, French, Danish and Russian) to create a new style of ballet that is unique to the organization and is recognized internationally as the English style of ballet.[8] Some examples of classical ballet productions are: Swan Lake and the Nutcracker.

Romantic ballet

Carlotta Grisi, the original Giselle, 1841, wearing the romantic tutu

Romantic ballet is an artistic movement of classical ballet. It relies on the same codified steps, but departs from earlier classical ballet in production artistic changes. For example, this era marks the emergence of pointe work, the dominance of females in ballet productions, and the change from the previously seen shorter tutus that stand straight out to the longer, flowy tutus that attempt to exemplify softness and a delicate aura.[5] This movement occurred during the early to mid 19th century (the Romantic era) and featured themes that emphasized intense emotion as a source of aesthetic experience. The plots of many romantic ballets revolved around spirit women (sylphs, wilis, and ghosts) who enslaved the hearts and senses of mortal men, as well as the mysteries of imagination or dreams. The 1827 ballet La Sylphide is widely considered to be the first, and the 1870 ballet Coppélia is considered to be the last work of romantic ballet.[4] Famous ballet dancers of the Romantic era include Marie Taglioni, Fanny Elssler, and Jules Perrot. Jules Perrot is also known for his choreography, especially that of Giselle, often considered to be the most widely celebrated romantic ballet.[5]

Neoclassical ballet

Neoclassical ballet is a style that utilizes classical ballet technique and vocabulary, but deviates from classical ballet in its use of the abstract. In neoclassical ballet, there often is no clear plot, costumes or scenery. Music choice can be diverse and will often include music that is also neoclassical (e.g. Stravinsky, Roussel). Neoclassical ballet opens up the use of space to multiple possibilities, as the elimination of the necessity of formalities and story telling allows far more possibilities for architecture and design in choreography.[5]

Tim Scholl, author of From Petipa to Balanchine, considers George Balanchine's Apollo in 1928 to be the first neoclassical ballet. Apollo represented a return to form in response to Sergei Diaghilev's abstract ballets. Balanchine worked with modern dance choreographer Martha Graham, expanding his exposure to modern techniques and ideas, and he brought modern dancers into his company, the New York City Ballet, such as Paul Taylor, who in 1959 performed in Balanchine's Episodes.[13]

While Balanchine is widely considered the face of neoclassical ballet, there were others who made significant contributions to the development of the style. Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations (1946) is a seminal work for the choreographer, and is a work staged in white tunics, abstract and minimal set design with no discernable plot. Set to César Franck’s score of the same title, it is a pure-dance interpretation of the score in a manner that exemplifies the Ashton style.[5]

Another form, Modern Ballet, also emerged as an offshoot of neoclassicism. Among the innovators in this form were Glen Tetley, Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino. While difficult to parse modern ballet from neoclassicism, the work of these choreographers favored a greater athleticism that departed from the delicacy of ballet. The physicality was more daring, with mood, subject matter and music more intense. An example of this would be Joffrey's Astarte (1967), which featured a rock score and sexual overtones in the choreography.[8]

Contemporary ballet

A contemporary ballet leap performed with modern, non-classical form

Contemporary ballet is a form of dance that opens up the doors for any style to influence a work made utilizing ballet technique. It can take on a wide variety of aesthetics, incorporating pedestrian, modern, jazz, or ethnic forms, so long as the roots of classical ballet are apparent. It allows for open-ended exploration and experimentation, but a good way to determine if a work is contemporary ballet, as opposed to contemporary dance, is to ask the question, is ballet training needed to perform this as it was intended?

It can sometimes be difficult to differentiate this form from neoclassical or modern ballet. Some prime examples of this would be Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe (1973) for the Joffrey Ballet. In this ballet, Tharp juxtaposed a ballerina clad in white who makes her way through the lexicon of ballet steps, while dancers clad in street clothes, sometimes in pointe shoes, socks or sneakers, dance in wide range of styles to the music of the Beach Boys. In the 1980s William Forsythe made substantial innovations[according to whom?] in contemporary ballet with a range of works, including In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated (1987). This work featured a robust athleticism and electric score. Forsythe took classical ballet vocabulary and exaggerated it, making the dancers move bigger, faster and in more directions than before.

Many contemporary ballet concepts come from the ideas and innovations of 20th-century modern dance, including floor work and turn-in of the legs. This ballet style is often performed barefoot. Contemporary ballets may include mime and acting, and are usually set to music (typically orchestral but occasionally vocal).

George Balanchine, the founding director of the New York City Ballet, is considered to have been a pioneer of contemporary ballet because of his pioneering development of neoclassical ballet. Another early contemporary ballet choreographer, Twyla Tharp, choreographed Push Comes To Shove for the American Ballet Theatre in 1976, and in 1986 created In The Upper Room for her own company. Both of these pieces were considered innovative for their melding of distinctly modern movements with the use of pointe shoes and classically trained dancers.

Today there are many contemporary ballet companies and choreographers. These include Alonzo King and his company LINES Ballet; Matthew Bourne and his company New Adventures; Complexions Contemporary Ballet; Nacho Duato and his Compañia Nacional de Danza; William Forsythe and The Forsythe Company; and Jiří Kylián of the Nederlands Dans Theater. Traditionally "classical" companies, such as the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet, also regularly perform contemporary works.

The term ballet has evolved to include all forms associated with it. Someone training as a ballet dancer will now be expected to perform neoclassical, modern and contemporary work. A ballet dancer is expected to be able to be stately and regal for classical work, free and lyrical in neoclassical work, and unassuming, harsh or pedestrian for modern and contemporary work. In addition, there are several modern varieties of dance that fuse classical ballet technique with contemporary dance, such as Hiplet, that require dancers to be practised in non-Western dance styles.[14]

Technical methods of ballet instruction

There are six widely used, internationally recognized methods to teach or study ballet. These methods are the French School, the Vaganova Method, the Cecchetti Method, the Bournonville method, the Royal Academy of Dance method (English style), and the Balanchine method (American style).

French method

Flower Festival 01.jpg

The French method is a style of training that relies heavily on historical tradition, as it traces back to 17th century France. This style is widely taught, as it is the basis of all ballet training. When Louis XIV created the Academié Royal de Danse in 1661, he helped to create the codified technique still used today by those in the profession, regardless of what method of training they adhere to. The French school was particularly revitalized under Rudolf Nureyev, the accomplished dancer and director of the Paris Opera Ballet in the 1980s. His influence revitalized and renewed appreciation for this style, and has drastically shaped ballet as a whole.[15] This can be seen in the French school sometimes referred to as Nureyev school. The French method is often characterized by technical precision, fluidity and gracefulness, and elegant, clean lines. The precision of footwork and the emphasis of strength and elegance define the method. For this style, fast footwork is often utilized in order to give the impression that the performers are drifting lightly across the stage.[16] Two important trademarks of this technique are the specific way in which the port de bras and the épaulement are performed. In this technique, it is clear that they are more rounded than when dancing in a Russian style, but not as rounded in performance as when utilizing the Danish style.[17]

Vaganova method

Agrippina Vaganova, "Esmeralda" 1910

The Vaganova method is a style of ballet technique that emerged from Russian ballet, and was created by Agrippina Vaganova. This method of dance emerged from the techniques taught at the Imperial Russian Ballet, especially while it was under the influence of Premier Maître de Ballet Marius Petipa in the later half of the 19th century. After retiring from professionally dancing in the Imperial Ballet in 1916, Vaganova turned to teaching at the school associated with it in 1921, now named the Leningrad Choreographic School. While here, she created what is now an internationally renown training technique and wrote a highly respected ballet textbook, The Fundamentals of Classical Dance(1934), outlining this style. This method is marked by the fusion of the classical French style, specifically elements from the Romantic era of classical ballet, with the athleticism of the Italian method, and the soulful passion of Russian ballet.[16] She developed an extremely precise manner for the instruction of ballet in her book Basic Principles of Russian Classical dance (1948). This includes outlining when to teach technical components to students in their ballet careers, for how long to focus on it, and the right amount of focus at each stage of the student's career. These textbooks continue to be extremely important to the instruction of ballet today.

The method emphasizes development of the essential strength, flexibility, and endurance for the proper performance of ballet. She espoused the belief that equal importance should be placed on the arms and legs while performing ballet, as this will bring harmony and greater expression to the body as a whole.[18]

Cecchetti method

Enrico Cecchetti with Anna Pavlova

The Cecchitti method was pioneered by Enrico Cecchetti (1850-1928). This method is one known internationally for its intense reliance of the understanding of anatomy as it relates to classical ballet. The goal of this method is to instill important characteristics for the performance of ballet into students so that they do not need to rely on imitations of teachers. Important components for this method is the emphasis of balance, elevations, ballon, poise, and strength.

This method espouses the importance of recognizing that all parts of the body move together to create beautiful, graceful lines, and as such cautions against thinking of ballet in terms of the arms, legs, and neck and torso as separate parts. This method is well known for eight port de bras that are utilized.[16]

Bournonville method

August Bournonville

The Bournonville method is a Danish style of ballet that teaches technique that was first devised by August Bournonville . This method is considered an attempt to move back to the 19th century technique of the French school of classical ballet. Bournonville was heavily influenced by the early French ballet method due to his training with his father, Antoine Bournonville and other important French ballet masters. This method has many style differences that differentiate it from other ballet methods taught today.[19] A key component is the use of diagonal épaulements, with the upper body twisting towards the working foot typically. This method also incorporates very basic use of arms, pirouettes from a low developpe position into seconde, and use of fifth position bras en bras for the beginning and end of movements.

The technique is known for quick footwork and understated, humble manner of performing. Emphasis is placed on dancers showing no signs of the intense effort required to perform the steps.[16]

Young girls competing at the Royal Academy of Dancing (London) exams held in Brisbane and Toowoomba, 1938

The Royal Academy of Dance method (RAD)

The Royal Academy of Dance method, also referred to as the English style of ballet, was established in 1920 by Genee, Karsavina, Bedells, E Espinosa, and Richardson. The goal of this method is to promote academic training in classical ballet throughout Great Britain. This style also spread to the United States, and is widely utilized still today. There are specific grade levels in which a student must move through in order to complete training in this method.[20] The key principle behind this method of instruction is that basic ballet technique must be taught at a slow pace, with difficulty progression often much slower than the rest of the methods. The idea behind this is if a student is to put in a large amount of effort into perfecting the basic steps, the technique learned in these steps allow a student to utilize harder ones at a much easier rate. Focusing on the foundational steps thus defines a dancer's ability to perform and truly master ballet.[16]

Balanchine method

Suzanne Farrell and George Balanchine dancing in a segment of "Don Quixote" at New York State Theater

The Balanchine method was developed by George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet. As a dancer in the Imperial Russian Ballet, his method draws heavily from the Russian influence, but notably moves away from detailed, theatrical story lines. The technique is known for extreme speed throughout routines, emphasis on lines, and deep pliés . Perhaps one of the most well known differences of this style is the unorthodox positioning of the body.[16] Dancers of this style often have flexed hands and even feet, while other methods espouse the importance of pointed feet. Dancers also are often in off-balance positions, which is contrary to the more traditional styles' emphasis of balance. This method is the only of the six styles that is a part of Neoclassical ballet, making it extremely different from the other methods that draw on traditional classical ballet. Important ballet studios teaching this method are the Miami City Ballet, Ballet Chicago Studio company, and the School of American Ballet in New York.[21]


Prima Ballerina, Anna Pavlova
Anna Pavlova (prima ballerina); Early ballerina skirts were much heavier and used thicker layers which made it difficult for ballerinas to create much movement.

Ballet costumes play an important role in the ballet community. They are often the only survival of a production, representing a living imaginary picture of the scene.[22]

Renaissance and Baroque

The roots of ballet go back to the Renaissance in France and Italy when court wear was the beginning of ballet costumes. Ballet costumes have been around since the early fifteenth century. Cotton and silk were mixed with flax, woven into semitransparent gauze[22] to create exquisite ballet costumes.

Seventeenth Century

During the seventeenth century, different types of fabrics and designs were used towards ballet costumes to make them much more spectacular and eye catching. Court dress still remained for women during this century. Silks, satins and fabrics embroidered with real gold and precious stones increased the level of spectacular decoration associated with ballet costumes.[22] Women's costumes also consisted of heavy garments and knee-long skirts which made it difficult for them to create much movement and gesture.

Eighteenth Century

During the eighteenth century, stage costumes were still very similar to court wear but progressed over time, mostly due to the French dancer and ballet-master Jean-Georges Noverre (1727 - 1810) whose proposals to modernize ballet are contained in his revolutionary Lettres sur la danse et les ballets (1760). Noverre proclaimed in his text that ballet should unfold through dramatic movement and the movement should express the relationship between the characters. Prior to Noverre, Ballet's were large spectacles that focused mainly on elaborate costumes and scenery and not on the physical and emotional expression of the dancers.

European ballet was centered in the Paris Opera.[22] During this era, skirts were raised a few inches off the ground compared to the Renaissance period and the seventeenth century. Overtime, costumes progressed as more designs and colors were used on ballet costumes. Flowers, flounces, ribbons, and lace emphasized this opulent feminine style, as soft pastel tones in citron, peach, pink and pistachio dominated the color range of stage costumes.[22]

Nineteenth Century

Olga Spessiva; Swan Lake Costume in the 20th century

During the early nineteenth century, close-fiting body costumes, floral crowns, corsages and jewels were used. Ideals of Romanticism were reflected through female movements.[22] Costumes became much tighter as corsets started to come into use, to show off the curves on a ballerina. Jewels and bedazzled costumes became much more popular.

Twentieth Century

During the twentieth century, ballet costumes transitioned back to the influence of Russian ballet. Ballerina skirts became knee-length tutus, later on in order to show off their precise pointe work. Colors used on stage costumes also became much more vibrant. Designers used colors such as red, orange, yellow, etc. to create visual expression when ballet dancers perform on stage.

See also


  1. ^ Chantrell, Glynnis (2002). The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Word Histories. New York: Berkley Books. ISBN 0-425-19098-6. 
  2. ^ a b Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert. "A Greek-English Lexicon". Perseus Digital Library. Archived from the original on 2011-06-29. 
  3. ^ Harper, Douglas. "Online Etymology Dictionary". Archived from the original on 2014-04-13. 
  4. ^ a b c Homans, Jennifer (2010). Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet. New York: Random House. pp. 1–4. ISBN 978-1-4000-6060-3. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f Clarke, Mary; Crisp, Clement (1992). Ballet: An Illustrated History. Great Britain: Hamish Hamilton. pp. 17–19. ISBN 0-241-13068-9. 
  6. ^ "The Art of Power: How Louis XIV Ruled France ... With Ballet". 2017-03-15. Archived from the original on 2017-10-02. Retrieved 2017-10-02. 
  7. ^ Craine, Deborah; MacKrell, Judith (2000). The Oxford Dictionary of Dance. Oxford University Press. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-19-860106-7. It is from this institution that French ballet has evolved rather than the Académie Royale de Danse. 
  8. ^ a b c Greskovic, Robert (1998). Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet. New York, New York: Hyperion. pp. 46–57. ISBN 0-7868-8155-0. 
  9. ^ "Ballet And Modern Dance: Using Ballet As The Basis For Other Dance Techniques". Student Resources. 2014-08-05. Archived from the original on 2017-10-02. Retrieved 2017-07-26. 
  10. ^ Wulff, Helena (1998). Ballet Across Borders: Career and Culture in the World of Dancers. Oxford: Berg. p. 44. ISBN 1-85973-998-9. 
  11. ^ "The ten greatest ballet dancers of the 20th century". Classic FM. Archived from the original on 2017-10-02. Retrieved 2017-10-02. 
  12. ^ Grant, Gail (1982). Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet. New York, US: Dover Publications. ISBN 978-0-486-21843-4. 
  13. ^ Scholl, Tim (1994). From Petipa to Balanchine: Classical Revival and the Modernization of Ballet. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415756211. 
  14. ^ Kourlas, Gia (2016-09-02). "Hiplet: An Implausible Hybrid Plants Itself on Pointe". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on 2016-12-21. Retrieved 2016-12-03. 
  15. ^ "Ballet Methods: What Are They? TutuTix". TutuTix. 2016-05-09. Archived from the original on 2017-11-11. Retrieved 2017-07-26. 
  16. ^ a b c d e f "Different Ballet Methods". www.ottawaballetschool.com. Archived from the original on 2017-07-11. Retrieved 2017-07-26. 
  17. ^ "The Paris Opéra Ballet School". Dance Spirit. 2010-01-01. Archived from the original on 2017-11-11. Retrieved 2017-07-26. 
  18. ^ "Vaganova Method". ibtacademy.org (in Russian). Archived from the original on 2017-11-11. Retrieved 2017-07-26. 
  19. ^ "Bournonville.com". www.bournonville.com. Archived from the original on 2017-10-27. Retrieved 2017-07-26. 
  20. ^ "Ballet Training Techniques - The Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) - DANCE VILLAGE - dance portal and online community". www.dancevillage.com. Archived from the original on 2016-02-27. Retrieved 2017-07-26. 
  21. ^ "History of Ballet Dance - Dance History Articles". dancelessons.net. Archived from the original on 2017-02-22. Retrieved 2017-07-26. 
  22. ^ a b c d e f "Ballet Costume History - Tutu Étoile". Tutu Étoile. Archived from the original on 2016-11-14. Retrieved 2016-11-18. 

Further reading

External links