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Eras in Ballet History -- a time line

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My sources for dates are Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp's "Ballet, An Illustrated History, Hamish Hamilton, 1992; and Walter Sorrell's "Dance in Its Time," Anchor/Doubleday, 1981.

HANS -- if you want a book that ties it all together, I'd highly recommend the Sorell. He covers nearly every artist of any note in Western civilization :blushing: It's a very personal view, but also very reliable.


Most books will give you the following:

ballet de cour (16th, early 17th century)

opera ballet (late 17th, early 18th century)

ballet d'action (late 18th century)

anacreontic or transition period or neoclassical-romanticism (early 19th century)

Romantic Ballet (1831-1848)

Russian Imperial Ballet (late 19th century)

Diaghilev Era (1909-1929)

ROUGHLY these would correspond to:

ballet de cour -- the Renaissance

opera ballet -- the Baroque

ballet d'action -- the classical period

neoclassical romanticism


Russian Iimperial Ballet and the age of spectacle -- does NOT match what was going on in other arts, namely Realism

Diaghilev Era -- Modernism

Although the start date for ballet is usually given as 1581 (the date of "Le Ballet Comique de la Reine Louise") there were similar entertainments before, well before, going back to the 15th century. Sorrell points out that the ballet de cour was a manifestation of Mannerism -- he dates this period as beginning either with Machiavelli's "The Prince" (1513) or the death of Raphael (1520) or Luther's declaration (1521) or the year that Copernicus began to circulate his manuscript (1520). The Baroque period, the Age of Reason (18th century) was when ballet moved into the theater. Neoclassicism, beginning in 1748 with European fascination with the findings at the ecavations at Pompeii, produced another revival of classicism -- Noverre's work, attempting to produce pantomimes (another Greek revival) using myths and heroic themes, were done during this period.

This leaves out a lot, of course -- the English court masque, where poetry dominated (from Jonson's "The Masque of Blackness" to Milton's "Comus"), whatever you want to call what was going on in France, and, derivatively, in the rest of Europe after the Romantic fever began to subside until "Coppelia" (1870). And no one writes (in English at least) about Paris between 1870 and Diaghilev; they write as though the opera were a ghost town, yet I doubt that that's the French view.

I'll do a brief summary of what was going on in each period in a new post.

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ballet de cour (16th, early 17th century)

Long court entertainments, often celebrating a wedding or a political event, or just to salute the monarch. The dancers were courtiers (including some monarchs; Louis XIV was a dancer). Music, verse, dancing and design were all part of these entertainments.

opera ballet (late 17th, early 18th century)

When ballet moved into the theater, professionals took over; Louis XIV had created an academy in 1672 to train them. Ballets used the danse d'ecole (what is commonly called ballet or classical ballet; a codified vocatulary of steps that proceed through the five positions of the feet) and also grotesque dancing and pantomime. The dancing itself was a series of entrees (as had been the fashion in the ballet de cour; its descendant is a classical pas de deux or trois or quatre today). Some ballets were a string of entrees -- solos. Mlle Prevost had a famous one in which she portrayed a variety of characters, from a young boy, to an old woman, each a separate "entree." From the beginning there were three genres of dancers (noble, demi-caractere, grotesque). Your genre was dictated by your height and build. Each genre had specific rhythms related to that genre. The nobles (the hero/ine, tall, slender) had the slow measures; their dancing required perfection, especially perfection in line. The demicaractere dancer was a bit shorter and had a slightly thicker -- though still elegant -- body and would perform roles like Mercury, or a shepherd/ess; their measures were faster, a courante rather than the noble's sarabande. The grotesque -- well, need you ask :blushing:

ballet d'action (mid-late 18th century)

Several choreographers were experimenting with creating a unified drama (to compete with opera). The one who is most discussed today is Noverre, although there were many others plowing the same field. Works such as Noverre's "Jason and Medea" told the story of the myth using pantomine (to tell the story) and divertissements. You can read Noverre's letters and get a sense of the dances -- they're the roots of later corps choreography -- a squad of nymphs or a dance of shepherds and shepherdesses. The male dancer dominated -- Gaetan Vestris, "God of the Dance," is from this period. This was an age of great virtuosity; technique "expanded" -- MORE pirouettes, MORE entrechats.

anacreontic or transition period or neoclassical-romanticism (early 19th century)

The common man replaced the gods as the hero after the French Revolution, although he's still idealized. Popular ballets included love stories ("La Fille Mal Gardee" and some myths "Flore et Zephyr". Dancers flew, on wires. Women began to experiment with pointe work. A fourth genre began to emerge, a combination of the noble and demicaractere called "semi-caractere classique," shortened to "classique" -- and the source of yet another confusion of the word "classical" which is still very evident today. "He's a classical dancer" is sometimes used to contrast a demicaractere dancer -- they're both classical dancers, and the demicaractere genre always had a full quotient of stars. Auguste Vestris (Gaetan's son) was demicaractere (as, much later, were Nijinsky and Baryshnikov).

Note: some sources lump all this together as "Pre-Romantic Ballet". Not a step of this repertory survives, at least not under its original name. By the late 15th century, a Jesuit balletomane had written a history of ballet describing 400 works. I think of ballet as a walking Library of Alexandria, torched by each generation.


Here, at least, a firm date. 1831. It began with the ballet of the nuns, part of Meyerbeer's opera "Robert le Diable." It introduced Marie Taglioni to Paris and an entirely differently way of dancing -- Romantic dancing. Light and (with Taglioni) chaste. Taglioni was a jumper, but what thrilled audiences was that she danced on her toes. All female dancers had to begin to take pointe work seriously. While men continued to hold the stage for a few more years, they began to leave the Opera in droves. Audiences didn't want to watch male dancing; the new audience was uncomfortable with it. Male dancing survived in Russia and Denmark, but there were very few opportunities for men elsewhere, and they became "porteurs" -- porters, lifters of the women. (One theory is that many of the ballerinas didn't want the bother of a male rival; they would dance alone, or with another woman, often "en travestie," i.e., in male attire.) Fanny Elssler -- the "pagan" to the "Christian" Taglioni, in critic Theophile Gautier's famous phrase -- was the next superstar. The Opera eagerly promoted their rivalry. Fanny Elssler was a "terre a terre" dancer -- meaning she wasn't a jumper, in addition to the fact that she was considered earthy. She was known for her taquete footwork. [sorry, I'm forgetting the codes for the accents on all this. Apologies to readers as well as the French language.]

The subject matter of Romanticism was the world of folk and fairy tales -- used as metaphor -- of "art for art's sake" (it's fine to be pretty; one doesn't have to be meaningful). Other ballets were travelogues, taking the spectator to exotic countries. As pointe work developed, virtuosity became more important. Definitely the Age of the Ballerina. It was also the age of gaslight, which replaced candles as the lighting in theaters and produced a blue ghostly glow perfect for the subject matter of the ballets.

The Age of Petipa (Russia, late 19th century)

Four and five-act spectacles with pantomine, processions, classical and character dancing. Development of pointework and technique generally brought in by a bevy of Italian technicians (all trained by the great teacher and theorist, Carlo Blasis, or with his system; Blasis, like Bournonville, was a neoclassicist working during the Romantic era and all he cared about was beauty and harmony) Marius Petipa, a Frenchman who spent most of his life in Russia, created a body of works that still forms most of ballet's canon; to many, it IS classical ballet, and the passages of classical dancing for the female corps, and the female variations are among the treasures of Western art.

There was ballet in other countries, too. In Italy and Vienna, and even, for a very brief time, America, had multi-act Spectacles, also with classical and characgter dancing -- and lots of special effects.

Diaghilev Era (1909-1929)

Revolutionized ballet in Western Europe; we've never recovered. Much less of an effect in Russia, because of World War I, the Revolution and its aftermath. Diaghilev was the impresasrio. Fokine, the first choreographer. The dancers were all from the Maryinsky. Fokine, like Noverre, was a reformer. He rebelled against what he saw as empty spectacle and technique for its own sake, among other things. Diaghliev was a modernist, and .... anyone rading this will know about Picasso, Matisse, Stravinsky, all the painters and composers whom he discovered. His track record on choreographers wasn't bad either: Fokine, Nijinsky, Massine, Nijinska, and Balanchine.

One thing to remember -- artistic movements vary from country to country and from art form to art form. Artists do not always reflect their time period -- there are questions of sensibility (the Romantic rebel, the harmonious classicist) and some dichotomies have existed from the very beginning -- content versus form, expression versus technique, the pagan and the Christian. Elements of other arts, and aesthetic movements, influenced dance: the roundness of the Romantic line, for example; the ornamentation of the Baroque can be seen in the way the fingers ares held. There are times when precision is valued over everything; at other times, it's quantity. At others, it's never letting any effort show. All of those things reflect the period -- and the country and the dominant artist too. There's also the question of the trend setters and the followers -- movements begin in artistic capitals and filter out to the provinces.

In dance, there are so few great choreographers that outside of the Romantic period -- where every opera house in Europe had a resident choreographer and each could produce watchable Romantic ballets -- the period seems to be dominated by one or two artists.

I realized we could do a history of dancing through lighting -- hey, Jeff!

Torches, candles, gaslight, electricity, and now neon. Each lighting device seems suited to its era, too.

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A request: if anyone has a general ballet history text available (and the time) could you post their timeline -- what each period is named? I'm curious if we'll find a consistency. (I don't mean to ask anyone to go into detail, unless you want to. Just a list would be interesting.)


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