Ballet performed today differs greatly from its origins. Originally the term was applied to Renaissance dances of the Italian court. Only men performed, as any form of acting was considered disgraceful to women. Men dressed as women danced female parts. Though ballet is often considered French, the first were danced in Italy. However, as its development progressed, the French became the innovators of the modern form.
French forms of ballet introduced the dance for both men and women. Female dancers were still rare. Many of the moves of the modern form derive from the French introduction of court ballets commissioned by Catherine de Medici in the 1500s. Because of the female dress fashions, the moves of men were more important than those of women. Women’s feet movements could barely be seen underneath their long skirts. Full skirts, elaborate wigs, and later corsets further hampered women’s dance. High heels worn by both men and women restricted jumping, as landing was precarious.
In the 1600s, professional dance companies were formed. Jean Baptiste Lully’s Acadamie Royal de Musique exists still, but the company still trained courtiers as well as professionals. Performances on stages radically altered ballet. Previously, audiences viewed dancers from three sides. Now, the audience sat in front of the stage, which meant changes to choreography to showcase the dancers as viewed from one angle.
Later in the century, female dancers had become more acceptable. Two rival dancers, Marie Ann Cupis de Carmago and Marie Salle are credited with changing the form for women. Salle raised her hemlines so people could see her footwork. Carmago concentrated on athleticism showcasing jumps, which were made easier when she removed the heels from her shoes.
Ballet was often a part of opera, which is now not the case. In the 19th century, the modern form emerges in La Sylphide. Romantic ballet is the first to feature dancers in toe shoes (en pointe). Marie Taglioni is credited as the first to use en pointe. Lifts, jumps, and holds are characteristic of the Romantic form, and toes shoes lent an ethereal quality to the female dancers who often portrayed fairies or other mythical creatures.
In the 20th century, all countries practicing ballet worshiped Margot Fonteyn, who danced in a tutu, a costume which was first developed in the late 19th century. Dance parts now featured equally difficult parts for males and females, and the term “prima ballerina,” came into use, meaning the female star of a dance company. The term principal dancer, is now often preferred over prima ballerina, as the latter term tends to represent something akin to snobbishness. In America, the dance company formed by George Balanchine tremendously inspired ballet. The Russians had much influence on the dance with the company Ballet Russe.
Today, ballet is seen in many different forms. One sees modern dances choreographed to very modern music, but many still prefer the traditional type of footwork in performances like “Swan Lake.” Ballet interprets music through a variety of accepted movements. More modern forms may incorporate elements from other dance traditions, but traditionalists see this as a denigration of this centuries old art form. However, from a historical point of view, ballet has always been in flux, and the current form is little over 100 years old.
Fantastic male dancers like Mikhail Baryshnikov fueled late 20th century interest in this dance form. His work was absolutely stunning, and a precursor to the amazing work of Ethan Stiefel, considered one of the best male artists today. Americans became reinterested in ballet after the release of the film, The Turning Point in the 1970s, featuring Baryshnikov. A more recent film, Center Stage features Stiefel, as well as Sascha Radetsky, another stunning male dancer. The film is an excellent inside look at the ballet world, based on a film formula similar to that in 42nd Street.
Ballet dancing is particularly hard on the female. Women must be very thin, and appear almost girlish in figure, provoking an epidemic of anorexia and bulimia among female dancers. This led to several companies establishing guidelines to monitor the weight of dancers and more carefully watch them for signs of these eating disorders. However, most dancers acknowledge that despite this vigilance, eating disorders are still rampant and taint what is otherwise a beautiful art form.