Somewhere along the line, nearly everyone's education has included some basic instruction in music, art, and drama. But not so dance, especially ballet, which has come to be viewed as a rarefied art form only for the most cultured.
It's really too bad, for ballet looked at without intimidation can actually be one of the most accessible art forms. Who can't appreciate sumptuous music, colorful costumes, and beautiful bodies performing fantastically agile, impeccably controlled moves, often while standing on their toes? And a greater understanding and appreciation can come simply through more exposure. The more one views the art form, the more one sees the same movements performed over and over. Then nuances and subtleties can be detected and appreciated - distinctions such as how high a dancer can leap; how secure and soft the landing; how quickly, sharply, and uniformly a dancer can turn; and how those dynamics aid in creating a character of good or evil, youthfulness or maturity.
It's never too late to open oneself up to the art form - it offers untold emotional, intellectual, and visceral pleasures - and it never hurts to have a little information going in. So here's some basic ballet background to get started.
The beginnings of ballet
Ballet comes from the Italian ballare, which means "to dance." The word can refer to the technique of performing, the company that performs it, and the actual piece of choreography.
Ballet developed out of 15th-century court dancing in Italy, gradually becoming more stylized and demanding. Catherine de' Medici is credited with bringing ballet to France with a commissioned entertainment spectacle in 1581 called "La Ballet Comique de la Reine." Fetes, masques, and spectacles all over France, Italy, and England then began incorporating elements of ballet.
It wasn't until 1661, however, that France's Louis XIV set ballet on the road to becoming a clearly codified art form by establishing the Royal Academy of Dance. It was directed by the celebrated composer Jean Baptiste Lully with Pierre Beauchamp as its ballet master.
Beauchamp was the first to specify in his training the turned-out leg (allowing greater mobility) and the five classical positions of the feet, which form the basis of all ballet technique. With training available, ballet could then develop its own professionals apart from the nobles of the court, allowing more intricate and advanced choreography.
During this time, the ballerina was born - female roles previously had been the purview of men because of considerations of modesty. Mlle. Lafontaine debuted in 1681 as the first leading ballerina (prima ballerina).
Initially, ballerinas danced in heavy skirts and high heels. As soft slippers and more graceful costumes developed, the technique changed from being based in grounded, gliding movements to a technique capable of becoming airborne.
The fabled 19th-century star Marie Taglioni was the first to perfect dancing on her toes. "La Sylphide," choreographed especially for Taglioni, ushered in the great Romantic Age, in which the mythologies of earlier productions were eschewed in favor of ballets dominated by stories of love and magic.
The art form took a major leap forward in the mid-19th century when Frenchman Marius Petipa went to St. Petersburg, Russia, and took command of the Royal Imperial Ballet, creating a trove of major classical ballets, some in collaboration with Tchaikovsky.
This sowed the first seeds of Russian dominance in ballet that were to come to full bloom under the genius of impresario Sergei Diaghilev, whose Ballets Russes was unmatched in creativity and matched in popularity only by the great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova and her company.
Diaghilev's tours brought to the attention of the world choreographers George Balanchine, Michel Fokine, Lonide Massine, and Vaslav Nijinsky, as well as composer Igor Stravinsky. They created a new, more contemporary aesthetic for ballet and encouraged an international stature and appeal.
It wasn't until the mid-1930s that ballet became firmly established in America, with Lincoln Kirstein and Edward Warburg's founding in 1934 of the School of American Ballet and its company, American Ballet (now New York City Ballet) with Balanchine as its artistic light. Five years later, what's now called American Ballet Theatre was born.
At about this time, ballet was beginning to flourish in Britain as well, with Dame Margot Fonteyn becoming the prima ballerina at Sadler's Wells Ballet.
As the art form grew, ballet became more and more susceptible to other influences, most notably modern dance. Over the years, the cross-pollination of the two forms has become so thorough that some new works are difficult to unequivocally categorize as one or the other.
Many ballet companies have incorporated works by modern masters such as Twyla Tharp and Paul Taylor that have much less to do with ballet than with modern dance or even jazz dance.
What is ballet?
So how does one define ballet? It can be classical or contemporary, narrative or abstract, tragic or comic, pretty or ugly. Some ballets are showcases for virtuosity, while others tug at the heartstrings.
And shoes are no longer a clue. Ballet can be danced in any number of shoe styles or even barefoot.
Now, the actual categorization is almost irrelevant. Dance is more eclectic, more catholic, and consequently often more vital than ever. But for the purpose of trying to understand and appreciate the form, the most important hallmark of ballet is the technique.
A specific vocabulary
Ballet technique, more so than modern dance, is precise. It is founded on a very specific vocabulary of basic steps and positions of the arms that you will see over and over again. The style may change from role to role, depending on what a given movement sequence is supposed to convey, but the building blocks are clearly recognizable, even in contemporary works in which the vocabulary is fused with other artistic principles.
It is a traditional language that is internationally understood, with which a choreographer constructs a dance - ordering, adapting, even changing movements to suit the eye, the heart, and the individual performer's ability.
FIVE MOST POPULAR CLASSICAL BALLETS
Copplia (by Arthur Saint-Lon, music by Lo Delibes): Foolish Franz falls in love with a mysterious doll, and sweetheart Swanilda gives him his comeuppance before taking him back.
Giselle (by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli, music by Adolphe Adam): A pretty peasant girl kills herself over unrequited love and returns as a spirit (Wili).
The Nutcracker (by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, music by Tchaikovsky): Clara's toy nutcracker comes to life and leads her to adventure in the Land of Sweets.
The Sleeping Beauty (by Petipa, music by Tchaikovsky): Princess cursed by a fairy falls asleep until awakened by a kiss.
Swan Lake (by Petipa and Ivanov, music by Tchaikovsky): Young Prince Siegfried falls in love with a woman turned into a swan by an evil spell.
FIVE 20TH-CENTURY BALLET CLASSICS
Apollo (by George Balanchine, music by Stravinsky): A portrait of the Greek god.
Firebird (by Michel Fokine, music by Stravinsky): Story of young Czarevitch Ivan and a magical bird.
Petrouchka (by Fokine, music by Stravinsky): The travails of a half-comic, half-tragic clown puppet at a Russian fair.
The Rite of Spring (by Vaslav Nijinsky, music by Stravinsky): A tribal celebration of spring that includes the sacrifice of a young girl.
Romeo and Juliet (by Leonid Lavrovsky, music by Prokofiev): Shakespeare's tragic tale of star-crossed lovers. One of the most often restaged ballets, with acclaimed versions by Frederick Ashton, John Cranko, and Kenneth MacMillan (the most popular), among others.
Arabesque - a pose with one leg standing, the other extended out in back.
Corps de ballet - the group of dancers who generally perform in ensemble.
Divertissements - the dances in ballet that show off the performers without advancing the story line, often "character dances" suggestive of foreign lands.
En pointe - wearing toe shoes as opposed to soft ballet slippers.
Fouett - a brilliant turn created by one leg whipping around the other.
Grand jet - a high leap with legs outstretched.
Pirouette - a turn on one leg, the other forming a triangle to the knee.
Tutu - a stiff net ballet skirt.
Accessible books on ballet are few and far between. Walter Terry's books are the classics, but sadly out of print (although still available in numerous libraries).
George Balanchine and Francis Mason's 101 Stories of the Great Ballets is considered the bible of ballet librettos, but for true beginners, The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories, suitable for preteens on up, offers scenarios to five of the classics along with a lot of peripheral information (technique, history, etc.).
Even more informational are two beginner's books by Usborne Publishing - World of Ballet, by Judy Tatchell, and Ballet, by A. Thomas, are excellent primers for preteens on up.
One recent book is tailor-made to the serious beginner. Robert Greskovic's Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning & Loving the Ballet ranges from a thorough history of the art form to specific commentary on 16 popular ballets, with a glossary of terms and extensive videographies and bibliographies.