Since noblemen and noblewomen were expected to appear dignified and effortless in all their movements, their dances demanded an upright carriage and majestic grace. Fast footwork, high jumps, and dizzying turns were the province of professional dancers, who gained increasing prominence in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Louis XIV instituted a school for dancers at the Académie Royale de Musique, founded June 28, 1669 (later called the Opéra), and here the vocabulary of the classic dance was established in terms still used today. Ballet technique, like other classical Baroque figurative arts, favored symmetry, dynamic balance, and the harmony of the entire body. Much choreography of the period was closely related to contemporary social dances, such as the minuet depicted by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1980.67). The costumes worn by dancers, like those worn by the players in a painting by Watteau (49.7.54), were based on court dress, with tight corsets for women and short skirts for men. As a result, female dancers’ movements were considerably restricted, and male dancers dominated the stage.
By this point, performances usually occurred on a stage with the audience seated in front; from this vantage point, the set design and dancers indeed looked like a moving painting framed by the proscenium. The close correlation between painting and ballet was noted by the influential theorist and teacher Jean-Georges Noverre (1727–1810), who encouraged choreographers to study painting in order to compose effective stage tableaux. Like the theorists of Neoclassicism in other genres, he advocated natural expression over decorative aesthetics. His ballet Les Horaces, based on a tragic episode in Roman history, was first presented in Vienna in 1774 and later in Paris, where it may have inspired Jacques Louis David in his painting of the same theme, The Oath of the Horatii (Paris, Louvre). Antique sculpture, which many eighteenth-century artists sought to emulate, also informed ballet. In 1734, Marie Sallé (ca. 1707–1756) enchanted London audiences with her staging of the classic myth Pygmalion, in which she danced the role of a statue come to life.
The Romantic Ballet
The rise of Romanticism in the early nineteenth century brought transformation and new prominence to ballet. The contemporary interest in fairy tales and ghost stories filled literature, the theater, and the opera with exotic locales, spellbound maidens, and weightless spirits suitable for enactment in ballet. A lasting trend was launched in the Paris staging of Meyerbeer’s opera Robert le Diable (1831), which featured a ballet set in a moonlit convent haunted by white-clad ghosts of nuns (29.100.552). The leading dancer was Marie Taglioni (1804–1884), whose performance made her an international sensation. Her seeming weightlessness and ethereal grace perfectly expressed an ideal of Romantic femininity, and this came to replace the earlier emphasis in ballet on masculine bravura and athleticism. While the status of the male dancer steadily declined, ballet itself gained unrivaled popularity. Ballet was considered necessary to any successful French opera of the period, and several self-contained ballets integrated fine music and subtle effects achieved by gaslight with inspired choreography and ravishing performances. Many of these ballets, such as La Sylphide (1832), Giselle (1841), and Coppélia (1870), had typical Romantic story lines, while some, like Pas de Quatre, choreographed by Jules Perrot (1810–1892) in 1845, was a plotless showcase for four of the most popular contemporary ballerinas in Paris. Pointe technique, which requires the performer to dance on the tips of her toes, was a hallmark of Romantic ballet, as was the layered gauze skirt known as the tutu.
The widespread appeal of ballet in the mid-nineteenth century made it a frequent subject for popular prints and caricatures, including some by Gustave Doré. By the 1880s, however, the inventive energy of the ballet establishment in Paris had declined along with its popularity, while the enthusiastic patronage of the czars of Russia made Saint Petersburg the new capital of the dance world. Here Marius Petipa (1818–1910) and Lev Ivanov (1834–1901) choreographed ballets to exquisite scores by Tchaikovsky and created three enduring favorites in The Sleeping Beauty (1890), The Nutcracker (1892), and Swan Lake (1895). Most of the dancers who performed in these ballets were graduates of the Imperial Ballet School, which was known for its strict adherence to classical technique. Petipa’s ballets adapt this language to portray dramatic situations, social and national dances, as well as Romantic themes that featured ensembles of Snowflakes and Swan-Maidens.
Classic Dance and Modern Art
Ballet is a deeply traditional art form, in which fixed steps, linked to each other in canonical ways, may be combined to create an infinite variety of dances. Lively choreography therefore demands inspired handling of the standard vocabulary, and proper performance requires disciplined training. In the late nineteenth century, academic ideals were actively rejected by artists in every genre, including dance. Ballet, however, survived the modernist movement. Its traditions, gently modified, have proved a continuing source of strength and invention.
In the twentieth century, the rigors of Russian training produced reform as well as renewal. The freedom and fire of the Ballets Russes astonished the West when Serge Diaghilev (1872–1929) brought his troupe to Paris in 1909 and every year thereafter until his death. His productions displayed to the world the integrated impact of a vigorous modernism expressed in the choreography of Michel Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, and George Balanchine, the music of Stravinsky, Poulenc, and Prokofiev, and the set and costume designs of Léon Bakst (22.226.1), Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, among others. The impact of the Ballets Russes reverberated throughout the art world: Olga Khokhlova, one of the company’s dancers, married Picasso in 1917, and many artists, among them John Singer Sargent, Auguste Rodin, and Marc Chagall, attempted to capture the sinuous motion of Nijinsky, who was the epitome of the modern male dancer. The legacy of the Ballets Russes is still alive in the work of such companies as the New York City Ballet, founded by Balanchine in 1948.
The visual artist most closely associated with the ballet, however, is Edgar Degas (1834–1917), whose depictions of the dance seem to probe the very bases of the form. His large classroom scenes (1987.47.1; 29.100.184) juxtapose different types of movement, both natural and choreographed, and imply the transition between the two that dancers are continually making. In other representations, he fixes the transient poses of dancers stretching or practicing and captures the paraphernalia of the nineteenth-century practice room, including musical instruments, the barre fixed to the wall, and a watering can for moistening the floor (29.100.34; 29.100.127). Some of Degas’ works display particular poses in the ballet repertory, demonstrating his comprehension of technique (29.100.398); others probe the details and the consequences of the dancer’s life (29.100.370). Few of Degas’ works depict performances, although a notable series of pastels features a rehearsal on stage, in which dancers in costume execute their combinations around the ballet master who coaches them, while on the far right, two portly male observers sit artlessly in chairs (29.160.26; 29.100.39). Like the classroom pictures, these point out the contrast and the link between dancing and mere movement, but they also show Degas repeating and refining the same composition, very like a dancer practicing the same time-honored motion.
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Béhar, Pierre, and Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly. Spectaculum Europaeum: Theatre and Spectacle in Europe (1580–1750). Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1999.
Cohen, Sarah R. Art, Dance, and the Body in French Culture of the Ancien Régime. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
De Vonyar, Jill, and Richard Kendall. Degas and the Dance. Exhibition catalogue. New York: Abrams, 2002.