The art of ballet

  • January 22, 2020
  • Theatre in Paris exclusives
  • Jocelyn Wensjoe

Attending a ballet performance is a luxury from Swan Lake, Giselle, to The Nutcracker, and Don Quixote. The list is extensive, we can keep going for hours. The dance itself is a true work of art. Women and men dance with such class and delicacy that it appears as if they were performing the choreography effortlessly. In ballet, you might have heard specific terms such as Allongé, Assemblé, and Demi, these terms are in fact French meaning elongate, assemble, and half. Specific French words are used internationally for ballet practice, but did you know that ballet is not originally from France?

ballet in italy

Its Roots

Ballet can be considered one of the oldest forms of dance in history, first recognized as a formal dance in 1537. Coming from Italy it made its way down to France thanks to Catherine de’ Medici an Italian who became queen of France by marriage to King Henry II in 1547. The dance style was mainly displayed in public inside courts during important events and royal celebrations such as marriage and birthdays.

king louis

King Louis XIV's costume for Ballet de la Nuit

In France is where costumes, terms, and various dance styles were created thanks to King Louis XIV who was a ballet dancer himself. King Louis XIV was applauded for his part in the ballet performance “Ballet de la Nuit”, translated in English as ballet of the night.

opera Garnier

The Royal Academy of Dance

Finally, by 1661 a ballet academy emerged by the name of The Royal Academy of Dance, which is still standing and now recognized as Opéra National de Paris. By 1681 the art of ballet moved from the court to on stage! Jean-Georges Noverre, a professional ballet master, had a lot to do with this revolution. He declared that ballet was its own art form and it could convey a narrative.

Moving from France to Russia and later to the United States, the posh dance had inspired past artists such as the famous Tchaikovsky and modern choreographers such as Alan Lucien Øyen who will display his work of contemporary dance in Opera Garnier. In April 2021, contemporary choreographer Akram Khan will dance his final ballet, Xenos on the stage of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.

Book your tickets for Akram Khan's contemporary ballet

Icons in ballet

Its evolution throughout the years

A lot has changed since ballet was first developed including, the costumes, the form of movement, and a lot of other rules.

Can you imagine wearing heavy colorful costumes and masks while performing in a show? This was the case during the 18th century before Marie came along. Marie Salle changed the mindset of how the public viewed women dancers. Back in the day women were more depraved of rights and had a strict dress code when it came to dancing. In 1734 Marie shocked people when she modified the costumes and began wearing lighter clothing, let her hair down during a dance performance, and became the first female ballet choreographer. This caused a true shift in the world of art and dance.

During the romantic period when Giselle, Coppélia, and La Sylphide came into existence, dancers began to wear shorter skirts from above the ankle to below the knee and tutus became a thing as well. Dancers from today’s era wear tights, spandex, and other more comfortable material in order to have more flexibility during the show. Another woman who caused a lifelong trend was Marie Taglioni who gained the attention of spectators with her grace when performing her father’s piece La Sylphide in point work. Back in the day, it wasn’t usual to dance in point, ballerinas were more about dancing flat.

classic ballet costume

She did, however, have two main competitors during this era, Fanny Elssler and Carlotta Grisi. Fanny danced ballet with sensuality, while Carlotta Grisi demonstrated that she can do both sensuality and grace when she performed Giselle. Now a day’s dancers tend to be more flexible with their movements and are able to perform more dance choreographies in various styles with no need to wear a mask unless of course, it’s part of the show.

kid ballerinas

What it takes to be a ballet dancer

It’s not as easy as it looks. Besides hard work and long hours of practice, ballet dancers go through a lot of intense training and emotional disbalances.

In order to perform some of the movements required in ballet, it is important that the dancer has a certain amount of flexibility and this may take some time. It’s recommended to start practicing from a young age, from ages 4 to 6, for example, considering at this age the memory absorbs everything observed faster and the body is still developing meaning it is easier to become a lot more flexible and bend easier.

old style ballet
modern ballet

It can be quite painful dancing for hours and constantly standing on your tip-toes, this is why ballet dancers don’t look forward to sandal season. It is also necessary to have a healthy diet, and this can be an issue for some dancers. For some dancers, a healthy diet can be interpreted as not eating a lot and leads to an unhealthy lifestyle.

Finding a role in a dance performance is not an easy task either, many dancers have difficulties obtaining a role in any piece. For this reason, many dancers have second jobs to fall back on. So, as you can see, being a dancer is not an easy career. Ballet dancers both men and women do it more out of passion.

modern dance

Popular ballet shows on display  

In 2021, The Etoiles Premiers Dancers of the Paris Opera will perform some of the most sublime ballets by great French and Russian choreographers. Until April 27, you can applaud the ballet Le Parc, choreographed by Angelin Preljocaj and which continues to amaze us in particular with the famous scene kissing scene of "L'Abandon", immortalised in an Air France advertisement.

The year 2021 marks the 10th anniversary of the death of choreographer Roland Petit. For this occasion, the Opera de Paris pays tribute to the artist by performing his most legendary works. First of all with the show Hommage à Roland Petit, the dancers will perform three short ballets by the French choreographer: Carmen , Le Jeune Homme et la Mort and Le Rendez-Vous . The show will take place on the stage of the Palais Garnier from May 26 to June 29, 2021.
The ballet Notre-Dame de Paris will shine once again on the stage of the Opéra Bastille from March 29 to May 7, 2021. It was in 1965 that Roland Petit reimagined Victor Hugo's novel by partnering with the composer Maurice Jarre, Yves Saint Laurent and René Allio. The dancers of the Ballet de l'Opéra will light up the stage with Yves Saint Laurent's colourful costumes reminiscent of the stained glass windows of the cathedral and will dance the superb timeless choreography of Roland Petit.

We've just told you about choreographer Nureyev. The legendary choreographer Rudolf Nureyev was a director of the Paris Opera Ballet from 1983 to 1989. His years at the Opera have been considered the "golden age" for ballet. He brought and renewed the repertoire of Marius Petipa and highlighted male dancers through variations for men in Swan Lake . It is also thanks to him that the dancers are named Étoiles on stage after performances. The dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet will pay tribute to him by performing the ballet Romeo et Juliette, which tells the story of Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers. This heart-wrenching story, danced to Prokofiev's score, will be at the Opéra Bastille from June 10 to July 10, 2021.

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Check out other interesting facts about artistic backgrounds:

  • The Evolution of the Circus
  • Paris Unveiled
  • A History of Mime, The Most Oh So French of Art Forms
  • Sainte Chapelle and Its Opulent History
  • Ten Mystery Behind the Magnificent Opera Garnier
  • The Spectacular History of Paris’ Cabarets