Kristy Nilsson

Dancer / Teacher / Choreographer


Teaching Aids:

Ballet History (1400-1900)




~ A Brief History by Kristy Nilsson - Copyright © 2001 ~



The first ballets appeared during the Renaissance Period in the courts of kings and queens as entertainment for the royal subjects. The Renaissance took place from about 1400 to 1700 A.D. Court dancing, much like ballroom dancing today, was alive throughout Europe during that time. All the noble men and women of any court knew the dances of their native countries. One such noble woman was Catherine de’ Medici. Catherine lived in Italy and she always enjoyed dancing at the balls. At her time, Italy was the most advanced country in the arts. (The Italian Renaissance featured artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.) And dance was no exception; the first dancing masters all came from Italy. When Catherine was fourteen years old, she was married to France’s King Henry II and she became the queen of France. She lived in France from 1533 until her death in 1589.


Catherine brought her love of dance to France with her. She brought Italian dancing masters to France and required all her royal subjects to take daily dance lessons. At this time, ballet was not much like it is today. The dancers were not even required to pointe their toes or turn out their feet! As the court dances became more elaborate, they adopted the name “ballet” - a French pronunciation of the Italian word for dance. So even though the first dance teachers were Italian, all the ballet terms are in French.


For the next two hundred years dance stayed in the courts of Italy and France, and moved to England as well. The dancers were not paid, and everyone present at the lavish productions participated - even the king and the queen. The dancers didn’t perform on stage; they performed in ballrooms with people watching from all sides. All the performers wore large masks and big, pointy shoes (like elf shoes). They didn’t wear costumes, only the fancy clothes that they wore to parties. With these pointy shoes, masks and long, heavy skirts, the dancers couldn’t jump or turn, so dancing was mostly walking gracefully. The first ballets were incredible productions. In one ballet, the entire ballroom was flooded and boats were sailed into the castle. In another ballet, all the dancers rode horses. King Louis XIV loved to perform in ballets, though he was fat and couldn’t dance very well. He began the first ballet school in the world - the Paris Opera Ballet.  Vatel is an excellent French film that shows the grand ballets performed for King Louis XIV (it is available at NetFlix and Blockbuster).


As dance became more popular, it moved onto a stage like the one we use today - with the audience all on one side of the performers. Because the dancers were on a one-sided stage now, the kings insisted that the dancers never turn their faces from the king. This posed a problem: it’s hard to travel from one side of the stage to the other without turning to face the side of the stage. That’s why dancers started turning out their feet - so they could walk sideways like a crab. (However, it wasn’t until about 1820 that more than 90 degree turn-out was required for ballet technique.)


Eventually only trained dancers performed, and they were paid. But, remember this was hundreds of years ago and women were not allowed to work, so pretty soon women were not allowed to dance in ballets. The men dressed in women’s costumes with their masks and danced the women’s roles! However, that didn’t last too long. The audience loved to watch the delicate grace of female dancers and demanded that women return to the stage. Critics went so far as to say they didn’t want to see men dance at all…and then only women danced, and they danced the men’s roles!


In the 1700’s Peter the Great, czar of Russia, visited western Europe (France, Italy, Germany, England) In Europe, he saw ballet and heard music by people like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. He decided to “westernize” Russia so his country would be up-to-date with the rest of the world. He made the men shave off their beards to look like European men and adopted European clothing styles. He set up a ballet school immediately in St. Petersburg. (The school that would become the Vaganova Institute and the Kirov Ballet)


In the 1700’s dance was fashionable. Ballerinas were like today’s movie stars and supermodels. Every nobleman wanted a ballerina as his date to a party and ballet dancers set the fashions for clothes and hair styles. A few years before the American Revolution, an egotistical male danseur removed his mask when he understudied a role so that the audience would know who was dancing. The audience loved to see the dancer’s face and pretty soon dancers were no longer required to wear masks at all.


The early 1800’s marked the Romantic Period of ballet. That was the time of the Industrial Revolution, the discoveries of Darwin, and Napoleon's conquests. Romantic ballets were usually love stories with supernatural elements like ghosts and fairies. To make those fairies really seem to float across the stage, choreographers had the ballerinas go up onto the tips of their toes, which was the birth of dancing en pointe. By now France was the most advanced country in ballet, but ballet was becoming popular in Denmark (August Bournonville) and Russia. Romantic ballets are danced in long white skirts - to give the illusion that the dancer is hovering off the floor. These are the oldest ballets still performed regularly today. Romantic ballets include Pas de Quatre, Napoli, La Sylphide and Giselle.


The Romantic Period ended around 1860; that’s the same time as the American Civil War. After 1860, the world’s interest in ballet shifted to Russia. That’s because the Russians had a new choreographer: Marius Petipa. Petipa choreographed the Classical ballets that we still perform today, such as Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Don Quixote, The Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadere. He mostly worked with the famous Russian composer, Peter Tchaikovsky. Because Petipa’s ballet involve so much pointe work and petite allegro, as well as beautiful lines in pas de deux, he insisted that the dancers shorten their skirts…thus inventing the tu-tu that we still use today.


Because Petipa’s work was so difficult, many teachers saw a need to develop better class exercises to make better dancers. The two most famous of these teachers are Agrippina Vaganova and Enricche Cecchetti. Both of them developed excellent techniques with a strict syllabus that we still use today. Although both Cecchetti and Vaganova worked in Russia, Cecchetti eventually returned to his home in Italy. This is why the Vaganova method is often called the “Russian School”, and the Cecchetti method is often called the “Italian School.”


Ballet continued to change into the next century, with the introduction of Diaghilev's Ballet Russe and the birth of modern dance, but by then end of the 1800’s “Classical Ballet” had been finely honed.



~ A Brief History by Kristy Nilsson - Copyright © 2001 ~





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