What’s the point(e) of ballet? - Ming Luke
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Classical ballet has been ranked as the most physically demanding professions in a recent analysis of job data. How did this tradition, which demands so very much from its participants, begin and evolve into one of the most beloved artforms in Western culture? We must look 400 years ago to the Renaissance courts of France and Italy where ballet traces it origins. Ballet began as a pastime for courtiers, kings and princes, who would perform dances in court and then invite the audience to participate. In an effort to both codify and disseminate this new dancing tradition, Louis XIV asked choreographer Pierre Beauchamp to write down the positions, which are the building blocks of classical ballet. Ballet grew in appeal and for a time was paired with singing in opéra-ballet productions. Beginning in the 1770s, ballet masters began experimenting with removing the vocal component to create a ballet d’action, harkening back to the Roman pantomime tradition. As with so many artforms, the evolution of ballet mirrored the social and cultural changes happening in Europe. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, a wealthier middle class began to emerge and desire entertainment that reflected the trend towards Romanticism. With its enormous emotive capacity, ballet fit the bill. The years between 1830 and 1850 are considered by many to be the golden age of ballet and saw the emergence of a strong preference for female dancers, or ballerinas. Women’s ballet technique became increasingly virtuosic due in large part to the development of pointe work. Near the end of the 19th century, the epicenter of ballet development moved to St. Petersburg, Russia. Russian composers such as Pyotor Ilich Tchaikovsky began to work closely with choreographers to compose ballet and training programs developed what became known as the Russian school of ballet, which dominated ballet during the 20th century and produced phenoms such as Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova. The social and political upheavals of the 20th century affected and were reflected in the evolution of ballet, with a rift developing between traditional and contemporary ballet that mirrored, in part, the split between East and West after the end of World War II. Today, ballet companies around the world continue not only to preserve classical tradition, but also expand the ballet repertoire into more modern realms. Many dancers and companies are working to break down not only some of the strict hierarchies of the ballet world but also the racial and gender stereotypes that have been passed down the ballet tradition. Dancers such as Raven Wilkinson and Misty Copeland are credited with breaking barriers for women of color in ballet. For more information about the evolution of ballet, You can view this video series and visit this TedEd lesson on the origins of ballet.
Composers and Choreographers
Composers and choreographers have worked together closely throughout ballet history to create their collaborative art. Pytor Ilich Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa worked closely together on The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. The unique collaboration between composer, Igor Stravinsky, and dancer/choreographer, Vaslav Nijinsky, produced perhaps one of the greatest scandals in ballet history. Their 1913 Paris premiere of Rite of Spring drew crowds because of the collaborative combination of virtuosic dancing by Ballet Russes, a company founded by impresario Sergei Diaghilev; Nijinsky’s status as a ballet superstar; and Stravinsky’s growing success as a composer. Though no one will really ever know exactly what took place that night, one thing is for sure--audiences were shocked. Stravinsky’s score broke every rule of musical convention with its harsh, loud, and deliberately cacophonous sounds. One critic wrote, ‘‘The music always goes to the note next to the one you expect.’ The dancers seemed to convulse and jerk rather than dance in Nijinsky’s ultra-modern choreography. Some say there were boos, some say there was a riot, some say missiles were thrown. Regardless of the scandal caused by Rite of Spring, the experience highlighted the power of the combination of music and movement that is central to the power of ballet. Read more about the Rite of Spring, watch excerpts of the ballet, or visit this TedEd lesson to see what all the fuss was about!
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