It is believed ballet's origins date back to the Italian Renaissance period, around 1500. The terms "ballet" and "ball" are from the Italian word for "to dance," ballare. When Italian Catherine de Medici married the King of France, King Henry II, she introduced the French to the world of ballet, which ultimately led to its refinement into a formal style of dance.
Origins of Ballet
There doesn't seem to be one individual who invented ballet, but King Louis XIV is credited with expanding its popularity and helping it evolve into the dance known today. There were also other individuals who contributed various elements that played a huge role in the formation of ballet.
Ballet's Earliest Days
The first true "ballet" may have been Le Ballet Comique de la Reine, or The Comic Ballet of the Queen, which was first performed for the court of Catherine de Medici on October 15, 1581. This event was held to commemorate a wedding, lasted five hours, and the King and Queen both participated in the dance, as well.
Since this was entertainment for the court, the works were primarily performed by courtiers, and only a few professional dancers were typically cast, usually in more comedic or grotesque roles.
At first, these dancers wore masks, headdresses, and had heavy costumes with layers of brocade fabric. The restrictive costumes meant dance moves were limited to small hops, slides, curtsies, and gentle turns. Shoes had small heels and were more closely aligned to formal dress shoes than the contemporary ballet shoes used today.
Louis XIV's Influence
Louis XIII and his son, Louis XIV, frequently performed in these ballets. Louis XIV was dubbed the Sun King after his role in Le Ballet de la Nuit (1653), which started at sunset and ran until sunrise. His personal ballet master, Pierre Beauchamp, choreographed many of the dances performed at Versailles.
King Louis XIV realized that in order to spread this art form, it would need to be written down in some way. Louis asked Beauchamp to record it in writing, and as such, he is basically credited as codifying the building blocks of ballet. This is when the five basic foot positions that are the core of ballet were established.
Louis XIV created the Académie Royale de Musique on June 28, 1669, and the vocabulary used there is still in effect today.
Ballet's Expansion and Introduction of Female Dancers
Jean-George Noverre has been called "The Grandfather of the Ballet" thanks to his influence in creating the story aspect of the ballet. He educated his students on the importance of mime and facial expression as a storytelling tool. Noverre published a book in 1760 that introduced rules and principles of ballet like pas d'action, the step of action, pantomime, and more. His influence extended to costumes, and he demonstrated that the musician, choreographer, and designer must work in tandem to create a beautiful ballet.Up until 1681, women were not permitted to perform in ballet. Men would dress as females to take on female roles until Marie Camargo became the first woman to dance in a ballet. She was not a fan of the heavy, restrictive costumes, so she shortened the skirts, enabling her to perform the jumps that gave birth to those signature leaps performed in modern ballets.
The Romantic Era and Introduction of Ballet Into Russia
By the 1840's, Marius Petipa left France for Russia to produce ballets, and it was in Russia that choreographers such as Petipa and Pyotr Tchaikovsky developed some of the world's most popular dances that are still performed today. These include The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty.The importance of women in dance was continuing to advance, especially as women were showing the ability to dance on their toes. Marie Taglioni made dancing en pointe popular in the 1830s with her role in a ballet called La Sylphide. It was also around this time tutus became a part of ballet.
One of the most famous and influential ballerinas to come out of Russia was Anna Pavlova. Some believe she is really the one who created the modern-day pointe shoe. Her high, arched insteps left her vulnerable to injury, while her slender tapered feet put intense pressure on her big toes. To compensate, she inserted toughened leather soles for extra support. She then flattened and hardened the toe area to become more of a box.
Modern Day Ballet
Over time, ballet's popularity expanded around the world, and it continues to evolve into the artistry we see in modern times. Even today, ballet continues to change from the days of Louis XIV. Since the 1990's, there has been a greater interest in athleticism, speed, and hyper-flexibility, and new ballets often look at the aesthetics of endurance itself. However, the basics and classical elements remain the same, paying homage to ballet's early days in Italy and France.