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The History of Ballet

We cannot talk about the history of ballet without referring to dance, as ballet is one of the forms of dance. The origins of this particular dance form can be found at the Italian courts, particularly in the lavish court pageantry involving music, dance and feasting, as late back as the 15th and the 16th century. The art of the early ballet was introduced in France by Catherine de Medicis and it was later shaped by the French court ballet (ballet de cour).

The first professional theatrical ballet company, the Paris Opera Ballet, was created in the late 17th century as a part of the Royal Academy of Dance founded by Louis XIV, a French monarch passionate about dance. The importance of the French influence on the development of this art can still be seen due to the fact that French words are used so often in the ballet vocabulary. Examples of words dating back to that time are cabriole or pirouette. Theatrical ballet evolved into a form independent from the opera. From the French court, the influences would spread to other European courts, the aristocrats being the main ballet art audiences. Italy remained an important source of influences as well.

In the 18th century, thanks to advancements in technical standards and reforms made to ballet, this art became a serious dramatic art form. In Russia, the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg was founded.

The 19th century saw the ballerina become the most popular dance performer of the continent and a notable change in the society was observed as aristocratic sensibilities became less and less important. The Romantic movement marked the shape of ballet, which became dominated by female dancers, and the century witnessed the creation of many new important European professional ballet companies which still exist today, such as the Kiev Ballet or the Vienna State Ballet. The Russian ballet played an important role. In the 19th century, ballet also spread across the Americas and the classical tutu (the typical ballet skirt) worn by female dancers appeared. Earlier, it had been hard for women to dance due to the weight of the costumes.

In the 20th century, the ballet styles continued to develop and the art became even more popular around the world. At the beginning of the century, the Russian ballet moved back to France, where the Ballets Russes created by Sergei Diaghilev were of particular influence. Michel Fokine was another important figure of that time. He settled in New York after being influential in Paris. American ballet was also immensely influenced by George Balanchine thanks to whom, in terms of developments, the century saw what is called the neoclassical ballet, a style of ballet which expanded the classical form and which was a sort of a response to romanticism and to modernity. Many new companies were formed all around the world including, among others, the San Francisco Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada. What is interesting is that in Great Britain, a country with a very long history of ballet performances, ballet started being taught and developed only in 1920, the year in which the Association of Operatic Dancing was established.

The most recent developments in the field of ballet include the multi-faceted contemporary ballet and post-structural ballet. As of today, the ballet repertoire offers a great variety to wide audiences.

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