Ballet is a form of theatrical dance that began to evolve in Western Europe during the Renaissance (1300-1600). Ballet technique consists of stylized movements and positions that have been elaborated and codified over the centuries into a well-defined, though flexible, system called academic ballet, or danse d'‚cole. The word ballet can also denote an individual artistic composition using this dance technique. Such a composition is usually, but not inevitably, accompanied by music, scenery, and costumes. Toe dancing is often considered synonymous with ballet, but ballet technique can be performed without toe dancing. Because the steps were first named and codified in France, French is the international language of ballet.

 

Technique and Style

The basis of ballet technique is the turned-out position of the legs and feet: Each leg is rotated outward from the hip joint so that the feet form a 180ø angle on the floor. This turned-out position is not unique to ballet; it is used also in many Asian dance forms, including bharata natyam, the classical dance of India. Ballet comprises five specific, numbered positions of the feet, which form the basis of almost all ballet steps. Corresponding positions exist for the arms, which are generally held with gently curved elbows.

Ballet technique emphasizes verticality. Since all the movements of the dancer's limbs flow from the body's vertical axis, all of the dancer's body parts must be correctly centered and aligned to allow maximum stability and ease of movement. Verticality implies resistance to gravity, a concept that is carried further in steps of elevation, such as jumps and leaps. Ballet possesses many such steps, including those that require the dancers, while in midair, to turn, beat their legs or feet together, or change their leg position. The more demanding steps of elevation traditionally are considered the special province of male dancers but can be performed by virtuosos of both sexes.

The idea of spurning gravity culminated in the invention of toe dancing, also called dancing sur les pointes, or pointe work. Toe dancing was developed early in the 19th century but did not become widely used by ballet dancers until the 1830s, when the Swedish-Italian ballerina Marie Taglioni demonstrated its potential for poetic effect. Pointe work is almost exclusively performed by women, although male dancers may use it.

The term line in ballet refers to the configuration of the dancer's body, whether in motion or at rest. Good line is partly a matter of the physique a dancer is born with, but it can also be developed and enhanced by training. In ballet, certain relationships of the arms, legs, head, and torso are considered particularly harmonious, while others are not, although they may be perfectly acceptable in different forms of dance. Large movements of the whole limb are preferred to small, isolated movements of individual body parts. Ballet is often described in terms of moving upward and outward; ideally, the dancer's limbs should appear to extend into infinity.

 

Training

Different systems of ballet training have evolved, named after countries (Russia, France) or teachers (the Italian dancer Enrico Cecchetti, the Danish choreographer August Bournonville). These systems, however, differ more in style and emphasis than in the actual movements taught.

The best age to begin a serious study of ballet is eight to ten for girls; boys may begin somewhat later. Younger children may be harmed by the strenuous physical demands of a ballet class, and older children gradually lose the flexibility required to attain good turnout. Girls usually begin pointe work after three years of training. If training is begun after the late teens, it is probably unrealistic to hope for a professional career.

All dancers, no matter how experienced or proficient, take daily class to keep their bodies supple and strong. Most ballet classes begin with exercises at the barre, a round horizontal bar that the dancer holds onto for support. These exercises warm up and stretch the muscles, work the tendons to make them supple, and loosen the joints. The second part of the class is done without the support of the barre and is called center practice. It usually begins with slow, sustained exercises that develop the dancer's sense of balance and fluidity of movement. Slow exercises are followed by quick movements, beginning with small jumps and beats and progressing to large traveling steps, turns, and leaps. Class generally lasts an hour and a half.

As the dancer grows more proficient, the exercises at the barre become more complicated, although based on the same movements taught to beginners. The steps performed in the center become quicker or slower, larger, more complex, and more physically demanding. Eventually dancers go to class not so much to learn new steps as to maintain their performing standards.

Some frequently seen positions include the arabesque, in which the dancer extends one leg backward in a straight line, and the attitude, a leg extension forward or back with a bent knee. Turning steps include the pirouette, a turn on one leg with the other leg raised; and the fouett‚, in which the free leg whips around to provide impetus for the turns. Among the steps of elevation are the entrechat, in which the dancer jumps straight up and beats the calves of the legs together in midair, and the jet‚, a leap from one foot onto the other. These steps include many different variations.

Besides the basic class, women often attend classes in pointe work. Men and women learn to dance together in pas de deux, or partnering, class. Some ballet schools also teach mime, the conventional hand gestures used to tell the story in older ballets such as Giselle and Swan Lake. These hand gestures have become codified (for instance, an invitation to dance is indicated by circling the hands above the head) and are less realistic than the type of mime popularized by the French pantomimist Marcel Marceau.

 

Music and Spectacle

A ballet may be choreographed either to music especially composed for it or to music already existing. Until the 20th century, specially composed music was more common. Sometimes the choreographer and composer worked closely together, but sometimes they had little or no contact.

The use of previously existing music for dance became more frequent due in large measure to the American dancer Isadora Duncan. One of the pioneers of modern dance, she often used music by such composers as Ludwig van Beethoven and Fr‚d‚ric Chopin. Existing music can be used in its original form or it can be adapted and arranged by another composer to suit the choreographer's needs.

The plot of a ballet is called its libretto or scenario. The narrative content of a ballet can be written especially for it or can be adapted from a book, poem, play, or opera. Modern ballet choreographers often borrow cinematic devices such as the flashback, or use other contemporary innovations found in literature, drama, and films. In contrast to story ballets are plotless ballets, which create a mood, interpret a musical composition, or simply celebrate dancing for the sake of dancing.

Scenery for ballet is limited by the need to provide sufficient space for dancing. The center of the stage is almost always kept clear. Many ballets use only a backdrop and sidepieces or wings. Some modern ballets supplement the scenery with slide projections, films, and special lighting. Others simply rely on the dramatic range of lighting effects permitted by modern stage lighting.

Early ballet costumes were simply the fashionable dress clothes of the time. The tutu, a bell-shaped skirt of translucent fabric, was popularized by Marie Taglioni in the ballet La Sylphide (1832). It was shortened in the course of the century and became the standard dress of the ballerina.

Ballet costume became more varied under the influence of the 20th-century Russian choreographer Michel Fokine. Dancers today perform in many types of costume, including the simple practice clothes worn in the studio. Although first used by the Russian-American choreographer George Balanchine for financial reasons, practice clothes are often a deliberate costume choice because of their simplicity and clarity of line.