The word ballet is French in origin, yet in the early 1400's Domenico di Piacenza, an Italian, described theatrical dances called balletto. Lavish pageants of music and dance were held during which the men were fully garbed in wigs, blouses, jackets and bloomers. The women wore ornate gowns of many layers, the weight of which was encumbering to stand in, let alone perform in. The troupes, composed of hundreds, included not only hired performers, but members of the duke's court whose purpose it was to impress the nobility of neighboring states. The performances accompanied elaborate banquets, each course of the meal was prefaced by a dance called an "entrée". For the aristocracy, these extravaganzas took on a magnitude of competitiveness. It is said that in 1490, Leonardo da Vinci designed a balli spectacular for Bergonzio di Botta to entertain the Duke of Milan. The artistic interpretation of the dance was to mirror the harmony of the celestial bodies, to establish order out of chaos, and to bestow peace upon those in attendance. Was it competition or art, balletto or ballet?
Although Catherine de Medicis, a member of the ruling family of Florence, left Italy, she did not leave her love for the arts behind. When she married the King of France, Henri II in 1553, she introduced the same kind of culture to France as she had known in Italy. She brought Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx with her to France to be her chief musician. Those historians inclined to reject the less defined techniques of the Italian balletto as the historical root of ballet, might consider the performance of the Ballet Comique de la Reine at the Palais du Petit Bourbon in Paris as the true birth of ballet. In 1581, the gifted Beaujoyeulx, violinist and dance master, orchestrated a five hour drama depicting the ancient Greek myth of Circe, who had the magical power to turn men into beasts. Song and poetry, spectacular stage effects, meticulously prepared costumes designed to impress the aristocratic audience peering down from their perches above proved to be a success worthy of imitation in other European courts. Although balance and control were essential to this style of performance, the development of ballet technique was thwarted by showy, unwieldy costumes.
To further define Paris as the capital of the ballet world, King Louis XIV, who ruled France during the late 1600s, and his nobles, took part in the ballets given at his court. In 1661, the Sun King, a name he acquired from a role he danced in high-heeled shoes with large guilt buckles complete with shining sun rays, founded the Royal Academy of Dance, which later became the Paris Opera Ballet, the first professional instruction for ballet. Oddly enough, the outward pointing of toes to show off his shiny shoe buckles laid the foundation for the five basic ballet positions set down by ballet master Pierre Beachamps. It should be noted that up until 1681 all female roles performed at RAD were danced by young men. This was supposedly a strength issue. Enormous headdresses, full heavy skirts and weighty corsets were thought incapable of being carried by the frame of a woman. It was not until the performance of Le Triomphe de l'Amour in 1681 that the first female dancers performed professionally.
By 1700 many of the words we recognize to display movements were already in use, including jete, sissone, chasse, entrechat, pirouette, and cabriole. The French ballet master, Raoul Feuillet included steps and positions in his book Choregraphie much like the technique of today. Ballet companies developed throughout Europe. In Russia, the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg, whose school was founded in 1738, demonstrated superlative teachings.
Six decades later, a metamorphosis was about to unfold. French choreographer Jean Georges Noverre criticized professional dancers in his book, Lettres sur la danse. He stated that the purpose of ballet was to express feelings. He urged dancers to stop wearing masks, bulky costumes and headdresses. He felt that a dancer's body should be able to express emotions such as anger or joy or love. Noverre developed the ballet d'action, a form of ballet that conveys a story through movement.
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