History of the Ballet and Modern Dance

selected by Piero Scaruffi
Essential Classical Music | Art | Theater

A brief History of Modern Dance


Early Ballet:
  • During the Renaissance, Italian nobility stages lavish court dances
  • A dance expresses etiquette
  • Ballet a close relative of military maneuvers and fencing
  • Ballet does not develop in Italy because opera does
  • Ballet is only an intermezzo during the acts of an opera (often totally unrelated to the plot of the opera)
  • Greek-inspired Academie de Poesie and Musique (1570)
  • Caterina de Medici organizes the first "ballet de cour" in Paris (1581)
  • A six-hour "Ballet Comique de la Reine" (1581) for a royal wedding
  • Louis XIV (1661 - 1715) "le Roi-Soleil": also a ballerino who dances in many of the palace ballets
  • "Le Ballet de la Nuit" (1653) features Louis XIV wearing sun rays (le roi soleil)
  • Royal Academy of Dance (1661): dance is an art separate from music (traditionally dancers accompanied themselves with a fiddle)
  • Dance becomes a symbol of aristocratic identity
  • Even the Jesuits adopt it and teach it
  • Courtesan etiquette instead of martial arts
  • Public theaters to perform music and ballet that were previously only performed at the court
  • Carlo Vigarani's Les Tuileries (1662) for 6,000 spectators and full of machines
  • The comedie-ballet: Jean-Baptiste Moliere (libretto) + Jean-Baptiste Lully (music) + Pierre Beauchamp (choreography) + Carlo Vigarani (scenography)
  • "Le bourgeois gentilhomme" (1670)
  • Royal Academy of Music (1669) eight years after the one for dance (aka "Paris Opera")
  • The ballet is lightweight counterpoint to the opera, which is serious
  • Ballets frequently employ machines to create grand spectacles
  • Raoul Feuillet's "Chor‚graphie" (1700) codifies the notation for ballet choreographies so that ballets can be replicated around Europe
  • Social and professional dance begin to separate (first formal school for professional dancers in 1713)
  • Jean-Philippe Rameau: "Maitre a Danser" (1725) defines the five basic positions of dancing
  • Jean-Philippe Rameau (composer) "Les Indes Galantes" (1735)
  • Marie Salle: first female star of the ballet - "Pygmalion" (1734)
  • Russian ballet:
  • Empress Anna founds the Imperial St Petersburg School of Dance (1738)
  • Jean-Georges Noverre: (choreographer) dance has to tell a story (the dancer must be a mime)
  • Jean-Joseph Rodolphe (composer): "Medee et Jason" (1763)
  • Gaetano Vestris (dancer) mimes with no mask
  • Opera and ballet part ways
  • Christoph Gluck (composer) + Gasparo Angiolini (choreographer) + Ranieri de Calzabigi (libretto): "Orfeo ed Euridice" (1762)
  • Maximilien Gardel (choreographer) the heroic ballet mostly performed by women "Telemaque" (1790) and "Psyche" (1790)
  • Jean-Georges Noverre: "Les Fetes Chinoises" (1754) introduces expressive movement
  • Charles Didelot: "Zephyre and Flore" (1796) makes dancers dance on the tips of the toes
  • Schism of artistic and popular dancing
  • Auguste Vestris (dancer) school of virtuosistic and athletic dance (mainly men) whereas ballerine are more pantomime actresses than dancers
  • 1795-1799: 600 dancehalls in Paris, mainly for a new erotic dance, the waltz

  • Romantic Age:
  • 1831: the Paris Opera is privatized (to entrepreneur Louis Veron)
  • Giacomo Meyerbeer (composer) + Eugene Scribe (libretto) + Filippo Taglioni (choreographer) + Pierre Ciceri (scenographer) + Marie Taglioni (dancer) + Adolphe Nourrit (tenor): "Robert le Diable" (1831) four-hour extravaganza with orchestra, choir and stage effects (including gas lighting, a novelty) inaugurates the romantic era
  • The star, Marie Taglioni, is a dancer, not an actress
  • Nourrit (this time as the choreographer) +Ciceri +Marie Taglioni on a story by Nodier: "La Sylphide" (1832)
  • Jean Coralli (choreographer), Jules Perrot (ballet master) + Th‚ophile Gautier (libretto) + Adolphe Adam (composer) + Ciceri (scenography) inspired by a poem by Heinrich Heine: "Giselle" (1841) peak of romantic ballet
  • Carlotta Grisi, the new star, is a virtuoso dancer
  • Salvatore Vigano's lavish ballets at Milano's La Scala (1811-21) with music by Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, etc and lighting effects whose dancers were mimes (gestural dance)
  • Carlo Blasis' "Trait‚ ‚l‚mentaire th‚orique et pratique de l'art de la danse" (1820) defines the virtuoso technique of ballet
  • Opera has a score so it can be replicated throughout the world and becomes big business, whereas ballet cannot be exported
  • The success of Rossini, Doninzetti, Bellini, etc virtually kills ballet in Italy
  • Russian ballet: Czar Pyotr's westernizing reforms import ballet to teach etiquette to the nobility
  • Landowners operate their own "serf theaters" until 1812
  • 1766: Ekaterina II opens three state theaters in St Petersburg (all ballet masters are foreigners
  • Charles Didelot creates the grand spectacle of the St Petersburg ballet (1801)
  • "Psyche et L'Amour" (1809), emblematic of the new Russian nationalism
  • Russian ballet: music (composed by foreigners like Riccardo Drigo, Cesare Pugni, Ludwig Minkus) follows, not leads, the dances
  • August Bournonville directs the Royal Danish Ballet (1830-77) and imports French ballet to Denmark: "Valdemar" (1835) on medieval legends, still romantic; other ballets focus on ordinary life of ordinary folks: realism

  • Victorian Age:
  • Luigi Manzotti's extravagant ballets at Milano's La Scala resurrect ballet in Italy: "Excelsior" (1881) with Indian, Arab, Chinese and Turkish dances for a cast of 500 dancers, 12 horses, two cows and an elephant
  • Italian ballet masters document Manzotti's ballets and export them throughout Europe and the USA
  • Poor artistic value and virtually no virtuoso skills required from dancers
  • Italian ballet masters write and stage their own ballets, unlike the French who use professional writers, and unlike Italian opera composers who used professional librettos
  • Italian ballet is rapidly obliterated by the competition
  • Marinetti's "variety theater" (1913)
  • Jules Perrot's five-hour "Eoline" (1858) and Marius Petipa`s five-hour"The Pharaoh's daughter" (1862) at a time when ballet in Paris and Milan shares the program with opera
  • 1882: Aleksandr II abolishes the monopoly of the imperial theaters, thereby causing a boom of popular musical theaters and an "Italian invasion" of Manzotti's dancers staging sensational extravaganzas (ballets-feeries)
  • The ballet of the imperial theaters continues but represents the ossified aristocratic world
  • Marius Petipa + Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky + Perrault (story) + Carlotta Brianza (dancer) + Enrico Cecchetti (dancer): "The Sleeping Beauty" (1890), basically an elegant high-brow feerie with virtuoso Italian-style dancers AND pop music
  • Tchaikovsky is the first composer to conceive of ballet as a major art with symphonic scores that stand on their own
  • Lev Ivanov (Russian choreographer) + Tchaikovsky + Hoffmann (story): "The Nutcracker" (1892)
  • Ivanov-Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" (1895)
  • Petipa-Glazunov's "Raymonda" (1898)
  • Isadora Duncan (USA) promotes "free dance" based on physiology (the "solar plexus") in Paris (1900)
  • The exotic Mata Hari (Holland) debuts in Paris (1905)
  • Oriental shows by Ruth St Denis (USA) in Paris (1906)
  • Valentine de Saint-Pont's multimedia ballet (1913)
  • Sergei Diaghilev: homosexual patron of the Russian arts founds the magazine "Mir Isskustva" (1898)
  • Influenced by Duncan, Mikhail Fokine choreographs "The Dying Swan" (1905), a solo improvisatory dance for Anna Pavlova in Russia
  • Savva Marmontov and Maria Tenisheva sponsor the Russian arts and crafts movement in their country estates that become artists' colonies: original art inspired by Russian folk art
  • Franco-Russian alliance (1894), Triple Entente (1907)
  • Tolstoy and Dostoevsky
  • Exhibition of Russian arts and crafts in Paris (1900)
  • Sergei Diaghilev's exhibition of Russian art in Paris (1906)
  • The salons and rich patron sponsor Diaghilev's company
  • Sergei Diaghilev's "Le Ballets Russes" open in Paris (1909): Mikhail Fokine (choreographer and dancer), Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky (dancers), Leon Bakst (Lev Rozenberg), Aleksandr Golovin and Aleksandr Benois (scenographers)
  • Mikhail Fokine choreographs Igor Stravinsky's exotic "Firebird" for Karsavina (1910)
  • Mikhail Fokine choreographs Rimsky-Korsakov's sensual and exotic "Scheherazade" (1910) for Karsavina and Nijinsky
  • Mikhail Fokine choreographs the sensual "Le Spectre de la Rose" (1911) for Nijinsky
  • Igor Stravinsky's Russian-folkish "Petrouchka" for Nijisky (1911)
  • Sergei Diaghilev shocks Paris with an erotic production of Debussy's "L'Apres-midi d'un Faune" (1912) choreographed by Nijisky (who dances a scene in which he masturbates on stage) and Stravinsky's Russian-folkish and dissonant "Le Sacre du Printemps" (1913) choreographed by Nijisky
  • The scandal and World War I (1914) kill the Ballets Russes
  • The "Ballets Russes" never once perform in Russia
  • Marie Wiegmann's solo ballet "Witch Dance" (1914)
  • Sergei Diaghilev's "The Three-Cornered Hat" (1917)

  • Postwar:
  • Rudolf Nureyev defects to Britain (1961) and becomes its second star after Margot Fonteyn
  • Alwin Nikolais' "Kaleidoscope" (1956) pioneers abstract and total dance theatre
  • Maurice Bejart (France) creates "Ninth Symphony" (1964) for 80 dancers and 250 musicians/singers
  • Kenneth MacMilan (Britain) creates brutal realistic ballets that feature suicide, drugs, prostitution, incest, gang rape, soft porn (e.g. "Mayerling", 1978), almost a return to pantomime but with a punk attitude
  • Balanchine's and Lincoln Kirstein's New York City Ballet (1948)
  • Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (1962)
  • Ballet becomes the most radically experimental art
  • Merce Cunningham (1953): chance operations to choreograph ballets and set designs by painter Robert Rauschenberg
  • Jerome Robbins (choreographer) + Leonard Bernstein (composer) + Stephen Sondheim (lyrics): "West Side Story" (1957) about juvenile delinquents
  • George Balanchine + Igor Stravinsky: the abstract dissonant "Agon" (1957) with mystical and humanist overtones
  • George Balanchine "The Nutcracker" (1954)
  • Maurice Bejart "Symphonie pour un Homme Seul" (1955)
  • Alwin Nikolais "Kaleidoscope" (1956)
  • Roberts Blossom (1924, USA) dance and film (1961)
  • Robert Joffrey's hippy multimedia "Astarte" (1967)
  • Billy Kluver's Nine Evenings in New York (1966): dance and tech
  • Simone Forti's "Dance Constructions" at Yoko Ono's loft (May 1961)
  • July 1962: Robert Ellis Dunn's Judson Dance Theater
  • Yvonne Rainer: "Three Seascapes" (1962)
  • Carolee Schneemann: "Chromelodeon" (1963)
  • Trisha Brown: "Lightfall" (1963)
  • Deborah Hay: "Victory 14" (1964)
  • Freddie Herko: "Dervish" (1964)
  • Trisha Brown: "Walking on the Wall" (1971)
  • Steve Paxton: "Magnesium" (1972) - birth of "contact improvisation"
  • Mikhail Baryshnikov defects to the USA (1974)
  • Kazuo Ohno's butoh dance "La Argentina Sho" (1977)
  • Simone Forti (1935, USA): holographic dance piece "Striding/Crawling" (1977)
  • Pina Bausch (Germany): "Orpheus and Eurydice" (1978)
  • Twyla Tharp (USA): "In The Upper Room" (1986)
  • Mark Morris (1956, USA): "L'Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato" (1988)
  • Dumb Type (Japan): "pH" (1990)

  • Multimedia Theater:
  • Ping Chong (1946, Canada): "Nosferatu" (1985)
  • George Coates (1952, USA): "Actual Sho" (1987)
  • Robert Lepage (1957, Canada): "Needles and Opium" (1991)
  • George Coates (1952, USA): "20/20 Blake" (1996)
  • Mika Tuomola (1971, Finland): "Daisy's Amazing Discoveries" (1996)
  • ieVR (USA): "Machinal" (1999)
  • Uninvited Guest (Britain): "Film" (2000)
  • Builders Association (Marianne Weems): "Alladeen" (2003)
  • Blast Theory (Britain): "10 Backwards" (1999)
  • Chameleons Group (Steve Dixon, Britain): "The Doors of Serenity" (2002)

  • After the Cold War:
  • Paul Taylor (1930, USA): "Company B" (1991)
  • Dumb Type (Japan): "Lovers" (1994)
  • Deborah Colker "Volcano" (1994)
  • Merce Cunningham uses software to capture and project the movements of dancers during "Biped" (1999)
  • Kunstwerk-blend (Sophia Lycouris): "Trans/forms" (1999)
  • Electronic Dance Theatre (Julie Wilson & Mark Bokowiec): "Cyborg Dreaming" (2000)
  • Paulo Henrique (Portugal): "Contract with the Skin" (2000)
  • Igloo (Bruno Martelli and Ruth Gibson, Britain): "Winter Space" (2001)
  • Random Dance Company (Wayne McGregor, Britain): "Nemesis" (2002)
  • Troika Ranch (Mark Coniglio and Dawn Stoppiello, USA): "The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz" (2000)
  • Half/Angel (Jools Gilson-Ellis & Richard Povall, Britain): "Spinstren" (2002)
  • Palindrome (Robert Wechsler, Germany): "Touching" (2003)
  • Pam Tanowitz: "Four Quartets" (2018)
  • Personal Favorites (2014)

    1. Charlie Mingus: "The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady"
    2. Igor Stravinsky: "Le Sacre du Printemps"
    3. Claude Debussy: "Jeux"
    4. Igor Stravinsky: "Petrouchka"
    5. Pyotr Tchaikovsky: "Swan Lake"
    6. Sergei Prokofiev: "Romeo and Juliet"
    7. Maurice Ravel: "Daphnis et Chloe"
    8. Erik Satie: "Relache"
    9. Pierre Henry: "La Reine Verte"
    10. Morton Subotnick: "The Key To Songs"
    11. Pyotr Tchaikovsky: "The Nutcracker"
    12. Felix Mendelssohn: "A Midsummer Nights Dream"
    13. Igor Stravinsky: "Apollo Musagetes"
    14. Pyotr Tchaikovsky: "The Sleeping Beauty"
    15. Sergei Prokofiev: "Cinderella"
    16. Igor Stravinsky: "Les Noces"
    17. Francis Poulenc: "Les Biches"
    18. Nikolaj Rimsky-Korsakov: "Scheherazade"
    19. Leo Delibes: "Coppelia"
    20. Adolphe Adam: "Giselle"
    21. Erik Satie: "Parade"
    22. Ludwig Minkus: "La Bayader"
    23. Edward Elgar: "Peter Pan"

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