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The Nutcracker Ballet (1981)
Dancer (painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir )

As a ballet (from Italian balletto , diminutive of ballo ; German  dance , French and English ballet ) is usually the music accompanied classical artistic stage dance ( classical dance called), often from contemporary dance , modern dance or dance theater is distinguished. In particular, the term can also have the following meanings:

Traditionally, a classical ballet is an action ballet. Based on a libretto one to musical composition and choreography created. There are also stage sets , props and costumes . The dance itself consists of body movements in space, gestures and facial expressions.

History of ballet

Emancipation from ballroom dancing

Scene from the ballet comique de la reine

Ballet developed in the 15th and 16th centuries from the plays performed at Italian and French royal courts as well as from dance parlor games. At that time it was not yet an art form in its own right. The stage dance, like the drama, was long reserved for men.

The leading role in the development of dance passed from Italy to France in the 16th century. The oldest ballet whose score has survived is the Ballet comique de la reine for Catherine de Medici from 1581. It is related to a court festival on the occasion of a wedding, contains ancient mythological figures and transports political messages. It shows the connection between Italian and French dance elements in the service of a courtly show of power.

In 1661 Louis XIV founded the Académie Royale de danse in Paris . During this time the ballet experienced enormous further development and was increasingly performed by professional dancers. The dance was thus separated from the courtly ceremony . From 1681 women were also allowed to dance in public here.

Raoul Feuillet described the dance techniques, steps and positions of his time around 1700 in his book Chorégraphie . The first narrative ballets were written in the middle of the 18th century. Before that, the dances were only linked by a common motif, but not by a continuous plot. The individual parts of Jean-Philippe Rameau's ballet opera Les Indes Galantes (1735) are all set in exotic countries, but have no context in terms of content beyond this characteristic .

The narrative ballet

Anna Pavlova and Nikolai Legat in La Fille mal gardée

In 1760 Jean Georges Noverre published his letters on dance and ballet , which influenced many of his contemporaries. He believed that one could create a drama with the means of dance. Because the drama was still considered the highest poetic genre, this made the dance considerably more valuable. He implemented his ideas in the ballet Medea and Jason , which was premiered in 1763 by the Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris . Parallel to the courtly ballet there was the popular pantomime in the Parisian fair theater , which also had plots and influenced the “high” dance art when court culture was increasingly criticized before the French Revolution .

Alongside Christoph Willibald Gluck's and Antonio Salieri's ballets (mostly components of operas), the reform ballet La Fille mal gardée (1789) by Jean Dauberval is the oldest piece that has remained in the repertoire to this day. It dispensed with classic characters such as satyrs and other mythological beings and brought a simple interpersonal conflict to the stage.

During the revolution, Auguste Vestris contributed to giving ballet, which was still integrated into operas, an independent meaning. After 1800 the newly emerging genre of the grand opéra contained an extensive ballet. In this context, new types of dance techniques and stage equipment developed.

The "classic" time

“Before the appearance” by Ernst Oppler , around 1900
Scene from Swan Lake

In the first two decades of the 19th century, the theaters on Paris' Boulevard du Temple , some of which had large ballet ensembles, were very successful with mixed forms of ballet, theater, pantomime and circus. The mythological ballets of the Paris Opera became old-fashioned, and the Opéra had to cater to the tastes of the audience, who preferred either realistic material or holiday . In the opera La muette de Portici (1828) a silent main character appeared, much like in the products of the tabloid theater such as Yelva, the Russian orphan (1828). Such silent roles were often interpreted by dancers. In the same year, the opera took on the ballet La fille mal gardée in a modernized version in the program.

The "Nonnenballett" in the opera Robert le diable (1831) by Filippo Taglioni with Marie Taglioni as the soloist heralded the independence of the ballet from the opera. The era of romantic ballet (in the period of French Romanticism ) began with Filippo Taglioni's choreography La Sylphide (1832). During this time ballet went through a number of decisive changes, both in terms of its subjects and the dance itself. Fairy tale fabrics replaced the ancient subjects that had played an important role for Pierre Gardel . The ballets were given sophisticated dramatic acts, for which Eugène Scribe provided the lyrics. The pointe dance was invented and the costumes were altered so that the footwork and footwork were visible to the audience. Marie Taglioni is considered to be the first master of top dance. Jules Perrot , who created the ballet Giselle (1841) for Carlotta Grisi , also played a central role in the stylistic changes at the time . The prima ballerina , like the prima donna in the opera, became the star of the cultural world. Taglioni, Grisi and Fanny Elssler were the celebrities of the time.

Ballet flourished in Russia in the second half of the 19th century . Classical masterpieces such as Swan Lake , Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker were created under the direction of Marius Petipa , which premiered in the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg or in the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. The most famous ballerina Anna Pavlova emerged from this school .

Expressive dance and other innovations

Martha Graham as "Makubi" with Bertram Ross in Visionary recital
George Balanchine with Suzanne Farrell in Don Quixote

Pedagogues like François Delsarte , on whom Ruth St. Denis relied, had already questioned its content and highly specialized technique in the classical age of ballet. Numerous ballet conventions were attacked and abolished through expressive dance since around 1900, as presented by Isadora Duncan on her worldwide tours. New forms of representation developed, for example in the choreographies of Rudolf von Laban .

The avant-garde at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century brought ballet closer to the other arts and to popular stage dance or pantomime, such as the parade staged by Erik Satie , Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso together with the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1917. Visual artists such as Sophie Taeuber-Arp also tried their hand at stage dancers and questioned the traditional dance craft. Emil Jaques-Dalcroze combined professional stage dance with folk dance and gymnastics. Michel Fokine tried to mediate between the older technique and the newer expressive efforts (for example in The Dying Swan , 1907).

From the expressive dance and the related modern dance , which spread in the USA, many efforts arose to renew the ballet. They are summarized under the term contemporary dance . Mary Wigman , Martha Graham , Gret Palucca and Jean Weidt are considered to be the founders . Kurt Jooss and his student Pina Bausch are the most famous pioneers of dance theater , which is strictly against ballet traditions.

Renaissance of the classical ballet

At the beginning of the 20th century a renaissance of ballet began in Western Europe and North America, triggered among other things by the establishment of the Ballets Russes by the impresario Sergei Djagilew in 1909. The troupe came from Saint Petersburg , celebrated its successes in Paris and had a great influence the American dance. The ballet of the 20th century was primarily shaped by artists who went into exile in the West after the founding of the Soviet Union . These include Michel Fokine , Vaslav Nijinsky and George Balanchine . The ballet was received artistically by the Berlin Secession , especially Ernst Oppler .

Classical ballet was able to hold onto very traditional forms in the Eastern European countries. The dancer and teacher Agrippina Jakowlewna Waganowa designed a universal representation of his technique. However, the attempts at renewal in the west made it difficult. Since the 1930s, there have been efforts to preserve the classical ballet traditions, which are summarized under the term neoclassicism . George Balanchine is considered to be the founder with his mostly nonsensical ballet, in London Frederick Ashton represented this direction, in the USA for example Bronislava Nijinska . John Cranko represented a younger generation of neoclassicism with his great narrative ballets .

Since the mid-1950s, the classical repertoire ballet of the Russian tradition has also become at home on Western European stages and forms the opposite pole to modern dance theater . However, the choreographies show themselves in ever new variations. Often misunderstood and not always solved satisfactorily, the division of the functions into dancers and mimics in romantic ballet, which is important for understanding the plot.

Ballet music

Russian ballet (painting by August Macke )

It was not until the second half of the 17th century that ballet music emerged in the contemporary sense. Instrumental pieces entitled Ballet can be found by the French composer and lutenist Robert Ballard and the Italian Giovanni Battista Granata. The French opera in the 17th and 18th centuries ( Jean-Baptiste Lully , Rameau , Christoph Willibald Gluck , Antonio Salieri , Giacomo Meyerbeer ) had a heavyweight on the ballet, which however still strongly oriented toward the ballroom dancing. Even Mozart has some music for the stage dance written. The dance interludes and divertissements are often no longer known or are no longer clear about their function as dance music.

The ballet masters who played the dance master violin like Pierre Beauchamp were often responsible for the composition of the music. The choreographer Arthur Saint-Léon was still a dancer, violinist and composer at the same time around the middle of the 19th century.

In the 19th century an independent ballet music was created. The oldest classical ballet pieces include La Sylphide (1832) by Jean Schneitzhoeffer , Giselle (1841) by Adolphe Adam and Coppélia (1870) by Léo Delibes . They are each based on a literary ballet libretto . Both were premiered by the Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris .

Especially during the heyday of classical ballet in Saint Petersburg in the second half of the 19th century , the composition was tailored to the conditions of the theater and the size and composition of the ensemble. The composer and the choreographer often worked closely together and communicated over the “ minute days ”.

During this heyday, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote for the St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theater and the Moscow Bolshoi Theater . The result is pieces that are part of the repertoire of every classical ballet company today , for example Swan Lake (1877), Sleeping Beauty (1890) and The Nutcracker (1892).

The best-known ballet music of the early 20th century are Igor Stravinsky's Der Feuervogel (1910), Petruschka (1911) and Le sacre du printemps (1913). Claude Debussy's music became famous in Nijinsky's choreography L'Après-midi d'un faune (1912). To Maurice Ravel's Bolero has been around since Ida Rubinstein 1927 numerous dance versions.

Also Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet (1936) and Cinderella (1945) sat down nor on the ballet stage. Aram Khachaturian still created integral ballet compositions in the middle of the 20th century . The best known are Gayaneh (1942) and Spartacus (1956).

The full-length ballets of the 19th century led at times to a dominance of music over dance, which dissolved again in the 20th century. Choreographers increasingly used pieces of music that had not been written specifically for stage dance. Absolute music like symphonies and sonatas has been interpreted through dance since Isadora Duncan . Compositions of very different pieces of music were also tried out. Dance pieces were and are performed without music and use sound collages or speakers as an acoustic supplement. Stage dance with a DJ can also be seen occasionally.

Classic technique

To learn the classic technique, you need years of training. The method of such training is based on exercises at the barre (bar) and exercises in the environment (middle). The exercises on the bars serve to prepare the body and the basic technique. An optimal vertical axis, which is achieved by centering the body, should always be guaranteed when changing room heights (plié, tendue, relevé), regardless of whether you stand on both or on one leg. Furthermore, the movements of the legs, arms and head in the various spatial directions are practiced precisely.

In the middle (milieu), some of the placement exercises are then repeated, but in the room (change of direction, change of location). The steps are divided into qualitative categories: adagio , pirouettes , petit allegro (small, very fast jumps), medium jumps and finally the grand allegro . There are different levels of difficulty and shapes for each of these categories. The teachers are free to design these combinations.

No choreographies are practiced in a ballet class. Ballet dancers or contemporary dance dancers do this only in rehearsals. Stage dancers train, so practice their technique as long as they are acting as interpreters (as are the musicians or singers).

Ballet positions

All ballet movements are based on five basic positions of arms and legs. The basis of the physical posture is the vertical and the en dehors (outward rotation of the legs from the hip joint). The ballet positions include, for example, the arabesque (stretched free leg) and the attitude (curved free leg), the sur-le-cou-de-pied and the retiré , and the foot positions are also standardized. The arms (including the hands and fingers) have certain positions, as does the head (including the gaze). In a choreography, these formalized positions are changed, blurred, varied and interpreted. But all of this happens on the basis of the basic positions. A ballet dancer is always in one of these positions, regardless of whether he is jumping, turning or moving.

Ballet terms

Since the history of ballet begins in Italy and then passes to France, most of the terms in the language of ballet are still of French or, less often, Italian origin. But there are also some terms coined by the English school in the ballet language. Ballet terminology is still not standardized, and each of the major schools uses slightly different terms. Abbreviations are often used in the daily work in the ballet hall .

An extensive list of the most important terms (as well as the associated clarifying representations) can be found in the ballet glossary .


Ballet is taught using different methods: the Cecchetti method (Italy), the English method ( RAD ), the Waganova method (Russia) and the Balanchine method (USA). All four set up the technology differently, carry out the steps differently (or name them differently) and focus on other areas.


Ballet dancers in typical costumes for classical ballet

In the history of ballet, costumes have changed according to the tastes of the time. Over the years, they got shorter and lighter. This cleared the way for more demanding and technically difficult movement sequences. Even today the costumes are only slightly varied. Giselle always wears a knee-length dress and the swans from Swan Lake are easy to recognize, even for a layperson.
When it comes to women's costumes, a distinction is made between the long tulle skirt for ghost beings from the white nude ( ballet blanc ) (e.g. in Giselle ), the narrow long dress (e.g. in Romeo and Juliet ) and the tutu , a stiff protruding tulle skirt , which is the most famous ballet costume (e.g. in Swan Lake or Raimonda ) and dates from the 19th century. For some costumes that are supposed to stick out nicely (plate skirts), an aluminum frame is used as an aid. One is usually as shell bodice worn.
The costumes of men in ballet usually consist of a shirt and (opaque) tights . A jacket is often worn over the shirt .

See also

Portal: Ballet  - Overview of Wikipedia content on ballet




Ballet as a theme in the film

Numerous feature and television films have ballet and ballet dancers on the subject, e.g. B.

Web links

Wiktionary: Ballet  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Ballet  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files


  1. Keiji Makuta: 51 selections for Lute in renaissance era. Arranged for guitar. Zen-On, Tokyo 1969, ISBN 4-11-238540-4 , pp. 56-63 ( Ballet , Ballet de Princess ).
  2. See Adalbert Quadt (Ed.): Guitar music of the 16th – 18th centuries. Century. 4 volumes. Edited from tablature. Deutscher Verlag für Musik, Leipzig 1970–1984, pp. 17–20 (Giovanni Battista Granata: Balletto from Novi Capricci armonici Musicali pour la Chitarra Spagnola from 1674).