The History of Ballet and Its Global Influence

Aug 7, 2023

Wherever ballet is taught in the world today, regardless of the country and the languages spoken, all ballet classes start with plies- the French word that means “to bend.” The establishment of a dance vocabulary in 16th century France allowed ballet to spread from country to country breaking down barriers and becoming part of a cultural infrastructure that brought people together.

NUTCRACKER! Magical Christmas Ballet stands as a wonderful example of this inspiring collaboration between dancers from diverse countries, gracefully uniting cultures and artistic expressions in a wealth of talent. With principal artists from Ukraine, Japan, Italy, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Turkey, and Poland, the common threads of dance history are on display. Dance is, indeed, a universal language. Nutcracker! Magical Christmas Ballet paves the way for today’s dancers to shine brightly on the global stage.

The history of ballet combines the evolution of a great art form, the fascinating lives of the people who promoted it, and the major cultural and political events that influenced it.

Nutcracker Producers Dan and Akiva Talmi

Ballet de Cour (Court ballet)

Ballet originated in the 15th-century courts of Renaissance Italy where “ballet de cour” were performed by the nobility for entertainment at affairs of state. The words ballet and ball are derived from the Italian word “ballare,” which means “to dance.” Early court ballets were parade-like spectacles presented in large halls. As there were no proscenium stages, audiences sat in tiers on three sides of the hall. Taking this into account, the “dancing masters” created choreography that consisted of simple steps in geometric floor patterns that were best viewed from above. When the  “ballet de cour” was over,  the audience joined the dancers on the floor and the festivities continued. The intent was to bring the nobility together to smooth out political differences. These events were very smartly orchestrated combining the arts, socializing, and politics to strengthen the monarchy.

In NUTCRACKER! Magical Christmas Ballet, the first parents’ dance in  Act I, is based on a historic court dance. The choreography is stylized with intricate weaving in and out of the dancers. Ballet etiquette, so important in the development of upper body positions, can be seen in the epaulement of the upper back, the refined gestures, graceful bows, and well-mannered partnering which are hallmarks of classical ballet.

In Italy, the greatest patron of the arts and of “ballet de cour” was Catherine de Medici. When Catherine married King Henry II in 1533, she introduced dance to the French court and spent lavishly on masked balls and theatricals in which she and her ladies-in-waiting performed.  As Queen of France, she commissioned the first ballet “ Ballet Comique de la Reine” in 1581 for a royal wedding. The choreographer, Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx, was Catherine de Medici’s director of festivals. He was also a composer and violinist. His ballet, like an opera, fused dance, music, and spoken text, and, like most works of the time, the King was cast as the hero. The ballet was a huge success. The libretto, based on Homer’s The Odyssey, was published in 1582, it was widely read and greatly influenced ballet productions in France and England.


Ballet flourished in the French court during the reign of Louis XIV

The role of King Louis XIV in shaping ballet’s development in 17th century France is fascinating. He trained as a dancer from childhood and appeared in his first ballet “Ballet de Nuit” in 1653 at the age of 14. The choreographer is unknown, but the ballet was quite spectacular with music, spoken word, elaborate costumes and stage machinery. Its theme was the passing of the night from sunset to sunrise and lasted 12 hours. Louis XIV danced in 5 segments. He was surrounded by dancers who represented Honor, Grace, Love, Courage, Victory, Renown, and Peace. This is very much like the variation dancers who bring such gifts to Clara in Act II’s unique Land of Peace and Harmony in Nutcracker! Magical Christmas Ballet. For his last entrance in “Ballet de Nuit” he portrays  Apollo, the rising sun.  It is from this character that he was dubbed the Sun King.

Ballet de Nuit was the brainchild of Prime Minister Jules Mazarin. Mazarin was given power when Louis became King at age 4 after his father died.. Early in his reign, a series of civil wars called the Fronde broke out among nobles who wanted to lessen the King’s authority to levy taxes.. The wars erupted between 1640 to 1653. The King squelched all opposition and Mazarin saw the production of “Ballet de Nuit” as a way to mark the end of the unrest and to glorify the young King.

For twenty years, Louis XIV took daily ballet class and decreed that all members of court would study ballet as well. Louis XIV  saw ballet etiquette as a way to educate the nobility.  But his insistence on teaching ballet etiquette  was not just about education or entertainment .After the Fronde, it was about power and control over the nobility. The theatricals were a form of propaganda that elevated the King’s accomplishments as well as a way to impress foreign dignitaries and forge alliances. Balls and theatrical entertainments continued at Versailles and France became the epicenter for arts and culture in Europe

Under Louis XIV’s influence, the French noble style or Baroque dances were developed. But to execute the steps properly more training was needed and a system by which to teach the dances became essential. The most important dancing master at the court was Pierre Beauchamp,  He developed a dance vocabulary of French terms derived from the dance suites -the Minuet, Gigue, Bouree, Saraband among others. These terms, such as jete-to jump, glissade to slide and assemble-to bring together-are used throughout the world today. Beauchamp set the five ballet positions of the feet and arms, and turnout from the hips was employed for ease of movement. 

Baroque dances were hard to remember. To address the problem,  Beauchamp’s student Rauol-Auger Feuillet developed the first dance notation which made it possible to “notate” or write down the dances to preserve the original choreography and tempo.  Dance became a profession. The court hired professionals to meet the ever-challenging choreography.  Touring companies were formed as dance notation, a uniform dance vocabulary, and a system of teaching made it possible for the baroque dances to spread to England, northern Europe and Russia.

To centralize dance training, Beauchamp was appointed director of the Academie Royale de Danse in 1661.  In 1672  under the composer Jean-Baptist Lully the dance academy became a part of the Academie Royale de Musique now called the Paris Opera. Beauchamp often staged ballets for  Lully’s operas and  Moliere’s plays. 


Jean George Noverre – Ballet d’Action a revolt against ballet de cour

The most important choreographer of the late 18th century was Jean-Georges Noverre. He hated the artificiality of ballet de cour and favored ballet d’action or dramatic ballets in which storytelling took center stage. This shift marked a departure from courtly entertainment to dramatic storytelling to demonstrate the emotive power of dance. This marked the beginning of the Romantic movement in ballet- the era of the great story ballets, the rise of the prima ballerina, and the female corps de ballet. 

While so much was happening in France, ballet was also taking hold in England, northern Europe, and in Russia. Heads of state were eager to develop their own dance companies. In 1638, Queen Christina of Sweden invited the French dancing master  Antoine de Beaulieu to teach and perform. He stayed in Sweden and founded a ballet academy at court. King Gustavus III felt the importance of training Swedish dancers as part of a national cultural project and founded the Royal Swedish Ballet in 1773. This was followed by the Royal Swedish Opera and the Royal Dramatic Theatre. 

In England, before the invasion of the French Baroque dances the British had their own court dances, a system of recording dances, and great dancing masters, musicians, and composers.  Queen Elizabeth I, herself a multi-instrumentalist, loved dance, and music and generously supported the arts. Masked balls and pantomime were hugely successful in England. The Paval,  Galliard, and Almain were the most popular at court, but folk dances such as the Morris Dances were equally popular among the nobility and common folk. It wasn’t until 1902 when Serge Diaghilev brought the Ballet Russes to England that the British fell in love with ballet. 

Russian Influence: A Ballet Pioneer

By the late 19th century, Russia emerged as a major influence in ballet’s evolution. The history of ballet in Russia goes back to Peter the Great and his quest to bring European art and culture to St Petersburg. He admired Louis XIV and saw the political power of the arts on display at Versailles. In 1734, he invited French ballet master Jean-Baptiste Lande to St Petersburg to join Rinaldi Fossano in teaching ballet to children. Empress Anna was so impressed by their recital that she started a school in 1738. This school became the St Petersburg Imperial Ballet School.

Four figures stand out as having the greatest impact on the evolution of ballet in Russia. Christian Johannson from Denmark,  Marius Petipa from France, Enrico Cecchetti from Italy, and Russia’s esteemed pedagogue Agrippina Vagonova.

The first was Christian Johannson from Sweden whose teaching was influenced by the lightning speed and articulation of the Bournonville style. He is credited with developing the artistry and strength of the Russian male dancer. He taught at the Royal Swedish Ballet from 1829-41 and at the Imperial Ballet from 1841-66. 

Enrico Cecchetti had a stellar career as a dancer and mime in Italy. He is regarded as the greatest teacher of his time. He based his Cecchetti Method on the science of movement with an emphasis on correct body placement and alignment for beauty and ease of movement.  He joined the Imperial Ballet in 1887 and became the ballet master at the Mariinsky Ballet and head of school at the Imperial Academy. He created the challenging role of the Bluebird in Sleeping Beauty and the mimed role of the wicked Carabosse in Sleeping Beauty.  In 1910 he moved to Paris to work with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russe and later toured Europe with his pupil Anna Pavlova. He worked in London with Serge Lifar and Alicia Markova and returned to Italy in 1925 to direct the ballet school at La Scala.  

 Marius Petipa left France in 1847 to partner with Russian ballerina Yelena Andreyanov. He stayed in Russia and with his father revived the popularity of ballet with their restaging of Santanella in 1848.  Petipa was a prolific choreographer and restager of other people’s work. He created 50 ballets and went on to choreograph the most important full-length ballets of the 19th century. In a period known as Russia’s Golden Age of Ballet, he choreographed Sleeping Beauty in 1890, The Nutcracker with Lev Ivanov in 1892 and Swan Lake with Lev Ivanov in 1895. The success of these ballets can be equally attributed to the beautiful music of legendary composer Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

No teacher had a greater impact on the evolution of ballet technique than  Agrippina Vaganova. The depth of the Vaganova Method is extraordinary. She pulled together the pedagogy of Petipa, Johansson, and Cecchetti into a cohesive, scientific syllabus for training a dancer from childhood, from beginner to professional. She started teaching in 1916 and became the director of the Kirov Ballet in 1931.  The Vaganova Method has shaped generations of ballet dancers worldwide. The most well-known include Galina Ulanova, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, and ballerinas Natalia Makarova, and Irina Kolpakova. Her textbook, Basic Principles of Classical Ballet was published in 1934 and is still used today.The Imperial Ballet School produced some of the greatest choreographers and directors.  Among them are Mikhail Fokine who created Firebird and Petrushka, George Balanchine acclaimed choreographer and founder of New York City Ballet, and choreographers, Leonid Lavrocsky, Yuri Gregorovi of the Bolshoi Ballet,  and Oleg Vinogradev of the Kirov.

Diaghilev and Balanchine 

As events coincided and dance personalities crisscrossed the world, two major developments shaped contemporary ballet as we know it today. In 1909, Sergei Diaghilev brought his Ballet Russes to France.  Regarded as the most important company of the 20th century, Diaghliev’s genius was in bringing the best talent together to create new, shorter works that were groundbreaking in music, scenic design, and costuming. He commissioned composers Stravinsky, Debussy, Prokoviev, and Ravel; scenic designers  Benois, Picasso, and costume designers Leon Baskst and Chanel. These were heady times in ballet. Ballet Russes toured Europe to raves from critics and audiences ushering in a whole new era of choreography. The most important works Diaghilev commissioned with music by Stravinsky were Firebird by Fokine  (1910), Petrushka by  Fokine (1911), and  Rite of Spring by Nijinsky (1913). 

The second event was George Balanchine;’s arrival in New York City and the establishment of the New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet by Lincoln Kirstein. Balanchine loved New York and captured its spirit by expanding the line and look of his dancers in his abstract, wonderfully modern ballets. 

This love of ballet exploded and ballet schools and companies opened around the world.  The Royal Ballet in London was founded in 1931, San Francisco Ballet in 1933, the American Ballet Theatre in 1937, Royal Winnipeg in 1939, The Australian Ballet in 1940, New York City Ballet in 1948, and the National Ballet of Canada in 1951. 

Pointe Shoes and Tutus

A ballerina today will wear a new pair of pointe shoes for every performance. Made of satin with a reinforced box that allows the dancer to stand on her toes. Pointe shoes give the illusion that the dancer is floating on air like a wisp of smoke or an otherworldly creature rising from the grave as in Giselle, when in truth, her feet are blistered and bleeding. Pointe work is very difficult. The dancer must be strong enough to pull her weight up out of the shoe while making it look effortless. This takes years of training but once accomplished-there’s nothing like it. 

The ballerina credited with creating the first soft slippers is Marie Carmargo of the Paris Opera. In 1730, she took the heels of her shoes and tied them with ribbons around her ankles. The soft slipper allowed her to jump higher and turn faster, raising the level of technique required for all dancers. Such attention on the petite allegro ( fast feet)  meant that costumes had to change too. Hemlines were raised to show off the feet.   

 The desire to create the illusion of flying was so great that in 1795, Charles Didelot invented the “flying machine” which lifted the dancer onto her toes before lifting her off the ground.  The next step was to dance without the flying machine. Marie Taglioni, created a sensation when she appeared en pointe in La Sylphide. The toe box was made of leather and shaped to her feet. The area around the toes was darned creating a hard surface to stand on. Shoemakers experimented until a flat platform proved to work best. In 1823, the Italian dancer Amalia Brugnoli introduced pointework to ballet audiences, but it was Marie Taglioni, who created a sensation dancing en pointe in the full-length production of La Sylphide staged by her father. Taglioni also introduced the tutu, with its tight bodice and layers of tulle, which was gradually shortened to show more of the leg. The shorter tutu led to stronger and more brilliant displays of technique. By the 1880s the ballerina was wearing what is known as the “pancake” tutu which shows the entire leg. Dancing en pointe is not a trick. It’s a marvelous convention that creates a magical world of storytelling, human emotions, and expressivity.

The Enduring Allure of Ballet

NUTCRACKER! Magical Christmas Ballet honors the past and brings families and friends together to enjoy a new dance experience. Ballet continues to flourish as an enduring art. Our international cast encompasses all nations and welcomes new audiences to experience the exquisite artistry of human expression.

Read More About Us