Ballet has grown in popularity in recent years but, for many, it remains a sometimes mystical world of movements and expressions not understood by any but the most serious Balletomane. While The Washington Ballet believes that ballet can and should be enjoyed on any level – from the novice to the seasoned ballet-goer – we hope this Ballet 101 will make this passionate artform a little more accessible. Scroll through the information, or click on a header below to skip to a specific section
Ballet emerged in the late 15th-century Renaissance court culture of Italy as a dance interpretation of fencing, and further developed in the French court from the time of Louis XIV in the 17th century. This is reflected in the largely French vocabulary of ballet. Despite the great reforms of Noverre in the 18th century, ballet went into decline in France after 1830, though it was continued in Denmark, Italy, and Russia. It was reintroduced to western Europe on the eve of the World War I by a Russian company: the Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev, who came to be influential around the world. Diaghilev's company came to be a destination for many of the Russian trained dancers fleeing the famine and unrest that followed the Bolshevik revolution. These dancers brought many of the choreographic and stylistic innovations that had been flourishing under the czars back to their place of origin.
In the 20th century, ballet continued to develop and has had a strong influence on broader concert dance. For example, in the United States, choreographer George Balanchine developed what is now known as neoclassical ballet. Subsequent developments now include contemporary ballet and post- structural ballet, seen in the work of William Forsythe in Germany.
Ballet is a formalized type of performative dance, started in 16th- and 17th-century French courts, and which was further developed in England, Italy, and Russia as a concert dance form. The early ballet dancers were not as highly skilled as they are now. It has since become a highly technical form of dance with its own vocabulary. It is mainly performed with the accompaniment of classical music. It has been influential as a form of dance globally and is taught in ballet schools around the world, which use their own cultures and societies to inform the art. Ballet dance works (ballets) are choreographed, and also include mime, acting, and are set to music (usually orchestral but occasionally vocal). Later developments include expressionist ballet, and elements of Modern dance.
Classical ballet is the most formal of the ballet styles; it adheres to traditional ballet technique. There are variations relating to area of origin, such as Russian ballet, French ballet, and Italian ballet. Although most ballet of the last two centuries is ultimately founded on the teachings of Blasis. The most well-known styles of ballet are the Russian Method, the Italian Method, the Danish Method, the Balanchine Method or New York City Ballet Method, and the Royal Academy of Dance and Royal Ballet School methods, created in England. The first pointe shoes were actually regular ballet slippers that were heavily darned at the tip. It would allow the female dancer to briefly stand on her toes to appear weightless. It was later converted to the hard box that is used today.
Neoclassical ballet is a ballet style that uses traditional ballet vocabulary but is less rigid than the classical ballet. For example, dancers often dance at more extreme tempos and perform more technical feats. Spacing in neoclassical ballet is usually more modern or complex than in classical ballet. Although organization in neoclassical ballet is more varied, the focus on structure is a defining characteristic of neoclassical ballet.
The style of 20th century classical ballet draws on the advanced technique of 19th century Russian Imperial dance, but strips it of its detailed narrative and heavy theatrical setting. Balanchine used flexed hands (and occasionally feet), turned-in legs, off-centered positions and non-classical costumes (such as leotards and tunics instead of tutus) to distance himself from the classical and romantic ballet traditions. What is left is the dance itself, sophisticated but sleekly modern, retaining the pointe shoe aesthetic, but eschewing the well-upholstered drama and mime of the full length story ballet.
Balanchine brought modern dancers in to dance with his company, the New York City Ballet. One such dancer was Paul Taylor, who, in 1959, performed in Balanchine's Episodes. Balanchine worked with modern dance choreographer Martha Graham, expanding his exposure to modern techniques and ideas. During this period, choreographers such as John Butler and Glen Tetley began to consciously combine ballet and modern techniques in experimentation.
Contemporary ballet is a form of dance influenced by both classical ballet and modern dance. It takes its technique and use of pointe work from classical ballet, although it permits a greater range of movement that may not adhere to the strict body lines set forth by schools of ballet technique. Many of its concepts come from the ideas and innovations of 20th century modern dance, including floor work and turn-in of the legs.
George Balanchine is often considered to have been the first pioneer of contemporary ballet through the development of neoclassical ballet.
One dancer who danced briefly for Balanchine was Mikhail Baryshnikov, an exemplar of Kirov Ballet training. Following Baryshnikov's appointment as artistic director of American Ballet Theatre in 1980, he worked with various modern choreographers, most notably Twyla Tharp. Tharp choreographed Push Comes To Shove for ABT and Baryshnikov in 1976; in 1986 she created In The Upper Room for her own company. Both these pieces were considered innovative for their use of distinctly modern movements melded with the use of pointe shoes and classically-trained dancers -- for their use of "contemporary ballet".
Twyla Tharp also worked with the Joffrey Ballet company, founded in 1957 by Robert Joffrey. She choreographed Deuce Coupe for them in 1973, using pop music and a blend of modern and ballet techniques. The Joffrey Ballet continued to perform numerous contemporary pieces, many choreographed by co-founder Gerald Arpino.
The history of this great artform can be seen on stage in works performed by The Washington Ballet. TWB’s company of outstanding artists tackles the full range of ballet repertoire from the classics to more contemporary works.
“A ballet may contain a story, but the visual spectacle, not the story, is the essential element. The choreographer and the dancer must remember that they reach the audience through the eye – and the audience, in its turn, must train itself actually to see what is performed upon the stage. It is the illusion created which convinces the audience, much as it is with the work of a magician. If the illusion fails the ballet fails, no matter how well a program note tells the audience that it has succeeded”
~George Ballanchine, 1945, “Notes on Choreography”
For more than six centuries, brilliant choreographers and dancers have created for the stage masterworks of romance, tragedy and great comedy. The following represents a small sampling of some of the Ballet world’s most beloved works:
Don Quixote is a famous ballet based on the epic masterpiece by Miguel de Cervantes. The most noted choreography for the ballet was created by Marius Petipa at the height of his career.
Plot Summary of Don Quixote:
As the ballet begins, an aging nobleman named Don Quixote becomes obsessed with stories of ancient rivalry. Appearing a little silly, he uses his imagination and pretends to be a brave night. He imagines that he sets out to rescue the lady of his dreams, named Dulcinea. He transforms his servant, Sancho Panza, into a trusty squire and off they go. Don Quixote leads a charge against imaginary enemies, which he sees everywhere. He proceeds to fight invisible rivals, puppets, and windmills.
Interesting Facts About Don Quixote:
The role of Don Quixote, the title character in the ballet, is usually portrayed by an older dancer. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are not heavily involved in the storyline. The ballet's best dance is a wonderful wedding pas de deux, performed by young lovers Kitri and Basilio.
The Washington Ballet will feature Don Quixote in its October 2009 program.
Tchaikovsky’s first ballet, Swan Lake is considered by many to be one of the greatest classical ballets of all time. Its romance and beauty has allowed the classic ballet to mesmerize audiences for more than 100 years.
Plot Summary of Swan Lake:
While hunting, Prince Siegfried sees an amazing swan. As he takes aim to shoot, the swan turns into a beautiful woman. The woman, Odette, tells the prince that she is a princess who has come under the spell of an evil sorcerer. During the day she must be a swan and swim in a lake of tears. At night she is allowed to be a human again. The spell can only be broken if a virgin prince swears eternal infidelity to her. She tells Prince Siegfried, who happens to be a virgin prince, that if he refuses her she must remain a swan forever.
Prince Siegfried falls madly in love with Odette. However, through a spell by the evil sorcerer, he accidentally proposes to another woman at a party, believing that the woman is really Odette. Princess Odette feels doomed. She threatens to kill herself and throws herself into the lake. The Prince feels terribly sorry and throws himself into the lake with her. In an incredibly touching moment, the two are transformed into lovers in the afterlife.
Interesting Facts About Swan Lake:
Although Swan Lake was Tchaikovsky's first ballet score, the first production in Moscow wasn't well-received. Although several versions exist, most ballet companies stage the ballet according to the choreography of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov for their St. Petersburg performance of 1895. The first American production was performed by the San Francisco Ballet.
More than 100 years old, The Nutcracker Ballet was first presented at the Mayinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, on December 17, 1892. Peter Tchaikovsky, the famous Russian composer, was commissioned by mastermind choreographer Marius Petipa to compose the ballet, score based on Alexandre Dumas’s adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s tale "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King." Tchaikovsky and Petipa had previously worked together on another classical ballet, Sleeping Beauty.
Plot Summary of The Nutcracker:
The Nutcracker Ballet is based on the story "The Nutcracker and the King of Mice" written by E.T.A. Hoffman. Although what is seen on the stage today is different in detail from the original story, the basic plot remains the same; The story of a young German girl who dreams of a Nutcracker Prince and a fierce battle against a Mouse King with seven heads.
When Marius Petipa had the idea to choreograph the story into a ballet, it was actually based on a revision by Alexander Dumas, a well known French author. His version reflects more of what we have come to love as the Nutcracker Ballet.
Interesting Facts about The Nutcracker:
The first production of The Nutcracker was a failure. Neither the critics nor the audience liked it. Even though Czar Alexander III was delighted with the ballet, The Nutcracker was not an instant success. However, the ballet gained popularity with future productions, especially in the United States. The first performance of The Nutcracker in the United States was by the San Francisco Opera Ballet, in 1944. The production was directed by William Christensen. However, by changing a few characters, choreographer George Balanchine brought new life to The Nutcracker. His 1954 production for the New York City Ballet popularized the ballet, establishing it as a holiday tradition. Many of the versions of The Nutcracker performed today are based on the version created by George Balanchine.
Septime Webre re-imagined The Nutcracker for The Washington Ballet in 2004, and his adaptation with its uniquely American themes, remains a holiday “must” in Washington, DC to this day.
The Sleeping Beauty was the first successful ballet composed by Tchaikovsky. However, it was no more popular than his first ballet, Swan Lake. The production was heavily criticized for being too lavish. Within three years, however, the ballet gained enough popularity to be performed at least 50 times.
Summary of Sleeping Beauty:
As the ballet begins, baby Princess Aurora is being christened. The evil Carbosse storms in and curses the baby, as her invitation to the event had been overlooked. The curse states that on her 18th birthday, the princess will prick her finger and die. However, the Lilac Fairy weakens the curse. She proclaims that instead of dying, Princess Aurora will fall into a deep sleep for 100 years. She will then be awakened by the kiss of a handsome prince. During Aurora's 16th birthday party, a mysterious guest (the evil Carbosse) offers her a gift...a lovely spindle. Aurora pricks her finger and the whole court falls into a deep sleep.
Several years later, the Lilac Fairy produces a vision of Aurora which Prince Desire notices while hunting. The Prince is led to the castle, where he battles the evil Carbosse. After the battle, he kisses the sleeping princess, upon which everyone wakes up. A beautiful and joyous wedding ceremony follows.
Interesting Facts About Sleeping Beauty:
The Sleeping Beauty presents many challenges for both the principal dancers and soloists, and plenty of active choreography for the rest of the ballet cast. Aurora is one of the greatest and most challenging female roles, as it demands tremendous athletic ability as well as extremely clean technique.
Considered one of the great Romantic ballets, Giselle was first performed in Paris in 1841. Originally choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, the modern production seen today was choreographed by Marius Petipa for the Imperial Ballet.
Plot Summary of Giselle:
As the ballet begins, a nobleman named Albrecht is busily wooing a young, beautiful peasant girl named Giselle. Albrecht leads the young maiden to believe that he is a farmer named Loys. Giselle falls in love with the man, unaware that he is already betrothed to Bathilde, daughter of the Duke. She agrees to marry the man, despite the romantic advancements of another peasant, Hilarion, who suspects that Albrecht is an imposter. Giselle wants badly to dance, but her mother warns her that she has a weak heart.
A Prince and his entourage are soon announced by a hunting horn. When the prince's daughter realizes that she and Giselle are both engaged, she gives her a gold necklace. Hilarion tells Giselle that Albrecht has been deceiving her, that he is actually a nobleman. Bathilde quickly reveals to Giselle that Albrecht is indeed her fiancé. Horrified and weak, Giselle goes mad and dies of a broken heart.
The second act of the ballet takes place in a forest beside Giselle's grave. The Queen of the ghostly Wilis, virgins who have died of unrequited love, calls upon them to accept Giselle as one of their own. When Hilarion stops by, the Wilis make him dance to his death. But when Albrecht arrives, Giselle (now a Wili herself) dances with him until the Wilis' power is lost, when the clock strikes four. Realizing that Giselle has saved him, Albrecht cries at her grave.
Interesting Facts About Giselle:
The role of Giselle is one of the most sought-after in ballet. To win the role, a ballerina must have near perfect technique, outstanding grace, and great drama skills. Giselle revolves around the themes of forest spirits, forces of nature, and death. The second act of the ballet, in which everyone is wearing white, is known as the "white act."
One of the first romantic ballets, La Sylphide was first performed in Paris in 1832. The original choreographer of the ballet was Philippe Taglioni, but most people are more familiar with the version choreographed by August Bournonville. His version of the ballet, first performed in Copenhagen in 1836, became the cornerstone of the Romantic ballet tradition.
Plot Summary of La Sylphide:
On the morning of his wedding day, a Scottish farmer named James falls in love with a vision of a magical sylph, or spirit. An old witch appears before him, predicting that he will betray his fiancée. Although enchanted by the sylph, James disagrees, sending the witch away. All seems fine as the wedding begins. But as James begins to put the ring on his fiancée’s finger, the beautiful sylph suddenly appears and snatches it away from him. James abandons his own wedding, running after her. He chases the sylph into the woods, where he again sees the old witch. She offers James a magical scarf. She tells him that the scarf will bind the sylph's wings, enabling him to catch her for himself. James is so enamored by the sylph that he wishes to catch her and keep her forever. James decides to take the magical scarf. He wraps it around the sylph's shoulders, but when he does, the Sylph's wings fall off and she dies. James is left all alone, heartbroken. He then watches his fiancée marry his best friend.
Interesting Facts About La Sylphide:
A sylph is a mythological creature, or spirit. The ballet tells the story of an impossible love between a human and a spirit, and man's inherent temptation for the unknown and sometimes dangerous life. La Sylphide remains a captivating, fascinating ballet that appeals to both audiences and dancers. The ballet is presented in two acts, usually running about 90 minutes. Many people confuse La Sylphide with Les Sylphides, another ballet that involves a mythical sylph, or forest spirit. The two ballets are unrelated.
The Washington Ballet added La Sylphide to its repertoire in 2009 to great critical and box office acclaim.
1) Serenade (George Balanchine/Pyotr IlyichTchaikovsky 1936)
2) Swan Lake (Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov/ Pyotr IlyichTchaikovsky 1895)
3) The Four Temperaments (George Balanchine/Paul Hindemith 1948)
4) Giselle (Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot/Adolphe Adam 1841)
5) Black and White (Jiri Kylian/Various 1986-1991)
6) in the middle, somewhat elevated (William Forsythe/Tom Willems 1987)
7) In the Upper Room (Twyla Tharp/Philip Glass 1986)
8) The Nutcracker (Originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov/ Pyotr IlyichTchaikovsky 1891)
9) L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (Mark Morris/George Frideric Handel 1988)
10) Pillar of Fire (Antony Tudor/Arnold Schoenberg 1942)
11) Le Sacre de Printemps (Pina Bausch/Igor Stravinsky 1975)
The Washington Ballet presents a wide range of repertoire, from the classics to contemporary works by today’s hottest choreographers. Review our website for more information on the season and select a production that most interests you.
Check our website or the local media for information about upcoming ballet performances. Remember that planning to attend a ballet is part of the fun --pick a date of a special occasion, such as a birthday, and make it even more special with tickets to the ballet. Or plan a group outing so you get to see your friends while taking in the artistry of TWB.
Ballet performers use body movements, not words, to tell stories. Because speaking is not involved, it may be difficult to follow the storyline of the ballet. If you know which ballet you are planning to see, take some time to learn all about it. Plot summaries and critical reviews can be found on the internet.
A great way to familiarize yourself with a ballet is to listen to the music. Music of the classical ballets is usually easy to find on CD or online. Listen to the music in the car, in your home or on your IPod. The more familiar you are with the music, the more you will appreciate and enjoy it when you hear it as part of the ballet.
TWB employs a tremendous company of dancers. All of their bios and photographs– and in many cases blogs, videos and interviews – are available on our website. Study pictures of the main dancers so you can try to identify them on stage.
Although there is no specific dress code for ballet performances, most people try to dress up out of respect for the ballet. Some people prefer to dress in business attire while others prefer trendy, but casual, clothing. Formal attire is not generally worn.
Most theaters open about 30 minutes before a performance. Be sure to allow yourself plenty of time for parking, ticket pick-up, and finding your seat. Keep in mind that some theaters have very strict guidelines for late seating. If you arrive after the performance begins, you may be asked to wait until intermission to be seated.
As you wait for the curtain to open, flip through the program. You will be able to read a short plot summary of the ballet and biographies of the dancers.
Knowing proper etiquette for the ballet will benefit you and those around you. A good rule of thumb when contemplating whether the ballet is appropriate for children is to determine if they are capable of sitting still for at least two hours. Usually children are at least seven years old before they truly enjoy the ballet. Remember to turn off your cell phone. There is nothing like the ringing of a cell phone to spoil a moving moment. Do not eat or drink during the performance, as there will be time for that during intermission.
No matter if it's your first or fiftieth, attending the ballet is always a moving experience. After the performance, you may feel like meeting a few of the dancers, to add to your memory of the event. Dancers usually exit through the stage door, so wait there with your program in one hand and a pen in the other for autographs. If you ask them nicely, the dancers will probably allow for a few photo opportunities. Some people keep ballet scrapbooks and journals, documenting their ballet experiences.