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A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet
Copyright © 2005 Robert Greskovic
All right reserved.
LET THE HISTORY BEGIN ...
Before surveying the age and history of ballet, a look at dance activity in general helps prepare the way. Dance partisans like to challenge military men on the historical seniority frequently conceded to another line of work as our "world's oldest profession." (The stigma of this disreputable and sometimes unmentionable profession actually stayed with dancers of certain periods. Likewise, the selling of the body's beauty can still be read by cynical onlookers as the selling of the body itself.) The logic from the champions of dance goes something like, "Before the war, comes the war dance," or a related argument, "We move in the womb, before we do anything else." Another take suggests that humankind communicated by gesture, a language of signs, before it spoke a language of sounds and words. Historians of dance in all its manifestations, as opposed to ballet specialists in particular, look to happenings in early peoples and their rituals for our deepest dance roots.
India's Hindu god Shiva has come to us depicted as a multi-armed divinity deftly balanced on one leg and known as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance. Actual Indian dance forms appear to havebeen in place around 6000 B.C. From First Dynasty Egypt, circa 3000 B.C., come reliefs showing a kind of dance/body language. Acrobatic figures on later Egyptian wall paintings and reliefs help illustrate dance methods to further degrees. Greek dances reveal links with civilizations on Crete, possibly transferred from Egypt, dating between 3000 and 1400 B.C. Greek theater, with its dramas rendered by way of instrumental and vocal sound with preplanned movement, even further fill in our background.
The Dithyramb, a theatrical entity made up of song and dance that grew out of celebrations of the Greek god Dionysus, gave rise to fully formed classic Greek theater. Some key dance terms trace their roots to words the Greeks chose for participants in their dance dramas. Korugos and Koruphaios, variously transliterated from the Greek, identify those concerned with training or leading the participants of the Greek chorus (koros). Similarly, the construction and design of theaters that today house our ballet originate in this same world of Greek theater. Notable are the orkestra, the round dancing floor of the chorus, and the skene, the covered area behind the "orchestra" performing space. The raised platform place between these two sections was called the proskenion. This points to the later plan of the proscenium theater, which provided the evolving art of ballet with its ideal frame.
A renewed interest in things Greek, by way of Roman reworkings, surfaced at the end of the Middle Ages, with its chivalric codes and its Holy Roman Empire. A focus on a "classic" past led to the era today known as the Renaissance and its philosophical bent called Humanism. Men and women themselves, rather than Mother Church and its Holy Father head, gained prominence" for ways of thinking about the world. Appropriately enough, male and female dancers would become ideals of the individuals making up the new philosophy. The main thrust of such activity centered in the citystates that then constituted what is nowadays Italy. These small worlds periodically featured pageants or fetes to aggrandize local despots as they celebrated such occasions as empire-building marriages or the birth of an heir. Their affairs included music, movement, and decoration, planned for indoor and outdoor venues. In the latter instance, the events approximated our parades, specifically those that include floats and numerous marching units.
There were many precedents for grandiose Italianate court spectacles, and one in 1393 became particularly memorable--infamous, in fact. To celebrate the marriage of one of his knights to a gentlewoman of his queen, King Charles VI of France participated in a masked entertainment called, ironically enough, Bal des Ardents (Burners' Ball). Organized occasions for getting up in costume and mask occurred with some regularity in this era. The theme of this masque or morisco, as such events were called, was that of Wildmen of the Forest, after the folkloric figures also known as green men, foresters, or leafy devils. The king got actively involved in the affair, dressing as one of six shaggy creatures sewn into costumes made of close-fitting linen covered by clumps of hair made from flax and pitch. For some serendipitous reason, the king momentarily separated himself from his fellow beasts to speak to a duchess just before a torch borne by a curious onlooker set the remaining quintet ablaze. When the king's flammable covering caught the fast-moving flames, the duchess smothered them with the train of her dress. Except for one other lucky soul, who threw himself in a water vessel kept by for butter making, all the other mummers died from their burns.
The entry of this sextet of wildmen at the Bal des Ardents was meant to be significant and dramatic, though not literally so as things turned out. But due to its notoriety, this ball gave dance history one of its earliest examples of the entree, the entrance into a theatrical production of a self-contained, particular group of performers, usually dressed identically or at least thematically. These group dances and dancers would become characteristic of the opera ballets that gave rise to our ballet.
During the 1400s we find a few individuals who qualify as early ballet masters. (The term "ballet master" predates today's use of the term "choreographer," but is sometimes used synonymously. Some individuals in the history of ballet and choreography preferred the one over the other, and even now, when the Ballet Master title might appear on a ballet company's roster, most people more readily understand the Choreographer title.) Our knowledge of early ballet masters comes mostly from a paper trail. Those dance practitioners who left us written word of their art have secured themselves prominent places on the genealogy of ballet history makers. In this premature phase, the "dancing master," as such men were then called, didn't act precisely the way we expect our choreographers to act today. Those maestros did it all; today's choreographers have support from other specialists--teachers, coaches, and rehearsal assistants.
The efforts of men such as Domenico da Piacenza (or Ferrara) or Guglielmo Ebreo (known also as William the Jew of Pesaro) went toward training courtiers in the prescribed graces of court dancing. Whatever we know of these particular dancing masters, as well as another of Domenico's followers, Antonio Cornazano, comes largely from the pages of dance manuals that survive to describe and diagram the ways of their dancing art. Maestro Domenico rises to the top of ballet's genealogical charts because he cared enough or was famous enough to have his working ways written down. Literally so, in the case of his treatise, since he lived in Europe's pre-moveable type printing era.
Domenico's De Arte Saltandi et Choreas Ducendi (On the Art of Dancing and Conducting Dances) bothered to choose ballo over danza, both of which mean "dance" in Italian. Domenico used the former because it referred to dancing of varied rhythm, as opposed to danza, which identified dancing to music of unvarying rhythm. The craft and creations of Domenico and those following him led to results known as balletti, or balli, plurals for balletto. These Italian words, diminutive forms of ballo, conveniently connote to the English-speaking reader that our "ballet" has roots in court balls held in palatial ballrooms of Renaissance Italy.
At this juncture it needs to be stressed that the participants--the dancers performing their balli--were amateurs, members of court society. Their master teachers not only provided precise instruction in the details of such dancing--carriage of the torso, positions and moves of the feet and legs, deferential courtesies of the man to his lady--but on particular occasions they also invented new patterning, sometimes called "figures," for the dance and dancers to follow. (The literal basis of today's more familiar figure skating, the tracing of prescribed figures onto clean ice, directly relates to the dance aims of this period. Diagrams defining correct balletto plans look like the patterns cut by ice skaters executing their prescribed figures.)
The costuming for these court dances, when not concerned with special masquerade events, remained that of contemporary court wear. These included fairly heavy long-skirted gowns for the women, and, for the men, elaborately constructed jackets or doublets and bloomerlike shorts, sometimes called trunk-hose, over fitted tights. Both wore leather shoes with soles and heels befitting the fashion of contemporary footwear. If ever an illustration from these centuries puzzles your eye about whether the dancer pictured is male or female, period fashion offers a fairly consistent rule: If you can see the legs, it's a male dancer; if not, it's probably a woman.
When France's Charles VIII, descendent of the nearly immolated Charles VI, invaded the Kingdom of Naples in 1495 to claim its throne, he had his cultural superiority singed by the remarkable sophistication and splendor of Italian court dancing. Italian principalities of this time lavished large expenditures of money and artistic talents on their entertainments. One fete could boast direction of its cast of hundreds by the father of the Renaissance's great painter Raphael (Sanzio); another, decor, costumes, and stage machinery by Leonardo da Vinci. One of today's more informed interpretations of Sandro Botticelli's beauteous fresco, La Primavera, reads its parade of characters as a mythological ballet as performed in Florence during the 1470s.
In 1489, a fete reminiscent of contemporary dinner theater or floor shows made a mark qualifying as something of a first "ballet." To celebrate the marriage of the Duke of Milan, an Italian maestro of entertainments, Bergonzio di Botta, coordinated an affair combining his culinary and choreographic talents. Music, recitation, and self-contained dances--called entrees, as courses in meals are still called--wove through the event with appropriate dishes arriving in due course. A dance scene representing Jason and his Argonauts, for example, preceded the roasted, gilded lamb in the guise of the Golden Fleece.
As often as they took place in palazzo ballrooms and dining rooms, Italian spectacles were held outdoors, under the often clear skies. The cast of players and complement of events could include scenes of combat, parades of festooned chariots or wagons, and geometrically arranged equestrian contingents, sometimes referred to individually as "horse ballets."
By the mid-1500s, grandiosely scaled variety shows, known as spectaculi, had become a prominent part of the cultural activity in northern Italy. The variety of these mixed-bag affairs, for outdoor as well as indoor spaces, found form in presentations that might include equestrian formations, tournaments or mock combats, sometimes in aquatic settings, and even tennis games. (To this day, the term "spectacle" remains in use in France and French-speaking Canada to identify evenings at the ballet.) By this era France had adopted the Italian theatrical methods for courtly entertainments, and it is at this point in ballet's history that the French begin making their own indelible mark in the art of ballet that we have come to know.
The figurative marriage of Italian dance practices with French cultural life came from a literal wedding between a well-known Florentine heiress, Catherine de Medici, to a French royal, Henri duc d'Orleans. Circumstance, mixed with sundry amounts of palace intrigue, put Florence's Catherine in a position to run France alongside the three heirs to the throne she had mothered. The royal occasions that Catherine supervised to display the splendors of her court--marriages, mostly--owed much to the spectaculi native to her homeland.
Catherine's era give rise to the use of the term "ballet," which leads directly to our usage and understanding of the same term. In 1573, the French Queen Mother put on a fete to celebrate the arrival of ambassadors from Poland to offer their country's throne to her son Henri. Named Le Ballet des Polonais (The Polish Ballet), this indoor production helped establish the theatrical form known as ballet de cour, literally "court ballet." This Polish affair took a semitheatrical form. The audience viewed the central proceedings from three sides around a little stage atop a set of stairs. Once the prepared dancing was done, the admiring audience got its chance to join in the dancing, all based on what we'd call ballroom dancing.
The individual responsible for preparing the dance elements of this court festivity was an Italian in the service of Catherine. Born Baldassarino da Belgioso, and called Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx in Catherine's court, the Italian violinist and dancer turned French dance master gets credit for establishing the unified dance spectacle we would today call a ballet. The Beaujoyeulx work at the root of the family tree of ballets was another extravaganza of Catherine's. This one occurred in 1581 under the name Balet Comique de la Royne, which sometimes gets modernized into Ballet-Comique de la Reine [Louise] and is freely translated as Queen Louise's Ballet Spectacle. Ten thousand guests are said to have witnessed the spectacle, which lasted from 10 P.M. until 3 A.M.
What makes this not entirely unprecedented affair loom large in ballet's history is essentially its eye toward dramatic cohesion. Its danced, musical, and spoken segments, which were intended by its creator to appeal to "the eye, the ear, and the intellect," focused on classical mythology's Circe. Each individual scene of the six-hour spectacle related to this theme. Each qualified as a self-contained "entrance" or entree, such as entries for Mercury, the Satyrs, the Dryad Wood, and of course that of Queen Louise herself, who appeared in a fountain-of-gold vehicle spouting water and accompanied by mythological sea inhabitants. The through-line or unifying character of the enchantress Circe and her powers to overwhelm the likes of Apollo climaxed with a bow to the French monarchs responsible for the entertainment.
With the naming of the ballet-comique, it is important to understand the use of the word comique. It comes from the French comedie and refers to dramatic theater, not necessarily comedy as we use it today to note a specific branch of theater based on humor or farce. Hence the ballet-comique referred to danced spectacles with unifying dramatic themes, rather than variety spectacles, where the elements followed one another with no particular concern for dramatic continuity. The entree form, which was already in place before Beaujoyeulx, gained a notable sense of focus after his now famous Ballet-Comique. Related spectacles and, some would argue, superior and more innovative presentations occurred alongside Beaujoyeulx's, but he had the foresight to promote his work by means of printed illustration and description.
At the same time of Queen Louise's 1581 ballet in France came the publication in Italy of Fabritio Caroso's Il Ballarino. This manual of technical information delineated the latest dance steps and focused on the male courtier, whose province was moves of virtuosity. So as France was taking and maintaining its lead in the presentation and production of ballet spectacle, Italy held its place by continuing its development of dance steps themselves.
During this time, the execution of Italian dance "figures" extended to four-legged high-stepping steeds. The horse-ballet was another of the multiple strings for Italy's spectaculi bow. Masterly French draughtsman Jacques Callot documented a 1616 Florentine festival that involved symmetrical, curling lines of caparisoned horses and richly outfitted riders elaborating a procession of floats and mummers in an arenalike space specially arranged for spectators.
Simultaneously, Italy, England, and France all continued to produce spectacles carrying forward the elements in favor during the 1500s. Italy followed the form known as Intermezzi; England, that of Court Masque, a spectacle often dominated by the visions of the country's poets. Under Louis XIII, France's ballet de cour took a slight shift away from the extravagance favored by its late Queen Mother Catherine.
The ballet-comique, with its aim of thematic coherence, gave way in Louis's reign to the ballet-mascarade. These events, with no particular interest in a dramatically related theme, included segment after segment of numbers performed by artfully costumed and masked performers. Sometimes the grand event involved specific dance moments, sometimes not, including instead pantomime scenes or acrobatic gymnastic displays. Eventually, ballet a entree came into being. These were spectacles of discrete yet interdependent parts. Similar in format to the ballet-mascarade, this form called for a series of entrances of independent groups all interconnected, however slightly, by some overarching, often mythological theme or dramatic situation.
The character of the individual entrees varied, ranging from the grotesque and burlesque to the noble and godly. Low-life characters were performed by hired "professionals," though on occasion, aristocrats, including Louis XIII himself, chose to dabble in the less than genteel roles. At the conclusion of these and other ballet de cour genres came the grand ballet, a general dance climax. In these "ballets" all the assembled courtiers, those taking part in the prearranged ballet segments, and those who just watched, joined in the ballroom dancing. All, that is, except the hired commoner dancers, who were not included in the climactic courtly throng. Sometime during the early 1600s the declamation or recitation that accompanied the appearance of the various danced entrees changed to song. For a while the term ballet melodramatique named these events; eventually they became what we call opera. By the 1630s such courtly spectacles were being offered to paying customers whether noble or common.
Excerpted from Ballet 101 by Robert Greskovic Copyright © 2005 by Robert Greskovic. Excerpted by permission.
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