A ballet performance

Anthropology: A Brief History of Ballet and its Stylistic Variations

Frilly tutus, graceful movements and pointe shoes are what come to our minds when we imagine ballet. Or maybe it’s Natalie Portman’s award-winning performance in Black Swan. Going beyond what meets the eye reveals a highly developed and technical form of dance with its own vocabulary. Since its origin during the Italian Renaissance, ballet has become a widespread and popular form of dance globally. The foundational techniques of ballet are also used in other dance genres and cultures. As a unified work, ballet includes the music and choreography for a ballet production. This blog traces a brief history of ballet and its various styles.

A brief history

The roots of ballet lie in the 15th and 16th century Italian Renaissance courts. It spread and developed further in France under Catherine de Medici’s influence as Queen. The early court performances were mostly performed by noble amateurs. The early ballet costumes were extremely ornamented to impress the audience. But at the same time, it restricted the freedom of movement of the dancers. The performances were set in huge chambers with viewers sitting on three sides. The proscenium arch was implemented in 1618. It distanced the performers from the audience members and enabled them to get a better view of the dancers and appreciate the extremely skilled dancers and their technical feats.

It was under the reign of King Louis XIV that French court ballet reached its peak. In 1661, King Louis founded the Académie Royale de Danse (Royal Dance Academy) and established certain standards for ballet and certified dance instructors. In 1672, King XIV appointed Jean-Baptiste Lully as the director of the Académie Royale de Musique (Paris Opera.) It was from the Académie Royale de Musique that the Paris Opera Ballet, the first professional ballet company, arose. Pierre Beauchamp was Lully’s dance master. Lully and Beauchamp’s partnership together would go on to influence the development of ballet greatly. They are credited with the creation of the five major positions of the feet. The first ballerinas took the stage in 1681, after years of training at the Académie.

The five major positions of the feet created by Lully and Beauchamp
The five major positions of the feet, created by Lully and Beauchamp. credit@ Adobe Stock

After 1830, ballet started to decline in France, but its development continued in Italy, Denmark and Russia. The Ballet Russes, headed by Sergei Diaghilev, arrived in Europe on the eve of the First World War and it led to the revival of ballet, starting the modern era. By the twentieth century, ballet already had a stronghold over the other dance genres. In the same century, it took a significant turn from the classical form to the introduction of modern dance. Modernist movements arose in several countries.

The most famous dancers of the twentieth century include Anna Pavlova, Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Galina Ulanova, Rosella Hightower, Maya Plisetskaya, Maria Tall Chief, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Erik Bruhn, Suzanne Farrell, Natalia Makarova, Gelsey Kirkland and Arthur Mitchell.


Subgenres of ballet and stylistic variations have evolved with time. The earliest of the ballet performances and their classical variations are primarily linked to geographic origin. Examples include Italian ballet, Russian ballet and French ballet. Later variations include contemporary ballet and neoclassical ballet. These styles incorporate both classical ballet and non-traditional movements and techniques. The most widely known and performed style is the late Romantic Ballet or Ballet Blanc.  

Classical ballet

Degas's painting, The Dance, showing dancers in the classical bell tutu
Degas’s painting, The Dance, showing dancers in the classical bell tutu. credit@ Etsy

Before the development of classical ballet, the ballet was performed in a period known as the Romantic era. Romantic ballet stood out for its storytelling technique and it often has a softer aesthetic. Classical ballet was born when Marius Petipa (a ballet master and considered one of the greatest choreographers of all time) combined Romantic ballet with different aspects and techniques of Russian ballet (Petipa was a ballet master and choreographer of the Mariinsky Ballet). Classical ballet includes elements like the storytelling of Romantic ballet and athleticism found in Russian ballet. Hence, a new era known as the classical era was born. Besides being famous for creating classical ballet, Petipa also choreographed some well-known romantic ballets, like Giselle and The Sleeping Beauty.

During the classical era, Petipa is credited with creating choreographic structures that are extremely popular and used in ballets to date. He was the first person to use the grand pas de deux (a dance duet in which two dancers, usually a male and a female, perform ballet steps together) in his choreography. In addition, he’s responsible for cementing the use of the corps de ballet (the group of dancers who are not principal dancers) as a standard part of a ballet. Although he ushered in the classical era, some of the elements that Petipa popularised can also be seen in his romantic ballets too.

Marius Petipa
Marius Petipa. credit@ Britannica

Based on traditional ballet vocabulary and technique, classical ballet now exists in different styles in different countries today. Examples include Italian, French, English and Russian ballet. Many of the styles in classical ballet are associated with some specific methods of training, and they are named after their creators. Some of the best-known examples of classical ballet productions include The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.

Romantic ballet

The Romantic era in ballet was created when the ideas of Romanticism in literature and art influenced ballet. The Romantic era occurred from the early to the mid-19th century, chiefly at the Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique of the Paris Opera Ballet and Her Majesty’s Theatre (London.) The birth of the Romantic era is said to have begun when the ballerina Marie Taglioni debuted in the ballet, La Sylphide, in 1827 in Paris. It reached its peak in 1845, when the ballet master, Jules Perrot, staged the premiere of the divertissement Pas de Quatre.

Marie Taglioni
Marie Taglioni. credit@ Britannica

It was during the Romantic era that the development of pointe work changed people’s perception of the ballerina. Several lithographs from the era show a ballerina poised only on the tip of her toe, virtually floating. The idea of weightlessness was further cemented in ballets like Giselle and La Sylphide and the famous leap was attempted in La Péri by Carlotta Grisi. Other features also distinguish the Romantic ballet include the separate identity of the author or scenery-creator from the choreographer and using specially written music (as opposed to the ballet in the late 18th and early 19th century.) The invention and use of gas brought gradual changes too- the softer gleam heightened the mysteriousness of several ballets. Trap doors and wires enhanced illusions and made it more diverse.

Romanic ballet is marked by the rise of the ballerina as a central part of ballet. Previously, performances were dominated by male dancers. While superior dancers have always been admired, ballerinas became elevated to the level of celebrity in the 19th century. Female performers became objectified and idealized. Marie Taglioni was claimed as the prototypical Romantic ballerina and was admired for her lyricism. Male dancers became extremely scarce. Even the male roles were performed by female dancers.

Romantic ballet movements are characterized by soft and rounded arms with a forward tilt in the upper body. The movement gave the ballerina a flowery, graceful look. Movements of the leg became a lot more elaborate due to the design of a new, longer and flowy tutu. The standards of technical proficiency rose. The most prominent Romantic ballerinas include Marie Taglioni, Fanny Cerrito, Fanny Elssler, Pauline Leroux, and Lucille Grahn. The plots of several ballets included spirit women (sylphs and ghosts) who manipulated the hearts and senses of men and rendered it impossible for them to live happily. The themes emphasized intense emotions and aesthetic experiences.

Romantic ballet slowly declined. The last work of Romantic ballet is Arthur Saint-Léon’s 1870 ballet Coppélia.

Neoclassical ballet

Neoclassical ballet emerged during the 1920s and continued to evolve throughout the 20th century. Many artists of various disciplines in the 1900s began rebelling against the dramatized ballet style of the Romantic period. The result was that art returned to its simplistic style, much like that of the classical era. It became more assertive, bolder and free of distractions and the trend came to be called Neoclassicism.

George Balanchine with dancers at the School of American Ballet
George Balanchine with dancers at the School of American Ballet. credit@ The New Yorker

George Balanchine was the ballet choreographer who typified this new aesthetic. He was a student at the Imperial Ballet School when the importance of classicism was imprinted on him. To this day, the school continues its firm commitment to classical ballet technique.

When Balanchine graduated, Balanchine choreographed for the Ballets Russes, where he earned opportunities to collaborate with Debussy, Picasso, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Chanel and Matisse. They were all at the forefront of Neoclassicism. Rather than completely abandon his classical training, Balanchine took it and created the neoclassical style with traditional ballet vocabulary. Traditional ballet positions were extended, speed and freedom of movement were increased and new positions that aren’t traditionally seen in ballet were incorporated.

A modern performance of Balanchine's Apollo
A modern performance of Balanchine’s Apollo. Credit@ New York City Ballet

Balanchine’s first venture into this newly developed style was Apollon Musegete, which he choreographed for the Ballets Russes in 1928. The score was set by Stravinsky. This ballet stands out from Balanchine’s later works because of its storytelling technique, which shows he still held on to the techniques of the Romantic era. Moreover, when the ballet was first premiered, the production featured large sets, props and costumes. Balanchine continued to make changes according to the evolution of his neoclassical style. Later, several changes were made to Apollon Musegete. Balanchine renamed it ‘Apollo.’ White practice leotards, minimal lights and sets were utilized. The transformation of the ballet emphasizes Balanchine’s transformation itself as a choreographer.

As Balanchine’s style evolved, his ballet productions were plot-less and musically driven. Traditional tutus and large sets were abandoned and clean stages and leotards were popularised. These simplified external factors allowed the dancers more freedom of movement, thus making it the main artistic medium. It became the hallmark of neoclassical ballet.

Balanchine found the School of American Ballet in 1934 in the United States. Many of Balanchine’s neoclassical ballets were choreographed in the US. His ballet company, the New York City Ballet was founded in 1948 and still exists today. Some of the famous neoclassical ballets that were choreographed in New York are Concerto Barocco (1941), Agon (1957), Four Temperaments (1946), and Episodes (1959.)

Modern ballet emerged as an offshoot of neoclassical ballet. The innovators of this form include Glen Tetley, Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino. Their works favoured a greater athleticism that diverged from ballet. The physical aspect of the ballet became more daring, with the subject matter, music and mood more intense. An example is Joffrey’s Astarte (1967), which featured sexual overtones in the choreography and a rock score.

Contemporary ballet

Sergei Diaghilev
Sergei Diaghilev. credit@ Britannica

While George Balanchine is considered the first pioneer of contemporary ballet, its true origins are credited to Sergei Diaghilev, the Russian art producer. He wanted art to be understandable by the general public. So what he did was to create a programme combining all forms of art (music, painting, art and theatre) to be presented to the public. When it proved to be successful in Russia, it spurred Diaghilev to present it to a European audience. He founded Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet Company and the first show debuted in 1909. However, since Diaghilev wasn’t a choreographer, he entrusted his creation and its evolvement to well-known choreographers, out of which one was Balanchine.

Contemporary ballet is often performed barefoot and may include acting and mime. It is rather difficult to distinguish the contemporary style from modern or neoclassical variations. Contemporary ballet also has close connections with contemporary dance, since many of its concepts, ideas and innovations come from 20th-century modern dance. Examples include turn-in of the legs and floor work.

Apart from Balanchine, another early contemporary choreographer is Twyla Tharp. She choreographed Push Comes To Shove in 1976 for the American Ballet Theatre and created In The Upper Room in 1986 for her own company. Both of these productions are considered innovative, due to the merging of distinctly modern movements, classical dancers and pointe shoes.

Today, there are numerous contemporary ballet choreographers and companies, including Alonzo King and his company LINES Ballet, Nacho Duato and his Compañia Nacional de Danza, Jiří Kylián of the Nederlands Dans Theater and William Forsythe and The Forsythe Company.


Nowadays, the term ‘ballet’ has come to include all of its forms or styles. A person who undergoes training to be a dancer is expected to perform neoclassical, modern and contemporary styles. Expectations are such that a dancer should be able to be regal and stately while performing in the classical style, free and lyrical in neoclassic style while being harsh, pedestrian or unassuming for modern or contemporary performances. In addition to this, several modern varieties of dance now fuse techniques from both ballet and contemporary dance. This requires the dancers to be well-versed in non-Western dance styles. Ballet remains the basic foundation for most dance forms. Techniques in ballet translate to values that are extremely useful for anyone who pursues any other form of dance.

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