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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Ballet History, Part Two


Alexandra

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After the "Ballet Comique" (1581) and the death a few years after it of Catherine de Medici, the ballet was less splendid and less popular than it had been in her court for more than 50 years. Catherine's heirs did not have her artistic taste, and the ballets were smaller in scale and didn't have the same grand ambitions -- there were political satires and masquerades, but not the spectacles that Catherine had presented.

 

Ballet rose again, though, in the middle of the 17th century with Louis XIV, the most powerful king in Europe. He's not very popular in books that tell the history of Europe -- he was an "absolute monarch," which means that anything he said became The Law, and so he's not someone that most people today view very sympathetically. BUT for ballet dancers, he's got a lovable side: he loved ballet. He was a very good dancer. AND he started the first ballet school. He is, in a way, why we're all here.

 

Ballet had begun to be important again during the reign of Louis XIV's father, conveniently named Louis XIII. (XIV is the Roman numeral for 14, and XIII is the Roman numberal for 13, and it's the way Kings were named, if one took the name of a prior King.) The advisors to Louis XIII -- Cardinals and other high Catholic Church officials from Italy -- knew ballet and, like Catherine, understood that it could be used to show the court's power, and for propaganda (to send a message that the King wanted to send in an artistic way, but a way clear enough that everyone understood what he meant).

 

Louis XIII made his official court debut, when he was 13 years old, in a ballet. He got to pick the ballet -- the plot, the music, the design, the role he wanted to dance, and could cast the other roles as well. The ballet was called "The Deliverance of Renaud" and the young king did not play the hero, Renaud, but a fire demon. Ballet was popular during his reign, but when HIS son, Louis XIV, could oversee the court entertainments, then ballet really flowered.

 

Louix XIV is often called, in general history books, The Sun King, and the usual explanation is because he was so powerful, but that's because they don't know ballet history. Louis XIV made his debut in court ballets when he was 12, and when he was 14, was Apollo in "Le Ballet de la Nuit" (The Ballet of the Night), and Apollo was the God of the Sun. In the old myths, Apollo, who was the son of the chief God, Zeus, harnessed his horses to the sun and drove it around the earth, so he was a very poweful god! As part of his costume in the ballet, Louis had a headdress that looked like the sun's rays. Apollo was his favorite role, and the Sun King became his nickname.

 

In betwen battles, both in war and in court politics, Louis's court also gave very lavish entertainments at the palace of Versailles. Two very great artists worked in this court: the musician, Jean-Baptiiste Lully, and the choreographer, Pierre Beauchamps. Beauchamps is credited with inventing, or at least writing down, the five positions of the feet, and on turn out. (Dancers used the five positions, and turn out, before, but it was Beauchamps who codified them -- made them necessary to ballet. A choreographer would set dances that had the dances move from position to position.)

 

Lully did more than write the music for the ballets; he produced them. He looked back to ancient Greek theater, which had been made up of poetry, music and dancing, and the ancient idea of harmony -- that no one part dominated, but that everyone worked together in the service of the Idea of a particular ballet.

 

Louis XIV was known as a fine dancer, as well as an absolute monarch. There's even a step named after him -- the royale. But even Kings eventually get too old to dance, and Louis stopped when he was about 35. (Some say because he was getting fat, others because he made a mistake while dancing, and if you're The Absolute Monarch, you can't make a mistake in public.)

 

When he stopped dancing, he did something very wonderful. He started the Royal Academy of Dance in 1661. This wasn't a school as we think of it today, but an Academy in the sense of bringing together all the major teachers so they could work out a way of teaching, setting down the steps and agreeing on the way that the steps should be taught, what the names of the steps were, and the like.

 

In 1669, Louis founded what, after a few name changes, we now call the Paris Opera, a house for the performance of both opera and ballet, and for the training of artists. While there had been a few professional dancers in the court performances to dance roles that were considered inappropriate for nobles to dance (and required more virtuosity than the noble amateurs could muster!) when ballet began to move out of the court and into theaters professional dancers were needed. There were already private dancing teachers working in Paris, teaching steps and etiquette (good manners) to aristocrats and those who wanted to acquire aristocratic manners. There were also professional entertainers -- dancers, jugglers, acrobats -- who did not dance "in the noble manner;" they weren't court dancers. But they were very good dancers and, with training, could learn the noble style necessary to perform the ballets. They also were much more technically developed than the gentlemen amateurs who danced at court, and brought their virtuosity into ballet. (For the first few years, women did not appear on stage, but by 1681, there were female dancers.)

 

Louis XIV was so powerful that whatever he did was imitated all over Europe, and soon other countries had theaters and academies as well.

 

Next: Early 18th century ballets: ballet moves to the theater.

 

NOTE: This forum is intended for young dancers and their parents. It's a brief overview of ballet history. I"m going to copy this thread to Ballet Talk. If people want to get into more detail or contribute, please do so here

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Saxon, please read about this forum, and about Alexandra Tomalonis, on the Welcome thread for this forum. :wink:

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Alexandra - thanks once again for Part 2.

 

I am really enjoying my weekly dose of history. I love that you have written it in a way that is so accessible and entertaining for the younger dancer. I am compiling these in a folder for dd as it is a wonderful introduction and overview. Sometimes history is presented in such a dry fashion that it is hard to become excited about it. Not at all the case here! :blushing:

 

And I didn't know that Louis got his nickname as the Sun King from the ballet!

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Hmm... seems like I heard this only yesterday. Ah hah! I did!

 

Okay... enough being dorky. I really do love listening to these history classes though.:shrug:

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Thank you both -- glad you're enjoying the class, Jackye :wink:

Just a quick note to say that this week's dose won't be up until Monday. I'm getting out the Summer issue of DanceView and just haven't had time. There will be a Part Three: Ballet Moves Into the Theaters and a brief bio of Anna Pavlova up then.

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