A Whirlwind History from Ballet to Contemporary Dance
Throughout history, people have danced as part of religious ritual and social celebration. It is traceable through prehistoric art, Biblical documentation, Roman dance-drama, Eastern art and religion, and Celtic ritual. Court dancing has existed perhaps as long as there have been kings and queens. However the first emergence of ballet in a form we would recognise today, was the ballet du cour, which evolved in the renaissance of the 1500s in France.
Ballet rose out of the new philosophies and modes of thought which were the basis of the Enlightenment, namely, that man was the focal point of the universe and could control his existence through the arts and sciences. ‘By using music that imitated exactly the proportions of the harmony of the spheres, sixteenth century man believed he could attract planetary influences. Dance in itself was an imitation of the movement of the heavens.’ (Designing for the Dancer, Elron Press, London, 1981)
It was during the late 1500s that the court ballet came into its own as a movement art, funded entirely by the French monarchy for the purpose of extolling its own greatness. The ballets took place as a part of the magnificences, huge celebratory extravaganzas lasting several days and including all kinds of entertainment, that were basically exercises in self-exaltation by the French Court.
By the 1700s ballet had migrated from the French court to the Paris Opera, and the director Lully ‘preserved the ballet du cour’s basic concept of a composite form, in which the dance was an essential and important element.’ ibid. During this century the ballet was to develop throughout Europe, from a courtly arrangement of moving images used as part of a larger spectacle, to a performance art in its own right, the ballet d’action. This new form swept away much of the artificiality of the court dance and strove towards ‘the concept that art should aspire to imitate nature’. This ultimately resulted in costuming and choreography that was much more liberating to the dancer, and conducive to a fuller use of the expressive capacity of the body. It also opened the door to pointe-work, for this acceptance of more naturalistic costuming allowed the development of the heel-less shoe, which led to the dancer being able to make more use of the rise onto demi-pointe.
The era of Romanticism in the early 1800s, with ballets that focussed more on the emotions, the fantasy and the spiritual worlds, heralded the beginning of true pointe-work. Now, on her toes, the deified ballerina (embodied in this period by the legendary ballerina Marie Taglioni) seemed to magically skim the surface of the stage, an ethereal being never quite touching the ground. It was during this period that the ascending star of the ballerina quite eclipsed the presence of the poor male dancer, who was in many cases reduced to the status of a moving statue, present only in order to lift the ballerina. This sad state was really only redressed by the rise of the male ballet star Nijinsky, with the Ballets Russes, in the early twentieth century. Ballet as we know it had well and truly evolved by this time, with all the familiar conventions of costume, choreographic form, plot, pomp, and circumstance firmly fixed in place.
Since the Ballets Russes began revolutionising ballet in the early 20th century, there have been continued attempts to break the mould of classical ballet. Currently the artistic scope of ballet technique (and its accompanying music, décor, and multimedia) is more all-encompassing than ever. The boundaries that classify a work of classical ballet are constantly being stretched, muddied and blurred until perhaps all that remains today are traces of technique idioms such as ’turn-out’.
It was during the explosion of new thinking and exploration in the early 20th century that dance artists began to appreciate the qualities of the individual, the necessities of ritual and religion, the primitive, the expressive and the emotional. In this atmosphere modern dance began an explosion of growth. There was suddenly a new freedom in what was considered acceptable, what was considered art, and what people wanted to create. All kinds of other things were suddenly valued as much as, or beyond, the costumes and tricks of the ballet.
Most of the early 20th century modern choreographers and dancers saw ballet in the most negative light. Isadora Duncan thought it most ugly, nothing more than meaningless gymnastics. Martha Graham saw it as European and Imperialistic, having nothing to do with the modern American people. Merce Cunningham, while using some of the foundations of the ballet technique in his teaching, approached choreography and performance from a totally radical standpoint compared to the traditional balletic format.
The twentieth century was indeed a period of breaking away from everything that ballet stood for. It was a time of unprecedented creative growth, for dancers and choreographers. It was also a time of shock, surprise and broadening of minds for the public, in terms of their definitions of what dance was. It was a revolution in the truest sense.
After the explosion of modern dance in the early 20th century, the 1960s saw the growth of post modernism. Post modernism veered towards simplicity, the beauty of small things, the beauty of untrained bodies, and unsophisticated movement. The famous ‘No’ manifesto rejecting all costumes, stories and outer trappings in favour of raw and unpolished movement was perhaps the extreme of this wave of thinking. Unfortunately lack of costumes, stories and outer trappings do not a good dance show make, and it was not long before sets, décor and shock value re-entered the vocabulary of modern choreographers.
By the 1980s dance had come full circle and modern (or, by this time, ‘contemporary’) dance was clearly still a highly technical and political vehicle for many practitioners. Existing alongside classical ballet, the two art-forms were by now living peacefully next door to one another with little of the rivalry and antipathy of previous eras. The present time sees us still in the very competitive artistic atmosphere where choreographers compete to produce the most shocking work, however, there are still glimpses of beauty to be had, and much incredible dancing in an age where dance technique has progressed further in expertise, strength and flexibility than ever before in history. Go and see some contemporary dance and you’ll see what I mean.
Oasis Dance and Drama School is about Excellence, Creativity and Encouragement.