The history of classical ballet is rich with creations and artists of all kinds. Still, in spite of The Australian Ballet, this art form is still not very popular with us Aussies, with fewer of us now taking dance classes in this style. (But if you do want to learn, look for 'dance classes near me' now!)
It is not very popular with the French, either... which is rather strange, seeing as they are regarded as more culturally, classically inclined than most any other society.
According to a survey conducted by France Bleu and Télé 7 on French musical habits and practices, classical music is the preferred genre of just 7% of the respondents, and only 15% report having been to the national ballet or Paris opera in the last 12 months.
Never mind the Paris ballet; let us focus on Australian national ballet!
Why don't we look at inspiring ourselves by reviewing these acclaimed ballets?
Here are the most beautiful among the history of ballet to give you a hand in your choice.
What is Ballet?
We all know what an opera is: soaring vocals that tell a story, with nary a ballerina and little to dance to, against a backdrop of crafted scenery.
Perhaps you have already bought yourself opera tickets, or have tuned in to the broadcast of such a musical spectacle on the telly.
But you still wonder: what is so different between opera and ballet?
The Internet proposes: ballet is a choreographic composition comprising several artistic fields: dance, music, decor, costume, makeup, etc.
The major divergence from opera is that ballet incorporates an entire choreography into the musical spectacle. Dance is the medium of expression, comparable to the lyrics and music of opera.
The word ballet comes from the Italian term Balletto which, itself is considered the diminutive of Ballo, meaning dance.
Initiated in Italy during the 15th century, ballet performances were considered royal entertainment. Professional dancers were admitted to court to entertain the king on demand.
In France, the ballet premiered in the 16th century. King Louis XIV, a dance enthusiast, founded the Académie Royale de Danse (Royal Academy of Dance) shortly afterward, which today is known as the Paris Opera Ballet or Ballet de l'Opéra National de Paris (Ballet of the National Opera of Paris, or more simply, Paris Opera Ballet).
It took a bit longer for people in Australia to become enthused about the art form.
Louise Lightfoot and Mischa Burlakov founded the First Australian Ballet company as a dance school in the late 1920s. It was one of the pioneers of Australian dance, performing frequently at the Sydney Conservatorium and at theatres around the city.
In 1931, the First Australian Ballet company staged a performance of Coppélia, the first production in Australian of a complete Russian ballet.
Let's return to French ballet now, where ballerinas earned much more esteem and danced a whole lot more.
Prominent authors of the comedy ballet, as it was called, were: Jean-Baptiste Lully, Molière, and Pierre Beauchamp. Each, in turn, was appointed to royal court as Master of Dance.
Molière's The Bourgeois Gentleman is a notable addition to the repertoire of that period.
Also during that epoch, Pierre Beauchamp established the codification of the five positions – the foundation of ballet technique; namely how the ballet dancer set their feet.
His notated dance scores, the first of such ever published, is known today as the Beauchamp-Feuillet notation; Feuillet being the publisher.
Through these and other academic advances, ballet continued to evolve. The 20th century saw the arrival of the Ballet Russe (or Russian Ballet), with all of its style variations.
Still today, ballet is a fluid art.
The Magic Flute
Date of Creation: 1791
Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Composed and played for the first time in 1791, The Enchanted Flute is an opera first, and a magnificent ballet second.
Mozart composed this opus just months before his untimely death.
The piece tells the story of a man who went to rescue a young woman at the request of her mother.
Instead, he realises the fallacy of his current life and decides to undergo trials so that he might join the young lady in her realm.
After a trial of silence, in which they are not permitted to speak, the maiden proffers a magic flute to protect our hero, as well as herself, through the remaining ordeals. They then embark on a life together.
The Magic Flute was choreographed in the early 2000s by Maurice Béjart, founder of the company Béjart Ballet in Lausanne.
Since then, his ballet company has become a point of reference for the artistic environment. Among other accomplishments, it democratized ballet, making it accessible to a wider audience.
The Magic Flute illustrates a case in point... or should we say en pointe? The expression and movements, of the bodies and the music, is beautiful in its simplicity.
This is a ballet not to be missed!
Date of creation: 1832
Composer: Filippo Taglioni
La Sylphide (in English, The Sylph) is a romantic ballet in two acts. There were two versions of the ballet; the original choreographed by Filippo Taglioni in 1832, and a second version choreographed by August Bournonville in 1836.
Bournonville's is the only version known to have survived and is one of the world's oldest surviving ballets.
Taglioni designed La Sylphide for his daughter, Marie, to perform. It was the first ballet where dancing en pointe had an aesthetic rationale and was not just an acrobatic stunt, typically involving ungraceful arm movements and exertions, as seen by dancers in the late 1820s.
Marie was famous for shortening her skirts in the performance of La Sylphide (to show off her impressive pointe work), which was a big scandal at the time.
Date of creation: 1841
Composer: Adolph Adam
Giselle is a romantic ballet in two acts, and is thought of as a masterwork of classical ballet.
It was first performed by the Ballet du Théâtre de l'Académie Royale de Musique (now called the Paris Opera Ballet) at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris, France on 28 June 1841, with Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi as Giselle.
The ghost-filled ballet was a huge success. Giselle became massively popular and was immediately staged around Europe, Russia, and the United States.
The traditional choreography that is still used to this day comes primarily from the revivals staged by Marius Petipa during the late 19th and early 20th centuries for the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg. Giselle is one of the world's most challenging but most-often performed classical ballets.
Date of Creation: 1869
Composer: Leon Minkus
Presented for the first time by the Bolshoi Ballet in 1869, Don Quixote comes straight from the novel written by Miguel de Cervantes.
The ballet recreates the wistful longing for fairness the Knight Errant Quixote attempts to create in all of his dealings.
A new version was directed by Alexei Fadeyechev, of the Bolshoi Theatre, in 1999. This spectacle combed the world, parking itself for some time in Paris, in 2011.
It is thanks to that long-running show that several of the best dancers were named principal dancers, such as Marie-Claude Pietragalla, Aurélie Dupont, and Laetitia Pujol.
Date of creation: 1870
Composer: Arthur St. Léon
Coppélia is a comic ballet that premiered on 25 May 1870 at the Théâtre Impérial de l'Opéra (now called Palais Garnier), with the 16-year-old Giuseppina Bozzacchi in the principal role of Swanhilda.
The ballet's first run of success was disrupted by the Franco-Prussian War and the siege of Paris (which also resulted in the early death of Giuseppina Bozzacchi, on her 17th birthday), however it eventually became the most-often performed ballet at the Opéra.
Like Giselle, contemporary productions are traditionally taken from the revivals staged by Marius Petipa for the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg in the late 19th century.
Date of Creation: 1877
Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Has the movie Black Swan seduced you with its grace and power?
Then there is no doubt that the swan mentioned in that film will also seduce you.
Swan Lake is internationally known as one of the best ballets, and for just cause: it is reputed to be the most beautiful gala in the world. A must-see in social circles; a must-dance in the world of classical performance.
Tchaikovsky's moving score tells the story of a German legend, interpreted through ballet.
A prince, obliged to choose a wife, falls madly in love with a young woman who, unfortunately, is the victim of a curse: she turns into a swan each day, and becomes a woman only at night.
This masterpiece has been presented all over the world. At any given time, you could catch a performance of Swan Lake, ideal for ballet enthusiasts and initiates to the world of ballet alike.
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Date of creation: 1877
Composer: Sergei Khudekov and Marius Petipa
La Bayadère (In English, The Temple Dancer) is a ballet originally staged in four acts and seven tableaux.
The ballet was staged particularly as a benefit performance for the Russian prima ballerina Ekaterina Vazem, who created the principal role of Nikiya.
From the first performance, the ballet was universally considered one of Petipa’s supreme masterpieces by contemporary critics, especially the scene known as The Kingdom of the Shades, which became one of the most famous in all of classical ballet.
By the turn-of-the 20th century, The Kingdom of the Shades scene was frequently taken from the full-length work to be performed as an independent showpiece, and it has remained so until the current day.
However, most contemporary versions of La Bayadère come from the production by Kirov Ballet in 1941.
Date of Creation: 1890
Composer: Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Who can say they know nothing of Sleeping Beauty?
This popular tale by Charles Perrault was notably taken over by Disney Studios to become one of the greatest commercial successes for that renowned master of cartoons.
However, Tchaikovsky took possession of this story long before it appeared on our screens, which is how mainstream audiences became familiar with the disgruntled fairy who cursed the beautiful Aurora to sleeping for 100 years.
The characters and the themes the tale represents came to life through the dancers and musicians of the time.
Did you know that Anna Pavlova was known to perform the role of Candide?
Exquisite sets plunged the spectators into the royal court, and each dancer captivated as well.
Sleeping Beauty presents a romantic world not to be missed!
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Date of creation: 1892
Composed by: Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky, already reputed as the Grand Master of Ballet, authored yet again one of the most beautiful ballets in its history.
On rousing tunes like Spring Airs, this composer draws us again into his universe.
An early forerunner of the modern Toy Story, the ballet tells the tale of a toy becoming animated and turning into a prince at night.
As such nutcrackers are overwhelmingly popular around Christmas time, the story might give you something to dream about during long winter nights!
I didn't believe in the success of this ballet myself. - Tchaikovsky
Originally choreographed by Marius Petipa, almost instantly it became a worldwide sensation after its premier in St. Petersburg. Today, The Nutcracker is considered a holiday classic.
American ballet earns fully 40% of their annual ticket sales from this show alone!
Interpreted by several choreographers already - including George Blanchine, The Nutcracker effortlessly takes us away, with its romantic ballet and magical scenery, set in an atmosphere that enchants young and old alike.
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The Rite of Spring
Date of Creation: 1913
Composer: Igor Stravinsky
At the beginning of the 20th century, the classical scheme of ballet changed somewhat with the arrival of the Russian Ballet, founded by Serge de Diaghilev.
The choreography evolved, and so did the musical genre.
Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was part of this novel artistic wave from Russia, which provoked a scandal in Paris because the dynamism of the piece reflected the social spirit of that time.
Stravinsky's opus, choreographed by Nijinsky and staged by Sergei Diaghilev, tells the story of a pagan Russian ritual, without any particular panache.
At its first performance, the spectators were treated to a representation of such festivities, till then rare in France.
Since then, the ballet has been designed and redesigned by many famous choreographers, including Maurice Béjart, Pina Bausch, and Martha Graham.
Romeo and Juliet
Date of Creation: 1935
Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Although this ballet had difficulty gaining any following or garnering any praise because of its melodic and rhythmic complexity, it is now considered one of Prokofiev's greatest works.
This piece is a staple of the Paris Opera Ballet and is now widely appreciated for the very intricacy that makes it a complex work.
Prokofiev's melody and rhythm are peculiar: less theatrical and more faithful to the ambiance created by Shakespeare in his literary work.
Can you stand to be captivated once again by the tragic tale between the lovers of Verona?
Date of creation: between 1940 and 1944
Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Like Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella is a classic story that was also transformed by Disney Studios into a children’s animation.
It is one of Prokofiev’s most popular and melodious compositions, and has inspired numerous choreographers since its inception. Part way through writing Cinderella, Prokofiev took a break to write his opera War and Peace.
Cinderella is renowned for its jubilant music, lush scenery, and the comic double-roles of the stepmother and two stepsisters, who are more mad than bad in the ballet as compared to the animation.
Date of Creation: 1949
Composer: Georges Bizet
Carmen has all of the necessary ingredients to be labeled one of the greatest ballets in its history: fiery music, vivid colours, dynamic staging and unrequited love, all interpreted through different styles of dance, not just ballet.
Initially not well-received upon its debut in either of Paris' grand performance halls, as a ballet, it found a new audience in London!
Directed by Roland Petit and danced by his company, Les Ballets de Paris, at Prince's Theatre in London on February 21, 1949, the ballet Carmen exceeded any presentation imagined by Georges Bizet.
He was not the first to tackle visual presentation of the tale written by Mérimée which traces the adventures between Carmen and Don José; an exciting love story in a Spanish setting in the city of Seville, but he is the most renowned.
This ballet challenged traditional classical ballets by Tchaikovsky and transported audiences to another realm of dance culture.
Lady of the Camellias
Date of Creation: 1978
Composer: Frederick Chopin
The story we are most familiar with as Camille, The Lady of the Camellias originated as a novel by the son of Alexandre Dumas, published in 1848.
The tale was inspired by the author's love for courtesan Marie Duplessis, who suffered from tuberculosis.
He said of his work: Not yet at the age of inventing stories, I am content to tell them.
His work inspired many others; Verdi's opera La Traviata among them.
As for the ballet interpretation of his love story, it is performed regularly throughout the world.
It is a dark tale, but touching nonetheless.
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