Let us embark on a journey through the history of Ballet but not how it was danced but how it was dressed. Why? It is important to understand that Ballet has evolved in symbiosis with its costumes over the course of the past five centuries. The impact of ‘Costume’ on ‘Dance’ and vice versa has been both intriguing and beguiling. From it came a combination of the many aspects including social convention, practicality and the prevailing aesthetics of the day. Ballet would evolve and continues to do so in a way rendering it unique among the performance arts.
In order to begin this journey, one must first understand the culture of the day all those centuries ago in Europe at the time of its birth. As already explained previously, Ballet was born from two worlds. It is the world of the Royals and nobles that is the focus of this article. It was in the opulent surroundings within the Grand Palaces the very notion of Ballet would be realised. Ballet would come to embody the very idea of a ‘Cultured, Civilise Noble Being’. This was an ideal developing out from the new social awakening of the ‘Renaissance Era’ that would envelope Western Europe for two centuries. During this ‘Flowering of Learning’ was revived the many ancient Greek and Roman teachings regarding ‘Humanity and Civilisation’. This would give rise to the notion what we know as the ‘Renaissance Man’.
During the Renaissance there was emphasis on the idea of knowledge, refinement and presence. This would have those of the ruling classes endeavour to demonstrate their physical and intellectual prowess across a wide spectrum of pursuits. This was in order to achieve that enviable title of being called, “Accomplished”. Leonardo da Vinci would later be hailed as a ‘Renaissance Man’ as he demonstrated proficient talents and knowledge in Philosophy, Science, Painting, Astronomy, Engineering, Architecture and Human Anatomy. It is obvious with such a diverse list of interests many of the nobility would hesitate even attempting. Therefore, it was for most courtiers to be considered ‘Accomplished’ the list of requirements was less demanding. Therefore, the general standard was to demonstrate the intellect and the ability to engage in conversation of noted worth. This would include topics such as poetry and philosophy.
There was the added advantage of being able to speak Latin or Ancient Greek as these were regarded as the languages of the ‘Enlightened’ with most books and writings published in Latin.
This emanated from how the Catholic Church once was the single greatest patron of ‘Learning’ with it establishing many universities across Europe. So the eventual use of Latin as a sort of international language of learning was inevitable as Latin was also the language of the Church.
As if to vaguely quote the character ‘Caroline Bingley’ from Jane Austen’s, “Pride and Prejudice”, “No one can be really esteemed ‘Accomplished’ who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. One must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, One must possess a certain something in the air and manner of walking, the tone of one’s voice, one’s address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.” Even though this was expressed by Miss Bingley in context of a woman in the Regency period of the early 19th Century; this notion was very applicable to both sexes and certainly to the ‘Renaissance Man’ of the 16th Century. After all, the idea of an accomplished person as espoused by Miss Bingley was first from him.
One may ask what about the ‘Renaissance Woman’? Well, one must bear in mind 16th Century society was still very much patriarchal with men at the centre of all political and social concerns. It was true women were expected to be able to perform the same social graces, but only to the point as a complement of her so called superior male counterpart. If a woman demonstrated too much intellect, it was surmised she would make a poor obedient wife. Elements of this can be appreciated in Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew”, a play about the antics of a scheming hopeful husband out to woo and tame a spirited lady. So it was viewed the woman best kept to contend with safe pursuits such as poetry, music and dancing, leaving the more meaningful pursuits to her lord and master.
This attitude was further exemplified in the early ballets as the focus was on the men as heroic figures. Women were presented in many of these ballets primarily as ‘living props’. Like the magic acts of old when the beautiful lady assistant stood to one side striking elegant poses. Her sinewy arms outstretched drawing attention to the centre where the male magician was performing all the feats of wonder and amazement looking on as if saying, “Oh! He is wonderful, is he not?”
Well? How times have changed …
In regards to achieving one’s manly carriage during the 16th Century, it was generally through the demonstration of one’s physical skills. This would have many pursue fencing and dressage, a refined form of horse riding. Mostly though would indulge in the practice of the ‘Court Dance’.
Meanwhile, not only was one expected to be proficient complete with an air of elegant and felicitous demeanour, but also must appear ‘Fashionably Attired’ in the execution. Therefore, one must present oneself in a befitting style of dress during any of the acceptable intellectual and physical pursuits.
As a result, this would have many such ‘Renaissance Men’ commission portraits of themselves with symbolic depictions of their ‘accomplishments’. These portraits always presented them fashionably attired while in an elegant, relaxed stance demonstrating their ease among the trappings of noble pursuits. Other portraits would have them simply poised in a demeanour of self-assuredness as if ready to engage in conversation or in a state of wonder, pondering upon the meaning of life to be seen holding a feather quill, a book or human skull or even with all three! Is anyone up for “Hamlet”?
This is when clothing, or costuming for that matter, is a perfect example of a tangible manifestation of such abstract notions. As always ‘Need is the Mother of Invention’ and all clothing is born from all sorts of needs. These ranging from the basic like protection from the elements to more abstract notions of cultural and religious identity. For example, when it is cold the norm is to wear a woollen jacket or knitted jumper. Or how do we know an officer of the law? It is from the uniform worn and from which we identify with it a notion of service, protection and safety. So with afore mentioned ideals attributed to an ‘Accomplished Courtier’ they would also come to be endowed in the various costuming traditions that would later be extrapolated into Ballet but Why?
This perhaps can be best understood by taking a step back. First, we need to understand the meaning behind the term of “Ballet” itself. It is an intriguing one as it is a singular term used to describe a collection of dances bound together by a theme or drama. The way this notion developed during the 16th Century, would culminate at the height of the ‘Renaissance’ era.
The word is a derivative from the Latin verb, ‘Ballere’ or the Romana Lingua (common Latin tongue) ‘Ballare’, either way both have the meaning of ‘to dance’. This was in the sense as the most formal and refined notion of the pursuit. So to translate the Latin verb, ‘Ballere’, effectively, into English is best described as ‘to dance formally’.
This formal notion of dance is in context as liken to a debutante from the late ‘Victorian Era’ dancing at her ‘Coming Out’ ball. The ball served as the climax for her countless hours of training and practice in demonstrating all the refinement and skill to dance the waltz. This was no ordinary waltz though, for she would be in a fashionable ball gown complete with a train, long gloves, and a coiffure bedecked with ostrich plumes.
This idea of social refinement in dance stems from the ancient Romans who had very clear concepts in regards to dance – Stately affairs “Ballere”, Religious worship in the form of ritual dance “Tripudiare” and Social pursuits as just for the sake of pleasure, “Saltare”. (Yes the word, ‘Salsa’ comes from this). This thinking would translate into Byzantine and Medieval times with the pursuit of dancing in all its forms under the careful watch of religious censor as exacted by the Church. The notion of “Ballere” would be further expanded upon entering the Renaissance era as ‘Dance’ would come to be viewed as the first refinement of any ‘Polished and Civilise Society’. This notion about the virtues of ‘Dance’ with other social graces would continue well into the 20th Century.
This pursuit of refinement would have the Italians give us the “Ballo”, a term also derived from the Latin verb ‘Ballere’. It was towards the close of the 15th Century at a time when the Church was to relax its attitude towards ‘Secular or Theatrical Entertainment’. This grand courtly pursuit of various dances as executed by courtiers complimented the new rising notion of the ‘Renaissance Man’ with its grandeur and exacting formality. The ‘Ballo’ was quickly adopted by the many courts in Western Europe with the word extrapolated into the relative languages such as “Le Bal” in French, “El Baile” in Spanish and “Ball” in English. Over the course of the late 15th and 16th Centuries, these would develop into spectacular, lavish events often lasting for several hours well into the morning of the next day. As these became more common among the European courts, Balls would serve as fertile ground for those wanting to further their skills in the ‘Art of Dance’. Those with the means employed ‘Dance Tutors’ for themselves, and their children, ensuring their ‘Civilise Status’ at Court. Many of these tutors would attempt to commit these dance lessons and the ‘Art of Dance’ to print. The advantage of this saw an eventual common form of ‘Dance Technique’ developed. However, a universal form wasn’t realised until the late 17th Century.
The technique required for ‘Court Dance’ was greatly influenced by the very nature of ‘Court Dress’. This is best understood by the basic execution of the ‘Tendu’. It was a movement developed for ladies in particular, with their long skirts and hooped farthingales. This was because the action of stepping forward was sometimes wrought with a degree of danger in tripping on the skirt’s hem or the bottom most hoop of the farthingale. It was realised just by maintaining continued contact with the floor, sliding the foot forward, extending the leg with it finally only touching the floor with its toes when the foot was pointed. By doing so lifted the hem or hoop clear of the foot. This ensured the Courtier of an elegant means of stepping forward without the embarrassment of falling flat on one’s face in the presence of their most Royal Host. For such an incident would guarantee her exile from Court and was unable to return unless forgiven by means of a Royal pardon.
‘Court Dance’ continued to be influenced by dress simply because it had to accommodate the new fashion trends of the day. These would include the high necked collars called, “Ruffs” with their ever expanding circumference and the billowing sleeves. The hooped ’Farthingale’ would acquire a new expanded dimension that would render placing of arms at the sides impossible for the wearer. So it was required of the ladies to arrange their arms in a variety of elegant positions. This resulted in one of the most lasting traditions of Ballet technique. It is what is known as the ‘Carriage or Breathing of the Arms’, or in ballet terms, “Port de Bras”. It is pertinent to draw attention to the rigid fit of ‘Court Dress’. Due to as such, the raising of the arms was greatly limited. This was often not much higher than shoulder height with further height only achieved by the raising of the lower arms in a right angle bend at the elbows. This was often accompanied by a flourish of the hands from the wrist. This is often called the “Royal Wave”.
Meanwhile, there was another spectacular form of ‘Court Entertainment’ coming to the fore. Again it was from the Italian peninsula. It was given either the term of, “Balletti” in Italian or “Balleria” from the Latin. Depending when one was born, one can see from memory of basic high school Italian and Latin these terms were coined in the plural form and not the singular. Perhaps it is poignant to point out that the word, “Opera”, is also the Latin plural for “Opus” (Work). The plural use comes from the notion that an ‘Opera’ cannot be an opera if there is only one song to perform, and as for any opera, it must have a series of songs to carry a theme or drama. This was the same for ‘Balletti’, a collective of dance scenes performed as part of a ‘Spectaculi’ (Spectacles).
Note also how ‘High Art’ had its connection to the ‘Enlightened’ by way in the use of Latin terms – ‘Opera’, ‘Balleria’ and ‘Spectaculi’. As these pursuits were once considered ‘Indulgent’ and ‘Profane’. This use of Latin perhaps was also to pacify the Church by keeping with the language of the Sacraments; the earliest connection of Ballet with the notion of the ‘Divine’ which in the centuries to come would become its obsession.
The city of Milan in Italy would particularly become famous for ‘Spectaculi’ due to the patronage of the Arts by Ludovico Sforza, Regent of the Duchy of Milan. One the most famous of these was part of the celebratory events for the marriage of his nephew, Gian Galleazzo Sforza, the Duke of Milan to Isabella of Aragon in 1489. The nature of these spectacles is best liken them to an elaborately staged dinner Cabaret show, perhaps like those seen on the Gold Coast, Queensland near Warner Brothers Studios.
The master responsible for Court Entertainment, Bergonzio di Botta would co-ordinate this spectacle combining his culinary and choreographic talents. This was a dinner event that lasted for several hours with music, poetic prose and contained dance sequences woven through the course of the occasion. For each section called “Entratas” (Entrées), was precipitated by an announcement of the itinerary. Liken how we carefully choose wine to complement each meal; the theme of each section was made to compliment the menu set. It was recorded as a dance scene representing the famous Greek myth, “Jason and the Argonauts” preceded the next course of roasted gilded lamb in the guise of the ‘Golden Fleece’ and presented to the appreciative wedding guests to be carved and distributed for them to partake. It would be for a long time that these early Ballets were to be associated with banquets. Suppose the Viennese weren’t wrong in saying, “Wine, Song and Dance” and the Italians did it for nearly 300 years.
The thing is Ballet hadn’t yet really begun to be a stand-alone form of theatre. Furthermore, in order to refer to a single dance routine was usually by the term of “Danza” or “Ballare”. Furthermore the ‘Balletti’ assumed the diminutive of ‘Ballo’, thus its connection to the formal function of a ‘Ball’ or banquet by way as part of grand court entertainment. However, all this said, does not fully explain the notion of Ballet as we understand it today. We now must turn our attention to the French Court.
In 1547, Caterina de Medici of Florence became the ‘Queen of France’. She had married the Duke of Orléans by proxy in 1533 at the tender age of 13, who now became the unexpected King Henri II.
The circumstances surrounding her ascension to the French throne have always been a contentious one due to the manner of death of the Dauphin, King Francis, the elder brother of Henri. However, for the sake of Ballet it was important that Caterina had. Without her it may have been a very different story for Ballet. Perhaps it may not have happened at all, well, definitely not how we would know it today.
With her ascension to the French throne the young Caterina was to become known as “La Royne Épouse de la France, Catherine de Médicis”. But this inferred she was from the Medicis in Florence as oppose a Medici herself. This was evident of the French fervent suspicion of the Florentines.
It was in honour of the occasion with her arrival in Paris, many things Italian were brought to the French Court. The many items imported from Florence and other parts of Italy included gelati, new perfumes, various citrus fruits, and most importantly, the ‘Commedia dell’Arte’, the other parent of Ballet.
Without going into too much detail about the influence of the ‘Commedia’ at the French Court, only to say it was profound and formative to Ballet. Its introduction to the French Court, the ‘Commedia’ was to enjoy immediate success. It was a form of theatre never before seen in France, well definitely not in any French palace. The clever wit and lively action did prove most pleasing for the French Nobles with their appreciation of satire and the odd pun. This would see the actors and courtiers engage in the practice of rhetoric and repartee. However, it was particularly the graceful movements and stylised gestures that captured the French imagination and from then on it was to set out to acquire its ‘Frenchness’. It would undergo various evolutionary changes, acquiring many local idiosyncrasies in order to adapt to the tastes of the new French audiences. It was in the duration of its metamorphosis, elements of the ‘Commedia’ would be integrated with that of the ‘Balletti’ at the French Court. It was from this marriage of the two theatres did a new notion of a ‘French Ballet’ would come to the fore.
The first documented indication in this shift began to appear at the French Court during the 1560s. This was clearly due to the influence of Catherine de Médicis, now the Dowager Queen and was no longer burden with the affairs of state and was able to seek pleasures in the patronage of the Arts and Sciences. With her involvement saw further development of Ballet as was witnessed in “Le Paradis d’ Amour”, a spectacle devised for her daughter’s wedding, Marguerite de Valois to Henri de Bourbon, King of Navarre in 1572. Catherine would continue to further develop the fledgling dance art into what would be a “Les Ballets du Cour” (Court Ballet), in another spectacle, “Les Ballets des Polonais” (The Polish Dances). This was to honour the Polish Ambassadors visiting Paris upon the ascension of Catherine’s youngest son, Henri de France, Duc d’Anjou to the throne of Poland in 1573.
Even though supposedly away from the spotlight, Catherine continued to wield her influence through her sons, the Kings of France. In this she felt compelled as France was in the grips of religious turmoil with the continuous violent clashes between the Catholics and Huguenots, French Protestants. When as Queen, Catherine demonstrated religious tolerance and sought diplomatic solutions to the developing strife. Often criticised, her efforts were in the face of continued pressure from Phillip II, King of Spain, and the Holy See in Rome to expel or execute the ‘Protestant Heretics’. However, in spite of her efforts the violence continued bringing France many times to near all out ‘Civil War’ and the ‘Religion Wars’ would plague the Valois Dynasty to the very last.
It was in Ballet that Catherine saw potential in achieving a hope in creating common ground between the protagonists. She would take the once ‘Spectaculi’ from being an ostentatious display of wealth and power turning it into a ‘Propaganda’ machine. Catherine would have it endowed with rich symbolic references with very clear messages of unmistakable political and social relevance. A last ditch attempt to finally bring about spiritual harmony in France and finally proving her worth as a ‘Stateswoman’. This would be attempted through the grand spectacle of what is regarded as the ‘First True Ballet’ and it was ~
(Le Ballet Comique de la Reine – Modern French; The Queen’s Comic Dance – English)
It was presented as a ‘Court Ballet’ performed before the Dowager Queen, Catherine on the Sunday of 15th October in 1581 in either the Louvre’s Great Hall or in the ‘Salle de Bourbon’ of the Petit Palais. The ballet lasted from ten o’clock at night to three o’clock in the morning of the next day. Upon suggestion from Catherine, it was commissioned by Queen Louise as part of a series of lavish and extraordinary events held to celebrate the marriage of the queen’s sister, Marguerite de Vaudémont de Lorraine to the King’s favourite and closest confidante, Anne de Batarnay, Duc de Joyeuse.
Balthazar Beaujoyeulx’s plans for the production were composed of three parts all linked together by a narrative in poetic prose. The theme of the ballet was inspired by the enchantress, ‘Circe’, from Homer’s “Odyssey” and this is where one can see Catherine’s influence. Circe was a symbol of civil war, and the choosing of the subject was quite evident of Catherine’s intent of using the celebrations surrounding the marriage as a diplomatic ploy for peace. Many of the invited guests were the religious protagonists and it was hoped by Catherine that they would identify with the characters and moral messages supplanted in the spectacle. In the final scene of the ballet, restoration of peace was depicted thus clearly it represented the Crown’s and Catherine’s hopes for peace in France.
Within the ‘Comic Dance’ was contained the three main elements required for any ballet – Drama, Music and Dance. The fact the ballet had a clear singular storyline set it apart from all previous ballets. Its status as the ‘First’ hasn’t been exaggerated when all is considered, particularly in terms of how we have come to understand the theatre art today. The clear consistency of storyline reinforced by the rich symbolism exacted in the especially designed décor and costumes by Jacques Patin. By the ambiance enhanced by the music of Lambert de Beaulieu and Jacques Salmon complemented by the stirring poetic prose written by Nicolas Filleul de La Chesnaye. All this further supported by King Henri III and Queen Louise performance in the ballet. Louise was accompanied by her ladies-in-waiting and court dancers arriving on a fountain chariot designed by Patin that was three tiers high dressed as ‘Naiads’. Catherine now has transformed a mere dance entertainment into ‘Artistic Expression’, an ‘Art’ worthy of noble praise and royal patronage.
The royal involvement of Henri and Louise would also set a custom for most future ballets. It continued up to the turn of the 18th Century with future members of the French Royal family and Court performing alongside commissioned dancers, actors and musicians. This did not incur any derision or ire, but instead was seen as a pinnacle of achievement. To be allowed to perform in a Court Ballet was a sign of accomplishment in the virtue and skill in the ‘Art of Dance’. This is where the connection between ‘Ballet’ and the ‘Renaissance Man’ is most evident even though it took the most educated and powerful woman of the day, Catherine de Médicis, to make it happen.
It can now be understood from this ‘Court Ballet’ came the familiar notion that would define the term of “Balet” or now “Ballet” for all time. Even though written as a diminutive of “Le Bal”, it was given a clear singular vernacular to imply a clear notion of a ‘Performance Art’. Following this shift in the meaning of the term the Italian word, “Balletto”, was paraphrased as taking a lead from the French Court. As if imported from Italy in a raw state, in France it was refined and polished and given back. In time they would not only give the world a new word for dance but a new theatre art in Dance. From the moment the first Ballet was performed, the French assumed ownership of the new theatre art by defining it.
It was a definitive moment in the history of Ballet.
This article incorporates text derived or information sourced from the following: “Encyclopaedia Britannica” “Pride and Prejudice”, Chapter 8, Jane Austen ISBN: 1847493696, Alma Books Ltd., 2014. “The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ballet”, Horst Koegler ISBN: 0193113309, Oxford University Press; 2nd Edition, 14 October, 1982. “Ballet 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Ballet”, Robert Gresvovic ISBN: 0-879103256, Hal Leonard Corporation, 1998. “Five Centuries of Ballet Design”, Cyril W. Beaumont The Studio, London, England, 1st Edition, c. 1938-9 “The Magic of Dance”, Margot Fonteyn ISBN: 0-563-17645-8, BBC, 1980. “Dance as a Theatre Art: Source Readings in Dance History from 1581 to the Present” Selma Jeanne Cohen, Kathy Matheson ISBN: 0-87127-173-7, Princeton Book Company, 2nd Edition, 1st December, 1992.
Images:Fig. 01– Detail from the painting, “The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1553. National Gallery, London, England.Fig. 02– Detail from the painting, “The Ambassadors” by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1553. National Gallery, London, England.Fig. 03– “The Wedding of Catherine de Medici with the Duke of Orleans” by Francesca Bianchi Buonavita, c. 1533. The Ufizzi Gallery Museum, Florence, Italy.