Ballet is oft thought to be a stiff, boring, all-pink form of dance.
But it’s resounding influence on culture, social dynamics, and politics in history show that this delicate art is not to be dismissed. The complex art form that is ballet sprung from an aristocratic desire for a set of rules to govern social movement and conventions and has evolved into a stunning theatrical spectacle that has greatly influenced society throughout time. Much has happened through ballet, including the instillment of order, the ranking of courtiers, the defining of the next era of a country, and all the while it brought beauty and grace to the lives of many.
In the royal courts of Renaissance Italy, during the fifteen hundreds, the story of ballet began. Picture “[a] party where every movement from the slightest gesture to walking across the room, and every visual detail from furniture to hemline length were governed by [a system of rules]”.
At first, it was a form of social dance and a way for those in power to control courtly life, but it soon merged into a performance art. The Renaissance was a time charged with radical new ideas in art, theology, philosophy, and science. Ballet was no exception and choreographers infused emerging ideas as well as old traditions into performances. One such tradition was Greek drama, and this was incorporated by adding story arcs and stock characters to ballet. It shifted from a mere spectacle at social occasions into a way to test out ideas and enlighten viewers with new schools of thought through elaborate theatrical events. Soon, the story would transition to France, and into the hands of ballet’s most passionate (albeit full of himself) historical patron and dancer.
In the sixteenth century France, King Louis XIV reinvigorated and codified ballet, consequently solidifying its position in history as “[a] powerful political tool, a means of maintaining a country’s stability and keeping the status quo.” Throughout his reign, King Louis XIV masterfully amplified his power and sought to appear godlike in the eyes of his people. At the time, kings were thought to be divinely guided, and King Louis XIV reinforced this belief by performing in a ballet as Apollo the sun God at a young age. He audaciously nicknamed himself “the Sun King”. King Louis XIV thoroughly popularized ballet and made it an essential social skill. Cunningly, the king curated his godlike status and ensured that gentleman of the court untrained in the discipline would become an absolute laughingstock. It was also used to keep the rest of Europe in line, to show the rest of the country up in as many ways as possible. Popularizing “[ballet] was more than a power move at home—it was a way to show the rest of Europe that France was the center of high culture.” Many years later, after the through standardization of ballet in King Louis’s France, another country would adopt the art form.
The impact of ballet on society cannot be discussed without mention of Russia. Russia is an essential part of this history and it is arguably the ballet capital of the world. The catapult for the intertwinement of ballet into Russian history was Peter the Great (or Peter Alexeyevich). Alexeyevich traveled to Western Europe to recruit allies in the fight against the Ottoman Empire. While he was there, he became immersed in European art, culture, and science. He sought to emulate the war prowess that Europe had achieved and insisted on the adoption of modern and European ideals in the country. Alexeyevich loved the art form ballet, and it was an integral part of what was called the Westernization Program.
The Westernization Program changed the way people dressed, the way the country was governed, and the quality of art produced drastically shifted upwards. Ballet became an exceptionally popular form of entertainment and “The kinds of ballets that were performed [reflected] Russia’s imperial ambitions.” Ballet in Russia became synonymous with modern ideals of discipline and refinement and ultimately, a country reinvented.
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