Monday, March 2, 2009



Ballet is a kind of special behavior. If you take lessons, the teacher demands control of your limbs and shapes your body into a geometric design while you hold yourself proudly, formally and gracefully. At a ballet performance you enter a dream world in the company of noble kings and queens at spectacular court ceremonies, or with beautiful romantic creatures floating the night, or perhaps where magnificently shaped gymnast turn and leap with super human skill. Where did these manners come from?

Renaissance Manners and Luxury

Ballet was born in Europe during the period we call the Renaissance, approximately 1300 to 1600, at the courts of the Italian and French ruling nobility. The story of Romeo and Juliet reflects the manners and values of the beautiful people of that epoch. To get an idea of the atmosphere reflected in the art of ballet, picture yourself in the setting of Romeo and Juliet, a couple who lived and died in an Italian Renaissance town.
Shakespeare's play mirrors quite accurately the formal splendor as well as the violence of life in that setting.

The Renaissance saw an influx of wealth into European society. Some of this came from the rise of capitalistic business enterprises, and some from the great quantities of gold and silver that poured into the treasuries of Europe from the recently discovered mines of the New World (North and South America). Together with this affluence there was an emphasis on the experiences and objects that money can buy. Political power, scientific knowledge, family love, physical beauty, and the arts all claimed respectable attention. An outstanding feature of the Renaissance was the search for a lifestyle that was pleasant, joyful and luxurious.

The leaders of Renaissance society were the wealthy, noble families of Italy like the Medicis and the Sforzas (the Capulets and Montagues of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet). Each family was prominent in a particular city. There was no nation in Italy at that time. The aristocrats lived in magnificent palaces and fostered whatever they thought would add to the beauty off heir environment and daily pleasure. In their luxurious activities and interests, we can find the seeds of the art of ballet. For example, they lent tremendous support to architecture, painting and sculpture. Magnificent cathedral statues and paintings by brilliant artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Boticelli, and Michelangelo testify to their active encouragement of the arts. Further, they treated their fellow townsmen to generous rounds of public festivals that included carnivals, spectacles, sports contests, and processions.

Stories and legends – particularly those harking back to the pro-Christian era, had great appeal in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries after the saturation of the Middles Ages with Jesus legends. The directors of Renaissance spectacles took their ideas largely from Greek and Roman mythology and history. Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and Achilles were frequently portrayed, as were Venus, Cupid, and Hercules. The guests at these affairs were well acquainted with ancient tales. They enjoyed seeing and identifying these characters and the events connected with them, along with the pleasure of figuring out which well-known courtiers, personal friends, and other subjects for gossip hid behind each elaborate mask and costume. Poetry would have been recited about ancient Roman heroes and Greek gods, mixed in with flattery to the assembled company. Capulet might have been compared to Jupiter in his wisdom and power, for example, or Juliet to Venus. Perhaps Cupid would have been praised for uniting such a loving couple.

Scenic effects contributed much to the visual spectacle and perhaps made the biggest t impression on the viewers. Scenes featured floating clouds, rumbling chariots, and larger-that-life animals, all involving complicated machinery like platforms on wheels and rollers, "flying" harnesses, hooks and pulleys, as well as trap doors, and the like. Creating effective props that functioned in a convincing manner occupied the attention of the finest Renaissance artists. Leonardo da Vinci himself was responsible for designing the contraptions at some shows. And of course, trained engineers were called to build them.

Dancing. Finally, even if the primary element wasn't dancing, it was present. Performers were expected to remember to be graceful and to carry out all instructions in regard to steps and gestures, keeping time with the music, and leaving room for other performers. The dancing masters often spent hours with their noble pupils, patiently teaching them simple pantomimic motions and steps that would be suitable to their roles. Then after the show, the whole company of guests would participate in ballroom dancing, which would go on through the night hours. They would all have practiced regularly and taken lessons with the same dancing master to get the steps and the patterns just right.

To sum up, in the preclassic court dances, taken together with the pageants and processions of the Renaissance, we can see the barest outline of ballet as we know it. As we continue our pursuit of dance history, we shall see how the steps and movements developed in complexity and in brilliance beyond recognition, and were given over completely to professionals. Still, as a technique of physical movement and as a kind of behavior, ballet continues - and still continues- to be characterized as courtly and dignified. Accomplishments paid off in both enjoyment and achievement of social position. And conversely, you can picture the misery of the unattractive, clumsy bore who was not invited our much and spent time brooding about his bad luck, cut off from fun and social advancement.

Romeo and Juliet

The high-society etiquette of the period plays a part in the familiar story of Romeo and Juliet. The lovers first met at a ball given by Juliet's prominent family, the Capulets. Her father knew that Romeo came from the hated Montague clan, and had sneaked into the ball wearing a mask. But Capulet was more concerned with having a pleasant party and exercising the proper etiquette for a host than in letting nephew Tybalt throw Romeo out. "Let him alone," he told Tybalt, who was furious when he discovered Romeo's presence. "He is known to be a virtuous, well-mannered youth. Not for all the wealth in town would I allow him to be harmed in my house. And as for you Tybalt, stop frowning. A face like that doesn't belong at a party".

In fact, old Capulet was daydreaming about his own youth, when his days where spent like Romeo's, mooning after one girl or another. Don't forget, Romeo's friends dragged him to this party to take his mind off his wild adoration of Rosalind, a girl too poor to accept his love; and Romeo protested, warning them that he wouldn't dance because he felt so heavy from despair, sick from unrequited love. He soon changed his mood and his mind after Capulet called a welcome to all the gentlemen present and announced to the ladies, "If one of you will refuse to dance, I'll swear it's because she has ugly corns on her feet. Come musicians, play! Everybody clear a space - now dance!" At this moment Romeo saw Juliet and was overcome. The fifteen-year old Juliet certainly knew how to dance. So did Romeo. They did not miss a step when he, struck by love at first sight, maneuvered to a place at her side and took her hand as a partner. They were both so familiar with the steps of the dance that they could go through them automatically while exchanging flowery speeches about pilgrims, saints and holy shrines - all poetic ways of working up to a kiss. If Rosalind had entered the room at that moment, Romeo would have had trouble remembering her name.

Dancing Masters

The mastery of dance depicted here was not unusual. Dancing was one of the prime accomplishments of any lady or gentleman. It was considered essential for a place at court. To provide the required lessons in dancing, many noble houses had in residence a dancing master who taught the steps and proper bearing. The most famous dancing master of the Renaissance was Guglielmo Ebero (William the Hebrew), born before 1440. He was attached to the Medici court of Florence and other great houses, teaching

few basic steps that were fairly easy to do. But there were many variations and combinations, and sometimes a particular dance could be quite complicated in its final form.

Really, you can see a similar setup in a first-year ballet class today. All class work is built on basics like the plie, the releve, the five positions, the battemants, the rond de jambe, the arabesque, the pirouette, and the jete". Yet at the end-of-the-year recital, the student has to practice hard to get a part in a prearranged choreographic number just right. Thus you can imagine these courtiers as first-year ballet students - although encumbered by fancy, heavy clothing - learning to do a number of set dances. If we read the instructions supplied by their dancing masters and set down in books by Guglielmo and others, we also see that the nobility were not taught technique the way you are. There is no emphasis on straightening the leg to a pointed toe, or on controlling the muscles of the hips (after all, these were well hidden by clothing). However, attention was give to the style of doing the steps and to overall behavior.

Thoinot Arbeau (1519 to 1596), Consider dancing master Thoinot Arbeau's lessons in Orchesography, a manual on dance (also fencing, piping, and drumming) edited by Julia Sutton. On one figure in Basse-Dance, Arbeau instructed his male students (like Romeo) on the proper way to perform the banle:

By keeping the heels together, and turning the body gently to the left for the first bar; then to the right, glancing modestly the while at the spectator for the second bar; then again to the left for the third. And for the fourth bar, to the right, again with discreetly tender sidelong glance at the damsel. You must be careful not to take strides that suggest you wish to measure the length of the hall, and the damsel who is your partner cannot with decency take such long steps!

He dictates that in the slow pavane jt is all right for the cavalier to wear his cloak and sword. The steps proceed with decorum and measured gravity. As for the damsels, they keep their eyes lowered, although it is permissible to cast an occasional glance of virginal modesty at the onlookers. The pavane was frankly used by kings, princes and great lords to display their fine mantles and robes of ceremony on days of solemn festivals. Similarly, the queens, princesses and great ladies accompanied the men, with the long train of their dresses let down and trailing behind them. At a ball, before beginning this dance, the performers walked gravely around the room and saluted the great dignitaries who gave the ball.

The steps of the pavane were the simples possible. The gentlemen walked behind their ladies, leading them by the hand; a few gliding steps and a great many curtseys followed,

backed this up. He left us a list of six qualifications for a good dancer. He put first rhythm, the ability to keep time with the music. Second was memory, keeping in mind the right steps and correct sequence of movements. Third was the use of space, an awareness of the size and layout of the space to which he must regulate the size and proportion of the movements. Fourth was airy lightness (ballon). Fifth was coordination between steps of the feet and use of the body. Sixth was inclination for body movement, the gift of expression. We can see that to a large extent the style and body attitude of these preclassic court dances still characterize the classic school of ballet technique. If we think of technique as a learned system for moving the body properly in dance, then the advice of Guglielmo and Arbeau referred to above are not that different from the instructions that the contemporary teacher might give to pupils in a ballet class.

However, ballet is more that a series of technical movements, steps and exercises done in a certain style. It is also a theatrical dance form that includes elements in addition to dance: namely music, costumes, setting, and a plot, theme or idea. Sometimes it also contains poetry, or dialogue, spoken or sung.

Court Entertainments

During the period we have been discussing - the Renaissance - there were court entertainments in addition to the balls. They combined all the theatrical elements mentioned above. In fact, dancing was probably the least interesting of all the aspects of court entertainment. If Juliet had gone ahead and married the suitor her parents had chosen for her, instead of eloping with the forbidden Romeo, the Capulets would have undoubtedly have arranged a smashing celebration. This would have been climaxed by a showy pageant - a court entertainment - that would have contained the sketchy outlines of ballet spectacles with which we are familiar, except that the dancing itself would be severely limited.

Performers. The pageant performers would have been members of Juliet's family and other courtiers. These worthies would have looked forward to the event quite eagerly.

Stuttgart by way of England) combined lyrical dancing and lively pantomime, as did Keneth MacMillan (1965) in England, to give their own interpretations of universal love in an historical setting. There is a movie of MacMillan's version (in which Juliet is once again a young girl). In addition there are a number of versions of the pas de deux of the lovers, performed by dozens of artists, like Rudolf Nureyev and Lynn Seymor.

In fact, the musical drama West Side Story created (1957) by Jerome Robbins and Leonard Berstein was based on this same wonderful drama. Here the timeless elements of teenage passion and feuding tribes were transposed from rival families in sixteenth- century Verona to street gangs in twentieth-century New York. Instead of the Italian Montagues and Capulets, there were the Puerto Rican Jets and Sharks, each ruling their own street and guarding it with knives against forays by the opposition. The tragedy occurred when a sister of a Shark fell in love with a Jet leader. After the show was a success, a movie version followed. Another up-to-date interpretation was Bejart's Romeo and Juliet (1966) which presented the Renaissance noblemen as contemporary teenage boys, counting out loud, doing gymnastics, and tumbling, along with the more conventionally staged lovers' duets. In the 1970s, the American John Nueumeier's Hamburg Ballet danced his own version of the story, based in part, on the earlier Cranko work, with many personal departures.

Anyway, you can see from this quick international tour that there is more than one way to express the same thought. Thus art is a form of communication, and its statements and styles must reflect the feelings dominant in a particular culture, or a particular artist. Yet at the same time, ballet has remained an art of visual spectacle and technical skill, its personality a product of its birth in the courts of Renaissance Italy.

Dance History


After reading "Aristocratic Entertainment 1300 to 1600" answer the following questions.

1. What things and ideas were very important for the wealthy and noble society in the Renaissance?

2. What was the importance of the dancing master at court and briefly describe his duties?

3. Mention and briefly describe some of the dances practiced at European courts during the Renaissance.

4. List and briefly describe the main elements in court entertainment during the

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