IntroductionDifferent forms of art and entertainment seem to share one quality: as they evolve over time, they strongly reflect the changing tastes and thinking of cultures as they evolve themselves. This is certainly true of ballet, an art form dating back to the 16th century. What was in the past an entertainment reserved for European nobility grew to become focused on discipline and artistic innovation. By the 19th century, ballet would in fact become a global expression of high art, largely due to the influence of the Ballet Russe company. Over centuries, then, ballet has developed in ways greatly mirroring sophistication and an emphasis on art within cultures both ancient and modern, as it impacts on societies and also is connected to economic realities.

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European ballet developed from styles of court dancing in Renaissance Italy, and was soon adopted by both French and Russian societies. This goes to ballet of the 17th century as a highly elite entertainment, and one in place to please the nobility. This is, moreover, only one difference in the meaning of ballet between the past and today. For example, 17th century ballet was far more a masculine form of dance. Western and Russian cultures now perceive ballet as emphasizing female roles, but men were the “stars” in the early development of it. Then, European and Russian ballet of centuries past was less of an art form, and more a kind of pantomime. Even royalty would dance, so it was about style and amusement rather than discipline and training (Gannon 337), and social impact was limited. In time, European ballet became a public entertainment, but the emphasis remained on its being in place as amusement.

Nothing more radically altered the ideas of ballet than the Ballet Russe company. Originated by Sergei Diaghilev in the late 19th century, it would become the benchmark for ballet as a serious art. Prior to this, the French had developed intense structure and classical discipline to the dancing, creating ideals of skill still in place today. From its earliest days to its international presence in the 20th century, however, the Ballet Russe transformed the idea of ballet for the world, and in ways reflecting social ambitions to embrace real artistic quality. In 1917, for example, Leonide Massine, premier dancer and ballet master for the company, created Parade, a lavish ballet with sets by Picasso and a libretto by Jean Cocteau (Norton 18). Great artists in music and design were involved in the creations of the works, and, after Diaghilev’s death, a new Ballet Russe took America by storm. The impact was evident; sophisticated art had come to the U.S. as, in the 1930s, Massine brought the company to New York.

While the public did not at first embrace the works, the innovation, as well as the star presences of dancers like Markova and Danilova, created a critical sensation (Norton 139). This then goes to the evolving American ambition to appreciate high art, and successors to Massine have established American ballet as a premier art form. It has also become “big business,” and then reflects wider social realities. Modern Russian ballet, for example, is defined by the cultural and social issues facing the nation. Since 1992, it has suffered from lack of state funding, political interference, and less than ideal levels of performance (Gannon 337). Consequently, in the past and today, ballet represents and influences the social tides existing in global cultures.

It is impossible to offer a real idea of ballet’s history and impact briefly. However, it is clear that this form of dance has undergone great change over the centuries. Originally an elite and trivial entertainment, ballet grew to be a highly disciplined art form, and chiefly through the impact and ambitions of the Ballet Russe. If Russian and European ballet has faced challenges due to social conditions, it is arguable that the U.S., into the 21st century, has taken on ballet as an expression of the society’s wealth and power, and interest in pursuing art for art’s sake. Ultimately, then, ballet has evolved in ways greatly mirroring sophistication and an emphasis on art within cultures rooted in the past and more modern, as its presence in any culture is linked to economic realities.

  • Gannon, Martin J. Understanding Global Cultures: Metaphorical Journeys Through 28 Nations, Clusters of Nations, and Continents. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2004. Print.
  • Norton, Leslie. Leonide Massine and the 20th Century Ballet. Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2004. Print.