Ballet, a performance in which dancing, music and pantomime are involved. Originally derived from the (Sicilian) Gr. βαλλίζειν, to dance, the word has passed through the Med. Lat. ballare (with ballator as synonymous with saltator) to the Ital. ballare and ballata, to the Fr. ballet, to the O. Eng. word ballette, and to ballad. In O. Fr., according to Rousseau, ballet signifies "to dance, to sing, to rejoice"; and thus it incorporates three distinct modern words, "ballet, ball and ballad." Through the gradual changes in the amusements of different ages, the meaning of the first two words has at length become limited to dancing, and the third is now confined to singing. But, although ballads are no longer the vocal accompaniments to dances round the maypole, old ballads are still sung to dance tunes. The present acceptation of the word ballet is - a theatrical representation in which a story is told only by gesture, accompanied by music, which should be characterized by stronger emphasis than would be employed with the voice. The dancing should be connected with the story but is more commonly incidental.
The French word was found to be so comprehensive as to require further definition, and thus the above-described would be distinguished as the ballet d'action or pantomime ballet, while a single scene, such as that of a village festival with its dances, would now be termed a divertissement.
The ballet d'action, to which the changed meaning of the word is to be ascribed, and therewith the introduction of modern ballet, has been generally attributed to the 15th century. Novelty of entertainment was then sought for in the splendid courts of Italy, in order to celebrate events which were thought great in their time, such as the marriages of princes, or the triumphs of their arms. Invention was on the rack for novelty, and the skill of the machinist was taxed to the utmost. It has been supposed that the art of the old Roman pantomimi was then revived, to add to the attractions of court-dances. Under the Roman empire the pantomimi had represented either a mythological story, or perhaps a scene from a Greek tragedy, by mute gestures, while a chorus, placed in the background, sang cantica to narrate the fable, or to describe the action of the scene. The question is whether mute pantomimic action, which is the essence of modern ballet, was carried through those court entertainments, in which kings, queens, princes and princesses, took parts with the courtiers; or whether it is of later growth, and derived from professional dances upon the stage.
The former is the general opinion, but the court entertainments of Italy and France were masques or masks which included declamation and song, like those of Ben Jonson with Inigo Jones for the court of James I.
The earliest modern ballet on record was that given by Bergonzio di Botta at Tortona to celebrate the marriage of the duke of Milan in 1489. The ballet, like other forms of dancing, was developed and perfected in France; it is closely associated with the history of the opera; but in England it came much later than the opera, for it was not introduced until the 18th century, and in the first Italian operas given in London there was no ballet. During the regency of Lord Middlesex a ballet-master was appointed and a corps of dancers formed. The ballet has had three distinct stages in its development. For a long time it was to be found only at the court, when princely entertainments were given to celebrate great occasions. At that time ladies of the highest rank performed in the ballet and spent much time in practising and perfecting themselves for it. Catherine de'Medici introduced these entertainments into France and spent large sums of money on devising performances to distract her son's attention from the affairs of the state.
Baltasarini, otherwise known as Beaujoyeulx, was the composer of a famous entertainment given by Catherine in 1581 called the "Ballet Comique de la Reyne." This marks an era in the history of the opera and ballet, for we find here for the first time dance and music arranged for the display of coherent dramatic ideas. Henry IV., Louis XIII. and XIV. were all lovers of the ballet and performed various characters in them, and Richelieu used the ballet as an instrument for the expression of political purposes. Lully was the first to make an art of the composition of ballet music and he was the first to insist on the admission of women as ballet dancers, feminine characters having hitherto been assumed by men dressed as women. When Louis XIV. became too fat to dance, the ballet at court became unpopular and thus was ended the first stage of its development. It was then adopted in the colleges at prize distributions and other occasions, when the ballets of Lully and Quinault were commonly performed. The third period in the history of the ballet was marked by its appearance on the stage, where it has remained ever since.
It should be added that up till the third period dramatic poems had accompanied the ballet and the dramatic meaning was helped out with speech and song; but with the advent of the third period speech disappeared and the purely pantomime performance, or ballet d'action, was instituted.
The father of ballet dancing as we know it at the present day was Jean Georges Noverre (q.v.). The ballet d'action was really invented by him; in fact, the ballet has never advanced beyond the stage to which he brought it; it has rather gone back. The essence of Noverre's theory was that mere display was not enough to ensure interest and life for the ballet; and some years ago Sir Augustus Harris expressed a similar opinion when he was asked wherein lay the reason of the decadence of the modern ballet. Noverre brought to a high degree of perfection the art of presenting a story by means of pantomime, and he never allowed dancing which was not the direct expression of a particular attitude of mind. Apart from Noverre, the greatest ballet-master was undoubtedly Gaetano Apolline Balthazare Vestris (q.v.), who modestly called himself le dieu de la danse, and was, indeed, the finest male dancer that Europe ever produced. Gluck composed Iphigénie en Aulide in conjunction with Vestris. In 1750 the two greatest dancers of the day performed together in Paris in a ballet-opera called Léandre et Héro; the dancers were Vestris and Madame Camargo (q.v.), who introduced short skirts in the ballet.
The word "balette" was first used in the English language by Dryden in 1667, and the first descriptive ballet seen in London was The Tavern Bilkers, which was played at Drury Lane in 1702. Since then the ballet in England has been purely exotic and has merely followed on the lines of French developments. The palmy days of the ballet in England were in the first half of the 19th century, when a royal revenue was spent on the maintenance of this fashionable attraction. Some famous dancers of this period were Carlotta Grisi, Mdlle Taglioni (who is said to have turned the heads of an entire generation), Fanny Elssler, Mdlle Cerito, Miss P. Horton, Miss Lucile Grahn and Mdlle Carolina Rosati. In later years Kate Vaughan was a remarkably graceful dancer of a new type in England, and, in Sir Augustus Harris's opinion, she did much to elevate the modern art. She was the first to make skirt-dancing popular, although that achievement will not be regarded as an unmixed benefit by every student of the art.
Skirt-dancing, in itself a beautiful exhibition, is a departure from true dancing in the sense that the steps are of little importance in it; and we have seen its development extend to a mere exhibition of whirling draperies under many-coloured lime-lights. The best known of Miss Vaughan's disciples and imitators (each of whom has contributed something to the art on her own account) were Miss Sylvia Grey and Miss Letty Lind. Of the older and classical school of ballet-dancing Adeline Genée became in London the finest exponent. But ballet-dancing, affected by a tendency in modern entertainment to make less and less demands on the intelligence and intellectual appreciation of the public, and more and more demands on the eye - the sense most easily affected - has gradually developed into a spectacle, the chief interest of which is quite independent of dancing. Thousands of pounds are spent on dressing a small army of women who do little but march about the stage and group themselves in accordance with some design of colour and mass; and no more is asked of the intelligence than to believe that a ballet dressed, for example, in military uniform is a compliment to or glorification of the army.
Only a few out of hundreds of members of the corps de ballet are really dancers and they perform against a background of colour afforded by the majority. It seems unlikely that we shall see any revival of the best period and styles of dancing until a higher standard of grace and manners becomes fashionable in society. With the constantly increasing abolition of ceremony, courtliness of manner is bound to diminish; and only in an atmosphere of ceremony, courtesy and chivalry can the dance maintain itself in perfection.