All Barre None: Paul Webb Finds That a Notoriously Elite Art Form Has a Surprisingly Diverse History

Article excerpt

Despite the best efforts of Billy Elliot, ballet in Britain is still often seen as a bastion of the establishment. Ticket prices are high, audiences are well heeled--or, in the Royal Ballet's case, bejewelled--and appreciation of the ballet's formal brilliance remains largely restricted to connoisseurs. Ballet's origins are more diverse than its image suggests, however, and a look at the art form's history shows its reputation for elitism to be surprisingly undeserved.

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European classical ballet dates from the mid-17th century. It was popularised by Louis XIV, the Sun King of France, who acquired his nickname from a costume he wore at a court dance. Essentially a court entertainment, ballet expanded its audience in the course of the 18th century, and then flowered in the 1820s and 1830s with the popularity of Romantic ballets such as La Sylphide, in which the ballerina Marie Taglioni danced en pointe (on the tips of her toes), wearing the bell-shaped white tutu that is, for many, the enduring image of the ballet dancer.

Yet, by the 1850s, ballet was largely restricted to light relief in French operas, the smart gentlemen of Paris often delaying their arrival until the ballet section took place, so that they could look at the pretty girls showing off their legs. In Britain, it appeared only in imported operas or as part of music-hall (and later variety) shows. It had a following among the working classes as well as the rich, but poorer audiences were unlikely ever to see a full-length evening of dance.

On the Continent, ballet developed in two main centres of excellence--Copenhagen and St Petersburg--and it was from St Petersburg that ballet made its way to England. The greatest impresario of the 20th century, Serge Diaghilev, was an aristocrat who assembled around himself an extraordinary group of dancers, designers, painters, choreographers and composers to create the Ballets Russes.

The company took Paris by storm in 1909 and arrived at Covent Garden in 1911. An audience that included the art patroness Lady Ottoline Morrell and the poet Rupert Brooke was astonished by the colour, spectacle and dazzling choreography that turned ballet from essentially safe theatre into the most modern and unpredictable art form in Europe.

One of the many young people inspired to make a career in ballet by the Ballets Russes was an Irish girl, Edris Stannus, who danced for Diaghilev in the 1920s, changed her name to Ninette de Valois and went on to found the British company that evolved into today's Royal Ballet. De Valois, known to the company as Madam, was a talented dancer and choreographer of enormous ambition and drive (the nickname owed as much to awe as to affection). …