What is Ballet? (An ongoing discussion)

This last semester at school I took a required ballet history class. Sounds pretty standard for most, except for the fact that I don’t come from this dance world. The big names like Marius Petipa, George Balanchine, and as far back as King Louis XIV had no meaning for me. Indeed, they probably don’t have much meaning for other people that are not in the dance world either. I did get to take a look at the world of dance from the perspective of people that know it. More importantly, we touched on ballet today and it completely threw my head for a loop. The question that did it was: what is ballet? Seems simple enough. It’s not. Here is what most people think of as ballet (including myself for a long time).

This is what we know of ballet. It’s tall, elegant, long, and royal. The cast (men and women) wear tights and the women wear pointe shoes to give them even more height and length. It’s beautiful, it’s classy, and it’s also not relevant to life as we know it today. Yet even knowing this, we still cling to the notion that ballet is this and this alone. Of all the other dance forms that have come to fruition, we know that they are not ballet because they do not look like this.

At this time I would like to present exhibit B. Holy crap, people in tights sitting on the floor? This is also known as Contemporary Ballet:

And finally, exhibit C. Also Contemporary Ballet:

Those last two are ballet as well. They are called “Contemporary” because it’s just another fancy word for “New.” How do we know it’s still ballet? While it might seem different, the basis of all of that movement still comes from ballet fundamentals. They’re still using their turnout, they still dance with their legs, and people that have taken ballet class can recognize some of the steps involved. There is just another layer of movement added to it or the movement has been melted into something else. The true test would be to have people with no ballet experience try to recreate this choreography. It probably wouldn’t look as good. And the moment that these new dancers took a ballet class they would see a lot of similarities.

So what the crap happened? Well ballet evolved. Dance is a medium of art that is specific to the human body and performed in the present. As I see it, ballet is the language from which all of this dance is created from. Since it was the first codified movement practice, we take all other movement forms as a direct contrast or in tandem with classical modern movement. For a long time the language was very familiar with people and we had a very specific view of it. Now the world has new things to say and thanks to this language we can articulate those thoughts. The trick now will be where ballet goes from here. Art doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Everything we create is affecting by our life and dance experience. And with the world shrinking thanks to technology and the Internet, we are finding little bits of the world in all art forms. Pretty soon we might melt all of dance into one gobbed fusion of movement that comes from all cultures and all disciplines.

BAM- there’s ballet. I know what you’re thinking now. How does hip hop fit into that? Is it a contrast to it? How does training in ballet relate to being a better hip hop dancer? I’m working on that…

To be Continued…