A Brief History of The Ballerina

Delve into the history of the ballerina and get to know some of the remarkable women who shaped the role of the ballerina.

Watching ballerinas perform with incredible grace and athleticism is always a mesmerizing experience. But the world of ballet, as we know it today, was not always graced by these talented women. In this article, we’ll delve into the history of the ballerina, shedding light on some of the remarkable women who shaped the role of the ballerina.

Catherine de Medici and the Birth of Ballet

The origins of ballet can be traced back to the Renaissance courts of Italy, where a structured “classical” style of dance gained popularity among the elite. In the 16th century, when Catherine de Medici became the Queen of France, she brought with her, her profound love for the arts and a passion for dance, laying the foundation for the emergence of female ballerinas.

From the documentary Darcey’s Ballerina HeroinesDarcey Bussell discusses the origins of ballet.

Ballerinas in the 17th Century

Following Catherine de Medici’s introduction of ballet to the French courts, this dance style gradually evolved into its modern form. By the 17th century, ballet had become all the rage and in 1669, King Louis XIV established the world’s first national ballet company, the Paris Opera Ballet. Although women often danced in private court settings, it was rare to see a woman in a public performance, leaving men to play the female roles. 

Mlle de Lafontaine: The First Professional Ballerina

History credits Mademoiselle De Lafontaine (1655–1738) as the first professional ballerina. Collaborating with composer and dancer Jean-Baptiste Lully, De Lafontaine played a pivotal role in opening the Paris Opera Ballet. In 1681, she made history by becoming the first woman to star in a public performance in Lully’s Le Triomphe de l’Amour. Her instant success served as an inspiration for countless women who aspired to follow in her graceful footsteps.

Ballerinas in the 18th Century 

The 18th century marked a significant period of technical and stylistic advancement in ballet. It was during this time that ballet was divided into three techniques: sérieux (serious), demi-caractère (half-serious), and comique (comic). These styles dictated everything from technique and choreography to music and storylines. Costume too underwent substantial changes. Dancers transitioned from heavy, cumbersome attire resembling traditional court dress to lighter, shorter costumes. Heelless dance shoes and unmasked faces allowed for greater expressiveness, thanks to the innovations of two pioneering ballerinas. 

Marie Sallé (1707–1756)

From the documentary Darcey’s Ballerina Heroines– Darcey Bussell talks about her heroine, Marie Sallé.

Marie Sallé was known for her dramatic flair. She became the first woman to both choreograph and star in her own ballets. Sallé’s performances were characterized by the absence of masks, flowing hair, and breezy muslin dresses that emphasized her expressive face and technical prowess. Although her unconventional style faced criticism, it inspired individuals like Jean-Georges Noverre, who would later reform ballet based on Sallé’s artistic innovations.

Marie-Anne de Cupis de Camargo (1710- 1770)

From the documentary Darcey’s Ballerina HeroinesDarcey Bussell talks about her heroine, Marie Camargo.

Like Sallé, Marie-Anne de Cupis de Camargo disliked the cumbersome costumes of her time. As one of the era’s most outstanding dancers, she sought to showcase her intricate technique. Camargo introduced new costumes with shortened skirts to highlight her feet and crafted heelless dance shoes that allowed for greater foot movement. Her innovations allowed her to become the first woman to perform the entrechat quatre, an intricate ballet jump where dancers cross their feet twice while in the air. 

Ballerinas in the 19th Century

With the costume issue sorted, dancers in the 19th century had newfound freedom of movement, leading to an era marked by Romanticism. Ballets were filled with fairies, sylphs, and sprites. Dancers donned tulle skirts that billowed gracefully as they moved, and for the first time, they danced en pointe, ushering in an era of tiptoed prima ballerinas.

Maria Taglioni (1804 – 1884): The First Ballerina en Pointe

From the documentary Darcey’s Ballerina Heroines Darcey Bussell talks about her heroine, Maria Taglioni.

Following Mlle de Lafontaine’s legacy, women continued to make strides in ballet. Although many dancers were beginning to experiment with dancing on their toes, it was Swedish dancer, Maria Taglioni, who first appeared on stage en pointe – a technique that allowed dancers to balance gracefully on the tips of their toes. In 1832, Maria appeared as the titular Sylphe in La Sylphide – the first ballet production to feature en pointe as a technique. Her ethereal performance set new standards for grace and elegance in ballet, propelling the ballerina firmly into the spotlight. 

Ballerinas in the 20th Century 

With the advent of pointe shoes and the success of Taglioni, ballerinas became stars like never before. The 19th century saw the creation of some of the most impressive female roles in the ballet repertoire like Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, and the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. As the century drew to a close the world was primed and ready for a big ballerina superstar. 

Anna Pavlova (1881 – 1931) 

From the documentary Darcey’s Ballerina Heroines – Darcey Bussell talks about her heroine, Anna Pavlova.

Anna Pavlova, a somewhat gangly and occasionally awkward dancer, defied expectations to become the first international ballet superstar. She’s best known for her routine The Dying Swan which she toured around the world performing the piece nearly 4,000 times. She made it her mission to bring ballet to remote corners of the world where ballet had never been seen before, inspiring generations of dancers.

Margot Fonteyn ( 1919 – 1991) 

From the documentary Darcey’s Ballerina Heroines – Darcey Bussell talks about her heroine, Margot Fonteyn.

Perhaps the most famous ballerina of the 20th century was Margot Fonteyn. She went on to become The Royal Ballet’s Prima Ballerina Assoluta, a title bestowed to only 11 ballerinas in history. She was known for her outstanding lyricism and for her decades long partnership with Rudolf Nureyev. She set a new standard for ballerinas when she debuted the role of Juliet in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet’ at the age of 45. Her performance was a staggering success and re-launched her career which continued another 15 years. 

Learn more about Margot Fonteyn in the fascinating documentary Margot streaming now on Marquee TV. 

Ballerinas Today

Today, dancers like Misty Copeland, Natalia Osipova, Ako Kondo, Marianela Núñez, Francesca Hayward, and Alina Cojocaru – to name only a few- are taking the star status of the ballerina to new heights.

Contemporary ballerinas are faced with a uniquely modern challenge, filmed performances. With HD closeups and cinema-quality capture, today’s ballerinas not only have to be flawless technicians, but they also need to be expressive actors, making modern ballerinas some of the most impressive athletes and actresses to ever tread the boards

In this clip from The Royal Ballet’s production of Like Water For Chocolate, Francesca Hayward shows off her acting skills in multiple close up shots. 

The history of the ballerina is a journey of evolution, innovation, and artistic excellence. From their early appearances in Renaissance courts to the stars of today’s digital stage, ballerinas have left an indelible mark on the world of ballet. To learn more about the history of ballerinas, check out the documentary “Darcey Bussell’s Ballerina Heroines,” where former Royal Ballet Star and Strictly Come Dancing Host, Darcey Bussell, explores the rich legacy of the ballerina.

Watch brilliant ballerinas in action

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