The History of Ballet
The birthplace of ballet was renaissance Italy and France. The word “ballet” has its roots in the Italian “baletto,” meaning “little dance.” The birth of ballet dates back to 1581, when the idea arose within the French court to combine four types of art—music, dance, poetry, and painting—and thus create “a new ideal of classical unity.”
At the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, ballet performances transformed to strongly emphasize individual dancers’ dance technique and virtuosity.
At this time the French school was employed throughout Europe. The first known ballet master in Prague dates to 1739, at the theater V Kotcích.
The Italian school also had a strong influence on the development of ballet and introduced ballet d’action, i.e. plot-based ballet. At the end of the 18th century, London became the world’s ballet leader, with Vienna in second place. In this epoch the dancers’ costumes were made up of light tunics and they danced nearly on tiptoe, while men’s dance introduced high leaps, pirouettes and tours en l’air.
The foundations of classical ballet as we know it today lie in the “romantic” ballet of the 19th century. In this period, the center of events for ballet returned to Paris, from where the new style spread to Europe’s other ballet centers, and especially Russia. Yet modern ballet is most strongly influenced by the classic works of this period’s composers—the ballets of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky joined together with the choreography of Maria Petipa and the Russian and European school of the 20th century—Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, and more. Their great works Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet, The Rites of Spring, and Daphnis et Chloé were milestones in ballet’s development.
Starting in the 19th century, and especially from the 1920s onward, we begin to see ballet achievements across the Atlantic as well, thanks to the influence of emigrant dancers (Fokine, Massine, and Balanchine, who led ballet schools there and performed on Broadway and in Hollywood).
The German ballet scene in the 20th century saw a great blossoming as well, and it holds the baton for this art today with its 100+ ballet stages. These ensembles also have a number of foreigners in their ranks, including excellent Czech dancers like Ivan Liška, Vladimír Klos, and the Bubeníček brothers.
Ballet, the peak of the art of dance, is also seen today in the most important opera houses—such as London’s Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, where the famous Czech-born principal dancer Daria Klimentova long performed. From among the other contemporary epicenters of dance, let us name at least La Scala in Milan, the State Opera in Vienna, the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, and above all the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. The current trends in modern ballet are represented by the dance groups at Holland’s Nederlands Dans Theater, with which the name of the excellent Czech choreographer and dancer Jiří Kylián is connected, and the Hamburg Ballet in Germany, home to current choreography star John Neumeier.
The lands that are today the Czech Republic have a long history of dance. It is no wonder that the Prague Conservatory, founded in 1811 by the aristocratic Association for the Fostering of Music in Bohemia, established dance as its first specialization.
Božena Brodská’s overview The History of Ballet in Bohemia and Moravia implies that the ruling noble families internationally interconnected by mutual marriages considered the art of dance to be an essential part of their education and of their shared self-presentation in society.
With the founding of the National Theater in Prague in 1881, and especially after the founding of Czechoslovakia, there arose a need for professional dancers with well-rounded educations. It is surely no accident that the first ballet school for amateur dance enthusiasts was founded in 1884 at Prague’s National Theater, under the care of contemporary ballet master Augustin Berger.
After World War II, another heart of dance arose in Prague—the Academy of Performing Arts. It has had its own Department of Dance since 1949.
The Czech Republic’s network of theaters is among Europe’s most extensive. Besides the National Theater in Prague, ballet is performed at the National Theater in Brno, the National Moravian-Silesian Theatre in Ostrava, the J. K. Tyl Theatre in Pilsen, the Moravian Theater in Olomouc, the Silesian Theatre in Opava, the North Bohemian Theater of Opera and Ballet in Ústí nad Labem and the South Bohemian Theater in České Budějovice.
These ensembles also include ballet schools at which children are guided from their youngest ages to gain both dance/technical skills and a love of this artistic genre and of theater overall.
Ballet is an international art at its core. These ensembles and schools engage dancers from practically the entire world—and the world is also opening up to Czech dancers. Our star Jiří Kylian remains among the most successfully internationally, while out of the younger generation, Jan Kodet, Václav Kuneš and his company 420PEOPLE, and the Dekkadancers association that arose from a group of soloists at the National Ballet in Prague. Jiří and Otto Bubeníček and the soloists of the famous Hamburg Ballet under John Neumeier have become stars of European ballet. The dance conservatory in Prague is led by a renowned choreographer, Jaroslav Slavický, whose son Lukáš Slavický spent many years as a soloist of the Bavarian State Ballet and is currently serving as the artistic head of the ballet ensemble in České Budějovice. The Czech general public also knows such names as the long-time prima ballerina from the English National Ballet Daria Klimentová, currently teaching at the Royal Ballet School in London. Among the current Czech stars of dance, we should at least mention Tereza Podařilová (winner of several Thálie awards), Nikola Márová, Adéla Pollertová, and Ondřej Vinklát. One of the most famous personalities of Czech dance is Vlastimil Harapes, whose name “means ballet” among nation’s public.