Over time, a canyon is carved by its environment. Over time, the canyon becomes this sort of larger than life sculpture advanced by the artists of wind, wildlife, and water. Over time, the canyon is shaped, engraved, inscribed and ultimately changed by the world around it, but the matter with which it is comprised - the dust, the rocks, the roots and the soil - remains mostly the same. Ballet is a canyon of sorts, a sculpture continuously shaped by the ever-changing environment in which it exists. Ballet has not existed in a vacuum untouched by revolution, innovation and discovery. Instead, the depth and breadth of ballet in world history has allowed the art to be changed hand in hand with humanity. Over time, two distinct classifications of ballet work began to emerge – romantic and classical. Each category, while vastly different in style and philosophy because of the setting it blossomed in, possesses the same beauty, majesty, and otherworldliness of ballet that has kept audiences enchanted for centuries. These differences are particularly evident in the examination of the Romantic Giselle and the Classical Sleeping Beauty.
First, Giselle was a ballet that epitomized the Romantic movement and is still one of the oldest continually performed ballets today. It was first performed in 1841 at the Theatre de l’Academie Royal de Musique in Paris, France almost ten years after what is considered to be the original Romantic ballet, La Sylphide, was presented. The movement and quality by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot showed similarities to this ballet, thus developing a distinct Romantic style. Giselle has two acts. The first portrays scenes that were heavily influenced by pantomiming movement with blends of dancing, and the second act was more heavily influenced by dancing with blends of pantomime. (Beaumont, 1996) This emphasis on pantomime was perhaps to promote the emphasis on emotional exploration that was so characteristic of the Romantic period because of the beliefs of the Enlightenment as a backlash from the French Revolution. These Dionysian ideas “stressed imagination and emotion, the variety and contrasts of human experience and the unique vision and value of each man.” This relationship between humanity and the supernatural is materialized in the Wilis characters that float ethereally through the second act of Giselle. The Wilis were spirits that could interact with our world seamlessly, bridging the gap between the otherworldly and the tangible. The popularity of these ideas is an important note to understanding the high regard on emotional and instinctual exploration in the Romantic ballets. This shift from intellect to instinct brought intense changes to the philosophy of ballet and thus characterized the outcome of Giselle. This unique political, cultural, and philosophical environment helped shape the Romantic ballet and distinguish it from its Classical counterpart. (Smith, 2010)
To directly contrast this is the ballet considered by many to be the finest achievement of the Classical period, Sleeping Beauty. This ballet was the work of Marius Petipa, and was first performed in 1890 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. While the Romantic period rejected formal structure and subject material focusing on the royal and noble, the Classical period embraced it. Sleeping Beauty is opulent, returning to the intermingling of traditional French court dances in the choreography and the refinement of the Apollonian expression. This was a shift away from the emotional exploration of the Romantic period and back to reason and rational philosophy. Marius Petipa developed a method to give an established formula to choreography called the rule of 3 to set an ideal for ballet. This rule of repetition partnered with the musical compositions, and Petipa wrote detailed instructions for the composer Tchaikovsky to follow in his construction of the score for Sleeping Beauty. In the Romantic period, dance was designed by the external power of the music, but in the Classical period choreographers had a more influential role with the construction of the symphony. This involvement allowed choreography to follow an academic, pattern-oriented structure that insured the association between dance and music. Just as in the Romantic movement, the result of Classical ballet was shaped by the environment in which it existed, particularly with the involvement of choreographers and ballet masters like Petipa. (Garafola, 2005)
Next, Giselle provides insight into the blatant femininity of the Romantic period. The feminine identity of the period was advanced by the shift from male dominated performances to the growing prominence of the ballerina in ballet structures. Marie Taglioni’s appearance in La Sylphide paved the way for the progress of female performers, allowing many prominent women to follow such as Carlotta Grisi - the first Giselle - Fanny Cerrito, Fanny Elssler and Lucille Grahn. Female performers were so prominent in the ballet scene that many male roles in Romantic ballets were originally danced by females. Specific to Giselle’s insight on the feminine identity, the women were dressed in Romantic tutus, a new long-length and willowy skirt design. (Kolb, 2009) These graceful skirts were an extension of the spirits, ghosts, sylphs, nymphs and wilis that the women portrayed. These new skirts not only represented the characters these women portrayed, but also the movement they were engaged in. Romantic movement style was inherently feminine and was characterized by roundness, the absence of hard lines, lyricism, and a forward tilt of the upper body, particularly evident in the stylistic distinction of Giselle. The Romantic definition of feminism is one of soft poise and subtle passion. (Smith, 2010)
While Romantic ballet focused on fragile and emotional femininity, Classical ballet focused more on the type of femininity that could be expressed in the refinement, strength, and charm of the female character. Though the men were back with elaborate variations specified to the inherent power and athleticism of the male gender, female ballerinas remained an integral part in the ballet structure. The Classical choreographer, Marius Petipa is considered by many to be a “poet of feminine charm.” (Kolb, 2009) In his aesthetic, he valued the tenderness of femininity, but challenged it with the contrast of luxurious majesty. His establishment of a new femininity was a significant trait of his choreography and is said to be best exemplified in the dancing of Princess Aurora, a female performer, in Sleeping Beauty. While Aurora performs emotional adagios and elegant variations, she also commands the stage with a grandiose coda, and a formulaic and pattern-oriented adagio with the four cavaliers. With the new developments in ballet technique and emphasis on lines and patterns, the female tutu was altered to the classical tutu. This new style of tutu was a tightly gathered skirt often fondly called a pancake tutu because of its flat, stiff nature. The purpose of this tutu style was to fit the ballerina’s body and display her legs performing more technical elements. This tutu style expanded on the ideals of femininity in the Classical setting by enhancing the regality of the classical ballerina and the characters she played. (Garafola, 2005)
To conclude, the illustration of ballet as a canyon being shaped little by little over time by its environment is conducive to acknowledging and understanding the developments in Romantic and Classical ballet in history. External forces and elements have touched the journey of ballet from its origin to where it is today and have imprinted upon it. Each of the two categories, Romantic and Classical ballet are vastly different in style and philosophy because of their differing environments. Also, while some of the ideals of femininity differ between the two periods, there are some similarities tying them together. Ultimately, a metamorphosis in the ballet spectrum is evident when looking at the substance that makes up the timeless ballets of Giselle and Sleeping Beauty.
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Garafola, Lynn. Legacies of Twentieth-century Dance. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP,
Gayevsky, Vadim. "Petipa's Choreographic Style." Petipa's Choreographic Style. Ballet
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Kolb, Alexandra. Performing Femininity: Dance and Literature in German Modernism.
Oxford: Peter Lang, 2009. Performing Femininity. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
Smith, Marian Elizabeth. Ballet and Opera in the Age of Giselle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
UP, 2010. Print.