By Danielle Pierce-Master, MA Dance / Edited by Samantha Bellerose, B.Ed, Dip.Dance(Performing Arts)
Ballet has a fascinating history of storytelling and spectacle. With early roots in France and Italy, the artform evolved as it spread to England, Russia and the United States. Each of these countries put their own stamp on the artform as different cultural and musical influences converged on choreography and style.
What we now know as ballet is closely intertwined with the geo-political conditions that were taking place in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. Catherine di Medici’s marriage to the French King Henri II (1533) brought a strong Italian influence to the French Court. Dancing was an important part of life at Court, it was a way of demonstrating wealth, power and glory.
Read on for a timeline of key events in the development of ballet.
History of Ballet Timeline
1533 Catherine di Medici’s marriage to the French King Henri II brought a strong Italian influence to the French Court where dancing was an important part of life.
1661 Louis XIV of France founded Royal Academy of Dance. Pierre Beauchamps was ballet master, this is where the five positions of the feet that we use today are codified.
1669 The Royal Academy of Music (which later becomes the Paris Opera) is founded in France.
1689 Peter the Great rises to power in Russia, seeking to bring western culture to Russia. This is how Ballet came to Russia, “as etiquette and not as art.”
1713 The Paris Opera forms a formal school for training dancers.
1771 The Royal Danish Ballet School is founded in Copenhagen.
1827 Marie Taglioni debuts at Paris Opera. She is famous for refining a trick that had become popular amongst Italian dancers, dancing on the tips of the toes. Taglioni would practice for hours to make rising to the tips of the toes look elegant and effortless. While she danced further back on her foot than dancers do today, she is considered to be one of the first dancers to dance en pointe.
1832 Taglioni debuts La Sylphede.
1841 Giselle premieres at the Paris Opera, starring Carlotta Grisi and Lucien Petipa.
1847 Marius Petipa moves to St Petersburg from Paris. Though he was a Frenchman, his work in Russia would help propel Russia into being the powerhouse in Ballet that it is known to be.
1890 The Sleeping Beauty premieres, a collaboration between Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa, the first “truly Russian ballet”
1892 The very first Nutcracker premiered in Russia. It was actually not beloved by audiences or critics.
1895 Swan Lake premieres in St. Petersburg, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.
1909-1929 Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes tours the world and promotes Russian Ballet, “…gathered up the energy and vitality of Russian ballet and returned classical dance to the forefront of European Culture.” “The Ballet Russes” generation included dancers like Anna Pavlova, Tamra Karsavina, Michail Fokeine and Vaslav Nijinksy.
1913 Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring premieres in a performance by the Ballet Russes in Paris. This ballet famously started a riot, as people really did not know what to do with the ballet. The movement vocabulary was highly modern and unlike anything that had been done in ballet before.
1931 The Vic-Wells Opera Ballet debuts in London under the direction of Ninnette de Valois.
1933 San Francisco Ballet is founded under the direction of Ballet Master Adoolph Bohm.
1934 George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein establish the School of American Ballet, the first step in what would be a long journey into the establishment of what is now New York City Ballet.
1939 Lucia Chace and Oliver Smith begin American Ballet Theater.
1941 “American Ballet Caravan,” a collaboration between George Balanchine, Lincoln Kirstein, Nelson Rockefellar and the US State Department toured South America. It was on this tour that Balanchine created Concerto Barocco.
1942 Agnes de Mille choreographs her masterwork Rodeo for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
1944 The first American production of The Nutcracker is performed at SF Ballet.
1944 Jerome Robbins makes his choreographic debut with Fancy Free for Ballet Theater.
1948 George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein’s “Ballet Society” makes its debut as New York City Ballet and includes Jerome Robbins as an Assistant Artistic Director.
1948 The Red Shoes, the first movie to feature ballet, is made.
1952 Janet Collins becomes the first Black Principal Dancer at the Metropolitan Opera.
1955 Arthur Mitchell becomes the first Black Principal Dancer at the New York City Ballet.
1956 British Ballet Star Margot Fonteyn is named a Dame of the British Empire.
1956 The Vic-Wells Opera Ballet, which had been renamed Sadler’s Wells Ballet, is chartered as the Royal Ballet.
1958 The US Congress passes an act to develop a “National Cultural Center,” which is eventually the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
1961 Rudolf Nureyev defects from the Soviet Union.
1964 E. Virginia Williams’ New England Civic Ballet debuts as Boston Ballet.
1969 Dance Theater of Harlem is founded by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook.
1970 Ballet Hispánico is founded by Tina Ramirez.
1972 Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet is founded.
1974 Mikhail Baryshnikov defects from the Soviet Union.
1977 The Turning Pointe is released, starring Baryshnikov and ABT ballerina Leslie Browne.
1980 Mikhail Baryshnikov becomes artistic director of ABT.
1983 George Balanchine dies, artistic leadership of NYCB is shared by Jerome Robbins and Peter Martins.
1986 Miami City Ballet is founded by Toby Ansin and former New York City Ballet Dancer Edward Villella.
1992 Kevin MacKenzie becomes artistic director of ABT.
1995 The Joffrey Ballet moves from NYC to Chicago.
2004 American Ballet Theater establishes the JKO School.
2004 Alexei Ratmansky is named director of the Bolshoi Ballet.
2005 Peter Boal, former principal dancer at New York City Ballet, is named artistic director at Pacific Northwest Ballet
2012 Lourdes Lopez becomes artistic director of Miami City Ballet.
2014 San Francisco Ballet, The National Ballet of Canada, The Bolshoi Ballet, and the Royal Ballet collaborate to present the first World Ballet Day
2015 Misty Copeland is named Principal Dancer at ABT, becoming the company’s first Black Principal Dancer.
2019 The Joffrey Ballet commissions their very first full length new ballet with new music, Anna Karenina
2019 Jonathan Stafford is named artistic director of New York City Ballet.
2020 The world turned upside down with a Global Pandemic. Dancers around the world took classes in their kitchens, adapted, and danced outside. They formed rehearsal bubbles and that is how they created new works. Seasons went digital and somehow people still stayed connected to dance.
2021 Ballet companies around the world trepidly get back on stage promoting 2021-2022 seasons and selling tickets to audiences around the world. Ballet dancers get used to a new normal of wearing face masks during class, training and rehearsals.
As we are living in highly unpredictable times, no one can say exactly what will happen next. The ballet world is figuring out how it can stay relevant and address serious issues of diversity and inclusion. I look forward to seeing what innovation and creativity will bring!
For More Information
If you’re interested in learning more about ballet history, check out these websites and books.
Royal Ballet School’s Ballet History Timeline
Ballet History from Pittsburgh Ballet Theater
Dance Treasures Archive at the Library of Congress
Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans
No Fixed Points by Nancy Reynolds and Malcom McCormack