Ballet spans over centuries and continents. It has years of experimentation and artistic inspiration to establish its unique methods, techniques and styles. Ballet started with court ballet before evolving into opera-ballet and the comédie-ballet, and later the classical ballet which is widely spread today.

In this article, we will discuss the different styles created, mainly the 4 important ones: Classical Ballet, Romantic Ballet, Neoclassical Ballet and Contemporary/Modern Ballet.


Classical Ballet

2019 Elevate_IBGPS_2Classical ballet is the foundation from which nearly all dance genres have developed. It requires strong technique, athleticism and grace. It is the oldest and structured according to the framework established in the 19th century based on both traditional vocabulary and technique. Its main characteristics are the orchestrated music, story-driven, balance and symmetry, etherealness, elaborated costumes and sets narrated in formal mime gestures. Pointe work, poise, formation in dancers, long lines, turnout and graceful expressions are emphasised.

One of the most well-known classical ballet production is Swan Lake, but it was actually a bit too avant-garde for the audiences back when it premiered in 1877. Swan Lake’s dancers, orchestra and decor were not well received. Audiences disliked Tchaikovsky’s now-classic score citing it too complex. Critics and audiences warmed up to the ballet after the 1895 revival of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov‘s Swan Lake at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Audiences were particularly charmed by Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani (1868 – 1930), who played Odette between 1894 – 1895. She turned 32 fouettés in the final scene of the ballet, emphasising strength and technique. She first performed the 32 fouettés en tournant in the coda of the Grand Pas d’action of the ballet Cinderella, and was famous as the first ballerina to execute that.


Romantic Ballet

2019 Elevate_HKCCDC_12Romantic ballet was an artistic movement of classical ballet and extremely important because it was the first time female dancers went on pointe. Prior to the romantic period, it was uncommon to have a female heroine. The romantic era was marked by the emergence of pointe work, female dancers’ predominance and longer soft tutus that attempt to exemplify softness and delicate aura. It emphasised intense drama and emotion as a source of aesthetic story-telling. The plots of many romantic ballets revolved around sylphs or mythological creature or spirit and ghosts who enslaved the hearts and senses of mortal men. This style was based on the conflicts between both good and evil, beauty and ugliness, fantasy and spirit.

Three notable romantic ballet are La Sylphide 1832, Giselle 1841 and Coppélia 1870.

Marie Taglioni (1804 – 1884), who first danced in La Sylphide and her choreographer and teacher father, Filippo Taglioni (1777 – 1871) were considered the pioneer in romantic ballet. Her sylph ethereal qualities, grace, and dramatic capabilities made her the famous ballerina of the era. For the first time, supernatural storyline performed on stage. The concept was about an unfortunate hero, forever chasing a supernatural force and ultimately face a tragic destiny.

Nine years later Giselle, a romantic-ballet-pantomime was staged. Carlotta Grisi (1819 – 1899) was known for her ability to perform as both the sensual and spiritual dancer when she debuted as Giselle. A dual role of the sensual and playful peasant girl in the first act and the ghostly spiritual in the second act.

Arthur Saint-Léon’s (1821 – 1870) Coppélia premiered in May 1870. It was considered to be the last work of the romantic ballet. It is a comic romantic ballet featuring a young protagonist, dancing dolls, and magic, but had a dark history with the ballet’s original run interrupted by the Franco-Prussian war and a terrible siege in Paris. The ballet was only performed 12 times before the theatre was shut down and later used as a storage facility during the siege.


Neoclassical Ballet

Elevate_neoclassicalNeoclassical ballet emerged in the 1920s and evolved throughout the 20th century. Artists of many disciplines began to rebel and distance themselves against the overly dramatised style of the romantic ballet. As a result, dance returned to a more simplistic style like the original classical ballet except bolder, stronger, more athletic and free of distractions. Neoclassical ballets uses traditional classical ballet vocabulary but far less rigid and are sophisticated, sleek, modern, and clean because of the focus on dance itself as opposed to the marriage of sets, costumes, makeup and dance. It is usually abstract with non-narrative and no clear plot, using simple costumes or sets. The work are usually increased in speed, energy and attack, asymmetry with an off-balance feel. Dancers’ movement are the main artistic medium which is the hallmark of neoclassical ballet; meaning the revival or adaptation of the classical style. It is aimed for the purity of expression and sophisticated movement by eliminating distracting theatrical elements.

George Balanchine (1904 – 1983), a graduate of the Imperial Ballet School in Russia, was considered to represent the neoclassical style and is well-known for his modern-yet-classical clean aesthetic.  Balanchine used flexed hands and turned-in legs, off-centered positions and non-classical costumes such as leotards and tunics instead of tutus, to distance himself from the classical and romantic ballet traditions. He built upon the traditional classical ballet vocabulary by extending lines and positions, playing with speed and tempo, freedom of movement and new positions outside of the ballet vocabulary. The staging is more modern and complex.

Balanchine found a home for his neoclassical style in the United States, when Lincoln Kirstein (1907 – 1996) brought him to New York in 1933 to start a ballet company. He started a school, where he trained dancers in his technique and the School of American Ballet was founded in 1934. He invented the Balanchine technique, which is now widely used in the United States. A topic we will discuss in another article. Many of his most famous neoclassical ballets were choreographed in both his school and his own company the New York City Ballet, which was founded in 1948 and still exists today. Balanchine’s first foray into the neoclassical style was Apollon Musegete, choreographed in 1928 for the Ballets Russes. Unlike many of his later works, this ballet tells a story which indicates that Balanchine had not yet completely broken free from the romantic tradition. This ballet first premiered with large sets, costumes and props. Balanchine continually revised it as his style evolved and renamed the ballet simply Apollo. He produced more plotless, musically driven ballets such as The Prodigal Son 1929, Serenade (1934), Concerto Barocco (1941), Symphony in C (1947), Agon (1957) and Jewels (1967).


Contemporary/Modern Ballet

Elevate_modernballetContemporary ballet is influenced by classical ballet, modern and sometimes jazz. It takes inspiration from classical technique, use of pointe work and expanded with a greater range of movement that are not found in the strict discipline of old school teachings. Many of its concepts come from ideas and innovations of modern, including floor work, turned-in legs and greater range of movement and body line.

There is no set rules for contemporary ballet. It can be performed on pointe, barefoot or soft shoes. Contemporary ballets, unlike neoclassical ballet, may include mime and acting, and the same versatile approach goes for the music, setting, and costumes. It does not require certain standards to be met or conform to any limits. Classical ballet requires classical music, tutus, pointe shoes and scenery but contemporary ballet uses different types of costumes, ranging from traditional to more modern tunic type versions and music can range from traditional to new popular music.

Experimentation and creativity are the two main points, driving the audience to think upon the aesthetic lines the body conveys and the power of movement. According to Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, classical ballet was very much directed toward the audience. Neoclassical started to change shapes but was still toward the audience. With contemporary ballet, the audience is asked to look at what is happening between the dancers. Another notable choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon said the style also means any ballet choreography that is made today.

Today someone training as a dancer will be expected to perform the formal classical work, lyrical and free neoclassical work, technical modern and the undefined contemporary work. There are many contemporary ballet companies and choreographers all over the world. Notable companies include Nederlands Dans Theater, Rambert Dance Company, Hubbard Street Dance ChicagoComplexions Contemporary Ballet and Dutch National Ballet. Likewise, many traditionally classical companies now regularly perform contemporary works. It is very common for ballet companies to have an official choreographer in residence to create new contemporary work.


References & Further Readings