Ballet as a Progressive Art: Expectations and Perceptions

“Ballet dancers define themselves above all as artists, feeling alienated among people who go to ballet performances for social prestige and not out of interest.” (Wulff, 1998)

Wulff’s notion perpetuates the concept of ballet subsisting as an aristocratic and socially profound art form designed for the upper class individual. Ballet, like opera and other opulent occasions were a lavish event among nobility. To give a historical account, this idea dates back to the 15th century of the Italian renaissance, where ballet founded its first steps. Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France from 1547 to 1559, was a great patron of the arts and she funded ballet in the French courts in the 16th century. The aim here was to express social superiority by hosting magnificent, artistic spectacles for the noblemen of the court.

Following this King Louis XIV of France assisted in disseminating ballet as an art form and he would partake in various productions. This includes the role of ‘The Sun King’ in Ballet de la Nuit. In an article A Brief History of Ballet it states “His love for ballet fostered its elevation from a pastime for amateurs to an endeavour requiring professional training”(Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, 2010). In 1673, by affiliates of the King’s ménage, the Paris Opera Company was established and the aristocracy no longer performed in the ballets. From then dance was considered a profession, rather than a hobby, based on specialized training.

Sarah Lamb dancing as Aurora in the Royal Ballet Company's production of Sleeping Beauty
Sarah Lamb as Aurora in The Royal Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty

This social dominance of the upper class continued into the 19th and early 20th century. There was talk of the opulence and snobbery of the upper crust theatre fanatics. Jean Cocteau once said “the smart audience in tails and tulle, diamonds and ospreys, was interspersed with the suits and bandeaux of the aesthetic crowd. The latter would applaud novelty simply to show their contempt for the people in the boxes… Innumerable shades of snobbery, super-snobbery and inverted snobbery were represented.”

In addition, female ballerinas progressed in the art, particularly within the 19th century. During this period it was the romantic era, full of classical ballet, art, music and literature. The perception of ballerinas at this time was that they were passive and fragile (Victorian physicians considered women more fragile and sensitive than men and it seemed to have an influence on the public view of females.) In this way, the characters female ballerinas portrayed on the stage emphasised that identity struggle. However moving into the 20th and 21st century of ballet and dance, choreographers and modern dance practitioners such as Vaslav Nijinsky, Isadora Duncan and Matthew Bourne pushed the boundaries of ballet, experimenting with storytelling, set, lighting design and costume to break the conventions of classical ballet performance and establishing their own freedom and creative choreography.

Over time, classical ballet education became more advanced through the development of technical training and had a demanding effect on the dancing body. Due to investigations into the body, understanding the muscular and skeletal system, practitioners made developments in the exercises in order to strengthen and lengthen the body. There is a suggestion that this training was established through the crossover between ballet and ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ dance technique.

Progression of Ballet as an Art Form through Case Studies

Vaslav Nijinsky

Vaslav Nijinksky's The Rite of Spring
Vaslav Nijinksky’s The Rite of Spring

The transition between ballet and contemporary dance was perceived as controversial in the early 20th century. Nijinksy was notorious for his contentious choreographic ideas. Written of Nijinsky “Each of [his] works presented a new aesthetic. Radical and unorthodox, they turned their backs on the classical heritage and has since garnered the accolade of being ballet’s first ‘modern’ choreography’.” (Nadel and Strauss, 2012)This became apparent in Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography for The Rite of Spring. I shall again refer to the article by Ivan Hewett, The Rite of Spring 1913: Why did it provoke a riot? The riot itself took place at the premiere of The Rite of Spring on May 29th 1913. The audience were outraged by Nijinsky’s contemporary choreography and it caused a controversy in terms of its theme of pagan rites and sacrificial virgins, as well as Stravinsky’s score for the performance.

Audiences at this time were engaged with classical ballets, such as La Sylphide, Giselle and Coppelia. These ballets represented the graceful and gentle attributes associated with women at the time. The choreography appeared effortless and beautiful on the stage and audiences adored it. Spectators of The Rite of Spring observed the inverted feet, the lack of grace, and the lack of technique and were shocked by it. The experimental nature of Nijinsky’s choreography pushed the boundaries of ballet and transformed it into a neo-classical, or modern, performance. There seemed to be a conscious challenging of balletic techniques and traditions in a way that choreographers were trying to break away from it. On the other hand, as I mentioned previously, some practitioners may have wanted to use the knowledge of ballet and create something new and expressive to show to an audience.

Isadora Duncan

Isadora Duncan
Isadora Duncan

Isadora Duncan was recognised for her inspiration from Greek dance and art as well as non-classical conceptions and it influenced the way in which dancers are technically trained as her movements offered gentility but also were freeing. Historically, women were fighting for equality, during the suffragette movement, so there could be a suggestion that Isadora Duncan’s work could potentially have made a political statement. This idea of Duncan as a rebel was heightened in Isadora: Portrait of the artist as a woman.(Blair, 1986) Duncan was described as “The innovator, the revolutionary of the dance, the rebel against society, the witty, the liberated, the extravagant, the tragic, the self-destructive, the healing, and the creative woman.” Isadora Duncan, who expressed a love for life and nature, her frivolousness and her outspokenness, became apparent in her choreographic choices as the movements were more expressive rather than typical balletic suspension.

In contrast to ballet technique, Duncan seemed to convey more joy and effortlessness in her choreography. Also her costume choices represented her and the dancing as the Greek style dresses were non-restricting, breaking away from corsets and allowing the dancer to glide freely. Duncan’s outspokenness came in the form of telling outrageous stories and expressing painful truths. It was suggested that her outlook or attitude derived from her upbringing.

She was born into a wealthy family; her father was a banker and mining engineer. Her mother was depicted by Blair as ‘strong willed’ and rejected her religious upbringing, possibly adding to Duncan’s own recalcitrant nature. However not long after her birth her father was disgraced and the family fell into destitution, Duncan became rebellious and dropped out of school because she felt it restricted her individuality. This could be something that could have had a strong influence on how she lived her life and how she choreographed and danced.

Her own technique focused on natural movement rather than the rigid technique of ballet. The way in which the public viewed her choreography both shocked audiences but also had the ability to inspire them. Isadora stood as a confrontation to the dominant orthodoxies during her lifetime and was also considered an advocate for women’s rights; there was a suggestion that it was how Isadora Duncan expressed how society was changing and how dance was changing with it.

Matthew Bourne

Storytelling was one of the main attributes of classical ballet. A choreographer who utilized this form of performance and coupled it with ballet, in a contemporary style, was Matthew Bourne. Bourne trained at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance and after graduating formed his own company, Adventures in Motion Pictures (now New Adventures). His movements derived from ballet as they had that graceful and dynamic aesthetic and yet he coupled the movement with the contemporary themes behind his costumes, set design and how he interpreted a story. He turned the classic Sleeping Beauty, into a Gothic ballet, with vampires and fairies, appealing to the younger/ adolescent audience types who were fanatics of Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen in Twilight (2008).

He turned Tim Burton’s well beloved film, Edward Scissorhands (1990) into a ballet, with dancing topiary and pedestrian movement to represent the personalities of each character. He also transferred The Nutcracker into an orphanage with an evil Sugar Plum Princess. Despite his new take on ballets, compared to Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring, it caused very little controversy because audiences in the late 20th century were more open to modern and contemporary ideas. Even Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, with men dancing as the swans became an acclaimed success.

It also opened up themes about homosexuality, which up until 1967 was a criminal offence. It is suggested that Bourne’s depiction of homosexuality was based around the sexuality struggles of the Swan Lake composer, Tchaikovsky. Male gender stereotyping in ballet was still a cause for concern for young male dancers as some people automatically associated ballet with girls and therefore assume that boys who partake in it are homosexual. However contemporary dance assisted with changing this perspective as the physicality required for the art had to be strong and dynamic. Male dancers were more open to it as they were able to express themselves without facing controversy or scrutiny for finding interest in dance and movement. It also allowed them to appear strong and dominant. Bourne’s Swan Lake invited the audience to see that male dancers could also find the grace and articulation of a corps de ballet, similarly to female dancers, and yet make it appear strong and masculine.

Ballet and the Media

The transition of ballet into film was also a fascinating way of perceiving how ballet transformed. For example The Red Shoes (1948) was based around a British ballerina, entering into an esteemed ballet company as their new prima ballerina and she danced the lead in Hans Christian Anderson’s story The Red Shoes. The film itself highlighted many issues that presented a problem in society. For example, the lead protagonist, portrayed by Moira Shearer, was an unknown ballet dancer from an aristocratic background, and it was through family connections that she made it into an established company. Nepotism and family connections had a strong bearing in the arts, especially in acting. Those with money could better supply their offspring with the means to support a lucrative career.

In recent years, film productions such as The Black Swan (2010) depicted the darker side of ballet. It explored the desire to be perfect, mental health issues and eating disorders. Again, these concepts arose from the way the public viewed dancers as well as the advancement in ballet training. It also awakened the public’s consideration into how nutrition and well-being played a part in ballet. Dance UK’s dance manifesto stated that they wanted dance to be ‘a sustainable career and healthy profession’ they could also be referring to mental health in this statement as well as physical health.

Elle Magazine published an interview discussing the pressures for professional ballerinas. Ballerina Jenifer Ringer, felt that the competitiveness of ballet training caused her anxieties and not only that but she found real problems dealing with her weight throughout her ballet career. She even considered drastic ways of losing weight through smoking and drugs . Ringer said “my identity and my self-worth were so wrapped up in my ballet achievements. All I was, was a dancer; as a failed dancer, I was nothing.” (Ringer, 2014) When asked about how other dancers in the company viewed eating disorders she said that it was something people wouldn’t openly discuss although recently there became a greater awareness of eating disorders and mental health.

Tamara Rojo, a Royal ballet professional, now artistic director and lead principal of the English National Ballet, stated that she would not hire underweight dancers. The action taken by ballet practitioners was a step in the right direction for younger dancers.

Tamara Rojo was not the only ballet practitioner who was aiming to alter the public perception of ballet. Recently a lot of media attention was around companies consisting of larger sized dancers. For example in early 2014, Channel 4 produced the documentary series Big Ballet. Dancers, Wayne Sleep and Monica Loughman, created their own production of Swan Lake, using ‘plus size’ amateur dancers and allowing them to realise their dream of performing. This project was also designed to entertain the public audience as it was constructed similarly to a reality show, depicting the tears and tantrums within the studio. It also launched the concept of using larger dancers to make a statement about size and equal opportunities.

The dancers that they chose in the audition process had struggles making it into a dance career, either because they were told they were too big, believing they weren’t the right shape or that they thought ballet was only aimed at females and felt discouraged to continue with it. The aim of the programme was to open up ballet opportunities to those who were passionate about dancing and performing but didn’t have the platform to pursue it.

The Day of the Performance | Big Ballet | Channel 4

Ballet disseminated into popular culture and has opened opportunities for people of varying backgrounds. Some will continue their view of ballet as an art, to be enjoyed as an entertainment and a pleasure. Others will refer to its athleticism and and consider it a competitive sport to push the boundaries of the body’s physicality and to gain recognition for the demanding training they have endured for the sake of art. Those who partake in ballet may see it as an opportunity for self-expression, such as Isadora Duncan, a gift to move and to train equally with others, no matter the gender, age, race or size.

Looking to the future, ballet may continue to shift perceptions, push boundaries and develop other self-expressions and conditions. It is also now defining itself as a fitness craze within communities, for example ‘Best Barre Fitness’ utilizes ballet knowledge and helps to strengthen and tone to body in order to help posture and overall physical well-being. With this in mind it will be an interesting outlook, from both a performer and spectator of dance, to see how ballet will develop in the coming years.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Posted on by
MA Professional Writing Graduate ~ Cornwall based ~ My interests lie within literature, film and travel.

Want to write about Arts or other art forms?

Create writer account


  1. Ballet is a very conservative art form.

    • Ryan Errington

      Still doesn’t take away from Ballet as a form of creative expression. Although fictional, The Red Shoes (1948) delves into the creative process of ballet with great effect.

  2. Santina Valadez

    I love the recent multi media layered approach to ballet. So fresh and appropriate to this age.

  3. So is the theme here that Ballet wants to be inwardly looking, (e.g. eager to drop its history as a class signifier) but its attempts to do so make it impossible because the directions tries to demonstrate that claim ultimately embed it in the broader world it is a part of? (e.g. Male dancers have to deal with masculinity concerns, selection into it has to deal with class/privilege, etc)

    It was a bit difficult reading this to figure out what was progressing, being ignorant of the practice. I get the feeling, well, Ballet was like this, then it became that, and now people want to make it this. Was this supposed to be a narrative or a collage?

    • Its supposed to look at how ballet was viewed in the past, how dance practitioners have altered the face of ballet by combining it with contemporary techniques, how ballet is being viewed in the present time and the current issues linked with how the public perceive it. So yes, I suppose it is a collage of sorts…

  4. Nice to see dance be covered here!

  5. Seriously envious of people who are professional ballet dancers.

  6. Thank you for this article. It may prove useful when I see ballet next time.

  7. Beautiful photos!

  8. Ballet dancers are incredible actresses.

  9. dreamingair

    This was a very well written article. It was quite an interesting read and it’s nice to know more about the history of ballet and it has progressed and evolved through the ages. As a music student it is also interesting to see how the two art forms of dance and music coincide. I was particularly interested in your reference to the Rite of Spring as I studied this ballet in class last year, of course with more of a focus on the contemporary score composed by Stravinsky.

  10. Enjoyed the read, thanks!

  11. Hi Katy,

    Enjoyed your piece. I am a contemporary saxophone player, with a special interest in collaborative performance projects with artists of different disciplines of performing arts. Would love to chat about potentially finding a topic for a joint article.


    Simon MacLeod
    Bachelor of Music Performance
    University of Calgary

  12. Ballet can be so many different things: a narrative, a performance, an artwork, etc. but the tying thread is that it is creative. I don’t know much about ballet but tracing its history reveals a lot about how people perceive it today, and how ballerinas can continue to push and challenge traditional notions of what ballet can consist of.

  13. Such a great article on a fascinating subject that not a lot of people write about in the Artifice. Well-written, very interesting and complete… I learned a lot about something that I am passionate about but don’t know enough about! Thanks

  14. DClarke

    What a thoughtful article. This has introduced me to a very different way of thinking about ballet. You have a great grasp of not only the history but the art form itself and I say that as somebody who was not greatly informed but as somebody who felt informed after reading your work.

  15. As a previous dancer with sisters who still dance, this article immediately caught my attention. I love your discussion of the media involvement, particularly The Rite of Spring. I’ve always loved its frightfully realistic choreography. Dark, more somber ballets are the most moving, for some reason.

  16. This article proves that ballet is more than simply girls prancing around in tutus, and is instead a true art form which requires great skill and strength (both mentally and physically).

  17. Jeff Rogers, a former principal dancer with Ballet West and currently a Ballet West Ballet Master, frequently tells his students, “Ballet is the only art created by and for royalty, so you have to look like it.” While art education has become more democratized, especially in America, there are concerns because it can still be very cost prohibitive. White females from upper class families make up the bulk of ballet school patrons, and from these are gleaned those who dance professionally. This is one reason Misty Copeland and Stella Abrera are such a big deal, they break the race mold and the body type mold.
    But not the gender mold. There are other concerns that most companies, while being full of beautiful and increasingly diverse women, are run and choreographed on by men. Because in the U.S. ballet is one of the “go to” hobbies fro little girls, there is a huge gender imbalance. Boys are given scholarships, solo roles, and a voice in production much earlier and more frequently, even if there are 10 other girls in with more talent and experience. A girl knows that one mistake means some one who looks just like her will take her place. For men, this is much more rarely the case, and they are encouraged to open up more and earlier. Just some things this article brought to mind. While dance is more free in expression and more accessible than ever, there are still some old boundaries in place.

  18. bellet is a art through the movement of which carry’s you.

  19. Raylin Sutter

    I had the amazing opportunity of going and seeing Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty with my daughter a long time ago. It really got her excited to start ballet classes and she has actually had the opportunity to be a part of a few local theatrical productions as a dancer. I would love to see more of his ballets, especially Edward Scissorhands. However, I’m not too sure where I can go to see that. How do I find out who is performing that ballet?

  20. I am interested to see how dance/ballet is transitioned into the future. It seems that the traditional “classical ballet” is beginning to fade because of our fast-paced society and overlooking of the arts. I like how you described ballet in the media, because I believe that dance needs to become more involved in this outlet in order to stay relevant.

  21. AnaMRuiz

    The general audience adoption of ballet can be heavily influenced by education. The most illustrative example I know of this is the Cuban National Ballet, created only fifty years ago, shortly after the Revolution. Before then, Cuba had no ballet, and no popular culture of attending the ballet. But in that half century, an internationally recognized ballet company was created and the Cuban population, regardless of socioeconomic status, became ballet aficionados. How do you do that? Accessibility: lower the prices that act as barriers for lower income individuals to enjoy ballet or opera, and educate the audience to appreciate it.

  22. Very interesting concepts in this article. Along the same lines as the body type required to be a professional ballet dancer, I think another factor that makes ballet seem alienating is some of the anatomy required. From my experience training in ballet and contemporary, it’s very difficult to be proficient at ballet without natural external rotation (or turn out) – you can strengthen your rotator muscles to enhance it, but you can only improve it as much as your body will allow before you start rotating from your knee joint.
    Then there’s also the struggle for ballet companies to find an appropriate balance between performing works that encourage audience members from both the general public and the dance community (which is essential for financial purposes as well as being a good welcoming practice). While the general public enjoys the spectacle of strict classical technique and the readability of a strong narrative, viewers more familiar with dance may be left unfulfilled. On the other hand, if a piece is too abstract, the general public engagement can dwindle.

Leave a Reply