Ballet is a rich and diverse art form. To many outsiders, ballet might seem staid and traditional. Tradition is certainly an essential component of the world's most elegant dance style. But ballet artists around the world continue to innovate. In all, there are three major forms of ballet with many variations.
Classical Ballet: Russian and French
French ballet dates back to the reign of Louis XIV. Russia became a ballet powerhouse much later, but by the 20th century was the undisputed leader in the art form. Russian ballet is precise, clean and pure, without unnecessary embellishment. Dancers are trained to develop their upper body strength to achieve stronger full-body compositions. French ballet is more traditional and less rigid, but still emphasizes elegance and grace rather than virtuosity.
Classical Ballet: Italian
Italian ballet blossomed in the early 19th century and was distinguished by its focus on individual virtuosity. Italian dancers were encouraged to develop personal styles beyond that of the choreographers. Complicated and physically demanding steps are a key component of Italian ballet, with many virtuoso pirouettes, tours and fouettes. As a result, Italian ballet is often the most immediately impressive to casual fans.
The legendary Russian dancer and choreographer George Balanchine is acknowledged to have inaugurated neoclassical ballet with his stunningly modern works of dance for the Ballet Russes in the 1920s. Balanchine stripped ballet down to its more essential elements, removing all vestiges of the narrative theatre. Dancers no longer represented literary characters, but pure movement itself. As he continued his work in the 1940s and 1950s when his work became even more spare and abstract.
Balanchine's protege Mikhail Baryshnikov was instrumental in the development of contemporary ballet. Contemporary ballet expanded on Balanchine's innovations by introducing elements of modern dance that are outside the traditional range of motion permitted by classical ballet. Contemporary ballet is something of a fusion between this storied art form and the disparate dance styles of the 20th century. Contemporary continues to use traditional pointe shoes, but adheres to few other strict rules. Some contemporary ballets have moved back toward the character and narrative that Balanchine eschewed.
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