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arts

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Ballet  
 
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All over Europe, ballet developed from court entertainments to professional theater. In Sweden, King Gustav III (1746-1792), who liked to appear on stage himself, engaged a French ballet master and dancer, Antoine Bournonville (1760-1843), and twenty-four dancers to found the Swedish Royal Ballet.

In Denmark, where court dance spectacles had flourished from the time of Frederick II (1559-1588), ballet was well established at the Royal Theater by 1771. Auguste Bournonville (1806-1879), son of Antoine, administered Danish ballet for nearly fifty years and developed a distinctive technique that is still influential today.

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Women became the dancing stars in the Romantic period. Ballerinas Maria Taglioni (1804-1884), Fanny Elssler (1810-1884), and Carlotta Grisi (1819-1899) became internationally famous. Elssler is also notable for introducing national folk dances into ballet choreography.

The Romantic motif was tragic love and emphasized the fragility and ethereal spirit of maidens. The introduction of the "toe shoe," which gave support to the foot and toes, allowed the dancer to rise onto the tips of her toes, which helped to create the illusion of defying gravity.

In this period, male dancers became mere porteurs, hoisting the ladies into the air to give them the appearance of weightlessness. The epitome of the ballets of this period is Giselle (1841). In Act 1, Giselle, a peasant girl, dies after being seduced and abandoned by a nobleman; and in Act 2, she is initiated by other victims of men into a conspicuously lesbian spirit world. Giselle remains the defining work for ballerinas today.

As the art of ballet in Western Europe declined in the second half of the nineteenth century, men disappeared from the stage altogether. Men's roles were danced en travesti by women. As several paintings by Degas illustrate, the opera houses' green rooms became a sexual market place where wealthy gentlemen could select physically fit mistresses.

Russian Ballet

In the nineteenth century in Russia, then practically unknown to the West, men dominated the ballet, which was supported by the court until the Revolution of 1917. In 1734, Empress Anna had engaged the Frenchman Jean Baptiste Landet to teach dancing to cadets at the Military School of Nobles and then to create a School of Ballet. Tsar Paul I (1754-1801) studied ballet and danced in the Court Theatre.

In 1801, Charles Louis Didelot, a Swede who had been a pupil of Auguste Vestris in Paris, became ballet master at the Imperial Theatre. He was succeeded by two influential Frenchmen, Jules Perrot and Arthur Saint-Léon.

Another Frenchman, Marius Petipa, arrived in Russia in 1847. A choreographer as well as ballet master, he ruled over the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre until 1903. Petipa established the "classic ballet," which is based on the tradition and the rules of composition and technique developed during the preceding two centuries. Petipa believed in the primacy of choreography over all other theatrical elements. Among his greatest and still popular ballets are La Bayadère, The Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake.

Choreographer Michel Fokine (1880-1942) challenged Petipa's insistence on the primacy of choreography and revolutionized ballet with his organic fusion of dance, music, and painting. Serge Diaghilev invited him to create ballets for the proposed season of Russian ballet in Paris in 1909. This launched Fokine's career and gave the Ballets Russes its initial repertoire, including such works as Cléopâtre, Schéhérazade, and Petrouchka.

Performing in these sensational and erotically charged ballets was the great dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950). He re-established the primacy of the male dancer on the European ballet stage. Himself an innovative choreographer, Nijinsky created a completely new language of movement, one which abandoned classic ballet's courtly graces for a more primal, on-the-earth effect, as in his L'Après-midi d'un Faune (1912) and Le Sacre du Printemps (1913).

Following in Diaghilev's footsteps, Rolf de Maré, a Swedish millionaire, created Les Ballets Suédois (1920-1925), to feature his lover, Jean Borlin as premier danseur and choreographer. Borlin created many ballets in collaboration with leading composers and artists of the Parisian avant-garde.

Among the ways in which Diaghilev's Ballets Russes revolutionized ballet is the space it carved out for gay men, both as members of a cosmopolitan audience and as artists whose work was welcomed. Attracting a large audience of gay men in European capitals and in America, the Ballets Russes may be said to be among the earliest gay-identified multinational enterprises.

In the Ballets Russes gay men, whatever their nationality, were highly visible and their influence extended outward from ballet into related art forms such as cinema, painting, music, and fashion.

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