Long before ballerinas wore pointe shoes and tutus, ballet was a dance that only the nobles could dance. This dance was invented in Italy but started to be appreciated at the French court when Catherine de ’Medici brought this art to her new home.
Then they were called court ballet and looked very different from today’s performances. Firstly, the clothing that we associate with ballet is a creation that appeared much later. During the performances, the dancers wore small heels and heavy costumes with masks that could symbolize the characters (a sun mask for Apollo, for example). Secondly, only the nobles were allowed to dance.
Ballet during the reign of the Sun King
A century later, the court ballets did not change very much. It was still a performance that was played in order to entertain the nobility. This changed when Louis XIV realised that ballet could be a political weapon.
Everyone knows about King Louis and his connection with Versailles. He asked the nobles to move into his new home, an impressive castle near the capital. Louis believed that if the nobles lived with him, then they could not make plans to overthrow him. Of course, that meant that all his possible enemies were living under the same roof.
This is the moment when Louis transformed ballet into a weapon: he organised a lot of court ballet and his nobles had to dance. It was quite simple: if you didn’t know how to dance then you would embarrass yourself. And to make their job harder, Louis changed the choreography very often. The nobles had no time to plot against him because they needed to practice, practice, practice.
It is very interesting how king Louis saw in his favourite activity a new method of keeping the nobles in check. He loved to dance and believed that it was a way of showing his athletic force. He even danced in ballets and his best performance was in Le Ballet de la Nuit, a performance that lasted 12 hours. Can you guess who he played? At only 14 years old, king Louis played Apollo or the Sun King (from this moment he is known as the Sun King).
Years later, Napoleon Bonaparte considered that everyone should enjoy ballets. The monopoly that the French court had ended with the French Revolution: now boys and girls from all ranks could dance at the ballet school. But maybe if king Louis did not force his nobles to dance, then Napoleon would find the beauty and try to mainstream it across the country. And without the French ballet today there will be no ballet.