“The Romantic ballet was a nineteenth century phenomenon to the dance world” (Baker 3). This style appeared after the French Revolution with the help of new middle class. People wanted to escape and experience all existence art forms. The combination of these wishes made themes of exotic lands, man versus nature and supernatural extremely popular in Romantic ballet. This style made female dancers the focal point of performances. Experts divided style into two groups: "The Classic Romantic Ballets" and “The Lesser Known Romantic Ballets”. One of the main plot of last category was women’s emancipation. Romantic ballet also was characterized by dancing on pointe and using of technologies. Choreographers included wires, gas lightning, trap doors, backdrops and sliding painted flats in their works. All these elements helped to enhance effects of scenes. Romantic ballet also showed new costumes. Ballerinas started to wear white multi-layered bell-shaped skirts, called tutu. They gained popularity with Marie Taglioni's help. Daughter of famous Filippo Taglioni danced in tutu in his ballet “La Sylphide” (1832). This wasn’t the first example of Romantic era. According to some historians this title belongs to “Robert le Diable” that was performed in 1831. In other opinion the forerunner of Romantic ballet was Jean Dauberval’s “La Fille Mal Gardee”, produced in 1789. Experts also didin’t set the end date of the Romantic ballet. But the last performance, referred to the style, appeared in 1870. It was Arthur Saint-Léon’s comic ballet “Coppelia”.
First signs of Romantic ballet appeared in France and England. 1830s-40s was a difficult period for these countries. 19th century was a period of great changes: “expansion of business and the emergency of capitalism, scientific and philosophical development, and the growth of democracy” (Baker 6). Industrial development created huge and wealthy companies. However, rise of income didn't have a significant effect on common workers' life. They had terrible conditions compared to upper classes. Officials didn’t do a lot to fix the situation. Some experts, like Laissez Faire, believed “that the world had to be this way, because if the workers had easier lives and higher wages, they would simply produce more children, glutting the labor market and driving wages down and unemployment up” (sparknotes.com). This attitude became a basis for the Socialism's spreading. Revolutionary ideas and radical leaders gained many followers. Workers wanted better conditions and right to vote. In 1848 they barricaded Parisian streets and the February Revolution happened. It forced Louis Philippe to abdicate.
As well as political, there were important social changes too. Napoleonic wars, Revolution and industrialization gave birth to new middle class. Its powerful and rich members became a part of Victorian society. The movement came to France from England. The Victorian society was known for the exaltation of love. During the 19th century feelings weren’t the main motive for marriages. People created families to gain money, power or status.
All these changes gave basis for Romantic ballet's creation. Style appearance also was linked with to Romanticism. As a counter to Enlightenment’s rationally views, “Romantics searched for deeper, often subconscious appeals” (sparknotes.com). Choreographers abandoned the “godly theme” and switched to plots about people’s life. Fight for true love was one of the key motives in many Romantic ballets. Tragic or happy ends, feelings always were the main part of performance.
As it was mentioned before, Romantic ballet put women on the top of the performance. Heroines often had the main roles in such works like “Giselle”. Such “dominance” wasn’t a common phenomenon for this period of time. During the first half of 19th century women generally had roles of “domestic angels”. Active feminist movements of 1850s wanted to change this situation and create new ideal of educated and emancipated woman. Lesser known Romantic ballets showed this attitude even earlier. Works like “La Revolte des Femmes” and “The Revolt in the Harem” “were conceived and produced some twenty years before any feminist movements demanding wider opportunities for women began taking shape” (Baker 21-22).
The atmosphere in Romantic ballet’s performances was created with the help of music, dance and technologies. Tulle tutus, white bodices and pointe made ballerinas characters more “aerial”. They even could fly for a short time with the help of wires. Gas lightning created dimming effects. Different devices, like trap doors, help actors appear and disappear according the scenario. Appropriate music finished the picture.
Many Romantic art forms were closely related. Popularity of folk stories and fairy tales inspired the choreographers. Their plots easily meshed with dance and music, and appealed to person’s emotional side. Literature also often inspired Romantic artists. Delacroix and Byron are one of the most famous examples. “One manifestation was the painting of The Bride of Abydos, depicting the story of Zuleika, a young harem woman who has run away with Selim to avoid an arranged marriage with the aging Shaw” (utah.edu). Romantic ballets also used these themes, but dance stile was better shoed in lithograph. These works often showed famous ballerinas in more “liberal” costumes - half clothed, barefoot or in very small pointe.
It's obvious that romantic arts often focused on people's feelings and emotions. Combination of real and supernatural events helped to create popular works. Artists of different genres often shared the inspiration.
Baker, Mary Elizabeth. “The Romantic Ballet: A Meshing of Romantic Aesthetics and Victorian Cultural Images”. Sweet Briar College Library. 1984. Digitized in 2010.
“Europe (1815-1848)”. Sparknotes.com. n. d. 11 July 2015.
“The Romantic Period 1825-1860”. Ballet History 4410: from ancient Greek through contemporary time periods. Utah.edu. n. d. 11 July 2015.