This is my favorite ballet. I saw the American Ballet Theatre production when it was first broadcast on PBS many years ago and immediately fell in love with it. Don Quixote is based on a short episode in the novel by Miguel de Cervantes. The ballet was composed by Ludwig Minkus and choreographed by Marius Petipa. I’ve posted two videos of this ballet; the first is from the Mariinsky Ballet.
And this is the performance I first saw on TV; it’s terrific and features Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tajo’s favorite dancer. The video quality on this is not very good, which is why I posted the better-quality version above. Either way, I think you’ll enjoy this work.
Billy Elliot was originally a movie that was turned into a musical by Elton John. It’s the story of a boy who pursues his dream of being a dancer despite fierce opposition from his family and community. Tajo saw the musical on Broadway and immediately decided he wanted to be a dancer, too. Here’s a terrific number from the stage production.
Daphnis et Chloé is based on an ancient Greek fairy tale. The ballet was composed by Maurice Ravel for the Ballets Russes and choreographed by Mikhail Fokine. Daphnis et Chloé is a tale of love, jealousy, and kidnapping with a pagan setting that concludes with a bacchanale, which, as Tajo notes in Feeding, is just another word for an orgy.
Benjamin Britten’s ballet The Prince of the Pagodas tells an original fairy tale of love, good, and evil through very striking and ethereal music and dancing. Tajo mentions this video performance in Feeding; it features Jonathan Cope, one of Tajo’s favorite dancers.
Swan Lake was the first ballet composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and, like all three of his ballets, has become legendary. You can view a complete performance on YouTube from the Bolshoi Ballet, one of the world’s premier ballet companies.
Sleeping Beauty was the second ballet composed by Tchaikovsky. You might recognize some of the music since it was borrowed by the folks at Disney for their 1959 animated film and used in a song from their 2014 re-imagining of the fairy tale, Maleficent. This complete video version is from the Kirov (Mariinsky) Ballet, another top ballet company from Russia.
Check out this post about Tchaikovsky’s most famous ballet, The Nutcracker, which also includes a video of a complete performance.
“Choreography” is the term use to describe the assembly of dance moves you see in ballet or any other type of dance performance. Before the advent of video recording, choreography had to passed down to dancers from generation to generation. This is still how its done today, although it’s nice to know we can now see forever these amazing designs of art and skill. Tajo refers to several choreographers during the course of Feeding; here’s a look at some of them.
Marius Petipa was one of the most influential choreographers in history; his work endures on the ballet stage today. He forged the Russian Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg into the premier ballet ensemble in the world. The complexity and beauty of his choreography continues to inspire ballet dancers.
Vaslav Nijinsky was a brilliant dancer and choreographer who helped bring ballet choreography into the 20th century, particularly in his work with the Ballets Russes. If you don’t think ballet can be controversial, think again—in 1913, fighting and a near-riot broke out in the audience at the premiere of Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), choreographed by Nijinsky to music by Igor Stravinsky. One of Nijinsky’s most influential works was his sexually charged choreography and performance of L’Après-midi d’un faune (Afternoon of a Faun) to music by Claude Debussy.
George Balanchine was educated at Russia’s Imperial Ballet School and brought that extensive knowledge to America, where he exerted a tremendous influence on the development of American dance from ballet to modern dance. Balanchine helped found the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet.
Jerome Robbins learned ballet and used that knowledge to create not only fascinating modern ballets but some of the best dance sequences in Broadway history. His most enduring work was for both the stage and screen versions of West Side Story.
Bob Fosse used his early career in burlesque houses and on Broadway to create a singular dance style that is still influencing today’s musical and pop culture choreography. Fosse’s best work is preserved in the film version of the musical Cabaret and the gritty autobiographical movie All That Jazz.
Traditional ballet music has special requirements: it has to be danceable, meaning the music has to have the proper beats and rhythm for classical ballet moves, and it can’t be so complicated that it’s impossible to choreograph. Most classic ballet scores are very enjoyable and accessible works. They may not pound with the beat of today’s pop music, but you may find yourself moving with the music anyway. Here is some information about composers of ballet who are mentioned in my novel, Feeding.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky only composed three ballets—The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake—but they became the most famous masterpieces of the ballet repertory. No other composer better created music so perfectly fit for the delicate moves of a female dancer and the muscular strength of male dancers.
Ludwig Minkus composed almost exclusively for the ballet stage and is arguably the greatest ballet composer ever; he was just unfortunate enough to live at the same time as Tchaikovsky. His best known works are Don Quixote (my own favorite ballet) and La Bayadère.
Léo Delibes primarily composed operas but he also wrote three ballets that are very popular and influential. His most popular ballet, Coppélia, is based on stories by E.T.A. Hoffman, the writer who also penned the story on which Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is based. Delibes wrote an opera called Lakmé, which contains an aria that Tajo likes which he mentions in Feeding; you might recognize this one as it’s been used in several movies.
Adolphe Adam was another influential composer of ballet and opera. His most famous ballet is called Giselle.
Benjamin Britten wrote only one ballet but it is one of the most fascinating ever composed. The Prince of the Pagodas is based on an original fairy tale and incorporates the musical influences of Bali. Particularly interesting is Britten’s use of tones based on a Balinese instrumental ensemble called a gamelan. Knowing that few gamelan players existed in modern European orchestras, Britten deftly managed to reproduce the unique, shimmering sounds of the gamelan using western orchestral instruments.
Maurice Ravel composed several innovative ballets. As music changed with the onset of the 20th century, ballet developed in new directions, with more complex compositions and fresh ideas on choreography. Ravel’s best-known ballet is Daphnis et Chloé, although the music for it is far more often performed in orchestral concerts rather than in full productions with dancers. The romantic story of the ballet concludes with the heady music of a bacchanale, which is simply a polite term for an orgy.
The Nutcracker is almost certainly the most popular ballet in the world. Chances are, if you’ve ever seen a live ballet performance, it was The Nutcracker. Composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, this ballet is a perennial holiday favorite. Tajo wants desperately to be cast as one of the children in the New York City Ballet’s annual performances of The Nutcracker, and during the course of Feeding, he refers to this video below, featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov (Tajo’s favorite ballet dancer) and Gelsey Kirkland in one of the finest ballet performances you’ll ever see. This production is from the American Ballet Theatre, another great ballet company based in New York City. Enjoy!
If you really want to know more about the mechanics of ballet, here are some videos to get you started. The first video is very basic, covering the five potions that all ballet dancers learn when they begin to dance.
Next is the first of a series of videos displaying many of the most common ballet positions and moves. Even if you don’t dance, you’ll still enjoy knowing these moves when you see them in ballet performances.
Remember, it takes a lot of work to make those graceful ballet moves look so effortless. Ballet dancers work as hard, if not harder, than many athletes; some fans of ballet even think it should be classified as more of a sport than an art form.
Tajo’s dream is to be accepted into a really good ballet school, and one of the best is the School of American Ballet (SAB), located in New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The SAB was founded by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, two of the most influential figures in American ballet history. These men also co-founded the New York City Ballet. Graduates of the SAB often go on to major careers in ballet and other fields of dance. To encourage more boys to dance ballet, the SAB offers a cost-free program for young boys interested in ballet. The video above offers a terrific look at the program and the work it takes for a young person to develop into a professional dancer. Ballet is an extremely disciplined and physically demanding art form; the dancers who make their moves look so light and effortless have invested thousands of hours of grueling work to achieve that effect.