Ballet Basics: The Books

Ballet has always been a pretty big part of my life, and I am posting pretty regularly about it now. I always try to include a good amount of background in my posts, but sometimes I forgot that some things that are second nature to me may be a foreign language to you (quite literally, in some cases…)! I’ve decided to do a series on ballet basics, and where to find more information and resources if you are interested in learning more. This post I’m going to be sharing my favourite ballet books, the next will be ballet documentaries, and the final post will be online performances that you can watch! I know that ballet can feel a bit high brow and overwhelming, but I promise that it is accessible and perfect for everyone, no matter what background you come from!

Ballet, dance, history, books

For a quick run down on the history of ballet, ballet originated as a court dance in fifteenth century Italy, and made it’s way to concert form in both France and Russia. Catherine de’ Medici is largely credited with bringing it to France, where it was usually performed by members of the court. Louis XIV developed the first ballet company, and it was during his reign that ballet truly spread. By the twentieth century, there were established English, French, Russian, and Danish schools, joined later by the American school. There are numerous ballet companies throughout the world, and if you do not have a local company, there very well may be a touring company headed your way at some point.

This is a wide variety of books that touch on several different aspects of ballet- some the technique, some the history, some the drama. If a book has been released on ballet, I’ve probably read it, or it’s in my to-be-read queue. I’m currently working on historical research related to a few particular companies, so I try to stay as up-to-date with the field as possible. These are some of my favourite books that I think are great for a beginner to jump into!

The Ballet Companion, Eliza Gaynor Minden, Ballet, Dance

The Ballet Companion, Eliza Gaynor Minden

When I first saw this book, I was slightly hesitant- Gaynor Minden is a huge name in pointe shoes, and I didn’t know if it would be biased. However, The Ballet Companion is a fantastic encyclopedia of ballet that is perfect for the beginner to the professional- it covers basic movements, schools of ballet (ie. Royal Academy of Dance, Cechetti, Vaganova), snippets history, well-known dancers and productions, and even some stretching and cross-training suggestions! It is chock full of information but isn’t overwhelming in any way, is full of fascinating but little known facts and stories, and actually helps to explain what you see on the stage in front of you. I might be a little biased but I think it makes a great coffee table book…

Apollo's Angels, A History of Ballet, History, Ballet, Dance, Jennifer Homans

Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, Jennifer Homans

This particular book speaks to me as an historian- this is essentially a total history of ballet. If you are at all curious to know how it ended up where it is now- Nutcrackers and abstract lines and jewels and spoken word- Apollo’s Angels will show you where it all started. This is a hefty and detailed tome, I would read it in smaller chunks rather than all at once, as it’s easy to get lost in it. It shows Homans’ bias in the later chapters, as it hugely focuses on Balanchine and the American style and doesn’t go into any sort of detail in any of the other schools and styles in the second half of the twentieth century, but it is still certainly worth reading. If nothing else, I would read the first third for it’s way through the Italian, French, and Russian courts!

Ballerina, Scandal, Ballet, History, Deirdre Kelly, Dance

Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, Deirdre Kelly

For anyone who thinks that ballet is boring and old-fashioned, I would give Ballerina a read! There are as many scandals behind the scenes in ballet as in any other art form, and given that the art form is close to five centuries old, there are a fair few built up. I’ve met quite a few of the dancers from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet who are all lovely and well-adjusted people who simply love what they do, so I can’t speak to personally witnessing any scandal but I’m sure it’s out there. The dancers of the past didn’t necessarily have a work-life balance with the physical and mental supports that are in place now, and I don’t think that they thought of ballet as a job as many dancers do now. (I believe that this is a good thing, as it gives them a healthy distance.) Still, Kelly gives you a fascinating peak into some of the more scandalous things that have happened in the ballet world!

Bolshoi Confidental, Simon Morrison, Ballet, History, Russia, Bolshoi Theatre

Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to TodaySimon Morrison

The Bolshoi Ballet is one of the world’s oldest and most enigmatic ballet companies in the world, and they have no shortage of intrigue, drama, and excitement. Part of the draw of the Bolshoi is that they can be rather secluded and closed off to the outside world, Bolshoi Confidential takes you backstage through the history of the Bolshoi and doesn’t hide any of the nitty gritty that they probably didn’t want anything to know. Scandals of all sorts- affairs, pregnancies, arguments, and most notably the 2012 attack when artistic director Sergei Filin had acid thrown in his face. I have read the histories of many companies- the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Royal New Zealand Ballet, the National Ballet of Canada, the Royal Ballet. However, none seemed to face quite the upheaval and uncertainty that plagued the Bolshoi for decades, and if nothing else, I would read this for the sections during the revolution. I was lucky enough to see Morrison give a talk on Bolshoi Confidential, and he is an incredibly gifted historian!

Nutcracker Nation, Nutcracker, Ballet, History, Christmas

Nutcracker Nation: How an Old World Ballet Became a Christmas Tradition in the New World, Jennifer Fisher

Given that the holiday season will be arriving soon-ish, it’s coming to the time when Christmas trees are decorated and sugarplums dance ’round our heads- The Nutcracker is an important holiday tradition for many of us! If you know anything about the ballet in the least, it’s probably The Nutcracker and Tchaikovsky. I actually wrote a research paper on the history of the Nutcracker myself, examining the different regional variations of the production (no two are ever the same!), but this is more of a complete history of it. If you aren’t a huge fan of The NutcrackerNutcracker Nation might not be for you. However, if you love to see it or hum along with Tchaikovsky, love the ballet in general, or just love the holiday season, this is the book for you!

I’ve read countless other books on ballet, but I think that these are a great way to get started. I don’t think that anyone needs to read a book before they go to the ballet, but some people find that having a bit of a background makes it more enjoyable, and these are all fantastic reads!

Have you seen any ballets? Which was your favourite?

Until tomorrow,
The Historian!

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21 thoughts on “Ballet Basics: The Books

  1. Claire Wong September 17, 2017 / 3:46 am

    The first ballet I ever saw was Coppelia, when I was five years old so I think if I had to choose a favourite it would be that one! Looking forward to reading the rest of your ballet series 🙂


    • anhistorianabouttown September 17, 2017 / 8:35 am

      Oh, Coppelia is a fantastic ballet! I always gravitate towards the story ballets, and Coppelia is so much fun 😊 Thank you for stopping by!


  2. April Munday September 17, 2017 / 5:36 am

    I don’t know much about the history of ballet except that it developed as part of a musical interlude during performances of plays in France.

    I have to confess that I prefer the music to the dance. The first record I remember coming into the house was a recording of Delibes’ music for Coppelia after we saw the ballet. My sister and I used to dance around the living-room to it. I saw loads of ballets as a child, including Margot Fonteyn in Swan Lake on her farewell tour. I’ve also seen the Nutcracker. My mum loved ballet, which is why we went so often. My tastes went in other directions.


    • anhistorianabouttown November 11, 2017 / 7:32 pm

      That is a common sentiment- my mom enjoys coming to the ballet with me, but she is a musician and loves the music! The music is an integral part of dance, and I often will listen to Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev’s other non-ballet works to appreciate the full breadth of their talent. Compositions for ballet are particular and need to fit a certain structure, but branching allows for more musical opportunity!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Becca Barracuda September 17, 2017 / 12:21 pm

    I don’t know much about ballet; I’ve only ever been to see The Nutcracker. Deirdre Kelly’s book sounds really intriguing– a look into the scandalous side of ballet!


    • anhistorianabouttown September 18, 2017 / 8:14 am

      I was a little suspicious at first, but it is super entertaining and very well written!! And the Nutcracker is the best, if I’m being honest 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Leslie Nichole September 17, 2017 / 7:19 pm

    Ballet is awesome! I wish looking back when i was younger that i would’ve done ballet instead of cheerleading. Ballet is so peaceful and calming, i love watching it.


    • anhistorianabouttown September 18, 2017 / 8:05 am

      I always wished that I had done cheerleading when I was a teenager haha. I mean, I have always loved ballet but cheerleading was very popular when I was in junior high and everyone hung out together while I left early to head to ballet!


  5. blondieaka September 17, 2017 / 10:59 pm

    My all time favorite ballet is Giselle….Some others come close but have loved this since I was a child 🙂


  6. Trula Marie September 17, 2017 / 11:58 pm

    I still remember my first ballet.. But it’s the classic: The Nutcracker. I kind of want to go see it this year again because it’s been a while. I wish somewhere close was going to do Sleeping Beauty! It’s on my list among others.


    • anhistorianabouttown September 18, 2017 / 8:04 am

      My first ballet was also the Nutcracker!! I was that annoying 4 year old asking a million and one questions about everything that they were doing and about how we did that in my Ballet class haha. I now go out of my way to smile and say hi to any little kids that might be doing the same now! Sleeping Beauty is also a lot of fun to see!! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  7. StephJ September 18, 2017 / 7:59 am

    Love these book recommendations! I want to read the Nutcracker it is such a great play!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. ButterflyinRemission October 10, 2017 / 1:37 pm

    Ballet & Dance is a big part of my life too! I danced as a youngster and recently have taken up tap again. My daughter does 5 classes a week and had just achieved a Distinction in her RAD Ballet exam. Her dance school does a show every year and for the past two I’ve been in it too! My Mum danced for years too and did her teachers qualifications! Ahh in another life I would have been a professional dancer!!! Thanks for this…I will be adding these books to my xmas list!!


    • anhistorianabouttown October 10, 2017 / 1:46 pm

      That is so exciting- which exam did she do? I’m currently only taking ballet, but I may add some jazz or tap to mix it up! I used to do everything (Except musical theatre, can’t sing to save my life) but I focused in on ballet at 14! After my Advanced 1, I retired ☺

      Liked by 1 person

      • ButterflyinRemission October 11, 2017 / 9:19 am

        It’s her grade one…she also does grade 4 modern, tap, jazz & street! We often dance around the lounge together (she’s 10) I’d love to do ballet again!


        • anhistorianabouttown October 11, 2017 / 9:07 pm

          That’s so exciting!! Grades two and three are when character work gets exciting and you really feel like you are moving and making progress in your exercises!! And I”m ALWAYS dancing around, it’s good for the soul 🙂


  9. ButterflyinRemission October 10, 2017 / 1:41 pm

    PS have you read Margot Fonteyn’s Biography??? Fascinating and unbelievable!! My mum actually saw her dance live…she was the first ballerina I was aware of due to my Mum always watching her on TV


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