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!
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
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, 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!
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!
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!
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 Nutcracker, Nutcracker 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?