History in the Making

Ballet Basics: The Books

Ballet has always been a pretty big part of my life, and always have been. Although I was obviously never anywhere close to a professional dancer, I do like to think that 25+ years of dancing along with a excessive amount of research and reading means that I am fairly informed balletomane! Because I post pretty regularly about ballet- I believe that experiencing culture is essential to being well-rounded- I wanted to give you, my wonderful readers, more background into ballet! Today’s post includes my favourite ballet books to give you the best ballet foundation.

Sometimes I forget 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! These books are all widely available, and don’t require any speciality knowledge.

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 slowly 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!

Update, October 2018: if you are interested in reading Apollo’s Angels, I am hosting a giveaway until Wednesday, 17 October 2018! If you win, you will have your very own copy mailed directly to you!

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 read any of these ballet books? And what is your favourite ballet?

The Historian
Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest | Bloglovin’

Related Post

23 thoughts on “Ballet Basics: The Books”

  • Loved this post! I do like ballet, though the only one I’ve seen regularly is THE NUTCRACKER. And, you’re right — there are so many different versions, and people (read: I) can be very particular about what version they like! I’ve seen so many versions, including the one performed in NYC’s Lincoln Center (I was underwhelmed), but my favorite is the version performed by the New Jersey Ballet accompanied by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. It’s the one I grew up watching as a little girl, so I may be very biased toward it. 😀 But I love the costumes, the choreography, the sets, everything. I particularly love the costumes/dances for the gifts presented to Clara in the second act (tea, coffee, etc). I don’t even care that I’ve seen this version so many times, I pretty much know some parts by heart. It’s beautiful to me every time I see it.

    The one other ballet I saw was a very modern interpretation of Cinderella when I was in St Petersburg, Russia. Choreography was by Alexei Ratmansky, and it was amazing! I was pretty unsure about the “modern” aspect going in to it, but I ended up completely loving everything about the performance. I keep hoping it makes it to NYC so I can see it again. (Note: I just looked it up, and apparently it was in Brooklyn in 2015; I missed it!). If you get a chance to see this version in Winnipeg, go!! 🙂

    • I think that the Nutcracker is a classic and everyone should see it at least once, so I approve!! I do find that with multiple vieweings, you do run the risk of being disappointed but I think that it is still worthwhile to see because it helps you identify what you like and don’t like. The Kingdom and all of the dances are so much fun- my favourite is Hot Chocolate/Spain, with Tea/China being a very close second. I think for the Nutcracker, a lot of us just become so familiar with it that the comfort factor very much adds to the enjoyment!

      I would love to see that production!! Ratmansky’s choreography is so specific, he is on my must-see list! The RWB does a wonderful version of Cinderella called a Cinderella Story- it is set in the 1950s and has a jazz feeling. It’s creative and fun and quirky in a way that a lot of ballets can’t be. https://anhistorianabouttown.com/an-historian-about-ballet-in-the-park-2016/ We don’t have a ton of touring companies come here, I’m guessing because of the RWB being here, but I’ve set up an alert for anywhere in Canada!!

  • 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!!

    • 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 ☺

  • 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.

    • 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!! ?

    • 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!

  • 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.

    • 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!

  • 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 ?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: