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  Ballet (Italian balletto, ‘little ball’) is a type of dramatic performance using dance and sometimes mime, to musical accompaniment. Except in a few cases, the performance tells a story or depicts a specific scene. The art of ballet, therefore, involves imposing an external intellectual correlative, a rationale, on particular kinds of physical activity. (If we took the individual components of athletics or gymnastics, and choreographed them to some predetermined narrative structure—as happened in the Spartakiads of Communist Czechoslovakia or the gymnastic displays of Communist North Vietnam—the process, if not the end-result, would be identical.) Dance-drama of this kind is one of the oldest of all dramatic forms—the earliest known cave paintings show dancers playing the parts of hunters and animals—and it survives in all cultures in religious celebrations, secular entertainments, or both. It has reached two peaks of extreme sophistication: religious theatre in the East, and ‘classical’ theatre-ballet in the West.

Using gesture, facial expressions and patterns of body-movement (both individual and group) to tell a story has led to the development of highly stylized and sophisticated forms of ‘ordinary’ movement in ballet, and in each form of the art there is a well-defined repertoire of meaning-through-movement. The Roman ballet-dancers who performed for (and sometimes with) the Emperor Nero used 32 hand-positions to indicate specific emotions, and temple-dancers in northern India train each muscle independently, so that even the flick of a finger joint or the twitch of an eyelid can speak volumes. Western theatre-ballet, though nothing like so complex, has a widely-understood repertoire of movement and gesture, which choreographers draw on and codify when they ‘create’ each new ballet. (In passing, the existence of choreography makes Western ballet utterly different from ballet in the East. Eastern dance-dramas are traditional, their movements unvarying from generation to generation; in the West, each choreographer draws on a pool of ideas and styles to create an original and individual work which remains his or her intellectual property. The difference is analogous to that between Eastern ‘classical’ music, which is traditional and improvised, and the strictly-notated and personally-copyrighted ‘classical’ music of the West.) Often, in both East and West, stylization has reached the point where the initial meanings of particular movements are lost, and the movements are retained for their own sakes alone: examples are the dancing on points and fouettés of Western theatre-ballet.

Of its nature, Eastern ballet has tended to be inward-looking and expressive: the movements are always subservient to the mood they invoke or the story they tell. In the West, by contrast, extroversion has increasingly become the rule. Ballet has become an art primarily of display, where the individual performer\'s technique is a perceived part of the attraction, and ballets are even created or re-choreographed specifically as star-vehicles. (The point is made if one contrasts ballet first with ice-dancing, where a similar development has happened, triple salchows and toeloops being applauded as if they were circus feats, and then with grand opera, where the dominance of star performers and directors has not yet entirely engulfed the form.) In the 20th century, largely because of the influence of Nijinsky and other dancers from Diaghilev\'s Ballets russes in the 1910s and 1920s, a new form of abstract ballet has even been devised, allowing concentration on dance and pattern alone, unencumbered by story.

By the mid-20th century, ballet throughout the world had become an esoteric and extravagant minority interest, exclusive and self-obsessed. But in the latter half of the century, with increased international travel and awareness of other cultures, ballet has been regenerated. It still has its purist corners, dazzling shrines to decadence—the Japanese court tradition and Bolshoi tradition come to mind. But elsewhere the influence of folk dance and popular dance from around the world, and even of athletics and gymnastics, has made ballet one of the most eclectic and dynamic of all performing arts. KMcL



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