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Home > Classical Ballet

Transcending Ballet Classification

Contemporary, Classical, Post-Modern, Neo-Classical…Ballet?? Ballet has gone through quite a series of classifications from the early days up until the moment. We as humans have the need to group things together, or ‘name’ an era, movement, intent… We have the need to control, classify and understand things on a verbal and logical level, we need something to refer to when we discuss dance! But as dancers, this rationality is something we conflict with. We beg to differ that verbalization is a better way of communication. This distinctly shows in the timeline of general ballet.

We went from classical ballet stories, with themes, characters and elaborate sets, to these ‘modern’ abstract ballets with diffused meaning. The non-dancing ballet audience tends to come away from a story ballet, with a sense of cognition…or accomplished comprehension of an art piece. It is seen as an intellectual and cultural exercise almost. When non-dancing audiences view a ‘modern ballet’, the general reaction is quite different; it leaves the viewer up in the air…confused and even defeated. Either that or entirely elated from comprehending the unspoken meaning of emotion or the appreciation of pure movement for movements sake.


We tend to classify ballets as ‘modern’ if they were created after 1920. We also tend to classify ballets as ‘modern ballet’ if the dance does not have a story-line. This is not to say that current ballets cannot have one, but this is the generalization that has come to be. After about 1980, we began to categorize ballet as ‘post-modern’. When Martha Graham came along, she washed these pre-conceptions right into idea oceania. In her eyes, ‘ballet’ meant ‘dance’…so by logic her dances were ballet…though in the historical perspective, they were not ballet but sheer modern dance. In a historical standpoint, a ballet encompassed specific technique, and the dancers donned the ever-restricting pointe shoes. Martha not only saw pointe restrictive, but asinine. She helped change the landscape of dance and dance classification.

This is a far cry from the old concept of ballet. Ballet used to be a side-note to opera. It was an embellishment of the opera performance hence ‘The Paris Opera Ballet’… The dance was rarely even in the first act. It soon became embraced as an art aside from opera, but tended to keep the outline that opera provided. A lot of ballets begin with a pantomime and story development before we’d see the extent of the dancing. But as ballet continued through the years, we’d see more and more dancing and less mime. We’d see intricate dance sequences and choreography, and we’d see more dancing with less build up of meaning to support it’s ‘reasoning’, like Giselle's 'Mad Scene' where the 'reason' for her dancing was her disillusionment. There no longer had to be a reason or something that provoked the dancing. It could be just to be.


Dance changed when art metamorphosed collectively. This modern concept was in full force. Some see it as the ‘dehumanization of art’ being that artists took the story out of art. They stripped art of all things ‘clearly human’ and presented art for arts sake. Movement was just that. It was to be appreciated for just that. Balanchine was one of the pioneers that stripped the narrative and ornate costuming away from the ballet. He’d put his dancers on stage in black leotards and pink tights, their costume was the music. There was no orchestra deliberately following the story…such as slowing down for specific parts that were harder. The music was not actualized just for the ballet anymore…the ballet itself, was made to interpret the music which was only created for music’s sake. This brought a sense of purity to dance. The music was no longer summoned for a performance. It was not created with something other than composition, melody and bliss in mind. Music and the movement became synonymous. Movement embodied music and translated it.

We’ve seen so many assortments of ballet. As of now, all of the classifications are mixed into one giant stew for dancers and non-dancers to expand on. We gave up on this categorizing. We stopped putting this incredibly rich source of transmission and exposition into a box of one allotment or another. It just became useless. Today you can find a ‘modern ballet’ with a story…that is ‘pure movement for movements sake’ at the same time. And we see ‘contemporary ballet’ reach into the realms of modern dance. One thing ballet sustains is the pointe shoe; this perpetually signifies ballet. Some regard ballet as being less evolved because of this, but think deeper; ballet is the most refined form of dance in the world to date. It exhibits the human body at its full movement potential and even while bound in such an irregular position that a pointe shoe provides. This displays mastered technique despite difficulty. Try doing fifteen fouette turns on the tip of your toe, with the utmost precision of balance and form… That right there leaves ballet not in the classifications of Neo-classical, Post-modern, Modern, Romantic classifications…but in the classification of supreme artistry.

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