This article is from the Ballet and Modern Dance FAQ, by Tom Parsons email@example.com with numerous contributions by others.
In the nineteenth century, the ballerina became the central figure
in ballet. This led to a curious reversal: in the seventeenth century,
women were generally not allowed to dance, and female parts were danced
by men in women's costumes. In the nineteenth century, almost the exact
opposite situation prevailed: the ballerina reigned supreme, and male roles
were often danced by women in men's costumes, or "en travesti". The bal-
lerina system was at its strongest in France, and it was ruinous. Lincoln
Kirstein, in his history, says, "On the stage, if there was anything of
interest, we may be sure it was not French."
We can only speculate on how the ballerina achieved such a
dominating position. It may well have been sheer commercialism: pretty
girls were a pleasant sight for the tired businessman then as now, and
a star brought in money. Ballerinas occasionally even dictated the
choreography and the music. One consequence of this, as Elizabeth Sawyer
points out, was that the music tended to be second-rate. The Brahmses,
Schumanns, and Liszts of the day were not about to let themselves be
ordered around by dancers, and in consequence the composers of 19th-century
ballets tended to be figures virtually unknown outside the world of ballet,
like Adam, Minkus, Drigo, or Pugni. The world of dance was extremely
lucky, later in the century, to have music from composers of the stature
of Glazunov, Delibes, and Tchaikovski.
Another side effect of this commercialism is the decline of ballet
as an art, particularly in France, and a gradual refusal, among intellec-
tuals of the time, to take it seriously or to consider it on a par with
music, literature, or the other arts. (There were a few exceptions to
this.) This is one reason why the Ballets Russes took Western Europe and
its intellectuals by storm early in the 20th century: Western ballet had
been reduced to an entertainment, and under Diaghilev, who ran the Ballets
Russes, it became an art again. Diaghilev (question 4.9.1) had absolute
control over his company and resolved that he was going to go for the best
dancing, the best costumes, the best set designs, and the best music. This
set a precedent that has lasted throughout the 20th century.