We can thank the Romantics for ballet as it appears to us today. In the 18th century ballet was characterised by, among others, elaborate costumes, abstraction and the use of gesture, and its appeal was limited to the Royal courts of the day.

The Romantic era was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and a rejection of the Age of Enlightenment. The Industrial Revolution was a period of development which saw massive changes in the way people lived and worked. The Enlightenment was a movement which focussed on science, reason, and rationality. Cities were spreading, people were leaving the countryside, and scientific reasoning had taken over from superstition and religious dogma.

Romantics, in their attempt to escape industrialism and urban sprawl, idealised and romanticised nature. Imagination, not reason, was considered the best quality of the mind. Romanticism affected every area of life from politics to education, and was most noticeable in the arts. In every art form it is associated with freedom from the restriction of traditional ‘artificial’ rules. German painter Caspar David Friedrich said “the artist’s feeling is his law”, an expression typical of the Romantic movement. Themes included folk art, emphasis on emotion and imagination, embracing the exotic, untamed nature and the aesthetic appeal of nature.

The Romantic era in ballet is considered to have begun in 1827 with La Sylphide, the story of a young man visited by a fairy. Many Romantic ballets focus on themes of the supernatural, exotic places, and the conflict between man and nature, reality versus fantasy, good and evil. To take La Sylphide as an example, main characters include a fairy – the sylph – and a witch. It is set in Scotland, considered an exotic location to the French court of that time. Finally, while the young man, James, cannot join the sylphs world, she cannot live in his either.

Tied in with these themes is the evolution of the dance language itself. The ballerinas portraying fairies, sylphs and willis needed to characterise a floaty, unearthly being. They moved and balanced on their toes and wore lighter, shorter, skirts. They stuffed cotton wool in their shoes and darned the toes to give support in their attempts to achieve a sense of weightlessness.

Technical proficiency rose during this era, as with the shorter and lighter costumes women were able to perform more elaborate and difficult movements. This included greater leaps, in order to portray lightness. The removal of masks and headdresses allowed the face to become more expressive. To achieve the required ethereal look arms became softer, more rounded. A forward tilt to the body also developed, adding to the willowy look.

Celebrated ballerinas of the era embodied the Romantic ideals. Fanny Essler was famous for her dramatic and sensual dancing. Carlotta Grisi premiered the role of Giselle. Fanny Cerrrito was famous for her lively style. Lucille Grahn was most famous for her portrayal of La Sylphide, which was in fact choreographed for Marie Taglioni. Taglioni was famous for her lightness and lyricism. Four of these five (Fanny Essler declined) danced the Pas de Quatre, a divertissement, choreographed in 1845 by Jules Perrot, considered to be the epitome of the Romantic dance style. They were some of the first international dance stars. Ballet became wildly popular throughout Europe in the 1830’s and 40’s and the celebrated ballerinas were the film stars of their day.

Within a few decades ballet had changed utterly. What we consider characteristic of ballet had developed. The short light dress, dancing en pointe, strong storylines with themes of good versus evil, supernatural elements, ever greater leaps, the illusion of weightlessness, sensuality and dramatic performance are all part of our conception of ballet today.

Most particularly, men were all but removed from the stage. In ballet’s earliest days women were not allowed to perform. Now they were preferred.  As fewer men were required to perform, fewer studied ballet, leading into a downward spiral of men’s participation in ballet.

All his led George Balanchine a hundred years later to say, “Ballet is woman…he is not the King but she’s the Queen.”