Classical ballet is the foundation from which nearly all dance styles have developed. It requires strong technique, athleticism, and grace.
Originating in the Italian Renaissance courts of the 15th century, ballet de cour began as a casual pastime before Catherine de Medici, an ardent patron of the arts in Florence, helped develop it into a cohesive form performance complete with themes, geometric choreography, and theatrical elements. She then funded the art form in the French court, where King Louis XIV, a ballet dancer himself, elevated ballet to a professional endeavor requiring rigorous training. Louis XIV's personal teacher Pierre Beauchamps is credited for standardizing the five fundamental positions of the feet through which all balletic movements move.
In the mid-1700s, French ballet master Jean Georges Noverre diverged from the standard opera ballet to create ballet d'action, emphasizing the storytelling element of the form. Romantic ballets emerged in the 19th century, at which time dancing on the tips of toes, called en pointe, became the standard for ballerinas. During this period, ballet became overwhelmingly popular in Russia, where both choreographers and composers collaborated to create some of the world's most enduring ballets — for example, The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake. As movement sequences became more difficult, the original romantic tutu consisting of a calf-length tulle skirt was replaced by a shorter, stiffer tutu, which revealed the intricate footwork and precise lines of the dancers.
Ballet was revolutionized in the 20th-century, when the Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine immigrated to America and founded the New York City Ballet. There, Balanchine transformed the art form by creating neo-classical ballet, which aimed for the purity of expression by eliminating distracting theatrical elements. He also introduced the contemporary plotless ballet, in which movement rather than storyline is designed to convey emotion.
American Ballet Theatre artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov, modern choreographer Twyla Tharp, and Joffrey Ballet founder Robert Joffrey also greatly contributed to American ballet. Today, both classical and contemporary ballet companies, such as The Washington Ballet and Complexions Contemporary Ballet, respectively, continue to develop the style.