Arguably, without the aid of European monarchs, the history of classical ballet might not have developed throughout the centuries into the form we know it as today. In the beginning and early in its history classical ballet (which was simply dance with elaborate costumes rather than the highly structured art we now associate it with) was a court amusement and the when the French invaded the Italians in 1499, they were stunned by the spectacle of such performances. Eager to maintain his position as the monarch with the most regal court, the French monarch Louis XIV brought these ideas back to France. Later, when Catherine de Medici became the Queen of France, classical ballet began to take shape and became an institution. After its introduction under Louis XIV (named the “Sun King” after one of the roles he performed in a ballet) the ballet became one of the most popular forms of courtly entertainment. Even more importantly, Louis XIV opened up the first school of ballet called Académie Royale de Danse, which taught the basic tenants of the form.
The music and conventions of performance and production began to take shape and ballet began to spread throughout the rest of Europe. At this time France was the symbol of courtly elegance and this might be one of the reasons it caught on so fast. Everywhere monarchs were striving to emulate the Sun King and thanks to the court-based support for ballet and its subsequent dispersal throughout Europe it remained. In sum, it is because of the desire to maintain the most brilliant court in Europe that caused Louis XIV to accept and later fully support the form and one might even suggest that the French monarch introduced it to the rest of the world. This new school of ballet led to the profession of a dancer, which was something new. Students trained at the classical ballet school Académie Royale de Danse became, in essence, the first true ballerinas and this period marks the beginning of the evolution of the form.
Eventually, the courtly diversion of the ballet was interrupted, almost as though patrons had grown weary of it. At this point, theatre became dominant and for some time ballet seemed to have hit a low point. Although it was still taught and one must assume still supported by the French monarchy, it had lost the prestige it had gained under Louis XIV. Eventually there were reforms made in terms of costuming and performance but it is clear that the initial golden age of ballet under the rule of the Sun King was gone. The French Revolution and other historical changes demanded that ballet fade away and reemerge fresh again after the political strife. It should be stated that all forms of courtly entertainment were generally frowned upon during the years of the French Revolution and it is impossible not to suspect that some dancers may have feared for their lives at such a time.
At about the same time that ballet as a courtly pleasure was fading in France, it was experiencing a golden age in Russia. Also home to a ballet school, which was almost as old as the one in France, Russia was becoming the new home of ballet. This school for classical ballet had been patronized by the Russian monarchy since its inception in 1738 and much as was the case in France, it afforded courtiers with entertainment and spectacle. In 1909, shortly before the Russian Revolution (which would have much the same effect on anything associated with the monarchy and courtly behavior as in France after its revolution) the Ballet Russes company was formed. While they managed to survive the Russian Revolution unscathed, the turn of the century brought new changes to ballet. No longer were the arts a project or subjects of patronage from the monarchy, but they were forced to grow apart as a secular (in the sense that there was no longer court association) entity.
It is clear that England, although a large power in Europe with a long tradition of monarchial rule, did not accept ballet in quite the same enthusiastic way her neighbors did. Although the English posses the Royal Ballet as well as a number of state sponsored schools for classical ballet, the tradition of religion has hindered much of the patronage offered in other areas throughout Europe. Unlike France, Italy, and Russia, the court system was much different and the Puritan ideals that were paramount for the duration of many of the rulers’ time did not look kindly upon dancing, even the kind of ballet that comprised classical ballet.
In examining the influence of European monarchs on the development of classical ballet, two things become clear. First of all, ballet emerged as a result of monarchies and their constant desire to have an elaborate court. Such competition amongst monarchial powers helped spur this founding of the arts in general and led to new school for classical ballet being formed. The second issue that becomes clear is the history of classical ballet is firmly connected to the course of history, if not for the mere reason that it was so closely aligned with the courts. When revolutions toppled the court system and many of its trappings, so too did ballet suffer and one after another schools for classical ballet fell by the wayside. In many ways, one could tell the political history of the West simply by telling the history of classical ballet.
Other essays and articles in the Arts Archives related to this topic include : The Life and Works of Martha Graham : A Biography • The Life and Works of Marius Petipa • Biography : Overview of the Life and Contributions of Isadora Duncan • A Comparison and Analysis of the French Versus Russian Revolutions