Entertainment in which dancers, by use of mime, etc., perform to mus. to tell a story or to express a mood. The ballet was largely developed in the courts of Fr. and It. during the 16th and 17th cents. and especially in that of Louis XIV (reigned 1643–1715), where Lully was in charge of the mus. The ballets of this period were danced by the court itself and were very formal (gavottes, minuets, chaconnes, etc.), heavy dresses being worn, with wigs, high heels, and other trappings of court life. But the first ballet is generally held to have been the Balet comique de la Royne given in Paris in 1581.
Even in the days of the ballerina Camargo (1710–70), who introduced many innovations, dress was ample, skirts still falling below the knees; however, she introduced a more vigorous style involving high jumps. J. G. Noverre (1727–1810) banished the conventions hitherto ruling as to the use of mythological subjects, set order of dances, elaborate dresses, etc., and thus made himself the founder of the dramatic ballet, or ballet d'action. He est. the 5‐act ballet as an entertainment in its own right; collab. with Gluck and Mozart in operatic ballets, and wrote an important treatise on the ballet. Other great masters of this period were Dauberval (1742–1806), Gaetano Vestris (1729–1808), and Pierre Gardel (1758–1840). Vestris was the founder of a family of maîtres de ballet, active in 3 generations (1747–1825), and of several important ballerinas. The Italian choreographer Salvatore Vigano (1769–1819), for whom Beethoven wrote Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus, continued Noverre's work. By the end of the 18th cent. the ballet had almost discarded the last of its stately court influences and had developed gymnastic virtuosity, although movement was still mainly confined to the legs and feet. Dancing on the pointe (on the tips of the toes) came in only about 1814; it calls for arduous practice, requires special shoes, and carries a danger of dislocation; Marie Taglioni (career from 1822 to 1847) was its first notable exponent. The Romantic Movement introduced into the ballet an attempt at ethereal informality. Costumes grew shorter and the skin‐tight Maillot, named after its Parisian inventor, was daringly introduced.
From the mid‐19th cent., spectacular ballets, of a realistic and topical character, became common, and much effective ballet mus. was written, esp. by Fr. composers: Adam's Giselle (1841) has remained a classic and the appearance of Delibes's Coppélia (1870) marks an epoch.
Ballet as an integral part of opera was at its height of popularity in the first half of the 19th cent. Some of the operas of Rossini and Donizetti incl. ballets, and Verdi, bowing to the demands of Paris, where a ballet was de rigueur in opera, incl. ballets in many of his operas for that capital, even writing ballet mus. for Otello for its Paris prod. (1894). The high priest of ballet‐in‐opera was Meyerbeer, and even Wagner had to introduce ballet into Tannhäuser to placate his Paris audiences (but enraged the blades of the Jockey Club by refusing to place it, as was customary, in the 2nd act, by which time they would have finished their coffee and cigars). The extent of the Parisian ‘craze’ can be judged from the fact that Berlioz's orchestration of Weber's Invitation to the Dance (Aufforderung zum Tanz, 1819) was commissioned for the 1841 prod. of Der Freischütz, and dances from Bizet's incidental mus. to L'Arlésienne were interpolated into Carmen.