Milestones in ballet

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 March, 2010, 12:00am

Billy Elliot's father may have been outraged to discover his son had a passion for ballet rather than boxing, but his reaction might have been different if he knew that in the early years it was danced only by men.

In the 300 years since Louis XIV of France began influencing the dance, many changes have taken place. So, distilling the entire history of ballet into a 2 1/2-hour visual crash course of its milestones is quite a task.

Presented by the Hong Kong Ballet, The Evolution of Ballet - winner of Hong Kong Dance Awards 2009 - portrays ballet's development from court entertainment to a platform for modern creativity.

The show will focus on Louis XIV and the influence of Catherine de' Medici of Italy in the 16th century. The latter took the genesis of ballet in the 15th century from her home country to France, staging Ballet Comique de la Reine in 1581 - the world's first ballet.

'Few know that ballet is from Italy, not France,' says Shirley Loong, Hong Kong Ballet's director of the education and outreach department.

In 1661, ballet steps were developed and refined in the courts of Louis XIV's palace. The king's passion led him to found the Paris Opera in 1669. At that time, all dancers were male until the first premier danseuse Mlle de Lafontaine appeared in 1681.

In the 19th century, ballerinas first started dancing en pointe - on the tips of their toes, a typical balletic move known for its difficulty. Pointe shoes were invented.

'En pointe is unique to ballet. Only female dancers make this move, which represents technique, high demand and challenge,' says Loong, who used to dance with the company.

Unlike other ballets, this one will be narrated by dancers in the roles of Louis XIV and de' Medici. It will also include excerpts from pre-romantic to classical ballets such as Giselle, Napoli, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and the work of iconic 20th century choreographers such as Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, George Balanchine and William Forsythe.

'It's all you need to know about ballet, and a capsule of the history of this enduring dance form,' Loong says. 'Ballet has several hundred years of history. A lot has changed and many classics have been produced. Costumes, techniques have all changed considerably.'

The company first performed the piece two years ago as a free show for students. It served as a trial run for the latest presentation, she says.

Wong Yuen-ching, the company's head of wardrobe, says the nature of the show means a great deal of costume changes for the dancers, but the company's previous experience with the work has eased the process. 'We have never had so many scene changes before,' she said.

All of the company's 44 dancers are involved in the performance. 'Six weeks are needed to practise for an average full-length ballet. And even though we have done this before and the moves are familiar, we will rehearse six days a week for five weeks,' Wong says.

Loong says: 'Things have become more and more complicated in the history of ballet. Though classics like Swan Lake and the Sleeping Beauty will remain unchanged, more and more people will instil modern elements into traditional dance.'

'A chance to see the essential history of ballet in a single show doesn't come very often. You will learn without having to read books,' she says. 'There's no chance of your getting bored.'

The Evolution of Ballet will be staged at Sha Tin Town Hall from March 26-28. Tickets are available from Urbtix on 2734 9009 .