What Is Ballet Repertoire? (Explained for Beginners)

Whether you’re a recreational ballet dancer or are training to become professional, learning ballet repertoire enhances your development. 

Ballet repertoire is a catalog of classical ballets that’ve been passed down for generations. This list of classical performances include ballets like The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Giselle, to name a few. Learning these dances help preserve both the traditional ballet form and the history of classical ballet.

Keep reading to understand how you can benefit from engaging in ballet repertoire.

What Is Ballet Repertoire

History of Ballet Repertoire

Dance has been around for ages and has evolved over time but remains one of the most expressive art forms that exist today. A versatile art form, dance can be an intimate activity with one or two people, enjoyed as a group, and presented to an audience.

Regardless of intention – personal, social, or professional artistry, different cultures express themselves differently through this rhythmic movement. 

When it comes to classical ballet, dancers communicate emotional story lines through bodily movement. 

Beginnings of Classical Ballet

Classical ballet is characterized by formal movements of the arms, legs, feet, and body. But it’s the seemingly effortless graceful movements that has caused classical ballet to also be referred to as romantic ballet.

Its beginnings date back to the 15th century of the Italian Renaissance. Ballet is a shortened form of balletto, which in Italian means “little dance.”  This dance was the highlight of upper-class social gatherings. 

But during those times, it wasn’t solely a dance and it certainly wasn’t a performance as we know it to be today. Balletto set standards of dress, social engagement, proximity to the king when inside the court, and more. Understanding this language of movement, so to speak, could enhance your life, or utterly ruin it if you broke any of the rules.

What began as a system of etiquette within aristocratic courts was carried over to France during the 16th century. This is where the narrative and performance aspects of ballet were born. 

In 1661, King Louis XIV, who had been trained in ballet since his youth, founded the Royal Academy of Dance. Through the Academy, Pierre Beauchamp introduced the five bodily positions that are the core of classical ballet. 

Eight years later, the Paris Opera Ballet was founded and mythological themes were commonly played out on stage. At this time in history, ballet became more than social entertainment amongst the elite, it was being showcased on stage.

Advancement of Classical Ballet 

Ballet continued to develop in St. Petersburg, Russia during the 19th century, pioneered by the Frenchman Marius Petipa. He worked closely with composers, like Tchaicovsky, to ensure that the music supported the storyline of the ballet.

This is where ballet was repeatedly refined as a performance art. For instance, the five fundamental feet positions and two fundamental body positions that are the foundations of classical ballet had been used more consistently. These positions are executed with turned out legs, which increases the dancer’s range of motion. 

Although the five main positions had been presented in France during the 17th century, this strict system of movement was formally presented in 1820 by Italian choreographer Carlo Blasis in, “An Elementary Treatise upon the Theory and Practice of the Art of Dancing” or, Traité élémentaire, théorique et pratique de l’art de la danse

It was also during the 19th century that pointe work became common for female ballet dancers.

This is only a portion of the storied history of classical ballet. But from this history, ballet’s current “repertoire,” or catalog of performances has slowly built over time. 

From this catalog, you can expect:

  • Formal dance technique
  • Dancers performing to classical music
  • Elaborate costumes and set design.

Classical ballet subjects include mythological stories, romantic themes, and realistic story lines.

Significance of Ballet Repertoires

Though ballet has evolved over time, ballet repertoire is what sustains the origins of classical ballet. In addition to technical movements, there are three main elements to a classical ballet performance: narrative, emotion, and character. 

Two of Petipa’s most popular ballets, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker are still well-received to this day. Companies still incorporate his choreographic style into modern day performances. 

And as far as modern day performances go, artistic directors, choreographers, and anyone involved in producing a ballet performance can take artistic license.

When you go see a ballet performance, it might not be in the same spirit of the first Petipa productions even if it’s given the same or a similar name. In some cases,  there might be changes to the story line or a character switch. Here’s one process you can use to detect an authentic performance of The Nutcracker.

And I think that that’s what makes ballet repertoire so essential. While no classical ballet production will be exactly like the originals, ballet repertoire captures the heart of these traditional performances. The ballet performances we’ve all grown to love have lasted as long as they have because they’ve been carefully studied, cataloged, and passed down for generations.

Studying Ballet Repertoire

King Louie’s Royal Academy of Dance still exists and teaches ballet repertoire.

Repertoire can reference the entire ballet dance or variations of it. So you might learn the solo, pas de deux (dance for two), or group choreography. 

In addition to learning technical movements and developing strength, emphasis is placed on expressiveness, understanding the historical narrative, and bodily interpretations of the music. This complete package, so to speak, is important when engaging this classical form of dance. 

I liken it to memorizing the lyrics of all the songs in a favorite musical, like Rent. Most theater lovers will know the music and aspiring stage actors practice it over and over again at the off chance that they’ll be presented with the opportunity to perform it in the future.

With ballet repertoire, you’d not only learn classical steps but you’ll be moving to the same music you hear when watching these performances as a member of the audience. Since the music helps tell the story, it’s naturally incorporated into repertoire practice.

In addition to The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and Giselle, you can learn variations of:

  • Coppélia
  • Paquita
  • Raymonda
  • La Bayadère
  • Don Quixote

There are additional ballets on the repertoire list. Variations are dependent up gender, age, and dance level. In the video below, you can view what might be taught as a female variation for the character Gamzatti in the ballet, La Bayadère.

Advantages to Learning Ballet Repertoires

Ballet repertoire is an excellent preparatory tool. An advantage for pre-professional ballet dancers is that they can familiarize themselves with story lines, characters, and choreography that they may perform professionally in the future. 

For those returning to dance, learning these traditional ballets might reconnect them with the love of dance by exposing them to classical ballets that they may not have been able to perform in the past.  Dancers are challenged and walk away with a sense of accomplishment after learning this classically unique form of ballet. 

Recreational ballet dancers often have an enhanced experience as an audience member of classical ballet performances. Having practiced segments of the performance, they have a deeper understanding of what actually goes into pulling it all together. 

Continuing the Legacy

Many dance techniques are rooted in classical ballet. It’s wonderful how dancers and choreographers have taken ballet steps further and further over time.

For example, modern dance and contemporary ballet offer a looser interpretation of the formalities of classical ballet. Some ballet dancers even fuse strict ballet technique with hip hop dance, as seen in the video below.

Ballet dancers are expected to move with tempered speed, strength, and balance, but with the appearance of ease. Leg and arm extensions create visual lines that are pleasing to the eye. These movements might seem simple, but there was a lot of complex meaning behind what started out as a manner of courting.

The video above shows an innovative and energetic routine. It’s beautiful in an of itself, and it’s built on traditional movements like the ones seen in the video below. This is a female variation of the character Kitri from another Marius Petipa ballet, Don Quixote.

What ballet repertoire does is help sustain ballet’s romantically classical origins. As dance styles evolve, ballet repertoires remind us of all the things ballet once was and can continue to be.

Are Ballets Italicized?

You may notice that the titles of each ballet have been italicized.

Since ballets are formal works of art, their titles are meant to be italicized when written about. This practice communicates to the reader that the writer is referencing a full-length body of work. On the contrary, you’ll notice that the dances within the ballet are not in italics. This is because they’re a subset of the whole performance, not the entire work.

For example, in the classical ballet, Coppélia, originally written by Léo Delibes, the title should always be italicized when it’s written about. But “Act I: A Village Square in Galicia” would not be italicized.

This rule is followed by many major writing guides, like the Modern Language Association (MLA) and The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS).

One exception is that you may not see titles italicized inside the ballet performance programme. Another exception is the Associated Press (AP) Style, which is used for news writing and print journalism. They don’t use italics at all. So in publications that follow AP Style, you’d find Ballet titles capitalized and set off in quotation marks instead.

In the grand scheme of things, italicizing a ballet title may seem insignificant. But using proper and consistent grammar keeps us all on the same page, which minimizes confusion.