Ballet, form of solo and ensemble dance meant for the stage. Ballet evolved from court entertainments of Renaissance Italy, where training in graceful movement was considered essential to a courtier's education. These entertainments were introduced into France by Catherine dé Medici, wife of King Henry II. In the courts of later kings, ballet became firmly established as an aristocratic pastime, and the kings themselves were skilled dancers. King Louis XIV established the first professional ballet school, the Royal Academy of Music and Dance, in 1661. Charles Louis (Pierre) Beauchamp, balletmaster of the Academy, originated the 5 basic foot positions and turnout of the feet that are still fundamental to ballet technique. Early-18th-century ballet was an adjunct to opera. By mid-18th century self-contained pantomime ballets began to appear, and virtuoso dancers modified their costumes to allow more freedom of movement. Jean Georges Noverre helped establish ballet as an integral art form in which plot, music, decoration, and dance were fused into an artistic whole. The 19th-century romantic movement introduced a new emphasis on lightness and grace. Ballerinas began to dance on their toes and adopted the short, full-skirted tutu. The center of European ballet shifted to Russia with the appointment of the French dancer Marius Petipa as balletmaster of the Imperial Ballet in the 1850s. Petipa brought new standards of technical perfection, and his use of Russian folk themes and music gave ballet a wider support among the public. With his assistant Lev Ivanov, he created such classical ballets as Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and The Sleeping Beauty.
In 1907 the visit of the U.S. dancer Isadora Duncan to St. Petersburg spurred the Russian choreographer Michel Fokine to create a new, modern ballet. Fokine joined with the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev to form the Russian Ballet, which opened in Paris in 1909. Diaghilev's company included some of the greatest dancers in the history of ballet: Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, Léonide Massine, and George Balanchine. Many of these dancers went on to found new ballet companies, thus extending Diaghilev's influence throughout the world of the dance. For the Russian Ballet Fokine created Les Sylphides, The Firebird, and Rite of Spring. From 1909 until his death, Diaghilev was the most important figure in European ballet. England's first permanent ballet company, the Vic Wells (later Sadler's Wells), was formed in 1930. Renamed the Royal Ballet in 1957, it is noted for the choreography of Frederick Ashton, and featured dancers Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev. After the Revolution, the Russian Ballet was devoted to experimental works on political and social themes, but then returned to the classical models of Petipa. Russian dancers are acknowledged masters of the traditional style. In the United States, contemporary ballet has evolved into a distinctive form combining the modern dance of Jerome Robbins, Martha Graham, and Ruth St. Denis with the tradition of the classical ballet as adapted by Massine and Balanchine. The Ballet Theater, established in 1940, encouraged the work of new U.S. composers and choreographers, and George Balanchine's New York City Ballet has continued to add new and unorthodox works to the repertoire. Professional ballet companies have been established throughout the United States, and the popular tours U.S. companies have undertaken abroad have made this country among the most vital and influential in the dance world. Canada also has several major professional companies: Royal Winnipeg Ballet, National Ballet of Canada (Toronto), and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens (Montreal).