By Jon Teeuwissen, MOT Artistic Advisor for Dance
The term ballet blanc – literally translated as “white ballet” - refers to a genre of classical ballets in which the ballerina and the female corps de ballet are costumed in white tutus. These ballets represent the Romantic style of 19th-century ballet, and the ballet blanc ballerinas usually represented fairies, ghosts, or other supernatural creatures.
The earliest example of ballet blanc dates back to 1832, with Marie Taglioni (the first ballerina to wear pointe shoes). She danced the title role in La Sylphide, a full-length story ballet about a sylphide, or wood nymph, who tempts a Scottish farmer to abandon his rural sweetheart and follow her into the woods, in pursuit of ethereal beauty. La Sylphide is considered by dance scholars to represent the beginning of the Romantic movement in classical ballet.
Although not the first, the production of La Sylphide that has withstood the test of time is the version choreographed by August Bournonville for the Royal Danish Ballet. Created in 1836, Bournonville’s is the only version still in existence and is one of the world’s oldest surviving ballets.
Elements of other-worldly beings dominated ballet stages for decades after La Sylphide. The next of the famous ballets blancs would be Act II of Giselle, created in 1842, which will literally “give you the Wilies.” This act features the pas de deux between Albrecht (who betrayed Giselle) and Giselle’s spirit, after she died of a broken heart. The ballet features the famous dance of the Wilis, who represent the spirits of all women who have been wronged by their beloveds.
Perhaps the most famous of the ballets blancs would be Swan Lake, created in 1877. Odette, the White Swan, representing purity (in opposition to her evil imposter, the Black Swan), appears in Act II and Act IV. The White Swan pas de deux is one of ballet’s most familiar and romantic pieces.
La Bayadére was created in 1877. Although the full production is not often performed, the standout of the ballet is Act III, “The Kingdom of the Shades” – another beautiful example of ballet blanc. This most celebrated and enduring passage was originally choreographed by Marius Petipa. Staged as a grand pas classique, this section is completely devoid of any dramatic action. One of his most celebrated compositions, "Shades" is simple, academic choreography, danced by a 32-member corps de ballet, zigzagging back and forth across the stage (on declining ramps), single file, all costumed in white tutus, giving you the feeling that the line of ballerinas is endless.
The Nutcracker premiered in 1892, and the end of Act I, “Snow” brought yet another beautiful example of ballet blanc with dancing snowflakes.
Last, but not least, in 1908, Michel Folkine revived the genre with his ballet, Chopiniana, set to the music of Frédéric Chopin. Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes, presented a revised version in 1909. Renamed Les Sylphides (not to be confused with the aforementioned La Sylphide), the ballet has remained a popular staple of classical ballet repertoire.