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By Robin Rinaldi

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In 1672, Louis XIV appointed him director of the Académie Royale de Musique. Women, Commoners, and Democracy In its first few centuries, ballet remained an art completely dominated by men. Then, in 1681, Lully brought the first female dancer, known Ballet Begins in Europe 33 only as Mademoiselle Lafontaine, to the Paris stage in Le Triomphe de l’Amour (The Triumph of Love). Though little is known of Lafontaine’s life or training, her appearance made history, and with the arrival of the ballerina, there was no turning back—changes were under way.

Instead of just anyone, however, America got George Balanchine, arguably the greatest ballet master of the century—and, some say, of all time. Balanchine’s benefactor, Lincoln Kirstein, adored ballet, but knew very little about it. Thus, Balanchine was given free rein to create any kind of company he liked, and he ended up creating one quite different from anything that had existed before. 61 5 62 BALLET First came the school. In 1934, Balanchine founded the School of American Ballet and soon after created his first American work for its students—Serenade, a ballet without a story or a set, danced in simple costumes by a female ensemble to a Tchaikovsky string composition.

The second act opens on a harsher landscape marked with sacred stones and framed by ox skulls hanging from poles. A group of tribal virgins encircles the stage and performs a magical dance, choosing one of their own to be sacrificed in the process. The chosen woman stands alone in the middle of the circle as the tribe gathers round her, the ancestors are summoned, and the whole tribe dances a violent, sacrificial rite until the chosen woman falls dead on the ground. As if the subject matter weren’t controversial enough in polite Paris society, Nijinsky’s choreography—described as asymmetric, spasmatic, sluggish, larvalike, ugly—shocked audiences by presenting movements never before seen.

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