Ballet is an ethics and an etiquette, a physical and public expression of who we are, with a long past and deep roots in religious, political, and military thinking. It is also inherently contemporary: today’s dancers bring their “street” to the stage. Across its history, dancers and choreographers have articulated a vision of society and civic culture, which was at its origins courtly and aristocratic but in the 20th century became public and democratic. The history of ballet is integral to the history of western civilization.
What exactly do we mean by “ballet”? Ballet is a system of training based on a linear and geometrically proportioned organization of the human body. What it looks like after that is up to artists. It is a wide-ranging performing art, bringing together the arts and the sciences from music, poetry, and design to economics, physics, and technology.
Ballet today is adrift: even when it is good—fine dancers or choreography—it is relegated to the margins of culture and thought of as “elite” and “inaccessible.” It has become increasingly specialized and has lost its connection to people and the ways we live. Universities, for their part, have given little recognition to ballet. Its history, skills, and practices have been marginal to the study of the life of the mind. This represents a significant gap in the history of culture.