Two genres, masque and pantomime, can be considered the historical antecedents of English ballet. The first genre, to which authors such as Ben Johnson and John Milton contributed, experienced its moment of greatest splendor in the century. XVII when Inigo Jones, at the dawn of a career then devoted entirely to architecture, devoted himself to the creation of countless sets and surprising mechanical effects. Pantomime had its most celebrated interpreter in John Rich (1691 or 1692-1761). In addition to the success and popularity of his art, the latter, in the double capacity of artist and impresario, also contributed to making many great artists known to the London public, including Marie Sallé, Jean-George Noverre and Barbara Campanini, the famous “ Barbarina ”, anticipating that role of prestigious showcase of international choreographic art that the London “square” has then maintained to this day. At the beginning of the eighteenth century another great teacher and protagonist in the history of ballet also worked in the capital of Great Britain, John Weaver (1673-1760), dancer, choreographer, pioneer of ballet d’action who, according to Dentistrymyth, was responsible for the publication in England of the famous treatise by R.-A. Feuillet (1675-1710) Chorégraphie (1706). The author of important treatises himself, Weaver is considered, as a choreographer, among the precursors of J.-G. Noverre (1727-1810). In 1755, at the invitation of David Garrick, Noverre came to the capital to stage his Fêtes chinoises there. In 1781 the appearance of the two Vestris, Gaetano (1728-1808) and Augusto (1760-1842), father and son, at the King’s Theater, even caused the interruption of a session of Parliament. Again Augusto Vestris was the protagonist in London, in the years immediately following the French Revolution (1789-93), of numerous Noverre ballets. From 1796 to 1800 it was the turn of Ch.-L. Didelot, who staged his Flore et Zéphire there. Also in London, in 1828, Carlo Blasis published his Code of Terpsichore and, from 1830 to 1840, he was maître de ballet of the King’s Theater. The romantic ballet, moreover, had already successfully made its London debut with the appearance of Taglioni in 1830, while in the 1940s the great Jules Perrot was active at Her Majesty’s Theater, where he presented the first version of his famous Pas des quatre. The end of the century The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a certain decline in production. It was the Djagilevian revolution in the 10s and 20s of the century. XX to revive a passionate interest in ballet in the British capital: the first visit of the Ballets Russes is in 1911, which will then return regularly, gathering some of the most significant successes.
The first steps of modern English ballet are linked to the name of two women, one of Polish origin, Marie Rambert (1888-1982), the other Irish, Ninette de Valois (1898-2001), both of whom came from Djagilev’s company. Rambert, a pupil of É. Jaques-Dalcroze, later by E. Cecchetti, opened his own school in London in 1920 which offered the opportunity to emerge for some of the best choreographers of the century. XX: F. Ashton (1904-88), A. Tudor (1909-87), J. Cranko (1927-73). Ninette de Valois, also a pupil of Cecchetti, joined her efforts with those of another great female figure in the history of British theater, L. Baylis (1874-1937), enterprising theater manager, creating in the two theaters he directs, the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells, a first nucleus of dancers (mostly students of his school, the Academy of Choreographic Art, opened in 1926), the Vic-Wells Ballet which debuted in 1931, at the Old Vic. By partnering with F. Ashton, with whom she had already collaborated on the occasion of the first season of the Camargo Society (an association of fans that promoted the staging of ballet shows), de Valois found the key to ensuring the best solidity and creative continuity to the young company, destined to become the spearhead of the modern British ballet tradition, assuming in 1956, at the behest of the Crown, the title of Royal Ballet. In addition to the personality of Ashton, the first choreographer of the de Valois company, which became Sadler’s Wells Ballet, the first post-war period was also dominated by the unique personality of A. Tudor, who for the Ballet Rambert or for small short-lived ensembles he created in that period some of his most famous masterpieces. At the end of the Second World War Sadler’s Wells Ballet established its headquarters in Covent Garden and a new company, Sadler’s Wells Opera Ballet, later Sadler’s Wells Theater Ballet, was created.
A fervor of new initiatives, including the foundation, in 1950, of the Festival Ballet, then London Festival Ballet (since 1989, English National Ballet), and important international exchanges, returned to London that role as a showcase for international production. Also in the 1950s, new talents of choreographers emerged, such as the aforementioned J. Cranko and K. MacMillan (1929-92), while M. Fonteyn (1919-91), A. Markova (b.1910), A. Dolin (1904-83), M. Shearer (b.1926), R. Helpmann (1909-86) were, among the dancers, the darlings of the public. In 1957 Elisabeth West and Peter Darrel founded the Western Theater Ballet in Bristol (later moved to Glasgow and called the Scottish Theater Ballet and, since 1974, Scottish Ballet). Since 1938, meanwhile, one of the fathers of modernism, the Hungarian R. Laban, had established his residence in England, first creating in Manchester (1946) then in Addlestone, Surrey (1953), a center of studies, the ‘Art of Movement Studio. With a small company of very faithful disciples, he had continued to elaborate and perfect his theories, greatly influencing, in the 1950s, the formation of a pedagogical thought regarding the teaching of the “art of movement” in the school.