The origins of the French ballet can be traced back to the century. XIII, when the first figurative dances (such as the caroles) appeared, followed later by the entremets, sung, danced and mimed actions performed at the courts by improvised actors. Subsequently the school and the work of Italian treatises and masters (P. Diobono and Baltazarini) led to the birth of the ballet de cour (exemplified by the Balet comique de la Royne, 1581), and then to the birth of the classical ballet codified by the Académie Royale de Danse (founded in 1661) and then developed above all in the context of the school annexed to the Académie Royale de Musique (founded in 1669), today Opéra de Paris. Since the century XVII the activity was concentrated mainly at the Opéra, even if the presence of J.-G. Noverre in Lyon and J. Dauberval in Bordeaux in the 17th century. XVIII testify to the expansion of the passion for ballet beyond the capital, highlighting those aristocratic characters – of which the danse noble is the maximum expression – which mandatory laws and strictly handed down exclusive ways and tones distinguished giving life to the so-called “French style”. At the Opéra worked Ch.-L. Beauchamps, initiator of the comédie-ballet; GB Lulli, proponent of the “high style” and creator of the tragédie-ballet; L. Pécourt, Blondy, G. Vestris. The ballet saw the triumph of Italian virtuosity inserted in the French tradition, greeted the affirmation of that aérien style that would find its highest expression in the romanticism of Taglioni, consecrated its great dancers (la Prévost, la Sallé, la Camargo, la Guimard). Critics, choreographers, encyclopedists rose up against exhibitionist virtuosity and the flourishing of mainly visual and spectacular choreographic works: J.-G. Noverre in his Lettres (1760) condemned such excesses and called for drastic reforms. Thus was born the ballet d’action (although already realized on the theatrical level by the Italian G. Angiolini); They established themselves J. Dauberval, master of comic ballet (La fille mal gardée, 1789, considered the first example of ballet démi-caractère) and Gardel le Jeune, great danseur noble and great teacher of dance. Meanwhile great French choreographers and masters – Ch.-L. Didelot, Antoine-Théodore Bournonville – brought the noble style of French ballet abroad, the former conferring expressive autonomy to the Russian ballet, the latter continuing the work of V. Galeotti in Denmark which, thanks to the genius of his son August, will eventually lead to the creation of a Danish national ballet.
Also Paris and the Opéra witnessed the triumph of romantic ballet and flamboyant confrontations between prima donnas (Taglioni, Elssler, Grisi, Cerrito, Fire), but this brilliant season ended around 1850. Long decades of decadence followed., during which dancers and choreographers such as J. Pérrot and M. Petipa left the country to work abroad. Coppélia by A. Saint-Léon (1870) is the only significant title of that period, along with Sylvia by L. Mérante (1876) who inaugurated the new Palais Garnier. At the beginning of the century XX, with Djagilev ‘s Ballets Russes, Paris returns to the center of the evolution and reform of ballet, desired by M. Fokin and created with a variety of ways, accents and radicalism, by other leading elements of the Djagilevian “revolution”, such as Nijinskij, Massine, Nijinska, Balanchine, Lifar. The latter dominated the Opéra for a long time (1929-44, 1947-58), assimilating the substance of the classical tradition to Djagilev’s experience of renewal. Also in Paris some of the most significant experiences of the choreographic twentieth century had their center: the seasons of Ballets Suedois, those of the Ballets des Champs-Élysées and the Ballets de Paris, and personalities such as Roland Petit, Maurice Béjart, Janine Charrat have given prestige to the French tradition. Interest in Modernism has spread since the 1960s, culminating in the sending of Merce Cunningham to the Opéra and with the appointment of Carolyn Carlson as a chorégraphe étoile (1973). The 1980s saw the explosion of the nouvelle danse, largely supported by the government, and the affirmation of a new constellation of authors (Maguy Marin, Jean Claude Gallotta, Philippe Decoufflé, Regine Chopinot, Jean Gaudin, Angelin Preljocaj) together with that of a new generation of interpreters, who emerged during the years of the direction of Rudolf Nureev at the Opéra (1983-89).