A Shift in Ballet Habitus (Academic Essay)


Habitus is considered a social phenomenon. It provides structure to a group or class of people, a uniform way of moving as well as speaking. While the term structure can be considered a forced way of organisation, in relation to habitus the structure becomes almost natural. This is because habitus is better learned from experience, rather than teaching. Habitus is gradually learnt by trial and error, by being surrounded by people of the same class or culture. When experiencing one’s own society they become naturally influenced by the way the majority moves and speaks in relation to each other. An individual learns imitate this habitus in order to become integrated into the class driven society.

“Though it is impossible for all members of the same class (or even two of them) to have had the same experiences, in the same order, it is certain that each member of the same class is more likely than any member of another class to have been confronted with the situations most frequent for the members of that class,” (Bourdieu, 1977, pg. 85).

An interesting aspect of habitus that French theorist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) stresses is that habitus is not permanent and can change. However, habitus is not changed by the individual. Rather, it changes over a period of time as new social habits become introduced to the culture. This is why, when considering ballet in relation to habitus, this paper is going to examine ballet in the early 1900s, a period where the dance shifted from a more conservative and classical era into a more modern era. This paper will specifically discuss the Ballet Russes and how the work of company director, Serge Diaghilev and choreographer Michel Fokine is greatly credited with introducing this shift in habitus, as well as how this change in ballet style affected the social style of Western Europe.

Before discussing the specific ways these figures influenced the style of ballet in the early 1900s it is important to understand the previous platform ballet had been built from. In the late 1800s the Imperial Ballet School of Russia was one of the main successful ballet schools of the time. This school had teachers such as Enrico Cecchetti and produced dancers such as Anna Pavlova, Michel Fokine, and Vaslav Nijinsky, all under the sixty year direction of Marius Petipa. The choreographic work of Petipa brought classics such as Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake. Petipa provides a great example of habitus in ballet because through his training he stressed perfection and imitation. All of his dancers had to move with the exact same quality, and his choreography consisted of formulaic technique that, “… didn’t wander far from what was taught in the classroom,” (Jowitt 120). His ballets were intended to show the feat of what his classically trained dancer’s bodies could do in order to impress his audiences.

However, the issue of having the same director for sixty years is that a school may become stagnant and unchanging. In 1889 a dancer named Michel Fokine became accepted into the Imperial Ballet, at the age of nine. While Petipa was no longer teaching at this time, Fokine was still taught the French tradition of dance because of the surplus of French teachers at the school.

The Imperial Ballet of Russia presented a school of protected traditions. This is the way Petipa instructed his school, and the basis of tradition in which the teachers supported. Fokine credits one teacher in particular, Nicholas Legat, as being a slave to tradition,

“Legat was the last of my teachers. It was a coincidence that, at the time when my mind was beginning to be filled with accumulated doubts about the invulnerability of ballet traditions, my guide was none other than an admirer of these traditions, who accepted them blindly and who was totally unable to understand my doubts: doubt that in the ballet everything was absolute, that the dance which I was taught was built on foundations of unforgettable and unchangeable laws; doubt about the canons and dogmas of the old ballet,” (Fokine, 1961, pg. 33).

This stagnant form of tradition caused Fokine to start raising questions of where the art was in ballet. In 1902 Fokine began teaching at the Imperial Ballet. He approached his fellow teachers at the with a questionnaire asking questions such as, “Could the ballet be a serious and essential art form for a wide public, or is it destined to remain just a shallow form of amusement?” (Fokine, 1961, pg. 52). He had hoped to probe discussion and thought throughout the school, but rather some replied with jokes and, “Some denounced ballet as the empty amusement of the privileged classes,” (Fokine, 1961, pg. 52).

In the late 1800s ballet was becoming considered a low form of art, looked down upon by the public as well as other art forms. The excitement of the dance had sizzled out and ballet was considered, “… nothing more than a display of pretty women in tempting costumes,” (Lieven, 1973, pg. 56).

The norm of ballet at this time was similar to social habitus. People learned by imitation. Nobody questioned the traditions that were set forth, and no one seemed interested in questioning why things were done in a specific way. It could be argued that this was why ballet was becoming lethargic and the mass audience was losing interest. It could be considered that the habitus, or the social understanding, of ballet at the time was to follow in the footsteps of those who came before, passing the traditions onto the next generation.

During rehearsals with Anna Pavlova at the Imperial Ballet Fokine would try to engage her in discussions about ballet as an art form. He questioned the meaning behind the enchainments, and why the high jumps and quick turns were necessary. What did they add to plot or character development? At the end of these discussions, “She would reply that the public liked it and that if we did not finish our number with something spectacular we would score no success,” (Fokine, 1961, pg. 47).

Fokine struggled with the concept that ballet was just a simple form of art, ruled by unchanging traditions and dancers who are always conscious of the audience. However, even as a teacher he could make no influence on the Imperial Ballet. After doing research on the arts and dances of ancient Greece Fokine devised a ballet entitled Acis and Galtea. When he proposed his Greek inspired ballet idea to the inspector the response was,

“Why, Mikhail Mikhailovich, you teach the classic dance and wish to present your pupils in some totally different form of art? You will please postpone this until some future date and now compose a ballet in the customary style,” (Fokine, 1961, pg. 89).

This could be one reason why Fokine decided to seek opportunities outside of the Imperial Ballet. In 1909 an opportunity presented itself through a man called Serge Diaghilev. Diaghilev proposed that he was starting a new company and wanted to hire Fokine as the head choreographer. Diaghilev offered Fokine a freedom that the Imperial did not, the ability to experiment with choreography and create new work to be performed for a Western Europe audience.

Even though Diaghilev was never a dancer himself, he is credited with possibly changing the course of ballet. It is thought that his success came from bringing Russian style ballet to the Paris audience. Their 1910 season in Paris even included a piece called The Firebird which was based off Russian folklore. In this ballet Fokine began to specifically expand the movement vocabulary for the corps de ballet. No longer were they a collective group of uniform dancers. In The Firebird Fokine gave the corps specific characters to act as, and movements that would represent said characters. In this ballet the corps played monsters that lived in an evil kingdom that kept beautiful princesses hostage,

“The evil kingdom was built on movements at times grotesque, angular, and ugly, and at times comical. The monsters crawled on all fours, and leaped like frogs. Sitting and lying on the ground, they stuck the palms of their hands out like fins, now from under their elbows, now from under the ears, tying their arms into knots, rolling from side to side, jumping in squat positions, and so forth. In short, they did everything which twenty years later appeared under the label of “modern dance” but which, at the time, seemed to express most adequately nightmarish horror and hideousness,” (Fokine, 1961, pg. 167).

The Ballet Russes received astounding success during their very early seasons, establishing themselves as an innovative artistic presence in Western Europe almost immediately.

What was unique about the Ballet Russes to the Paris audience was the spectacle of the performances. Diaghilev made sure his shows had bright and colourful costumes, grand sets that were technically advanced (including stage trap doors and pulley systems), as well as exciting and innovative music. The Firebird is an example of this innovation because it contained a massive multi layered set of a kingdom surrounded by a forest, as well as the actual Firebird brightly dressed and with choreography extending past the classical parameters because the dancer had to move in a way that Fokine would interpret a bird to move. Then there is the exciting contrast between the beautiful princesses and the ghastly members of the evil kingdom. While this ballet did maintain some aspects of the classical ballet, such as movement vocabulary for the Prince and Princesses, it also contained more layers and depth than a traditional ballet by having his dancers move in ways that were strictly honest of their character.

Now the question to consider is what was unique about the Ballet Russes? Why was Fokine able to flourish and extend the vocabulary of ballet with Diaghilev and not the Imperial Ballet? The key, in this case, seems to be the power of collaboration and who one works with. The Imperial Ballet of Russia functioned as it did for all those years because it was an establishment of generally likeminded people, who were looking to preserve the tradition of ballet. However, Fokine did not fit into that specific mould. Fokine was able to find a similar interest with Diaghilev, and what was interesting about their collaboration was that they both offered different uses to each other. Fokine had his artistic integrity and choreographic innovation, and Diaghilev offered an understanding of social issues and current interests that could capture and audience. This is one reason why Diaghilev was essential to the Ballet Russes, even though he was not an artist himself. What Diaghilev could do was bring a team together who could collaborate to create something new and exciting. He understood that all aspects of the theatre were necessary to create a compelling show. The costume design and set design did not come secondary to the choreography, they were all given equal value. One of the most innovating teams that came together in the early years of the Ballet Russes was composer Igor Stravinsky, theatre designer Alexander Benois, choreographer Michel Fokine, and performer Vaslav Nijinsky. One ballet that this specific team worked on together was a ballet, performed in 1911, called Petrouchka.

Petrouchka presents another step in modernity that the Ballet Russes took. Similar to The Firebird it contained traits of classical ballet vocabulary, but it pushed the boundaries a bit further. In The Firebird the protagonist was still a Prince attempting to rescue Princesses, which is a storyline previously explored in classical ballet, such as Sleeping Beauty. However, in Petrouchka the main characters are three dolls set in a fair at Admiralty Square in St. Petersburg, Russia. The challenge with Petrouchka that Fokine set upon his dancers was for them to be able to be inanimate objects that still emit emotion through their movement. They danced as though each doll possessed a human soul.

Fokine approached the doll’s choreography with humanistic intentions and was able to use basic ballet positioning of the body to express the doll’s innate personalities. For example, all of the Moor’s movements were set en dehors (turned out) to express him as an extrovert exuding confidence and social power. Petrouchka’s movements, on the other hand, are choreographed to be en dedans (turned in) to show his cowardice and introverted nature. Fokine related these simple features of his dancers to the average human nature as well,

“We often see a self-assured man who sits on a chair with widely spread legs, feet turned out, hands resting on his knees or hips, holding his head high and his chest out. There is another type: he will be sitting on the very edge of the chair, knees together, feet turned in, with his back hunched, head hanging down, and arms like drooping branches. We can immediately conclude that this one has had little success in life. On this foundation I created all the scenes and all the dances of the Moor and Petrouchka,” (Scholl, 1998, pg. 46).

Fokine was able to draw from his everyday observations of people’s body language and use them in his ballet, giving his inanimate dolls a piece of genuine human nature. This concept is interesting in relation to Bourdieu’s notion of habitus because it considers habitus not only in context to society at large but considers closer the habitus of an individual. The example that Fokine uses when he discusses how the way a man sits can be showing of his status in life directly relates to idea of different class habitus within one society. A poor man of low social standing may slump lower in his chair than a man of higher social standing. This type of habitus is something that is built from a lifetime of experiences,

“For Bourdieu, the body is a mnemonic device upon and in which the very basis of culture, the practical taxonomies of the habitus, are imprinted and encoded in a socialising or learning process which commences during early childhood. This differentiation between learning and socialisation is important: the habitus is inculcated as much, if not more, by experience as by explicit teaching,” (Jenkins, 2002, pg. 75).

Fokine’s Petrouchka may also have a deeper social context within the storyline of the three dolls. In 1905 St. Petersburg underwent a massacre referred to as Bloody Sunday. It started out as a protest asking for worker’s rights such as work days being cut to eight hours and for the right to strike. However, they became shot down by soldiers and the death toll is still uncertain.

It could be argued that Petrouchka is loosely relatable to the events of Bloody Sunday, an event that personally affected Fokine as he would have been teaching in St. Petersburg at the time, because it is also a story about an attempted repression. The Charlatan in Petrouchka acts as the puppet master, however, while he is able to make the dolls dance to entertain crowds and then lock them away in their individual rooms, he cannot control how they think or feel. This is apparent in the love triangle that ensues between Petrouchka’s love for the Ballerina, who chooses to be with the extroverted Moor rather than Petrouchka. A fight begins between Petrouchka and the Moor, ending with Petrouchka being slain in Admiralty Square. While Petrouchka is a story about a heart broken doll, it is also about a doll who died because he acted out of order, according to his stance on the bottom of the hierarchy that is present in the dolls microcosm society.

Bloody Sunday and Petrouchka are an example of how it is difficult to force change on social habitus. The change tends to be more gradual, and needs to transition from an individual thought or idea and integrate into the social class. Any change in social habitus consists of a process,

“Here we must distinguish between the habitus as embodied in individuals, and the habitus as a collective, homogeneous phenomenon, mutually adjusted for and by a social group or class. In the first case, habitus is acquired by individuals through experience and explicit socialisation in early life. Life and subsequent experience is then a process of adjustment between subjectivity (habitus) and objective reality,” (Jenkins, 2002, pg. 79).

This process of change is apparent throughout the early work of the Ballet Russes. And the changes were generally small, at first. As previously discussed, there was the Ballet Russes 1910 production of The Firebird, which played with the role that the corps has in a ballet. Another change is seen in the 1911 Petrouchka where Fokine turns the corps into middle class fair attendees as well as travelling gypsies and performers. He also casts the lead with personified dolls. Then if you jump forward to 1912 Nijinsky choreographed L’après-midi d’un faune, premiering the first ever theatrical masturbation on stage. Also from Nijinsky in 1913 is the Rite of Spring, which pertained choreography so primitive and un-balletic it caused riots in the Paris theatre.

What is interesting about that specific procession of ballets is how one company was able to drastically expand notions of movement vocabulary in just three years. These tie back to Diaghilev’s skill at bringing together teams of collaborators. Fokine was upset when Diaghilev gave Nijinsky permission to choreograph ballets that Fokine technically should have created. However, Diaghilev believed that Nijinsky had something new to offer the company, so he allowed Nijinsky to choreograph even though it meant losing Fokine. And Nijinsky truly created interesting and provocative ballets, with a completely different movement vocabulary to Fokine. It was controversy that Diaghilev sought after because he knew it could draw an audience. He may not have realized at the time that what he was doing was changing perceptions that ballet could only be done in a traditional and practiced form.

Another interesting aspect in relating social habitus and the Ballet Russes is that their influence transcended the stage and could be seen on the streets of Paris, through their fashion. Designers who were designing for Diaghilev were also sought after by the fashion industry. For example, Leon Bakst, while working for Diaghilev, also designed dresses for the House of Paquin (Pritchard, 2010, pg. 187). There was also an interchange of resources as the House of Paquin came to the rescue and modified the costumes for Nijinsky’s Jeux. The influence ballet had on Paris fashion was also seen in an influx of bright colours and a more daring exploration into prints.

In conclusion, Bourdieu expressed that changes in habitus is eternally a growing process, and while it may start from individual thought is still a social phenomenon, ‘The site of internalization of reality and the externalization of internality,’ (Jenkins, 2002, pg. 79). It is only out of old tradition, or old habitus, that new traditions can be formed. The ballet Russes provide a good example of how change occurs out of old tradition,

“Without the Imperial Ballet, without its school and traditions, the Diaghilev productions, as different as they were, could not have been created. No art is born suddenly; like man, it must have its parents and ancestors.” (Lieven, New York, pg. 55).

The effect of the Ballet Russes is still seen today as artists are still pushing the boundaries of how ballet vocabulary can be used in contemporary works. Artists who exemplify these innovations include artists such as Wayne Mcgregor and Mats Ek. Both of these artists have created work inspired by classical ballets, such as Giselle and Swan Lake, while providing them with their own uniquely contemporary twist. Those are only two artists, of many, that show choreographers are still questioning what ballet is and what it can become in the future. The Ballet Russes helped to show that ballet is not singly defined, rather it becomes defined by the artist who approaches it.


Print Sources

Anderson, J. (1981) The One and Only: The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. London: Dance Books Ltd.

Ashton, G. (1985) Stories of the Ballets: Petruchka. London: Aurum Press Ltd.

Beaumont, C. (1981) Production of “Le Spectre De La Rose,” “Narcisse,” “Petrouchka”” Michel

           Fokine and His Ballets. New York: Dance Horizons.

Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1979) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. London: Routledge.

Bourdieu, P. (1995) Free Exchange. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Drummond, J. (1997) Speaking of Diaghilev. London: Faber and Faber.

Fokine, V. (1961) Fokine: Memoirs of a Ballet Master. London: Constable & Company Limited.

Garafola, L. (1989) Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. New York:         Oxford University Press.

Garafola, L (Ed) and Baer, N (Ed). (1999) The Ballet Russes and Its World. London: Yale University


Garcia-Marquez, V. (1990) The Ballet Russes: Colonel Basil’s Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo 1932-1952.

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Horwitz, D. (1985) Michel Fokine. Boston: Twayne Publishers.

Jenkins, R. (2002) Pierre Bourdieu: Key Sociologist. London: Routledge.

Lieven, P. (1973) The Birth of the Ballet Russes. New York: Dover Publications.

Prichard, J (Ed). (2010) Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballet Russes 1909-1929. London: V&A


Scholl, T. (1998) ‘Fokine’s Petrouchka’ in Watchtel, A (Ed) (1998) Petrushka: Sources and Contexts.

Illinois: Northwestern University Press Pg. 41-50.

Taylor, D. (2011) Key Concepts: Michel Foucault. Durham: Acumen Publishing Limited.


‘Bloody Sunday’ in St. Petersburg [Online] Available From:


sunday%E2%80%99-st-petersburg [Accessed May 15, 2014].


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