Ballet d'action is a ballet movement started by French choreographer Jean Georges Noverre in 1760. It involves expression of character and emotion through dancers' bodies and faces, rather than through elaborate costumes and props. The movement began due to Noverre's negative reaction to what he considered the dancers' undue focus on technical expertise and neglect of the true purpose of ballet.
In 1760 Jean Georges Noverre wrote Letters on Dancing and Ballets, a widely published and highly popular dance manual. Dissatisfied with the outdated ideals of ballet, Noverre called for severe reforms to the art form. These reforms presented the concept of dance drama, or ballet d'action. Noverre's manifesto explored the following:
- Logical plots
No more illogical or insane plots. Ballets should be rationally constructed. Stage action should be coherent, with each scene consistent in tone. Variety and contrast can be displayed throughout the ballet as a whole.
- Truth over nature.
Noverre did away with the symbolism and abstractions present in the court ballet. Mythological figures could only be used in ballets if motivated by human emotions.
- No to the use of masks
Noverre did away with the use of masks. The dancer's face should be seen. It is expressive and reinforces the emotion they are trying to communicate with their audience.
- Costume Reform
Dancers should be dressed in light fabrics that show off their figures and allow for mobility. No more cumbersome costumes such as panniers or tonnelets. Costumes should be timely and represent the character the dancer is portraying.
- Artistic Collaboration
Noverre called for better communication between artistic collaborators. It had been common practice (until this point) for the choreographer, composer, the designers, and the machinists to work independently until late in the production process. Noverre felt that a more cohesive creative process was integral to the success of a ballet.
Noverre was also a proponent of education. He recommended that choreographers educate themselves in additional subjects to better assist in their ability to create truthful ballets. For example, a choreographer should study painting so he can compose stage pictures (formations) as a painter would. He should also observe people in all walks of life, so he can apply realistic and appropriate gestures to the characters created in ballets.
It is argued that many of the ideas and reforms presented in Noverre's Letters were previously introduced by the famous ballerina Marie Sallé, and choreographers Jean-Baptiste de Hesse (1705-1779) and Franz Anton Hilverding (1710-1768). Noverre however achieved lasting notoriety, receiving the bulk of the credit for the ideas furnished in ballet d'action.