Ballet is a dance form that is almost always* performed to music, and there are traditionally two types of rhythms common in ballet:
Adage in French literally means “at ease.” Adage are slow pieces performed in the adagio or largo rhythm, with a focus on long lines and slower, graceful poses and motions. The arabesque is a key technique used in adage, as are fluid forms of port de bras. Adage are often considered to be the most romantic portions of a ballet, whether performed in exercises at the barre wherein one focuses more on building the strength necessary to allow the body to move fluidly and gracefully, or in the center, where it is more about storytelling and emoting with the music through the motions of dance.
Allégro (sometimes just written as “allegro,” the Italian spelling) is the opposite of adage – it is quick, bouncy and filled with movement! Allégro pieces feature jumps, spins, turns and leaps. If adage is the slow, steady breath of a ballet, then allégro is its quickened pulse or heartbeat. There are two typical forms of allégro performed en centre: petit allégro, which is a very short but very fast piece of choreography, and grand allégro, which is longer and tends to focus on big cross-stage movements such as the leaping grand jété.
The allégro rhythm in ballet should not be mistaken for an allegro in music – though both are fast-paced, allegro in ballet can be performed in a number of different rhythmic schemes (meters), including 2/4 (cut), 3/4 (waltz or polka) time and quick 4/4 time.
One might think that allegro is more athletic and demanding than adage, but actually, allégro pieces can be easier than the long, slow holds required in adage. Both are challenging, but in very different ways: adage truly tests one’s balance, strength (especially core strength!) and movement, whereas allégro tests reflexes, and leg strength – especially for all those jumps!
If ballet music interests you, I highly recommend composer and pianist Don Caron’s blog – his insights on the composition and use of music for the ballet class are really intriguing.
*There actually are ballets that have no music: some contemporary ballet choreographers have been working with silent ballet, as well as ballet performed to speeches, vocalizations and sounds, and synthetic music instead of the traditional orchestral scores. It’s a very different type of dance, but its ballet nonetheless!