The Most Famous Classical Ballets of All Time

Classical ballet is a stunning performance by professionally trained dancers, usually set to the stirring sounds of an orchestral score. Both emotionally and visually evocative, classical ballet brings romantic tales to life.

Classical Ballet History and Style

Ballet emerged during the Italian Renaissance and made its way to France in the 16th century. Classical ballet was first performed at social court dances. As it gained popularity in the 17th century, ballet evolved into a professional art form performed by rigorously trained entertainers who could perform advanced acrobatic techniques. The formal style of ballet includes meticulous training for pointe work and high extensions.

The Best Classical Ballets

While there are several genres, classical ballets all exhibit similar composition, costuming, and style. Classical ballet is danced to classical music, and the choreography includes female dancers dancing en pointe.

The signature style of a particular ballet often depends on the country of its origin. For example, Russian ballet features more high extensions and dynamic turns, while Italian ballet offers quick, extensive footwork.

The 10 great classical ballets that follow are must-sees for anyone who enjoys the art. The choreography of each of these ballets has stood the test of time. Although there have been changes, no matter who choreographs the performance, the basic structure remains true to the original. 

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Five ballerinas en pointe on stage, arms around each other, rear view
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"Cinderella" is the endearing story of a young girl who finds love and happiness through her acts of kindness. Although countless versions of the Cinderella story exist, the ballet is based on the original rags-to-riches fairy tale penned by French storyteller Charles Perrault. 

One of the most popular interpretations of the piece is the Russian ballet version with music composed in 1940 by Sergei Prokofiev. The world premiere of this three-act classical ballet choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky debuted in Moscow in 1945. There is also a re-choreographed version (1948) by Frederick Ashton that was transformed into a comic ballet production.​

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Often subtitled, "The Girl with the Enamel Eyes," this ballet in three acts, much like "The Nutcracker," is a delightful choice to give young children an introduction to classical ballet.

The story revolves around Dr. Coppelius who creates a life-size dancing doll with whom the villagers become obsessed. Lighthearted and entertaining, ​"Coppélia" follows the romantic games of sweethearts Franz and Swanhilda. It premiered on May 25, 1870, and was first choreographed by Arthur Sant-Leon to the music of Léo Delibes, with a libretto by Charles-Louis-Étienne Nuitter.

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Don Quixote

This historical ballet is based on the epic masterpiece by Miguel de Cervantes. "Don Quixote" is a fiery tale of love, adventure, and loss, sure to excite the senses. In the story, Don Quixote, the quintessential romantic dreamer, breaks from reality and escapes into a fantasy of his own making, believing he is a knight who must revive the golden age of chivalry.

The ballet was first premiered in 1869 in Moscow and choreographed by Marius Petipa with composition from Ludwig Minkus.​ "Don Quixote" closes with one of the most popular pas de deux in dance history, the grand pas de deux for lead characters Kitri and Basilio.

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Giselle ballet performance
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"Giselle" is a romantic two-act dance first performed by the Ballet du Théâtre de l'Académie Royale de Musique at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris, France. The story was written by Theophile Gautier with help from authors Chevalier de St. Georges and Jean Coralli.

The story revolves around a woman who has two lovers. She is considered the most beautiful and best dancer in her village, and yet, she dies of a broken heart. After her death, Giselle is summoned from her grave by a group of supernatural women.

Considered one of the most popular ballets, "Giselle" has attracted the best dancers in its leading roles since its creation. The ballet's signature ballet-blanc, or corps of women in white, has become emblematic of classical ballet.

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La Bayadère

A story of eternal love, mystery, fate, vengeance, and justice, "La Bayadère" is an extravagant ballet about a temple dancer named Nikiya.

In the story, Nikiya is in love with a handsome warrior, Solor, who also loves her. The couple pledges eternal love. However, Nikiya is also loved by the High Brahmin who sets a plan in motion to separate the pair so that he might have Nikiya for his own—with tragic consequences.

"La Bayadère" was originally staged in four acts and seven tableaux by choreographer Marius Petipa with music composer Ludwig Minkus. The first presentation was in St. Petersburg, Russia by the Imperial Ballet in 1877. Most modern versions of are derived from the Kirov Ballet's production of 1941.

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La Sylphide

One of the earliest romantic ballets, "La Sylphide" is based on a somewhat fantastical plot. James, a young Scotsman, runs away from his wedding to dance with his dreams in the forest. All does not end well, for either James or his dream lover, the beautiful Sylphide.

This two-act romantic ballet was first created by choreographer Filippo Taglioni in 1832. A later version from August Bournonville was introduced in 1836. The Bournonville ballet is considered one of the oldest surviving ballets.

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The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker ballet performance
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"The Nutcracker" has become a family-friendly Christmas tradition performed by numerous ballet companies around the world. For many, the season wouldn't be complete without attending a performance of "The Nutcracker." In fact, an estimated 40 percent of total annual ticket revenues earned by popular American ballet organizations comes from performances of this fairy tale.

The libretto follows the story a story of young Clara (sometimes known as Marie or Masha) who dreams of the Nutcracker Prince and a fierce battle against a seven-headed Mouse King. This two-act ballet was originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov along with the music from Tchaikovsky. The original production in 1892 was considered a failure, however, Tchaikovsky's suite was considered a huge success.

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Romeo and Juliet

Considered the greatest love story of all time, "Romeo and Juliet" is taken from Shakespeare's classic tragedy of young love, which in turn is said to be based on a true story of two star-crossed lovers who died for one another in Verona, Italy in 1303.

Juliet and her beloved Romeo come from feuding families who forbid them to be together. At the climax of the tale, when all hope is lost, Romeo kills himself with poison. Juliet, finding his lifeless body, kisses him hoping to perish as well but when the poison from his lips fails to kill her, she stabs herself with his dagger and falls to her death on top of him. 

Prokofiev composed the incredible ballet score around 1935 and the music has inspired many great choreographers to try their hand at interpreting their own vision of the Shakespearean tale. It premiered in the Czech Republic in 1938 as a single-act production composed primarily from the music of the first two suites.

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Sleeping Beauty

The first successful ballet composed by Tchaikovsky, "Sleeping Beauty" was the first ballet attended by a then sickly eight-year-old child named Anna Pavlova, who would go on to become one of the world's most acclaimed ballerinas of all time.

The story of Sleeping Beauty is translated from the French "La Belle au Bois Dormant," which translates to "the beauty sleeping in the wood." The heroine of this classic fairy tale is Princess Aurora whose fascination with a magic wheel causes her to cursed by a sleeping spell. The only way to break the curse, of course, is to be kissed by a handsome prince.

The ballet includes a prologue and three acts based on the story by Charles Perrault. The score was completed in 1889 and was first performed in 1890 in St. Petersburg, Russia, receiving more favorable accolades from the press than "Swan Lake."

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Swan Lake

ballet performance of Swan Lake
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Often considered the epitome of classical ballets, "Swan Lake" is a tale of love, betrayal, and the triumph of good over evil. The libretto chronicles the story of Odette, a young girl doomed by a wicked sorcerer who casts a spell condemning her to be a swan during the day and a human only at night. Odette becomes the queen of the swans, the most beautiful of all. In order to break the spell, a young man must profess his undying love for her.

This classic fairy tale ballet was originally choreographed by Julius Reisinger with music from Tchaikovsky. The premiere was in 1877 by the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, Russia.

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