10 greatest ballets of all time

24 May 2024, 13:59

The most iconic ballets of all time. Pictured: Austrian Ballet’s Swan Lake
The most iconic ballets of all time. Pictured: Austrian Ballet’s Swan Lake. Picture: Getty

By Rosie Pentreath

From ‘Sylphide’ to ‘Swan Lake’, we celebrate some of the greatest ballets ever conceived.

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The American dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille once said “the truest expression of a people is in its dance and in its music. Bodies never lie.”

And the pinnacle of artistic expression through dance, for many, is ballet. Ballet takes movement and music, and elevates the combination into something almost unexplainable. It’s incredibly rigid and structured, yet wholly fluid and transcendent – bordering on the miraculous.

Ballet can be traced back to royal courts of the 15th century, and history sees figures like France’s King Louis XIV, who established the Royal Dance Academy, and Sergei Diaghilev, who founded the Ballet Russes, pushing the genre forward.

Many great composers and choreographers have got involved and gone down in history for their ballets alone. Here are some of the greatest ever conceived.

Read more: The 10 greatest ballet dancers of the 20th century

  1. Swan Lake – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky & Julius Reisinger (1877)

    Take the tale of a princess transformed into an elegant swan and add some of the most ravishing melodies in classical music, and you get Swan Lake.

    Tchaikovsky’s 1875 work remains one of the most popular ballets ever written, and contains the famous pieces ‘Dance of the Little Swans’ and the instantly recognisable Act I Waltz. But this wasn’t always the case – the ballet inspired by Russian and German folk tales telling of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer’s curse, wasn’t an immediate success.

    Swan Lake – Dance of the cygnets (The Royal Ballet)

  2. Sleeping Beauty – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky & Marius Pepita (1890)

    The ravishing waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty is one of the most joyous and uplifting pieces of classical music, as well as one of the best known.

    It comes towards the beginning of the ballet, during a grand ball thrown for the 16th birthday of the protagonist, Princess Aurora.

    Telling the traditional fairytale of a princess cursed to sleep for 100 years awaiting true love’s first kiss, Sleeping Beauty is one of Tchaikovsky’s longest pieces of music and remains one of his most popular works today.

    The Sleeping Beauty – Rose Adage (Marianela Nuñez, The Royal Ballet)

  3. La Sylphide – Jean-Madeleine Schneitzhoeffer & Filippo Taglioni (1832)

    La Sylphide is one of the oldest-surviving ballets, premiered in Paris with the choreographer Taglioni’s daughter, Maria, performing the lead role. The plot revolves around the love story between a Scottish farmer and a forest spirit.

    The ballet made history when it required its lead to dance en pointe for plot-propelling artistic reasons, rather than spectacle. It was also the first ballet featuring the elegant white, calf-length ballet skirt that was to become a distinguishing feature of romantic ballets.

    The Schneitzhoeffer/Taglioni version of La Sylphide has been lost to history, making way for a version with a score by Herman Severin Løvenskiold and choreography by August Bournonville, which was a mainstay of the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen.

    Read more: The best ballet scores of all time

    Dress rehearsal of La Sylphide at the London Coliseum with Australia’s Queensland Ballet
    Dress rehearsal of La Sylphide at the London Coliseum with Australia’s Queensland Ballet. Picture: Alamy
  4. Giselle – Adolphe Adam & Jean Coralli (1841)

    Giselle is a Romantic ballet, written by French composer and music critic Adolphe Adam (also famous for the Christmas carol ‘O Holy Night’) and choreographed originally by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot.

    The popular ballet’s plot revolves around the ghosts of maidens deceived and lost, and has a fittingly haunting score.

    The protagonist is a young peasant girl who falls foul of loving a disguised nobleman named Albrecht. His true identity is inevitably revealed, causing the death of Giselle by heartbreak. In death she is summoned into the Wilis sisterhood where fellow deceased unmarried women, stung by betrayal, take revenge on men by dancing them to death by exhaustion.

    Adam: Giselle (The Royal Ballet)

  5. Coppélia – Léo Delibes & Arthur Saint-Léon (1870)

    Coppélia is the intoxicating story of an innocent village youth’s obsession with a lifelike, life-size dancing doll created by the ingenious Doctor Coppélius.

    The young man in question, Franz, comes close to the madness of giving into this infatuation, almost forsaking his true love, Swanhilda, and coming to an untimely demise at the hands of the mad doctor beholden to nothing but his invention.

    Coppélia Act II – Swanilda pretends to be Coppélia (Marianela Nuñez, Gary Avis; The Royal Ballet)

  6. The Nutcracker – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky & Marius Pepita (1892)

    The final of Tchaikovsky’s three enduringly beloved ballets, The Nutcracker is a magical fairytale about girl who befriends an anthropomorphous nutcracker who grows to human size and comes to life on Christmas Eve.

    The ravishing music and brightly-costumed festive scenes make it not only the ideal introduction to ballet and classical music for all, including our youngest music lovers, but also the perfect tradition for Christmastime. Today, The Nutcracker endures as one of the most-performed ballets all over the world.

    Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker (The Royal Ballet)

  7. The Rite of Spring – Igor Stravinsky & Vaslav Nijinsky (1913)

    Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring famously caused riots when it premiered in Paris in 1913. Stravinsky’s music, and the choreography by Nijinsky, was revolutionary and remains one of the most famous works to come out of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes.

    The story centres around a sacrificial pagan ritual in which a virgin dances herself to death and was described by one critic as “puerile barbarity”. The music is suitably savage and striking, and went down in history for its sheer audacity and invention.

    Episode 10: The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky

  8. Romeo & Juliet – Sergei Prokofiev & Ivo Váňa-Psota (1935)

    Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev set “the greatest love story ever told” to music for St Petersburg’s Kirov Ballet, now known as the Mariinsky Ballet, in 1935.

    Upon meeting with the ballet company, the story goes in the composer’s own words, Prokofiev expressed his wish to find a lyrical scenario for a ballet and the love stories of Pelléas and Méllisande, Tristan and Isolde and Romeo and Juliet were cited. “I immediately ‘clung’ onto the latter,” Prokofiev later said. “It would be impossible to find a better one!”

    The demanding ballet was first performed in 1940, and features the enduringly popular ‘Dance of the Knights’, also known as ‘Montagues and Capulets’ – famously used as the theme tune for TV’s The Apprentice.

    Romeo and Juliet – Dance of the Knights (The Royal Ballet)

  9. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Joby Talbot & Christopher Wheeldon (2011)

    Joby Talbot and Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet based on Lewis Carol’s iconic children’s novel was commissioned by The Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada.

    The music is distinctive for featuring a large percussion section and four distinct female voices. Talbot told the Financial Times that he wanted to “find a new sound, the right timbre for Wonderland”.

    The Times’ Debra Craine was among many other reviewers to take note, describing the ballet as “spectacular family entertainment brought to life with enormous theatrical verve”.

    “Talbot’s score,” she wrote, “is utterly enchanting, a tapestry of wonder and mystery that shimmers with rich characterisation.”

    Alice's Adventures in Wonderland – Mad Hatter's Tea Party (The Royal Ballet)

  10. Flight Pattern – Henryk Górecki & Crystal Pite (2017)

    When Flight Pattern premiered in Covent Garden on 16 March 2017, it marked Crystal Pite out as the first woman to choreograph for The Royal Ballet’s main stage in 18 years.

    The ballet, which won the 2018 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production, is set to the first movement of Polish composer Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, and is a moving commentary on the modern migrant crisis.

    All dancers wear identical grey costumes, moving at first in a mesmerising group of 36, before the work transitions into solos and duets.

    Flight Pattern – Crystal Pite (Kristen McNally, Marcelino Sambé; The Royal Ballet)