Whatever your interest in dance is, you should know about the following 10 great classical ballets. They are an essential part of dance history and evolution, they have inspired many directors, choreographers, performers and audiences.

Here is a little background on each of those iconic ballets. Keep in mind that a ballet plot may change from one production to another.

La Bayadère

Music composed by: Ludwig
Originally choreographed by: Marius Petipa

Czech National Ballet Corps de Ballet in the Kingdom of Shades from La Bayadere
Czech National Ballet in "La Bayadère" at the Prague National Theatre (photo: Martin Divíšek)

Typical of the Romantic period, the melodramatic La Bayadère is set in exotic India, depicts a love triangle and incorporates ethereal beings. It was first performed by the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg in February 1877 and has been revived many times throughout its history.

Brief synopsis: Nikiya, a temple dancer also called a Bayadère, and Solor, a warrior, vow their love for eternity. However, the Rajah plans to marry his daughter Gamzatti to Solor. As a result, he decides to have Nikiya killed. After dancing at the couple's betrothal celebrations, the Bayadère receives a basket of flower. Unaware that the gift hides a poisonous snake, Nikiya accepts it and is fatally bitten at the neck. During the wedding preparations, depressed Solor is haunted by visions of her late beloved one and at the ceremony, the Gods, infuriated with Nikiya's murder, destroy the temple and all of its occupants. The spirits of Solor and Nikiya are then reunited in eternal love.

Famous scene: The Kingdom of the Shades from Act II is often performed on its own. It was first performed in the West in 1961 by the Kirov Ballet. In 1963, Rudolph Nureyev produced it for the Royal Ballet. And in 1974, Natalia Makarova staged The Kingdom of the Shades for the American Ballet Theatre.


Music composed by: Sergei Prokofiev
Re-choreographed by: Frederick Ashton

Dutch National Ballet performing Cinderella
Cinderella, Dutch National Ballet − Photo: Angela Sterling

The story of Cinderella has taken many forms since the 9th century. The ballet however is based on Charles Perrault's version. Composed by Sergei Prokofiev between 1941 and 1944, this comic ballet was first choreographed for the Bolshoi Ballet in 1945. Frederick Ashton's Cinderella was the first full-length English classical ballet.

Brief synopsis: Cinderella is a young beautiful girl forced to do all the house chores by her mean stepmother and two demanding stepsisters. With the help of an old beggar woman, who turns out to be a fairy godmother, she will be able to attend the Royal Ball, unbeknown by her step-family. She is given glass slippers and is ordered to return before midnight strikes. At the ball, she meets the Prince, who becomes fascinated with her. She loses track of time and as the clock chimes, she flees hurriedly leaving one of the glass slipper behind. The next day, seeking for the mysterious Princess, the Prince declares he will marry the girl who the slipper will fit. After many attempts, he finally finds Cinderella, marries her and they live happily ever after.


Music composed by: Léo Delibes
Originally choreographed by: Arthur Saint-Léon

English National Ballet artists Shiori Kase and Michael Coleman in Coppelia
Shiori Kase and Michael Coleman, English National Ballet, as Swanhilda and Dr. Coppélius in Coppelia − Photo: David Jensen

Coppélia is a sentimental comic ballet based on two stories by E. T. A. Hoffmann, Der Sandmann (The Sandman) and Die Puppe (The Doll). Giuseppina Bozzachi danced as Swanhilda for the premiere at the Théâtre Impérial de l´Opéra in 1870.

Brief synopsis: Coppélia is a life-size doll created by the mad Doctor Coppélius, who leaves her sitting at the balcony. She looks so human, that a boy named Franz is mesmerized by her, forgetting his engagement to Swanhilda. The latter finds out that Coppélia is only a doll, and decides to impersonate her to show Franz his foolishness.

Don Quixote

Music composed by: Ludwig Minkus
Originally choreographed by: Marius Petipa

Bolshoi Ballet Natalia Osipova in Don Quixote
Natalia Osipova, Bolshoi Ballet, as Kitri in Don Quixote − Photo: Damir Yusupov

Don Quixote is a ballet based on a passage from the epic masterpiece Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes. It was first presented in 1869 then revised and expanded in 1971. Today Don Quixote is considered one of the most joyous and festive of the classical ballets.

Brief synopsis: (the story of Don Quixote has taken many forms and may differ from the following) The ballet follows the story of aging Don Quixote who dreams of a beautiful woman, named Dulcinea. Confused between his dream and reality, he sets himself out to find her. In his quest, he meets Kitri, who he mistakes for Dulcinea. Kitri uses this confusing to escape with her love Basilio, against her father's wishes to marry her to older Gamache. After a few adventures between reality and fantasy, the young couple finally ends up getting married.

Famous scene: Don Quixote presents one of the most popular pas de deux in ballet history, the grand pas de deux for lead characters Kitri and Basilio.


Music composed by: Adolphe Adam
Re-choreographed by: Marius Petipa

Guillaume Cote and Greta Hodgkinson of the National Ballet of Canada in Giselle
Greta Hodgkinson and Guillaume Cote, National Ballet of Canada, as Giselle and Albrecht in Giselle − Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic

Considered one of the great romantic ballets, the highly dramatic Giselle was originally choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, and was first presented in Paris, France in 1841. It was then re-staged in 1884 by Marius Petipa for the Imperial Ballet. Petipa's revisions may be seen in most modern productions. The “ballet-blanc” of the second act became a symbol of classical ballet.

Brief synopsis: Count Albrecht, disguised as a peasant, flirts with a young, fragile girl called Giselle. She falls in love with him and accepts to marry him, unaware that he is already engaged to Bathilde, a noblewoman. Hilarion, desperately in love with Giselle, suspects Albrecht to be an impostor and warns her. When the weak Giselle finally discovers the truth, she loses her mind and dies of a broken heart. In the forest where she is buried, Hilarion encounters a group of Wilis - ghosts of maidens promised to be married but jilted before their wedding. As a form of revenge, they dance Hilarion until he dies. Albrecht comes soon after and is trapped as well by the Wilis. However Giselle confronts the vengeful spirits by taking his place in their deadly dance. As the sun rises, the Wilis disappear, leaving Albrecht safe.

Interesting fact: The lead role of Giselle is one of the most sought-after, as it demands a high level of technique, grace, and drama skills.

The Nutcracker

Music composed by: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Choreographed by: Marius Petipa

Christmas party scene of Act I from the Nutcracker
The Nutcracker, Joffrey Ballet − Photo: Cheryl Mann Productions

The Nutcracker is based on Alexandre Dumas père's adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann's story Nussknacker und Mausekonig (The Nutcracker and the King of Mice). Despite a failed premiere in 1892, the fairy-tale ballet became highly popular as an annual holiday tradition by the mid 1950s (mostly in the United States).

Brief synopsis: At a Christmas Party, young Clara receives a beautiful nutcracker. Later, she falls asleep with her new toy and starts dreaming of a wonderful world where she meets soldiers, a giant Mouse King, the nutcracker Prince, the Sugar Plum Fairy and many other characters.

Interesting fact: Following the holiday tradition, many local ballet companies and schools stage their own production of the Nutcracker, resulting in changes of plot and characters.

Romeo And Juliet

Music composed by: Sergei Prokofiev
Originally choreographed by: Leonid Lavrovsky

Rudoph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in a Romeo and Juliet scene
Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in Romeo And Juliet

Based on William Shakespeare's famous play Romeo and Juliet, Prokofiev's ballet was composed around 1935 or 1936 for the Kirov Ballet. It consists of four acts and ten scenes, with a total of 52 separate dance numbers. The ballet was presented in Leningrad in 1940. In 1965, choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan premiered his version of the ballet with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev.

Brief synopsis: The Capulets and the Montagues families are at war. Disguised young Romeo Montague goes to a Capulet party, where he meets Juliet Capulet. They fall in love and in the hope to end the two families feud, get secretly married. But Juliet's cousin, Tybalt, kills Romeo's friend Mercutio, and an enraged Romeo kills Tybalt. As a result, he is sent into exile. In a plan to be reunited with her loved one, Juliet is given a sleeping potion to appear dead to her family, while a message is to be sent to Romeo to let him know about the subterfuge, they would then be able to secretly leave together. Alas, the message never arrives to Romeo, and he learns about Juliet's “death”. Filled with grief, he kills himself, and once Juliet awakens and sees her lover dead, she kills herself as well.

Interesting Fact: The score is reputed to be one of the greatest of ballet's history.

Sleeping Beauty

Music composed by: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Originally choreographed by: Marius Petipa

Sara Webb and Jared Matthews (Houston Ballet) in Sleeping Beauty
Jared Matthews and Sara Webb, Houston Ballet, in Sleeping Beauty − Photo: Amitava Sarkar

Tchaikovsky's second ballet was based on Charles Perrault's tale “La Belle au Bois Dormant”. Paired up with choreographer Marius Petipa, the ballet premiered in 1980 and became a success.

Brief synopsis: Princess Aurora is being christened and the six godmother fairies are giving their gifts, when they are interrupted by the arrival of the uninvited evil witch Carabosse. She curses the child to prick her finger on her sixteenth birthday and die. Fortunately, Lilac Fairy had not yet granted her gift and declares that instead of dying, Princess Aurora will fall in a deep sleep until she is awakened by a prince's kiss. As predicted, on her sixteenth birthday, Aurora pricks herself with a gift and falls into sleep, along with the kingdom. 100 years later, on a hunting party, Prince Désiré (Florimund in later productions), sees a vision of Aurora and is led to the castle, where he comes across Carabosse who he defeats. He then finds the princess and wakes her up with a kiss. A beautiful ceremony follows at the awakened castle.

Interesting fact: The Sleeping Beauty ballet includes many challenging roles for both principal dancers and soloists. The role of Aurora requires extremely clean and strong technique.

Swan Lake

Music composed by: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (revised by Riccardo Drigo)
Re-choreographed by: Marius Petipa

Natalia Makarova in Swan Lake
Natalia Makarova in Swan Lake

The ballet was composed in 1875-1876 and was first presented as The Lake of the Swans in February 1877 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Originally choreographed by Julius Reisinger, it was redesigned by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov for the Imperial Ballet in 1985. The score itself had to be revised by Riccardo Drigo, after Tchaikovsky 's death. This tragic tale of love and betrayal became one of the most famous classical ballet of all time.

Brief synopsis: While hunting, Prince Siegfried sees Odette, a young girl condemned by an evil sorcerer to be swan during the day and human at night. They fall in love, and the prince learns the only way to break the spell is for him to vow eternal love to her. As he starts his vows, he is interrupted by the evil sorcerer, von Rothbart. Later, back at the castle's ball, disguised von Rothbart brings his daughter Odile to appear as the swan maiden. Prince Siegfried mistakes her for Odette and pledges his love to her. He then realizes his mistake when he sees the real Odette.

Interesting fact: The ending of Swan Lake varies greatly among productions: some choose for eternal love reunited, while others opt for a more tragic ending.

La Sylphide

Music re-composed by: Herman Severin Løvenskiold
Re-choreographed by: August Bournonville

Sterling Hyltin & Jaoquin de Luz in Act I of La Sylphide
Joaquin De Luz and Sterling Hyltin, New York City Ballet, as James and the sylph in La Sylphide − Photo: Paul Kolnik

As one of the first romantic ballet, La Sylphide saw many choreographic adaptations. It was first choreographed by Filippo Taglioni for his daughter Marie who danced the role of the Sylphide at the Paris Opéra in 1832. It was then revised by August Bournonville, which version is used in today's modern productions. In 1892, Marius Petipa staged his own revival for the Imperial Ballet, and in 1972, Pierre Lacotte attempted to reproduce Taglioni's original ballet from archival notes and drawings.

Brief synopsis: James, a young and engaged Scotsman, starts having visions of a beautiful forest fairy, also called sylph. Meanwhile, an old witch tells Effie, the bride-to-be, her fortune: her fiancé is in love with someone else, and she will marry his friend Gurn. Furious, James sends the witch away. At the commencement of the wedding, the sylph appears back to James and snatches the ring away. Enchanted, he abandons the ceremony to chase after the spirit into the woods, where he stumbles upon the old witch. She gives him a scarf that will prevent the sylph to fly away. When the beautiful sylph returns, he wraps the scarf around her, causing her wings to fall and her to die. Heartbroken, he then sees his fiancée marry his friend.

Interesting fact: The ballet is often confused with Les Sylphides, also known as Chopiniana - composed by Frédéric Chopin. The two ballets are completely unrelated, apart for the involvement of ethereal beings.

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