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Top 10 Greatest Ballets

by Matt Schiesl
fact checked by Alex Hanton

As I was browsing through the many lists of listverse, i realized something. There has never been a list on Ballets. And I felt this was such a shame. Ballets have fallen off the cliff when it comes to popularity, especially here in America, where I live. The music in ballet is just as, if not more beautiful, than any piece of music ever written. When put together with flawless, graceful movements and wonderful spectacle, Ballets can be a sight and a sound that will move you to tears, to laughter and to emotions you have never felt before. Here is a list of the Ten Greatest Ballets.


Choreography by Rostislav Zakharov, Music by Sergei Prokofiev
Prokofiev CINDERELLA (Het Nationale Ballet)

Many different versions of this ballet exist, but the original was performed in 1945, in Moscow, Russia. Prokofiev is one of my favorite composers, with fantastic composing skills, and his Cinderella is no exception. Based on the fairy tale, the ballet is noted for its fantastic score and very humorous tone. The very beginning of the ballet, I think, is one of the most beautiful pieces of music and it’s virtually unknown.


Don Quixote
Choreography By: Marius Petipa, Music By: Ludwig Minkus
Don Quixote – Act I finale (Marianela Nuñez and Carlos Acosta, The Royal Ballet)

Originally Performed in 1869, in Moscow, Russia, this beautiful ballet is based on the book “Don Quixote de la Mancha” by Miguel de Cervantes. The story follows Don Quixote on his quest of chivalry and the slaying of mythical beasts. Originally staged in 4 acts and 8 scenes, it is an immensely charming and fun ballet, with some great music.


The Sleeping Beauty
Choreography by Marius Petipa, Music by: Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Sleeping Beauty ballet

No, not the Disney movie, but this beautiful ballet has some of the most beautiful music of all time. Originally performed in 1890, in St Petersburg, Russia, and based on Charles Perraults “La Belle au bois Dormant”, The story tells of Princess Aurora who is cursed to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and sleep for 100 years. This, indeed, comes to pass until she is awoken by a Princes’ kiss. They are married at the end of the ballet. With soaring, beautiful musical numbers, this one jumps onto the list


A Midsummer Nights Dream
Choreographed by Fredrick Ashton, Music By Felix Mendelssohn
Felix Mendelssohn / “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” / Israel Camerata Jerusalem

The most recent ballet on the list, originally performed in 1962, most of the credit to this ballet actually goes to Balanchine, who put the whole thing together. Mendelssohn didn’t write the music to the ballet knowingly, it was mostly background music to the play version that was reworked into ballet music. The story is obviously based on the play of the same name, by the late great William Shakespeare, and has quickly become one of the most popular American Ballets of all time.


Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)
Choreography by Vaslav Nijinski, Music By Igor Stravinsky
Igor Stravinsky Le Sacre du Printemps Vaslav Nijinsky Version 1913 Ballett Mariinski Theater

I admit, it took every fiber of my being to not put this one higher (closer to number 1). It is my personal favorite ballet, but I kept it low due to the fact that it is only about 30 minutes in length, but the importance, beauty, and emotion behind this ballet is enormous. It Premiered in Paris, in 1913, and it started a riot. When they went to see the performance, they were not prepared for the…ungrace of it? Being used to soaring melodies of Russian Ballet, audience members were shocked to find gritty harmonies, and less than graceful, and jarring movements. It is much better received by todays audiences. The story is that of a sacrifice of a young girl to the god of spring. She is killing herself through dance.


La Bayader (The Temple Dancer)
Choreography by Marius Petipa, Music by Ludwig Minkus
Maria Khoreva – La Bayadere ballet-Monologue-Mariinsky Theatre (Ludwig Minkus)[Marius Petipa] debut

Originally performed in 1877, in St. Petersberg, Russia, this ballet in four acts is considered to be Petipa’s greatest work, by some. The story tells of Nikiya and Solor, who have sworn to be faithful to each other. In his jealousy, the High Brahmin wishes to have Solor the warrior killed, but his plan does not come to pass. Instead, Nikiya is killed by a snake set forth by a man named Rajah, who believes Solor should be with his daughter rather than Nikiya. Solor is about to marry Rajah’s daughter, but the gods, in their anger, kill everybody in the temple. Yes, that was a VERY short version of a rather deep plot line, but nonetheless, it has some of the most celebrated movements (such as the Kingdom of Shades scene) of any ballet.


The Nutcracker
Choreograpy by: Petipa and Ivanov, Music by Pyotr Tchaikovski
P.I.Tchaikovsky – The Nutcracker

This piece was almost universally panned when it premiered, in 1892, in St. Petersberg, but has since grown to be one of the most popular ballets of today, due to its ties with Christmas. Based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”, the story tells of a young girl, Clara, who gets shrunk to the size of a mouse, and her beloved nutcracker who goes to war, with other toys, against the evil Mouse King. He is later transformed into a beautiful prince and they go to the kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy (Confiturembourg) to rule forever after. With cherished music and wonderful dance, it has become the staple of poplar ballets in the 20th century.


Choreography by Coralli and Perot, Music by Adolphe Adam
Alessandra Ferri and Mikhail Baryshnikov – Giselle second act II pas de deux

One of the most sought after roles of all time for a ballet dancer is the title character in this classic. Based on the poem of Heinrich Heine, it is about a young peasant girl named Giselle, who meets a nobleman dressed as a commoner and falls in love with him, not knowing that he is of noble birth. When another man who loves Giselle, named Hilarion, outs the nobleman, Giselle realises that she cannot be with him, upon which she goes mad and dies of a weak heart. In the second act, when Hilarion goes to grieve at Giselles’ grave, he is greeted by spirits of dead women called Wilis, who throw him into a river and kill him. When the nobleman comes, the Wilis sentence him to death as well, but the spirit of Giselle saves his life, and she then departs at peace to the afterlife. A Ballet filled with emotion and beautiful dance, it is considered a classic among all forms of entertainment.


Romeo and Juliet
Choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky Music by Sergei Prokofiev
Romeo and Juliet Natalya Bessmertnova Mikhail Lavrovsky Bolshoi

Another Ballet based on the works of William Shakespeare, the story is well know. Originally performed in 1938, in Czechoslovakia, it was significantly reworked and revised, and opened anew in 1940, in Leningrad, Russia. This Ballet is considered to be a the epitome of music and movement, and the masterpiece ballet of Prokofiev. This is a ballet that is truly too beautiful to be talked about, but must be seen and heard to be fully understood and loved. The movement, and the music, and the colors, I weep just thinking of it now.


Swan Lake
Choreography by Julius Reisinger, Music By Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Ballet(Swan Lake) by Kirove Ballet

Premiering in 1877, in Moscow, it was originally titled “The Lake of the Swans” but was shortened to just “Swan Lake” after it was drastically reworked by Marius Petipa and Riccardo Driggo in 1895, and this is how it is known to audiences today. When it first went up it was viewed with harsh criticism, it was believed to be too difficult and unmemorable. However, it has grown to be Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece work, and was also his first ballet. The story is that of Odette, a princess who is cursed by Von Rothbart to become a swan by day, but is human by night. A prince, named Siegfried, sees the swan form of Odette transform into a beautiful woman and falls in love on the spot. They go to a ball together, until morning when she leaves to transform back into her swan alone. The prince looks for her and finds another woman, named Odile (played by the same woman who playes Odette) who looks the twin of the swan queen Odette. This is planned, of course, by Von Rothbart, and when Siegfried falls for Odile, Odette is cursed to be a swan forever. Realizing his mistake Siegfried seeks forgiveness, but Odette is eternally bound to be a swan, so the Prince and the Princess kill themselves and ascend into heaven together. The powerful story is seen by modern day audiences in more ways than just the Opera. An Academy Award movie called “Black Swan” was released in 2010, and it is also the base of the story Shrek, the Disney movie “The Swan Princess”, and many other stories and legends. It is a true masterpiece of ballet, and is always considered one of the, if not the, greatest ballet of all time.

Notables not listed: Paquita, Coppellia (so badly wanted to put it in there), Spartacus, Peter Pan, Anastasia, and Firebird.

fact checked by Alex Hanton