The Most Popular Ballets of All Time

There is more to classical music than just symphonies, operas, oratorios, concertos, and chamber music.  Some of classical music's most recognizable pieces originated in the form of ballet. Ballet began in Italy during the Renaissance period and slowly evolved into a highly technical form of dance that required and demanded athletic and limber dancers. The first ballet company created was the Paris Opera Ballet, which formed after King Louis XIV appointed Jean-Baptiste Lully to be the director of the Académie Royale de Musique (Royal Academy of Music). Lully's compositions for ballet are considered by many musicologists to be a turning point in the development of ballet. Since then, the popularity of ballet ebbed and flowed from one country to the next, giving composers of different nationalities the opportunity to compose some of their most famous works. Below, you'll find seven of the world's most popular and beloved ballets. What makes these ballets so special? Their story, their music, and their brilliant choreography.

01
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The Nutcracker

Ballerina on stage
Nisian Hughes/Stone/Getty Images

Composed in 1891 by Tchaikovsky, this timeless classic is the most performed ballet of the modern era. It wasn’t until 1944 when the first production of The Nutcracker was performed in America by the San Francisco Ballet. Since then, it has become a tradition to perform during the holiday season, as it rightly should. This great ballet not only has some of the most recognizable music, but its story brings joy to children and adults alike.

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Performances of Tchaikovsky's ballet, Swan Lake, are likely to be based on the revived and revised version by famed choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.
Performances of Tchaikovsky's ballet, Swan Lake, are likely to be based on the revived and revised version by famed choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Ken Scicluna / Getty Images

Swan Lake is the most technically and emotionally challenging classical ballet. Its music far exceeded its time, noting that many of its early performers claimed it was too difficult and complex to dance to. Much is unknown of its original production, but its revised production by the famous choreographers Petipa and Ivanov is the base of the many versions we see today. Swan Lake will always be held as the standard of classical ballets and will be performed throughout the centuries to come. More »

03
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A Midsummer's Night Dream

Hermia and Lysander. A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1870, painted by John Simmons (1823-1876).
Hermia and Lysander. A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1870, painted by John Simmons (1823-1876). Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

A Midsummer’s Night Dream has been adapted to many styles of art. However, in 1962, George Balachine premiered his first full length (entire evening) ballet. A Midsummer’s Night Dream, a Shakespeare classic, served as the base of Balachine’s ballet. He gathered the music of Mendelssohn who composed an overture for A Midsummer’s Night Dream and subsequent incidental music in 1843. A Midsummer’s Night Dream is a popular and enjoyable ballet that almost anybody will love.

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Coppélia

French composer, Clement Leo Delibes (1836-1891). He wrote light operas of which 'Lakme' had the greatest success but is chiefly remembered for the ballet 'Coppelia' (1870) which has remained a prime favourite. Original artwork by Henri Meyer after Eaulle.
French composer, Clement Leo Delibes (1836-1891). He wrote light operas of which 'Lakme' had the greatest success but is chiefly remembered for the ballet 'Coppelia' (1870) which has remained a prime favourite. Original artwork by Henri Meyer after Eaulle. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Coppélia was composed by Delibes and choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon. The story was written by Arthur Saint-Léon and Charles Nuitter after E.T.A. Hoffman’s Der Sandmann. Coppélia is a lighthearted tale portraying man’s conflict between idealism and realism, art and life, featuring bright music and lively dancing. Its world ​premiere with the Paris Opera was successful in 1871 and remains successful today; it is still in the theater’s repertoire.

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Peter Pan

Illustration of Peter Pan and Wendy Flying Over Town.
Illustration of Peter Pan and Wendy Flying Over Town. Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images

Peter Pan is a marvelous ballet fit for the entire family. The dancing, scenery, and costumes are as colorful as the story itself. ​Peter Pan is relatively new to the world of ballet, and because there is no “set in stone” way to perform the piece, it can be interpreted differently by each producer, choreographer, and music director. Although each production may be different, the story remains nearly consistent – and that’s why it’s a classic.

06
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The Sleeping Beauty

Dancers perform during the Scottish Ballet, dress rehearsal for The Sleeping Beauty at the Theatre Royal on December 5, 2008 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Dancers perform during the Scottish Ballet, dress rehearsal for The Sleeping Beauty at the Theatre Royal on December 5, 2008 in Glasgow, Scotland. Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The Sleeping Beauty was Tchaikovsky’s first famous ballet. His music was just as important as the dancing! The story of The Sleeping Beauty is a perfect match for ballet - ​royal celebrations in a magnificent castle, the battle of good and evil and the triumphant victory of everlasting love. What more could you ask for? The choreography was created by world renowned Marius Pepita who also choreographed The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. This classic ballet will be performed as long as the world turns.

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Maia Makhateli and Artur Shesterikov perform a scene from Cinderella during a dress rehearsal for the Russian Ballet Icons Gala at London Coliseum on March 8, 2015 in London, England.
Maia Makhateli and Artur Shesterikov perform a scene from Cinderella during a dress rehearsal for the Russian Ballet Icons Gala at London Coliseum on March 8, 2015 in London, England. Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Many versions of Cinderella exist, but the most common are those that use Sergei Prokofiev’s score. Prokofiev began his work on Cinderella in 1940 but paused during World War II. He finished the score in 1945. In 1948, choreographer, Frederick Ashton staged a full-length production using Prokofiev’s music which turned out to be a huge success. Cinderella isn’t just a movie, it’s a ballet too, and it deserves equal amounts of attention. More »