The Most Famous Classical Ballets

A classical ballet is a stunning performance of graceful movements, usually set to the moving sounds of an orchestra. Classical ballets tell a fascinating, romantic story through both sight and sound, and is capable of moving an audience to tears of emotion.

Classical Ballet History and Style
Ballet is considered to derive from the Italian Renaissance and moved to France in the 16th century. Classical ballet was performed at social court dances, and as it gained popularity in the 17th century, it evolved into a professional art from highly skilled entertainers who could perform advanced work like acrobatics.

The traditional and formal style of ballet includes meticulous techniques like pointe work and high extensions. The variations in ballet depend on the origin, such as Russian ballet and Italian ballet. In the former, there are more high extensions and dynamic turns, and in the latter, there is quick and extensive footwork.

The Best Classical Ballets

The 10 great classical ballets below are must-sees for anyone who enjoys the ballet. They are considered classical because they all have similarities in composition, costuming, and style. The music of each one is classical, and the female dancers always dance en pointe. In fact, the choreography of each ballet has stood the test of time: no matter who choreographs the performance, the basic structure remains similar to its original. 

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Five ballerinas en pointe on stage, arms around each other, rear view
Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Although countless versions of the Cinderella story exist, the ballet is based on the original rags-to-riches story. Cinderella is the endearing story of a young girl who finds love and happiness through her acts of kindness. The ballet is based on the fairy tale written by French storyteller Charles Perrault.

One of the most popular renditions of the dance is the Russian ballet version composed in 1940 by Sergei Prokofiev. The world premiere of this 3-act classical ballet was the first shown in Moscow in 1945 and choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky. There is also a re-choreographed version (1948) by Frederick Ashton that was transformed into a comic ballet production.​ More »

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This ballet classic, much like The Nutcracker, is a delightful performance for introducing young children to classical ballet. The story is about a doctor, Dr. Coppelius, who created a life-size dancing doll that the village becomes obsessed with. 

With three acts, the lighthearted and entertaining ​Coppélia follows the romantic games of sweethearts Franz and Swanhilda. This comic ballet is often subtitled The Girl With The Enamel Eyes and the movements were choreographed by Arthur Sant-Leon. More »

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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, the Don Quixote hero loses his wisdom from consuming an overload of romance stories. This leads Quixote to think 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. More »

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The ballet 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 is about a woman who is considered the most beautiful and best dancer in the village. With two sweethearts, she dies of a broken heart and gets summoned from her grave by a group of supernatural women. This haunting story moves through dramatic patterns and movements in the classical ballet.

Considered one of the most popular ballets, Giselle is usually staged somewhere almost all of the time. The romantic ballet has attracted the best dancers in its leading roles since its creation. Giselle's ballet-blanc, or corps of women in white, has become a symbol of classical ballet. More »

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

The word "Bayadere" is French for an Indian temple dancer. In the story, Nikiya is in love with a handsome warrior, Solor, who also loves her. However, Nikiya is also loved by the High Brahmin but does not love him in return.

This ballet 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. More »

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One of the earliest romantic ballets, La Sylphide is based on a rather silly, 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, the beautiful Sylphide.

This two-act romantic ballet was first created by choreographer Filippo Taglioni in 1832, and a later version came about in 1836 from August Bournonville. The Bournonville ballet is the only one to have known to withstand time and is considered one of the oldest surviving ballets. More »

The Nutcracker is a famous Christmas ballet and annual holiday treat for the whole family. For many, the holidays wouldn't seem complete without attending a performance of The Nutcracker. Every year, 40% of ticket revenue comes from performances of The Nutcracker in popular American ballet organizations.

The Nutcracker ballet is based on a story of a young girl who dreams of a nutcracker prince and a fierce battle against a Mouse King with seven heads. 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. More »

Considered the greatest love story of all time, Romeo and Juliet is based on Shakespeare's classic tragedy of young love. Prokofiev composed the incredible ballet score around 1935 and the music has inspired many great choreographers to try their hand at Shakespeare's story.

In the story, Juliet realizes her beloved Romeo killed himself with poison. She kisses him to also die, and when the poison from his lips doesn't kill her, she takes his dagger and falls to her death on top of him. The story is based on a true story of two lovers who died for each other in Verona, Italy in 1303.

The ballet was composed in 1935 and based on a drambalet, a term used to describe a dramatized ballet. The ballet premiered in the Czech Republic in 1938 in the single-act production composed of music from the first two suites, primarily. More »

The first successful ballet composed by Tchaikovsky, Sleeping Beauty was the first ballet seen by a sickly eight-year-old child named Anna Pavlova. After the performance, she decided that she wanted to become a ballet dancer.

The story of Sleeping Beauty is translated from the French La Belle au bois dormant meaning The beauty sleeping in the wood. This classic fairy tale is about a beautiful princess, Aurora, who is fascinated by a wheel and cursed by being put under a sleeping spell. The only way she can break the curse is by being kissed by the handsome prince.

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

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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. Swan Lake tells the story of Odette, a young girl doomed by an evil sorcerer.

A spell is cast over her, condemning her to be a swan during the day and a human only at night. Odette is the queen of the swans, the most beautiful of all. In order to break the spell, a young man must acclaim 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 in Moscow, Russia. More »