A beginner's guide to ballet

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Why do ballerinas where tutus?

How to get the most out of a visit to the ballet if you've never been before

Ballet is sometimes considered an elitist art form, but it is very accessible and offers something for all tastes. Follow our guide to ensure your night at the ballet is on point…

Swan Lake is probably the most famous and well-loved ballet in the world, and 2017 marks 140 years since its world premiere with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow in 1877.  The ballet repertory offers many other classics and contemporary works too.

Where to see ballet

Ballet tickets at Royal Opera House

The UK is home to some of the world’s top ballet companies. The Royal Ballet is considered one of the leading classical companies in the world. Its home is in Covent Garden at the Royal Opera House. English National Ballet [www.ballet.org.uk] is also based in London and is one of the world’s foremost touring companies.

Outside London, Birmingham Royal Ballet and Scottish Ballet make up the Britain’s big four top. Newer companies include Northern Ballet based in Leeds, New English Ballet Theatre in West London and touring company Ballet Theatre UK [www.ballettheatreuk.com] based in Leicester.

Classic or contemporary ballet?

Modern dance ballet performance

Productions such as The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet are all synonymous with the classic image of ‘ballet’ – elegant, intricate techniques of dance and graceful formality and lavish period settings and costumes.

These stunning works often date back to the 19th or early 20th century for their first performances and are the mainstay of most prominent ballet companies. They also form the foundation of a dancer’s training.

But there are now many modern ‘classics’ by 21st-century choreographers such as Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s The Invitation (1960), Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Dream (1964) and George Balanchine’s Jewels (1967).

Here, you will still recognise many classic features of ballet, but sometimes with more provocative material, less traditional settings and costumes, or some more modern movements interwoven into the classical ballet techniques.

A trio at the Royal Ballet are good examples of choreographers producing new, contemporary ballets, as well as interpretations of classics: Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works wowed audiences in 2015, Christopher Wheeldon’s stark Within the Golden Hour opened to great acclaim in 2008 and Liam Scarlett’s bloodcurdling Sweet Violets (2012) challenged perceptions.

Who’s who in the world of ballet?

How high can male ballet dancers jump?

Dancers tend to be contracted to one ballet company. Even the uninitiated will recognise some ballet heroes and heroines from the past: an unforgettable duo – the peerless Margot Fonteyn and the passionate Rudolf Nureyev; the dynamic but diminutive Mikhail Baryshnikov; the irrepressible Wayne Sleep; the sublime Darcey Bussell; and Carlos Acosta, graceful and athletic.

There are many names to look out for among today’s leading artists who thrill audiences with their breathtaking skill. From the Royal Ballet, Edward Watson, Marianela Nuñez and Natalia Osipova; from English National Ballet, Tamara Rojo; and Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Chi Cao.

Freelance dancers Sergei Polunin and Alessandra Ferri perform for companies worldwide. Ballet lovers often choose a performance because it features their favourite dancer.

When you’re choosing what to go and see, the choreographer will also give you an idea of what to expect. The previously mentioned Sir Kenneth MacMillan, Sir and Sir Frederick Ashton, Sir Peter Wright and Dame Ninette de Valois are legends of the art form. Their productions are the elegant building blocks of any self-respecting company’s repertory.

More modern practitioners such as Hofesh Schecter, Crystal Pyte, Twyla Tharp, Arthur Pita, Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon and Liam Scarlett are moving dance into a new era with their innovation and imagination. 

Frequently asked questions about ballet

Why do ballerinas dance on point?

Why do dancers wear pointes and balance on their toes?

When dancers dance on their toes it makes them appear more ethereal, fairylike and graceful. When this became a growing requirement, the pointe show was created to allow them to do so for long periods of time.

Who invented the tutu and why is it ruffled in such a way?

The word probably comes from French, from the children’s word ‘tu-tu’, meaning ‘bottom’. It is a design specifically created for ballet and the first dress was worn by Marie Taglioni, in the title role, in 1832 at the Paris Opera Ballet’s production of her La Sylphide. This first skirt fell somewhere between the knees and ankles, and was designed to reveal the latter and, made out of layers of light fabric, to appear weightless but full at the same time. Its length, however, crept ever upwards.

Does anyone ever speak in a ballet performance?

In ballet, the story is told in movement, setting, costume and music, not words, so it is very rare for a ballet dancer to speak. Modern works do sometimes have some words spoken. If you’re worried about understanding the plot, read up about the ballet before you go.

How do dancers manage to jump so high?

Well, it’s their job, so lots of practice at the barre. Male dancers can clear 5ft – upright torso, legs horizontal, in a grand jeté. Arch leaper Mikhail Baryshnikov was said to reach 6ft.

If you’ve never been to the ballet, why not enjoy a wonderful evening with the ‘Royal Ballet’ at the Royal Opera House? See a wonderful programme of contemporary works by leading choreographers. Boundless members can save on tickets

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