Every year around October or November, ballet companies and schools around the world celebrate the beautiful art of ballet on World Ballet Day. Several of the world’s leading companies live-stream their classes, performance preparation, and other behind-the-scenes views. The goal is to expose viewers of all ages and nationalities to the world of ballet and give them a peek behind the curtain.
Ballet differs in its methods, performances, and teaching techniques around the world, and the world’s best companies can be found on every continent. To celebrate World Ballet Day this year, we’ll take a look at five of the world’s top companies.
American Ballet Theatre
American Ballet Theatre was formed in 1939 “with the mission of developing a repertoire of the best ballets from the past.” Their preferred ballet method incorporates elements of French, Russian (Vaganova) and Italian (Cecchetti) methods. With these methods combined with their mission, ABT is known for its purity, classicism, and traditional dancing and performances. Headquartered in New York City, they’re in a sort of rivalry with New York City Ballet, another world-class company, though the two could not be more different in terms of style. ABT has performed Balanchine works and other modern pieces, but NYCB is Balanchine’s flagship company and its neoclassical ballet style is worlds apart from ABT’s classical style and repertoire.
Mikhail Baryshnikov—one of the greatest ballet dancers to ever live—danced with ABT for many years, and he was appointed as the company’s artistic director in 1980. Under his direction, ABT “strengthened and refined the classical tradition.” American Ballet Theatre’s reputation has drawn many prominent dancers to its ranks: Misty Copeland, Gelsey Kirkland, Natalia Makarova, and Gillian Murphy are just a few of the dancers to have graced ABT’s stage.
Located in London’s beautiful Covent Garden, the Royal Ballet has been a world-class company since 1956 (though it began as the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1931). Dame Ninette de Valois was its founding artistic director, who studied under Enrico Cecchetti and danced with the Ballets Russes, an extremely influential ballet company in the 1900s. When de Valois founded the company, many of its dancers had also studied directly under Cecchetti, so his method was used. In the 1940s, Vera Volkova brought the Vaganova method to the Royal Ballet, as she had studied under Agrippina Vaganova. The Vaganova and Cecchetti methods are still employed at the Royal Ballet today.
The great Sir Frederick Ashton was the chief choreographer of the Royal Ballet for many years, and during his time, dancers were taught to have a soft, pliable upper body with articulate, quick feet and speedy footwork. Today, the Royal Ballet still employs these techniques, but dancers are also taught to adapt to many other styles of dancing and choreography. Additionally, Sir Frederick Ashton is only one of many legends to have worked with the Royal Ballet—Margot Fonteyn, Carlos Acosta, Darcey Bussell, and Natalia Osipova are some of the most famous dancers to have been with the Royal Ballet.
The Mariinsky Ballet was formed all the way back in the 1740s as the Imperial Russian Ballet. The company’s premier choreographer was Marius Petipa, perhaps the most celebrated classical ballet choreographer of the 19th century and whose choreography is still performed by thousands of studios and companies today. The Imperial Russian Ballet was the first company to premiere such ballets as The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Don Quixote, and La Bayadère, all of which are still extremely popular classics.
Following the Russian Revolution and the execution of the Imperial Family, the name of the company was changed to the State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet. In 1935, the name was again changed to the Kirov Ballet, after a prominent Soviet politician. It is still sometimes incorrectly referred to as the Kirov Ballet, despite the name changing yet again after the fall of the Soviet Union to the Mariinsky Ballet.
Located in St. Petersburg, the Mariinsky Ballet favors the Vaganova or Russian method. Their dancers are known for being “elegant, lyrical, [and] refined.” It is an extremely prestigious company and, like other world-class theatres, has produced such legendary names as Rudolf Nureyev, Anna Pavlova, Galina Ulanova, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Svetlana Zakharova.
The largest classical ballet company in Australia, the Australian Ballet is based in Melbourne. Originally called the Borovansky Ballet, they were given government funding and renamed the Australian Ballet in 1962. Under the direction of Dame Peggy van Praagh, a British dancer who had taught at the precursor to the Royal Ballet in London, the Australian Ballet quickly developed a diverse repertoire of classical and contemporary works.
In their words, they “have won fame at home and internationally for our uniquely Australian style, which is authentic, bold and expansive.” They frequently tour internationally, and are known for their versatility and technical excellence. Kathleen Gorham, Sir Robert Helpmann, Graeme Murphy, and Marilyn Rowe are some of the biggest names to have danced or choreographed with the Australian Ballet.
Paris Opera Ballet
Of all the companies in our list, the Paris Opera Ballet is the one that is guaranteed to appear in every list of the world’s finest companies. With a legacy stretching back to 1661, when King Louis XIV formed Le Ballet de l’Opéra, the Paris Opera Ballet is the oldest and one of the largest companies in the world.
The ballet world owes the Paris Opera Ballet much: it has been responsible for the origins of the Romantic ballet, the standardization and codification of ballet, and the first performance en pointe. (Much of that history can be read about in our post on the history of ballet.) The Paris Opera Ballet was the absolute center of the ballet world for centuries, and it remains today perhaps the most prestigious company in the world. It is extremely difficult to earn a spot in the company, and it’s fairly common for a dancer to never rise above the ranks of the corps de ballet. Of course, considering that the Paris Opera Ballet’s corps is known widely as the best in the world (watch them perform the extremely difficult “Entrance of the Swans” from Swan Lake here), the members of the corps de ballet are still highly respected.
The Paris Opera Ballet favors the French method, which stresses fluidity, elegance, and fast footwork. The development of this method stems from the company’s Romantic roots, where it was desirable for dancers to look as if they were floating across the stage rather than simply dancing. Rudolf Nureyev ended his career at the Paris Opera Ballet as artistic director, and many other world-renowned dancers have been with the company, such as Marie Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi, Sylvie Guillem, and Laurent Hilaire.
Ballet Companies around the World
These five companies are just a few of the greatest companies in the world—the Bolshoi Ballet, New York City Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, and Cuban National Ballet are just a few of the other prestigious companies around the globe. At Studio R Ballet, we are proud to not only have staff who have danced with some of these world-famous companies, but we also have sent students on to wonderful professional careers in renowned companies. We also teach a few of the methods employed by these companies so that our students are well rounded and prepared to dance at any company of their choice.