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Who’s Who in Ballet History: 30 People Every Dancer Should Know

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By Danielle Pierce-Master, MA Dance / Edited by Samantha Bellerose, B.Ed, Dip.Dance(Performing Arts)

Ballet’s history is full of movers (literally) and shakers (maybe not AS literally). Compiling a list of everyone who has made a major mark on the art form is nearly impossible; every time I looked for one person, I thought of five more people who should be included. However, there are a few rulers, dancers, choreographers and directors who all dancers want to make sure that they know about.

Read on for 30 important players in the development of ballet.

1. Louis XIV

Louis IV, “The Sun King” is often credited as being the “founder” of ballet as we know it. It was in his court that the five positions that today’s ballet dancers use were codified, under dance master Pierre Beauchamps. However, the story of ballet starts before Louis IV.

2. Catherine De medici

Catherine de Medici’s marriage to Henri II of France in 1533 brought Italian cultural influences to the French Courts, with dance and theatrics demonstrating wealth and power.

3. Marie Taglioni

Marie Taglioni is often credited with being the first ballerina to dance en pointe and the first “ballet celebrity.” She debuted at the Paris Opera in 1827, but the ballet she is most famous for is La Sylphide, a prime example of the Romantic era in France.

4. August Bournonville

August Bournonville’s ballet style is known for expressiveness, virtuosity, power, and big jumps. He was born in Copenhagen and trained by both French and Italian dance masters. Bournonville was the ballet master at the Royal Danish Ballet from 1830-1877. Though Taglioni debuted in the original La Sylphide in 1832, it is Bournonville’s 1836 version that is best known and preserved today.

5. Agrippina Vaganova

Agrippina Vaganova is the author of Basic Principles of Classical Ballet (1934), the theories of which are still central to Ballet Training in Russia. Vaganova was a dancer at the Maryinsky Ballet from 1897-1916. She also served as the artistic director of the Kirov ballet from 1931-1937, with the ballets she choreographed remaining a part of the classical canon in Russia. She trained dancers at the Leningrad Choreographic Academy, which was renamed for her in 1957 after her death in 1951. Vaganova technique encourages an expressive upper body and clarity of movement.

6. Enrico Cecchetti

Enrico Cecchetti, like Vaganova, was an influential teacher whose methods are still in use today. He was born and raised in Italy and had a performing career in Milan before moving to St. Petersburg to be a principal dancer at the Maryinksy ballet. He later became ballet master and mime for Diaghalev’s Ballets Russes. Cecchetti is most famous for his synthesis of a ballet training system, which is still used today and governed by the Cecchetti Society, which was founded in 1922.

7. Serge Diaghalev

Serge Diaghalev was not actually a dancer, but we do not have ballet as we know it without him. An art critic, producer, impresario, Diaghalev founded the Ballets Russes, a touring company that brought Russian Ballet throughout Europe and the US. Diaghalev facilitated the interactions of artists from different disciplines (music, art, choreography) and completely paved the way for the dance world as we know it.  

8. Michel Fokine

Michel Fokine “the most important choreographer and theorist of the ballet in the first quarter of the century.” Fokine was the choreographer of Les Sylphides, Firebird, Petrouchka, and many more, including a solo he made for Anna Pavlova, The Dying Swan.

9. Vaslav Njinksky

Vaslav Njinksky is best known for two choreographic works: Afternoon of a Faun and Le Sacre du Printemps. He was a featured performer in Diaghalev’s Ballets Russes, especially in Fokine’s choreography of Petrouchka and Le Spectre de la Rose. 

10. Bronislava Nijinska

Bronislava Nijinska, Nijinksy’s sister, also danced with Diaghalev’s Ballets Russes. She choreographed for Diaghalev’s troupe as well as the Paris Opera Ballet. When she eventually settled in Los Angeles and began teaching, two of her students included Maria Tallchief and her sister Marjorie. 

11. Tamara Karsavina

Tamara Karsavina is considered the first modern ballerina. She began her career at the Maryinksy Ballet and was a member of the Ballets Russes, starring in Fokine’s ballets. Political unrest led her to emigrate to London, where she was important in the founding of the Royal Ballet, including coaching Margot Fonteyn.

12. Anna Pavlova

Anna Pavlova grew up poor in Russia and trained at the Imperial Ballet School. She graduated and joined the Maryinsky ballet, rising quickly through the ranks and performing important roles. She grew famous for her performance of The Dying Swan, choreographed by Fokine. She joined Diaghalev’s Ballets Russes and eventually formed her own company.

13 & 14. George Balanchine & Lincoln Kirstein

George Balanchine & Lincoln Kirstein are the founding forces behind New York City Ballet and its school, the School of American Ballet. It was Kirstein, a wealthy, Harvard-educated ballet lover from Boston who convinced the Russian Balanchine to bring Ballet in all its Russian Glory to the United States. 

15. Lucia Chase

Lucia Chase was the co-founder and for 35 years co-director of American Ballet Theater. Though she never performed ballet professionally, without her, American Ballet would not be what it is today.

16. Jerome Robbins

Jerome Robbins was born Jerome Rabinowitz to Russian Jewish Immigrants in New York City. He performed with American Ballet Theater and became one of the most influential American Choreographers, in both ballet and Musical Theater. He made his choreographic debut in 1944, with the ballet Fancy Free and proceeded to work extensively on Broadway and as a choreographer at ABT, for his own Company Ballets USA, and at New York City Ballet. Important works also include New York Export Opus Jazz, West Side Story, The Cage, and Dances at a Gathering

17. Antony Tudor

Antony Tudor was born William Cook and came to ballet late by most standards. His career as a dancer and choreographer began in London, but he would find his way to American Ballet Theater and was a founding member of the faculty at Julliard. Some of his most timeless works include Jardin aux Lilas, Romeo and Juliet and Pillar of Fire. 

18. Janet Collins

Janet Collins became the first Black Principal Dancer at the Metropolitan Opera in 1952. She had previously explored the possibility of dancing with the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, but refused the offer because the director had demanded she use whiteface. Collins also performed with the Katherine Dunham Company and on Broadway. 

19. Raven Wilkerson

Raven Wilkerson was the first Black dancer to perform with the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, where she danced from 1955 until 1961 when she joined the Dutch National Ballet. When she returned to the US, she danced with New York City Opera from 1973 until 2011.  

20. Arthur Mitchell

Arthur Mitchell became the first Black Principal Dancer at New York City Ballet in 1955. Mitchell created a number of roles at City Ballet, most famously Agon and Puck in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. Besides breaking the color barrier as a dancer, Mitchell founded Dance Theater of Harlem in 1969. 

21. Maria Tallchief

Maria Tallchief was the first American Prima Ballerina. She was born in Oklahoma, her father a member of the Osage Nation. Although her family moved to California, she would find her way to New York and to stardom by performing in Balanchine’s The Firebird in 1949. She was also married to Balanchine for six years.

22. Evelyn Cisneros

Evelyn Cisneros is known as the first Prima Ballerina of Hispanic Heritage, dancing at San Francisco Ballet from 1977 until 1999. Since her retirement from performing she has had a vibrant career working in dance education. 

23. Margot Fonteyn

Margot Fonteyn was one of ballet’s first international superstars. She was a founding member of what would become the Royal Ballet and was the face of British ballet and ballet in general in the 1950’s. Well known for dancing the choreography of Frederick Ashton and partnering with Rudolf Nureyev, Fonteyn had a long career and was named a Dame of the British Empire. 

24. Agnes DeMille

Agnes DeMille was born in New York, raised in Los Angeles, and started her dance career in London. The niece of director Cecile B. DeMille, she was one of the first choreographers at American Ballet Theatre. She is best known for her ballet Rodeo and the Rogers and Hammerstein musical that followed it, Oklahoma! 

25. Alicia Alonso

Alicia Alonso founded what would become the Cuban National Ballet and directed it for 71 years, navigating the challenging political climate in her Native Cuba. Before that, she gained fame for her performance of Giselle with American Ballet Theater, where she danced 

26. Mikhail Baryshnikov

Mikhail Baryshnikov defected from the Soviet Union in 1974. He was a star at New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater, becoming ABT’s artistic director in 1980. In 2010 he, with modern dance choreographer Mark Morris, founded White Oak Dance Project. Baryshnikov has also had a full acting career, starring in films The Turning Point (1977), White Nights (1985), and on the TV Show Sex and The City (in 2003).

27. Gelsey Kirkland

Gelsey Kirkland was the quintessential 1970s ballerina. She was a Principal Dancer at New York City Ballet before joining ABT as a Principal in 1974, where she would dance many full-length ballets alongside Baryshnikov, including his Nutcracker.

28. Twyla Tharp

Twyla Tharp is a powerhouse American choreographer who is still creating today. Besides her own company, Twyla Tharp Dance, Tharp has choreographed for major ballet companies, film, and Broadway. She won the Tony Award for Best Choreography for Movin’ Out; some of her most famous ballets include Duece Coupe which premiered at the Joffrey Ballet, Push Come to Shove, which premiered at ABT, and In the Upper Room, which was premiered by her own company. She was the subject of a PBS Documentary and is the author of several books.

29. Wendy Whelan

Wendy Whelan is the Associate Artistic Director of the New York City Ballet since 2019. Whelan danced with New York City Ballet for 30 years and retired as a Principal Dancer in 2014. Before returning to City Ballet in her new role, she created her own touring project, Restless Creature, which was the subject of a 2016 documentary

30. Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland is the first Black Principal Dancer at American Ballet Theater, promoted to that rank in 2015. Copeland started ballet “late,” at age 13 at a boys and girls club in California. In addition to her dancing, Copeland is the author of three books and a brand ambassador for Under Armour

It is important for young dancers to learn about their predecessors, though it is incredibly easy to fall down a ballet history rabbit hole and never leave. I hope this group of dancers has sparked your interest, as they really are only a handful of the many people who have influenced ballet over the years so there is plenty more for you to learn about! Here are a few good places to look: 

Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the New York Public Library Digital Collection

Jacobs’s Pillow Dance Interactive

Further Reading

For more articles about Ballet on Dance Parent 101 take a look at the following!