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Top 10 classical ballets list

Google “Top 10 Classical Ballets” or something similar, and you'll find a whole host of lists that, truthfully, don't vary much. Some present more contemporary ballets and include the works of Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan, George Balanchine. Others opt for whimsical and light-heartedness, such as Copelia and La Fille Mal Gardée. More than one list includes the pungent and outrageous (for the time) The Rite of Spring. But invariably, at least eight of the same ballets appear on each list.

And so, without further ado, here is my list of the top 10 classical ballets, in no particular order:

  1. Swan Lake

  2. La Sylphide

  3. Don Quixote

  4. Giselle

  5. The Sleeping Beauty

  6. Cinderella

  7. Romeo and Juliet

  8. The Nutcracker

  9. La Bayadère

  10. A Midsummer Night’s Dream

1) Swan Lake

I can't decide if I'm thrilled that so many non-dancers know about this ballet, or if it makes me a little uncomfortable that their image of ballet and the world of ballet is forever colored by the movie. "Black Swan".

Story in short: Young Odette stumbles upon Von Rothbart, an evil wizard who casts a spell on her and she must now live her life as a swan by day and a human by night. Siegfried, a restless young prince in search of something big, meets her and together they find love. Odette tells her that to break her spell as a swan, a man must publicly declare his eternal love for her. No big deal, right? Well, the following night at the palace, at a party to celebrate Siegfried's birthday, Von Rothbart does his evil magic again and adds his daughter, Odile, to the equation. Now visually identical to Odette, she dances like a storm. Siegfried falls in love with her and, oops, declares his eternal love to Odile. Bad things ensue.

Best ballet moment: The full scene of all 24 swans in Act III is simply stunning. In Act I, the pas de deux between the shy Odette and Siegfried is incredible. The pas de deux of the "black swan" of Act II is closely followed. Odile is almost always performed by the same dancer as Odette, which is why it's such a challenging and iconic role for the ballet dancer. Maybe this one is my favorite. Oh the choices!

2) The Sylphid

The story of this production and its star, Marie Taglioni, and the craze that followed, is so interesting and captivating.

Story in short: The mystical Sylphid enchants and distracts James, a young Scotsman on the eve of his wedding, with unfortunate results.

La Sylphide is less well known and less performed than the other ballets on this list, but its historical importance merits inclusion here. First choreographed by Filippo Taglioni in 1832, then taken over by August Bournonville in 1836, which is the best known production. As I mentioned above, the ballet made Marie Taglioni (Filippo's daughter) a star of epic proportions. This ballet should not be confused with Les Sylphides, a short non-narrative ballet (perhaps one of the first) by Michel Fokine, to music by Chopin.

3) Don Quixote

Story in short: In line with Cervantes' novel, Don Quixote, the quintessential romantic dreamer, escapes into a fantasy of his own making, believing he is a knight who must revive the age of gold of chivalry. The ballet version features a spirited girl, Kitri, whose father wants her to marry, and Basilio, the town barber who loves her, but is NOT her father's choice. Antics, comedic antics, crossed paths and generally good times.

Best moment of the ballet: the Grand Pas de Deux. See above, danced to perfection by Angel Corella and Paloma Herrera. It takes my breath away every time I look at it.

4) Giselle – this one wins the prize for oldest of the great classical ballets (1841), as well as the one that has best stood the test of time.

Story in short: Giselle is a peasant woman, who lives with her mother in a small house in the countryside (set of the first act). Hilarion, the gamekeeper, is in love with her. But she prefers a handsome young man she met recently. Hilarion, driven by jealousy, reveals to her that the mysterious young man is none other than Albrecht, a duke already engaged to a young girl of the nobility. The shock is too harsh: Giselle sinks into madness before falling dead. However, Albrecht is actually in love with Giselle. He goes to his grave, near a lake at the edge of the forest (set of the second act). The willis surround it. They want her down to avenge Giselle and avenge themselves. Because the willis are the ghosts of young girls betrayed by their lovers before their wedding. They appear at night and force men to dance until they die of exhaustion.

Best ballet moment: Everything about the Willis. Giselle as Willis is more interesting to watch than the overly dynamic village girl. The whole second act goes by so quickly and really makes your heart ache.

5) Sleeping Beauty

Ten years after Tchaikovsky composed the score for Swan Lake (which, tragically, only received its well-deserved full acclaim after his death), he collaborated in St. Petersburg with Imperial Ballet choreographer Marius Petipa (born in France but very Russified after 40 years as ballet master and chief choreographer) and Len Ivanov, Petipa's assistant, and the three produced pure magic in Sleeping Beauty. It was an instant hit. Everything about this one is classic and sublime.

Short Story: Same as the fairy tale we all know. During Princess Aurora's baptism, six fairies bring her their gifts (Generosity, Humor, etc.) but Carabosse, the evil fairy, has been forgotten on the guest list, and she arrives, quite annoyed. To get revenge, she casts a spell: death to Aurore on her 16th birthday, from a finger prick on a spindle. The Lilac Fairy, the last to present her gift, softens the sentence. A 100 year sleep and not death. Etc.

In Act II, after 99.9 years of slumber, Prince Désiré, bored with life, catches a glimpse of Aurora in a dreamy "trance" scene, as she spins and weaves her way among the dancers of the corps de ballet, and he is in love. The Lilac Fairy leads him to the castle, he kisses sleeping Aurora, wide awake, everyone is happy, and Act III is just dancing at their wedding. But hey, it's very good to dance.

Best Ballet Moment: I love the Act III Wedding Pas de Deux, but if I had to pick a better scene, like most balletomanes, it would be "The Adagio of the Rose," where Aurora dances with four princes asking for her hand in marriage and she is so strong and lovely and ultimately independent. And holding the poses that the choreography requires is VERY HARD WORK for the dancer. It's another one of those roles, like Odette/Odile, that challenges the ballerina to the limit of her abilities.

6) Cinderella

The story in a nutshell: what you expected. The rags-to-riches fairy tale written by French storyteller Charles Perrault. The ballet is funny as hell in most versions.

Best Ballet Moment: In the Wheeldon production, a pumpkin magically transforms into a carriage in the blink of an eye, then whisks away Cinderella. You see horse-drawn carriages racing, her dress fluttering in the wind, but that's just an illusion. Also, the tree that grows and grows from Cinderella's tears. Wheeldon's creative team, including Julian Crouch (decor and costumes) and puppeteer Basil Twist, create pure magic.

7) Romeo and Juliet

It's one of many, many people's favorite ballets, but I don't know, I just find the whole R&J story to be dark and not very entertaining. But I love Prokofiev's score. Kenneth MacMillan's production is a very famous production, but I won't say "the most" famous because I haven't researched it much, and I like the pas de deux from the "balcony scene". .

Story in short: You're not going to tell me you don't know the story? Okay, just to play it safe, like, you've lived in a cave most of your life. Montague and Capulet = war. Romeo and Juliet = eternal love. Combination = disaster.

Best Ballet Moment: The aforementioned balcony scene pas de deux. Just wonderful. Prokofiev's music and MacMillan's romantic, sexy choreography produce pure euphoria for the characters and the audience. HERE is a YouTube link if you want to check it out (and you do, trust me).

8) The Nutcracker

The ballet you are most likely to have seen. If not, do yourself and your niece/daughter/friend's daughter a favor and make next year the year you buy those tickets and see that production once. for all.

Story in short: At a family Christmas party, Clara is dazzled by the gift of Herr Drosselmeyer, an elegant Nutcracker Prince. The family party gets too loud, the Nutcracker shatters, the party disperses and Clara falls asleep on the sofa and has fantastic dreams of a battle, her Nutcracker prince becoming real. She helps her prince prevail against the Mouse King and in gratitude he takes her to Candy Land and a group of exotic characters dance for her.

Best ballet moment: In the San Francisco Ballet production, when Clara has fallen asleep on the sofa and the music is turning up, the Christmas tree in the corner also intensifies, and over the course of about 16 counts, everything the living room changes shape and transforms into an oversized dream world. Stunning. That, and the "Snow Country" of the SFB. Blizzard conditions. It's delicious and quite hilarious.

9) La Bayadere

Originally staged in 1877 by choreographer Marius Petipa, most of the versions we now see of La Bayadère are derived from the 1941 Mariinsky/Kirov Ballet production.

Story in short: The temple dancer named Nikiya is in love with the handsome warrior, Solor, who also loves her. But the High Brahmin has his eye on Nikiya and sets up a plan to separate the couple so he can have Nikiya for himself, with tragic consequences.

Best ballet moment: Without a doubt, the Realm of Shadows scene. Composer Ludwig Minkus nailed the dreamy yet haunting vibe. See for yourself in this excerpt from the Paris Opera Ballet production.

10) A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a ballet by Marius Petipa composed in 1876 to incidental music by Mendelssohn (1843), inspired by Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's dream). The first performance of the ballet took place at the Peterhof (Saint Petersburg) on July 14, 1876, with additional music by Léon Minkus. He took up the theme of his ballet Titania, staged in 1866.

Story in short: Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies, fight over the child they both want, a boy who serves as Titania's page. When she refuses to give up on him, Oberon hires Puck to stir up magical mischief. Alongside bickering in the fairyland, two couples are caught in the throes of love. Lysander and Hermia are deeply in love, only having eyes for each other. Demetrius and Helena, meanwhile, aren't quite in love. She is lovesick and desperate for his affections, while he yearns only for the unavailable Hermia. Oberon, observing Helena's distress, orders Puck to touch Demetrius' sleeping eyes with a flower pierced by Cupid's arrow, causing him to fall in love with the first person he sees upon awakening. Only Puck gets it wrong, and comedic mishaps ensue.

Best moment of the ballet:

Titania, waking up from a drug-induced sleep, a magical elixir that makes her fall in love with the one she first meets. In his cast, he's a jerk. The two dance a glorious and hilarious pas de deux, her utterly smitten, he perplexed but accommodating.

And there you have it! Here’s the list one more time so you don’t have to scroll all the way back to the top :

  1. Swan Lake

  2. La Sylphide

  3. Don Quixote

  4. Giselle

  5. The Sleeping Beauty

  6. Cinderella

  7. Romeo and Juliet

  8. The Nutcracker

  9. La Bayadère

  10. A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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