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History of ballet - 20th-21st century

With time, Petipa's choreographic method settled into a formula. Mikhail Fokine called for greater expressiveness and more authenticity in choreography, scenery and costumes. He was able to realise his ideas through the Ballets Russes, a new company organised by the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev.

The Ballets Russes opened in Paris in 1909 and won immediate success. The male dancers led by Russian ballet star Vaslav Nijinsky were particularly admired because excellent male dancers had almost disappeared in Paris. The company presented a broad range of works, including Fokine's compactly knit one-act ballets with colourful themes from Russian or Asian folklore: The Firebird (1910), Schéhérazade (1910) and Petrouchka (1911). The Ballets Russes became synonymous with novelty and excitement, a reputation it maintained throughout its 20 years of existence.

Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson in Graeme Murphy's Firebird. Photo Alex Makeyev
Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson in Graeme Murphy's Firebird.
Photo Alex Makeyev

Diaghilev assembled some of the world's greatest artists to create new works for his company, and although most of them were Russian – among them designers Léon Bakst and composer Igor Stravinsky – he also commissioned many Western European artists such as Pablo Picasso and Maurice Ravel. They encouraged Diaghilev's choreographers, Mikhail Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Léonide Massine, Bronislava Nijinska, George Balanchine and Serge Lifar to experiment with new themes and styles of movement. Read more about the Ballets Russes

The offshoots of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes revitalised ballet all over the world. Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, who danced in its early seasons, formed her own company and toured internationally, including two tours of Australia in 1926 and 1929. Léonide Massine contributed to the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a company formed after Diaghilev's death that recreated many of his company's ballets. It also toured to Australia in 1936, 1938 and 1939.

Two former members of the Ballets Russes, the Polish-born Dame Marie Rambert and the Irish-born Dame Ninette de Valois, became founders of British ballet. The Rambert Ballet discovered and nurtured the choreographic talents of Sir Frederick Ashton and Antony Tudor, who were to influence the formation of an English style of ballet. Dame Ninette de Valois founded what was to become Britain's Royal Ballet. Through her company came both Dame Peggy van Praagh and Sir Robert Helpmann, who became the first Artistic Directors of The Australian Ballet.

Mikhail Fokine worked with many companies, including what was to become the American Ballet Theatre. George Balanchine was invited to work in the United States by Lincoln Kirstein, a wealthy American patron of the arts. There he established the School of American Ballet and New York City Ballet. Serge Lifar, the last of Diaghilev's male stars, revitalised the Paris Opéra and dominated French ballet for many years.

In the 1920s and 1930s, modern dance began to develop in the United States and Germany. American dancers Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey and German dancer Mary Wigman, among others, broke away from traditional ballet to create their own expressive movement styles and to choreograph dances that were more closely related to human life at that time. Ballets also reflected this move toward realism. For instance, in 1932 the German choreographer Kurt Jooss created The Green Table, an anti-war ballet, and Antony Tudor developed the psychological ballet, which revealed the inner being of his characters.

The technique of modern dance eventually extended the movement vocabulary of ballet, particularly in the use of the torso and in movements performed lying or sitting on the floor. Popular dance forms were also used to enrich the ballet vocabulary. In 1944 American choreographer Jerome Robbins created Fancy Free, a ballet based on the jazz-dance style that had developed in musical comedy.

Artists of The Australian Ballet in Divergence. Photo Jim McFarlane
Artists of The Australian Ballet in Divergence. Photo Jim

In the 1930s Massine introduced the symphonic ballet, which aimed to express the musical content of symphonies by the German composers Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms. Balanchine also began to create plotless ballets in which the primary motivation was movement to music. His ballet Jewels (1967) is considered the first evening-length ballet of this type. Beginning in 1956, Russian ballet companies such as the Bolshoi and Kirov performed in the West for the first time. The intense dramatic feeling and technical virtuosity of the Russians made a great impact. Russian influence on ballet continues today, both through visits from Russian companies and the activities of defecting Soviet dancers such as Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov.


Dance in general underwent an enormous surge in popularity beginning in the mid 1960s. Ballet began to show the influence of a younger audience in both themes and style. The athleticism of dancing was enjoyed in much the same way as sports, and virtuosic steps were admired for their challenge and daring. Popular music such as rock and roll and jazz was used to accompany many ballets.

The 21st century

Today's ballet repertoire offers great variety. New ballets and reconstructions and re-staging of older ballets co-exist with new works created by contemporary choreographers for ballet companies. Choreographers experiment with both new and traditional forms and styles, and dancers constantly seek to extend their technical and dramatic range.

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