The Four Major Styles of Ballet

Colleen McAnaney

Boston Ballet in Mikko Nissinen's Swan Lake by Rosalie O'Connor

Boston Ballet in Mikko Nissinen's Swan Lake

Photo credit: Rosalie O'Connor

Discover the different styles of ballet and what makes each unique.

Ji Young Chae and Tigran Mkrtchyan in Mikko Nissinen's The Nutcracker

Photo credit: Liza Voll

Addie Tapp in Giselle

Photo credit: Rosalie O'Connor

Ji Young Chae and Tigran Mkrtchyan in Mikko Nissinen's The Nutcracker

Photo credit: Liza Voll

Addie Tapp in Giselle

Photo credit: Rosalie O'Connor

Ballet has a rich history that spans more than half a millennium, bridging cultures and traditions from across the world. Different styles of ballet have evolved over time, from neoclassical to romantic, and every flavor of dance is unique. We’re here to break down the major styles and help you become an expert in the art form, so you know just what to look for at the theater.

Classical Ballet
Ballet originated in the Renaissance courts of the 16th century, quickly growing in popularity with nobility. In the 17th century King Louis XIV of France frequently entertained his guests with court dances and even performed his own ballets. Louis XIV helped propel the art form forward by establishing the world’s first ballet school, the Académie Royale de Danse, where the building blocks of classical technique were established. The Academy developed the ballet terminology we know today, with descriptive names for the steps like jeter (to throw) and fouetter (to whip). This explains why French is considered the language of ballet. 

Classical choreography emphasizes the five basic positions, fluid movements, high extensions, and turnout of the legs and feet. When you hear “classical,” think of the graceful arabesques in Swan Lake or the astonishing penchés of the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. These ballets are often accompanied by ornate scenery and detailed costumes.

Romantic Ballet
As ballet moved into the Romantic era (late 18th and early 19th centuries), choreographers shifted their focus towards new storylines and techniques. Romantic ballets followed dramatic and sometimes tragic narratives, and often incorporated supernatural elements. Choreographers also used extensive pointe work to showcase prima ballerinas in otherworldly, muse-like roles; dancing en pointe made ballerinas appear to float across the stage, perfect for ethereal roles like the woodland sprite in La Sylphide or the ghostly Wilis in Giselle. If you’re unsure whether a ballet is classical or Romantic, just look at the tutus; the longer bell-shaped skirts of Romantic ballets are a far cry from the short, stiff, platter-style tutus worn in classical pieces.

Neoclassical Ballet
In the early 1900s, ballet made its way to the United States with legendary choreographer George Balanchine at the helm. A classically-trained dancer with an innovative approach to movement, Balanchine combined the rigid steps of classical ballet with more modern, athletic, explosive movements. His signature style broke free of the academic classical rules and paved the way for neoclassical ballet—a unification of the old and the new.

This style strips away the costumes, sets, and plots so prominent in the Classical and Romantic eras, allowing the audience to focus solely on the movement. Consider the pas de deux of Balanchine’s Agon, which combines traditional footwork with jazzy movements and gymnastic elements—all set against a minimalist backdrop. Neoclassical ballets add another dimension to traditional dance vocabulary and invite audiences to venture further beyond classical technique.

Viktorina Kapitonova and Lasha Khozashvili by Rachel Neville Photography

Viktorina Kapitonova and Lasha Khozashvili

Photo credit: Rachel Neville Photography

Contemporary Ballet
Neoclassical choreographers made it acceptable to color outside the lines, giving birth to the contemporary styles of today. Contemporary choreographers march to the beat of their own drums, defining new, extreme movements and establishing fresh vocabularies. Their ballets are typically plotless, and many are set to today’s music like electronica, rock, and R&B.

A prime example of a contemporary ballet is William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. While still rooted in the fundamentals of classical ballet technique from centuries past, Forsythe purposely contradicts ballet traditions by using dissonant music and making all nine dancers face in different directions on stage. Just like with In the Middle audiences, contemporary ballet fans are not passive spectators—they enjoy leaning in and reexamining the possibilities of dance.

See it in Action
To appreciate the differences between the four styles, try seeing ballets outside of your comfort zone. Love a good fairy tale? Save your seat for something a bit more avant-garde. Are you a contemporary ballet fan? You might adore the jazzy movements in a neoclassical piece. Knowing what to look for at the theater will open your eyes to a world of possibility—and maybe help you find your new favorite.

The illusion we create is intended to deepen your understanding of reality.

Mikko Nissinen, Artistic Director
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