The Four Major Styles of Ballet - Boston Ballet

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The Four Major Styles of Ballet


Artists of Boston Ballet in Sir Frederick Ashton's Cinderella

Photo credit: Liza Voll

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

Ji Young Chae and Jeffrey Cirio in Mikko Nissinen's The Nutcracker

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

Lia Cirio and Patrick Yocum in George Balanchine's Apollo ©The George Balanchine Trust

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 postions, fluid movements, high extensions, and turnout of the legs and feet. When you hear “classical,” think of the procession of graceful arabesques in the excerpt KINGDOM OF THE SHADES, the steely pointework in CINDERELLA, 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 extended classical ballet technique highlighting speed and attack. His choreography includes more modern, athletic, and 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 ballet Apollo. The ballet unfolds in a series of scenes that follow Apollo’s journey from infancy to maturity, highlighting his encounters with three Muses: Calliope (muse of poetry), Polyhymnia (muse of mime), and Terpsichore (the muse of dance and song). Each Muse imparts her respective artistic qualities to Apollo, contributing to his growth and understanding of his role as an artistic leader.

Balanchine’s choreography is characterized by its neoclassical style, which incorporates elements of traditional ballet technique while embracing modern and abstract movements. The dancers’ movements often emphasize strong lines, angular shapes, and dynamic contrasts. This style was a departure from the more romantic and narrative-driven ballets of the time.

Stravinsky’s music for Apollo is equally innovative. His score blends neoclassical elements with his distinctive rhythmic and harmonic language. The music features a clear structure, emphasizing simplicity and clarity while maintaining a sense of depth and emotional resonance. Stravinsky’s composition contributes to the ballet’s timeless quality and its connection to ancient themes.

One of the most iconic aspects of Apollo is its minimalist set and costumes. The dancers typically wear simple, flowing white costumes that enhance the purity and classical aura of the production. This minimalist approach allows the choreography and the dancers’ movements to take center stage.

Apollo is often considered a pivotal work in the history of ballet. It marked a shift towards neoclassical aesthetics and a departure from the more elaborate and story-driven ballets that had dominated the art form in the 19th century. Balanchine’s choreography and Stravinsky’s music collaborated to create a masterpiece that emphasized the pure essence of dance, music, and artistic expression.

For example, instead of two bent legs to prepare for a turn, he extended the back leg to make the leg look longer. He also had his dancers spot the front so the audience could see the dancers face more. He opened up the hands so you could see all five fingers where normally in classical ballet, the hands are more closed. Balanchine wanted his dancers to dance bigger and faster. In regard to musicality, he wanted his dancers to be in time, and on time. Ballet is a performing art, and that is why Balanchine was so successful. Combining his knowledge of music and dance made him a successful choreographer.

Derek Dunn in William Forsythe's Blake Works III (The Barre Project)

Photo credit: Liza Voll

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.

Contemporary ballet has gained popularity over the years, appealing to both traditional ballet enthusiasts and those interested in more modern and innovative dance forms. Choreographers like WILLIAM FORSYTHE, JIŘÍ KYLIÁN, and Christopher Wheeldon are known for their contributions to contemporary ballet, pushing the boundaries of movement, storytelling, and artistic expression within the framework of ballet technique.

Soon to be performed in SPRING EXPERIENCE, Forsythe’s Blake Works III (The Barre Project) is characterized by its intricate and often angular movement, rapid changes in direction, and the use of space in innovative ways. Forsythe is known for deconstructing traditional ballet vocabulary and reconstructing it in a fresh and captivating manner. The ballet may incorporate elements of classical ballet technique while also embracing a contemporary and abstract approach to movement.

Boston Ballet Resident Choreographer Jorma Elo is a contemporary choreographer known for his innovative and dynamic approach to dance, often blending classical ballet with modern and contemporary movement styles. One of his notable works is set to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suites, which is being performed this season as part of FALL EXPERIENCE.

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.