Part III: Great Classical Ballet Dancers


As I always mention, this article is a starting point for further research rather than a definitive source. This is partly because there have been so many great dancers in the beloved field of classical ballet that it would be impossible to look at them all, and even ‘definitive’ books are not able to do that due to the space restrictions!


There is no doubt that everyone loves a celebrity, and ballet dancers have always seemed to hold a special mystique in the eyes of the public. Even those people who are not interested in dance will have heard of the great ballerina Anna Pavlova, or Margot Fonteyn, possibly the most famous dancers ever to have made their names. And of course we all know that the exquisite Australian dessert, the Pavlova, was created in honour of the light and ethereal dancing of Anna Pavlova during her visit to our country in the early 20th century.


Why do ballet dancers seem to enchant the public so? Maybe it is because they seem to be from a completely different world, a world where strange and magical things are possible, where the women are always beautiful, the men always gallant and the clothing always fantastic. It is a world that is totally escapist and we all love a good session of escapism. In the last century ballet started to very seriously move away from this fairytale world but we still love our dancers. Perhaps we admire them so much because they seem, to us, to achieve the impossible, creating such awesome beauty as they move in such unimaginable ways. Perhaps we see them as a breed apart, special.


There are, as I have said, so many gifted dancers. I believe that the best of them have indeed understood that dancing is a spiritual thing, and they do indeed dance with their spirits. I believe this is what captivates people the most. Let’s go and meet some of them, so next time we find ourselves in a conversation about classical ballet, we can at least do some name-dropping!


Short Biographies summarised from the Internet; sources as quoted. We look at European and Russian dancers; We meet English dancers, and Americans.

We then talk about some of the Australian legends; Sir Robert Helpmann, Lucette Aldous, Garth Welch, and Marilyn Jones.


Early European Dancers:


Marie Camargo

1710-1770 Camargo studied in Paris under Françoise Prevost, and danced in Brussels and Rouen before her Paris Opéra debut in 1726 in Les Caractères de la danse. Her success provoked the jealousy of her aging teacher, Prevost, who relegated her to the ensemble. She soon won an unexpected triumph, however, by improvising a spectacular solo when another dancer failed to enter on cue. Her final retirement was in 1751.

Camargo reputedly established the ballet's basic leg position as turned-out 90º from the hip. A rival of Marie Sallé, she was noted for her speed and agility and for her perfection of jumping steps previously executed chiefly by men. To display her rapidly moving feet, she became the first dancer to shorten her ballet skirts to calf length, to remove the heels from ballet slippers, and to wear close-fitting drawers (that evolved into ballet's basic "tights") while dancing.


Marie Taglioni
1804-84, Italian ballerina, b. Stockholm. Taglioni is considered the first and foremost ballerina of the romantic period. She made her debut in Vienna in 1822 in a ballet created for her by her father, the Italian choreographer Filippo Taglioni. Although she danced with the Paris Opéra from 1827, she did not achieve success until 1832, when she interpreted the title role of her father's new work, La Sylphide, which all Europe acclaimed. Taglioni's ethereal style and high elevations and leaps greatly influenced the development of ballet. She danced with the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre from 1837 through 1839. Having retired in 1848, she was forced by bankruptcy to teach dance in Paris and London in her last years.

Fanny Cerrito

1817-1909, Italian ballerina, a brilliant, vivacious dancer and one of the few female choreographers of the 19th century. Born Francesca Cerrito in Naples, she studied under the celebrated Italian teacher Carlo Blasis and the noted French choreographers Jules Perrot and Arthur Saint-Léon (1821-1870; her favorite partner and, from 1845 to 1851, her husband). She was famous for her roles in Pas de quatre (1845), Ondine (1843), and Gemma (1854, her choreography).

Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000


Vaslav Nijinsky
 1890-1950, Russian ballet dancer and choreographer; brother of Bronislava Nijinska. In 1900 he entered the Imperial Ballet School, St. Petersburg, and made his debut in 1907. He traveled to Paris (1909) and, as premier danseur in Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, was the first to dance the leading roles in Petrouchka, Les Sylphides, Scheherazade, and The Spectre of the Rose, all choreographed by Fokine, and The Afternoon of a Faun (1912) and Till Eulenspiegel (1916), which he himself choreographed. Nijinsky, often considered the greatest male dancer of the 20th cent., was noted for his jeté and elevation. His relationship with Diaghilev was stormy, ending bitterly when the dancer married. Nijinsky's career was abruptly terminated by insanity (1919). He lived in retirement in England and Switzerland until he died.


Russian Dancers:


Anna Pavlova

Pavlova, 1881-1931 was a premature birth and as a child was often ill, suffering from measles, diphtheria and scarlet fever. Despite her frail physical weaknesses, Pavlova as a child was accepted into the Imperial School of Ballet in 1891, and was an exceptional student.
She first appeared on the stage of the Maryinsky Theater, became a prima Ballerina in 1906, toured Stockholm, to Berlin in 1907 and made, her American debut in January of 1910 with Mordkin at the MET. In 1913, Pavlova left Russia forever, with her own company. She did more for the American Ballet than any other one person; for millions of people at the time, Pavlova was the only time they ever heard the name Ballet. She danced in every part of the world and in one of her visits to the USA, she traveled over twenty six thousand miles, performing each day in each town for six months. Her performing schedule was so hectic that she went through a dozen pairs of toe shoes each week. Pavlova toured for over twenty years and died in The Hague, Holland, of Pneumonia.




Rudolf Nureyev
1938-93, Russian ballet dancer, b. near Irkutsk, Siberian USSR. Nureyev studied in Ufa and St. Petersburg, and in 1958 he became a soloist with the Kirov Ballet. In 1961 he defected from the Soviet Union while on tour in Paris. Nureyev is regarded by many as the leading classical ballet dancer of his generation. He was noted for his overpowering stage presence and his exceptionally athletic skill and fiery grace. His major roles include the leads in La Bayadère, Les Sylphides, Giselle, Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, Le Corsaire, Raymonda, and Sleeping Beauty. As guest artist with the Royal Ballet, London, and elsewhere he appeared with many celebrated ballerinas, most notably as partner to Margot Fonteyn. He also revised and staged several ballets, including the Marius Petipa version of Don Quixote (1966). Nureyev also danced in a number of works by modern-dance choreographers including Glen Tetley and Paul Taylor. Nureyev frequently appeared on television, was the star and subject of a feature-length film, and had a limited-run Broadway show (1974-75). In 1983 he became ballet director of the Paris Opera.


Altynai Asylmuratova

Born in 1961 in Kazakhstan, Asylmuratova studied at the Vaganova Academy in Leningrad. After graduation in 1978 she joined the Kirov Ballet, becoming a principal in 1982.

Asylmuratova has danced all the major 19th-century ballerina roles as well as ballets of Fokine and some of the great Soviet dram-ballets (Romeo and Juliet, The Fountain of Bakhchisarai).

She has also successfully mastered Western choreographic styles, giving further proof of her versatility and finding additional outlets for her dramatic talent in the work of Ashton, MacMillan, and Petit.

The altered political situation in the early nineties allowed Altynai Asylmuratova to guest extensively in the West and satisfy her artistic curiosity without ever having to detach herself completely from the Kirov. Asylmuratova, combining superb schooling with a rare expressive power and compelling beauty, came as a refreshing wind on the international stage. Many consider her the last great ballerina in the long and illustrious St. Petersburg lineage.

In January 2000 she was named Artistic Director of the Vaganova Ballet Academy.


Mikhail Baryshnikov

Born 1948 in Riga, Latvia. He began study at the Riga Dance School in 1960. In 1963 he was invited to join the Riga dance troupe and toured Leningrad where he met Alexander Pushkin at the Vaganova School. He studied there under Alexander Pushkin and joined the Kirov Company after only 3 years at the Vaganova School.

In 1972 he debuted in the Kirov production of "Giselle" but two years later while in Toronto Baryshnikov defected after a performance of "Don Quixote”. Baryshnikov joined the American Ballet Theatre a few weeks later and made his American debut in "Giselle". He later became Artistic Director for ABT and also worked with Balanchine at NYCB for a time. In the 1970’s Baryshnikov collaborated with Roland Petit, Twyla Tharp, and Liza Minelli, and in 1975 made his choreographic debut with his production of "The Nutcracker".


Baryshnikov had earlier made his film debut in the west in "The Turning Point" and in 1984 he began work on "White Nights". In 1985 he became romantically involved with ABT dancer Lisa Rinehart who is the mother of 3 of his children. The following year he made another film "Dancers”. In 1990 he was involved in marketing and merchandising efforts including his perfume for women called "Misha" and his own line of dancewear. During the 90's he has danced in the Mark Morris Company, a modern dance troupe, and now has his own modern dance company "White Oak Dance Project".


British Dancers:


Alicia Markova


At 14 Markova was hired by Diaghilev, as his first and only child-star; even before then she had been dancing in public as 'the miniature Pavlova’. By the time Diaghilev died in 1929 she was an established name on the international scene.

Markova danced both for Marie Rambert's Ballet Club and for de Valois' Vic-Wells Ballet (forerunner of the Royal Ballet). In the early days her name was as valuable as her talent: she attracted those who thought only Russian ballet worth watching. The irony was that Markova is English - Alicia Marks. Ashton created many roles for her, displaying her virtuoso technical skill. When she left the Vic-Wells, they wondered how to survive without their great star - but it was her departure which created an opening for an almost unknown Margot Fonteyn.


Markova spent the 1940s in America, with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and later with Ballet Theatre. Here she reached the heights of her career, and became identified with her signature role, Giselle. In the 50s Markova came back to Britain to found the Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet). Her most famous partnership was with Anton Dolin, but during her career she also danced with almost every one of the great male dancers.


Dame Margot Fonteyn
1919-91, English ballerina. Fonteyn was for many years prima ballerina assoluta of the Royal Ballet. Her original name was Margaret Hookham. In 1934 she joined the Sadler's Wells Ballet School, and in the same year she made her debut as a soloist. She became prima ballerina of the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1935. Fonteyn gained a reputation for expressive acting and versatility, creating such roles as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty and Agathe in Les Demoiselles de la Nuit. Her performances in Cinderella, Giselle, Sylvia, and The Firebird were also outstanding. Sir Frederick Ashton created a number of major ballets especially for Fonteyn. She was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1956. Fonteyn's international reputation reached an unprecedented height after 1962, when she began her partnership with the Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev.


Antoinette Sibley

Antoinette Sibley was the first ballerina to have come right through both divisions of the Royal Ballet School.

Sibley was born in 1939, and studied at the Cone Ripman School before joining the then Sadler's Wells Ballet School. She joined the company in 1956, making her mark very soon in classical solos and became a soloist that year. By 1960 she was a Principal, and gradually taking over all the great classic roles. She was a wonderful interpreter of the Ashton repertoire, both in created roles and in those she inherited from Fonteyn.

In 1964, Ashton made the role of Titania in his lovely 'Dream' for her, and by casting the relatively unknown Anthony Dowell as Oberon, launched the second-most-famous partnership in the company's history. They were so ideally matched, in appearance, line and musicality that their already great individual talents seemed even greater when they appeared together. They went on to do all the classics, as well as many other contemporary works.

By 1979 a knee problem had escalated to a stage where she could no longer carry on, and she announced her retirement. These days she is President of the Royal Academy of Dancing, and a coach to aspiring ballerinas.

Anthony Dowell

Anthony Dowell is remembered by many as the perfect English dancer. From his first appearance, in a solo in the Napoli Variations, he was clearly headed for the top, and even without his famous partnership with Antoinette Sibley he would be assured of a permanent place in the pantheon of British ballet.


At the Royal Ballet School he was soon identified as potentially special. He was taken into the London Royal Ballet in 1961, after a year's apprenticeship in the Covent Garden Opera Ballet. Within three years he was launched on the road to stardom when Ashton chose him to create the role of Oberon in his Dream, showing for the first time his speed and unique ability to change direction apparently instantaneously.

In 1967 he was honoured by having Antony Tudor create for him the only ballet he ever made for the London company, Shadowplay. In 1978 Dowell took a year off to dance with American Ballet and when he came back it was with a new confidence and assurance.


American Dancers:


Suzanne Farrell
1945-, American ballet dancer, b. Cincinnati. After studying in Cincinnati and at the School of American Ballet, she joined the New York City Ballet, where she became a favorite with ballet audiences. Balanchine, recognizing the emotional depth of her performances, created several roles for her in Movements for Piano and Orchestra, Meditation (1963), and Don Quixote (1965). From 1970 to 1974, she was a member of Béjart's Ballet of the 20th Century. In 1974, she returned to the New York City Ballet, where she danced in Balanchine's Schumann's Davidsbundlertanze and Tizane and in Jerome Robbins's Concerto in G. Farrell became a teacher at the company after her retirement in 1989. Her strained relations with City Ballet's director, her former partner Peter Martins, ultimately ended in her dismissal in 1993. Since then she has taught Balanchine's ballets, technique, and philosophy to dance companies throughout the world. Also in 1993, Farrell began teaching at the Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C., where, with a chamber troupe, she has presented Balanchine programs.



Peter Martins
1946-, Danish ballet dancer and choreographer. He studied at the School of the Royal Danish Ballet and performed with its company (1965-69). In 1969 he joined the New York City Ballet, where he danced in numerous ballets, including Chaconne and Vienna Waltzes, often partnering Suzanne Farrell. Martins' choreographed works include Calcium Light Night (1977), Five Easy Pieces (1980), Les Gentilhommes (1987), A Musical Offering (1991), and Symphonic Dances (1994). In 1983 Martins retired from dancing and with Jerome Robbins became co-ballet master in chief of the company, a position Martins has occupied alone since the retirement of Robbins in 1989.


Australian Dancers:


Robert Helpmann

He had just arrived in London to join the Vic-Wells Ballet; he was 24, and in his native Australia he had already begun his career as an actor and dancer, including a tour with Pavlova's company as a student. With de Valois' support he became the company's leading male dancer, partnering Fonteyn as she grew to greatness in the classics, and choreographed a number of works in the 40s at least two of which earned a place in the repertoire. Most of all, he created unforgettable characters, both comic and dramatic, in many works by Ashton and de Valois. He had the priceless gift of being able to hold an audience, no matter what he was doing.


Helpmann's career as a choreographer was launched in the war, when de Valois needed someone to fill the gap left when Ashton was called up. He also went on to create successful new works for the Australian Ballet.

Helpmann left the Sadler's Wells Ballet and concentrated on acting, returning occasionally as a guest to join Ashton in their unsurpassable double act as the Ugly Sisters in 'Cinderella'. He was for years a director of the Australian Ballet.


Lucette Aldous


Aldous was actually born in New Zealand, in 1938, but her family moved to Australia four months later and it was there she had her early training, principally at the Francis Scully School in Sydney. She came to London on a scholarship and spent two years at the Royal Ballet school, but was turned down by both RB companies and by Festival Ballet because of her lack of height. After Rambert accepted her, she first came to notice in the Dawn solo in Coppélia, where suddenly her confidence and musicality seemed more important than her lack of inches. She went on to dance Swanilda, Giselle, and Sylphide, her Kitri was 'like rockets on a starry night', said Dance & Dancers Magazine.


After six years with Rambert, Aldous joined Festival Ballet. She stayed only 3 years before tiring of the constant round of Nutcrackers and leaving for the Royal Ballet touring company, joining as a principal. Although she danced the big classics, she was perhaps most successful in the Ashton repertoire, especially The Dream (she was Nureyev's partner at his debut) and La Fille mal Gardée.

Aldous eventually married another Australian dancer, Alan Alder, and in 1971 she returned to her adopted homeland as a star of the Australian Ballet. Nureyev mounted his own production of Don Quixote for the company and chose her to dance with him as Kitri.


Garth Welch

One of Australia’s finest classical dancers and former premier danseur with the Australian Ballet, Welch has performed throughout the world and partnered such notables as Dame Margot Fonteyn. His remarkable career has spanned much of the early and formative period of the Australian Ballet and the last phase of the Borovansky Ballet. Through these two companies, Welch and Marilyn Jones became an Australian legend in ballet partnership. Before the Australian Ballet began, they went to Europe and joined the Marquis de Cuevas Ballet Company. They married in 1963, had two sons, and subsequently divorced, continuing to dance together onstage and remaining friends. Welch went on to act as Dean for the Victorian College of the Arts, and made a comeback dancing with Graeme Murphy’s Sydney Dance Company.

The Australian Ballet, 25 years – A Pictorial Souvenir from the Australian Women’s Weekly, 1987


Marilyn Jones

Jones, from Newcastle, NSW, started her international career when she was only 16, when she won the 1955 Australian Women’s Weekly scholarship to study at the Royal Ballet School. Within 12 months she was touring the USA, England and Europe. As Prima Ballerina with the Australian Ballet she became a widely acclaimed artist and a household name. She was appointed Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet in 1979. During this time the company presented three specially commissioned works – Anna Karenina, The Three Musketeers and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The company toured Greece, Israel and Lebanon. In 1982 Marilyn resigned to spend time with her two sons Stanton and Damien, now both prominent figures with the AB.  

The Australian Ballet, 25 years – A Pictorial Souvenir from the Australian Women’s Weekly, 1987                            


These days, the up-and-coming legends include: Steven Heathcote, Nicole Rhodes, Darcey Bussell, Deborah Bull, Thomas Edur and Agnes Oaks, Sylvie Guillem, Irek Mukhamedov, Tamara Rojo, Miyako Yoshida, and Igor Zelensky. Look them up on the Internet!


Other Classical dancers you may want to look up:

Early period: Fanny Ellsler, Marie Salle, Carlotta Grisi, Jules Perrot, Enrico Cecchetti

Ballets Russes: Michel Fokine, Tamara Toumanova, Bronislava Nijinska, Tamara Karsavina, Leonide Massine,

British: Pamela May, Briony Brind, Anton Dolin, David Wall, Merle Park, Moira Shearer, Michael Somes, Lynne Syemour, Christopher Gable

European: Carla Fracci, Alessandra Ferri, Galina Ulanova, Natalia Makarova, Ghislaine Thesmar, Martine Van Hamel, Alexander Godunov, Patrick Dupond

American: Maria Tallchief, Gelsey Kirkland, Erik Bruhn, Cynthia Gregory, Patricia McBride

Australian: Alan Alder, Kelvin Coe, Marilyn Rowe, David Ashmole, Lisa Pavane, Greg Horsman, David McAllister, Justine Summers


Links to worldwide Classical Ballet companies can be found at: