top 10 classical ballets

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Top 10 Classical Ballets

Whether you just started ballet or especially if you’ve been in the dance world for years, it’s important that you experience a full ballet performance.

When I first started teaching, I found myself mentioning well-known characters or movements from the ballet classics. Funnily, I was surprised to come across my students’ blank gaze. You see, mistakenly, I assumed that if someone loves ballet, it must be because they’ve witnessed a ballet performance. 

So, I asked my students whether they’ve ever seen a ballet. I was shocked to find that most of them hadn’t. You see, starting ballet lessons without even knowing what a complete ballet performance looks like is counter-intuitive. It’s like starting singing lessons without ever having listened to a song before. It’s like creating a garden without ever having seen a flower before. 

One lesson I’ve learned from those early experiences in teaching is to never make assumptions about people’s pasts even if something feels totally obvious. I’m not mad at myself, I was very young and that lesson has served me very well inside and outside the ballet studio.  

However, I will tell you that if you’re taking ballet lessons, you need to spend some time consuming the art that you’re learning. If you haven’t already, or you don’t know where to start, no worries! I’ve got you covered.

Maybe, you have watched ballet before, but you’d like to explore more. In this article, I’ll guide you through my top ten classical ballet performances that every dancer human being should see in their life.

The Top 10 classical ballets everyone should see

🦢 Swan Lake

Tchaikovsky’s timeless masterpiece, Swan Lake, will bewitch you with its hauntingly beautiful story of love, betrayal, and transformation. It tells the story of Prince Siegfried, who loves the cursed princess Odette. Mistakenly pledging his love to Odile, the daughter of the sorcerer Rothbart, leads to heartbreak. In the end, Siegfried and Odette confront and overcome Rothbart’s forces, with their fate varying in different versions. The ballet is a timeless tale of love, magic, and the triumph of good over evil.

swan lake ballet

Notably, the ballet features the unique dual role of Odette and Odile, both portrayed by the same ballerina. Tchaikovsky’s iconic score, celebrated choreography, and the incorporation of expressive movements and a corps de ballet of swan maidens contribute to the ballet’s enduring appeal. “Swan Lake” is a masterpiece showcasing technical skill, emotional depth, and the seamless integration of music and dance.

🎀 Coppélia

Coppélia is a charming ballet that tells the story of a young couple, Swanilda and Franz, in a quaint European village. The tale unfolds when Franz becomes infatuated with Coppélia, a beautiful girl sitting on the balcony of Dr. Coppélius’ workshop. However, Swanilda discovers that Coppélia is actually a life-sized doll.

The ballet, with a delightful score by Léo Delibes, is known for its lighthearted and comedic elements. Coppélia features character dances, expressive pantomime, and a sense of playfulness that sets it apart from other classical ballets.

What makes Coppélia unique is the blend of classical technique with a whimsical narrative. The ballet’s second act takes place in Dr. Coppélius’ workshop, where Swanilda pretends to be Coppélia to save Franz. This act is filled with intricate and humorous character dances, showcasing the dancers’ versatility.

🎄 The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker is a beloved ballet that unfolds the magical Christmas Eve journey of a young girl named Clara. After receiving a nutcracker doll as a gift, Clara dreams of a fantastical adventure where the nutcracker comes to life. Together, they face the Mouse King and travel to the enchanting Land of Sweets.

the nutcracker ballet

The ballet is known for its iconic score by Tchaikovsky, featuring timeless pieces like ‘the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. The Nutcracker is a celebration of the holiday spirit, filled with whimsical characters, dazzling costumes, and captivating choreography.

What sets The Nutcracker apart is its annual tradition of being performed during the holiday season. As a result, it is a cherished part of many families’ festive celebrations. The ballet’s enduring popularity lies in its magical storytelling, vibrant characters, and joyous atmosphere it brings.

👸🏻 Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty is a grand and opulent ballet that retells the classic fairy tale of a princess cursed to sleep for a hundred years. The ballet, with music composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, features lavish costumes, intricate choreography, and a captivating storyline.

The ballet unfolds with the christening of Princess Aurora. The wicked fairy Carabosse has cursed her to die on her sixteenth birthday. However, the Lilac Fairy intervenes, modifying the curse. Instead, Aurora will fall into a deep sleep, only to be awakened by true love’s kiss.

What distinguishes Sleeping Beauty is its opulence and the grandeur of its court scenes, as well as the intricate variations and pas de deux. The ballet’s ‘Rose Adagio’ is particularly famous for the technical skill it demands from the lead ballerina.

With its fairy-tale setting, stunning choreography, and Tchaikovsky’s iconic score, Sleeping Beauty remains a pinnacle of classical ballet. Arguably, it captivates the audiences for its beauty, grace, and enchanting storytelling.

👻 Giselle

This is a classic ballet that tells the tragic love story of a peasant girl named Giselle. She falls in love with a nobleman named Albrecht, who disguises himself as a fellow villager. When Giselle discovers his true identity and the fact that he is engaged to another, the heartbroken Giselle dies of a broken heart.

The ballet takes a supernatural turn in the second act when Giselle becomes one of the Wilis, vengeful spirits of betrayed maidens. Albrecht, mourning at Giselle’s grave, is at the mercy of the Wilis’ Queen, Myrtha. Giselle’s love, however, protects him from their deadly powers.

giselle ballet

What distinguishes “Giselle” is its emotional depth, dramatic choreography, and the iconic “mad scene” in the first act, where Giselle’s world shatters upon discovering Albrecht’s betrayal. The ballet’s enduring appeal lies in its poignant exploration of love, betrayal, forgiveness, and the supernatural.

🇮🇳 La Bayadère

La Bayadère is a classical ballet that unfolds in an exotic and romanticised setting. It’s telling the tragic love story of the temple dancer Nikiya, the warrior Solor, and the manipulative High Brahmin. Set in India, the ballet features a rich tapestry of cultural elements, opulent costumes, and a mesmerising score composed by Ludwig Minkus.

So, the narrative follows the love between Nikiya and Solor, which faces challenges. This is due to the interference of the High Brahmin and the conniving Rajah’s daughter, Gamzatti. The ballet is known for its iconic scenes, including the ‘Kingdom of the Shades’. There, a long line of ghostly, white-clad dancers performs an ethereal and demanding sequence.

What sets La Bayadère apart is its exotic and evocative atmosphere, as well as its incorporation of classical ballet with elements of Eastern dance. The ballet showcases intricate choreography, dramatic storytelling, and showcases the technical abilities of the dancers. Particularly this is visible in the demanding variations and ensemble sections, all intertwined in its cultural richness.

❤️‍🩹 Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare’s tragic love story comes to life in Prokofiev’s stunning ballet adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. It is a timeless ballet that brings to life the tragic love story of Shakespeare’s iconic characters. The ballet follows the fateful romance between the young lovers, Romeo and Juliet, members of feuding families in Verona.

The ballet features Sergei Prokofiev’s evocative score, capturing the passion and tension of the story. The choreography, often associated with legendary productions by choreographers like Kenneth MacMillan, beautifully conveys the emotional intensity of the characters.

romeo and juliet ballet


What makes “Romeo and Juliet” stand out is its powerful portrayal of love, conflict, and fate. The ballet’s duets, such as the famous balcony scene, showcase the chemistry between the lead characters. The tragic ending, with the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, underscores the theme of love transcending societal divides.

With its captivating narrative, emotional depth, and expressive choreography, “Romeo and Juliet” resonates with audiences for its timeless exploration of love and tragedy.

👠 Cinderella

Cinderella is a beloved ballet that brings to life the timeless fairy tale of a young girl overcoming adversity to find love and happiness. With music by Sergei Prokofiev and choreography by various artists, the ballet follows the story of Cinderella, mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters, who is magically transformed to attend the royal ball.

The ballet showcases the enchanting moments of Cinderella’s transformation, her arrival at the ball, and the magical midnight spell. The central theme revolves around the universal concept of love transcending social barriers, as Cinderella captures the heart of Prince Charming.

What distinguishes “Cinderella” is its combination of humour, romance, and the magical elements that bring the fairy tale to life on stage. The choreography often includes intricate pas de deux and ensemble dances, highlighting the technical skill of the dancers while conveying the emotional depth of the characters.

With its heartwarming narrative, elegant choreography, and Prokofiev’s melodic score, “Cinderella” remains a cherished and accessible ballet for audiences of all ages.

🪭 Don Quixote

Don Quixote is a lively and colourful ballet inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ novel. The ballet primarily focuses on the adventures of the eccentric nobleman Don Quixote and his loyal squire, Sancho Panza. The main plot centres around the romance between the spirited Kitri and the love-struck Basilio.

don quixote ballet

The ballet is known for its vibrant Spanish setting, exuberant choreography, and a lively score, often attributed to Ludwig Minkus. “Don Quixote” showcases dazzling solo and ensemble dances, incorporating elements of classical ballet and Spanish folk dance.

What distinguishes Don Quixote is its festive and celebratory atmosphere. The ballet’s divertissements, including the famous ‘Don Quixote Pas de Deux’, highlight the technical prowess of the dancers and their ability to convey humour and romance.

🔥🦜 The Firebird

The Firebird is a ballet that weaves a magical tale of folklore and fantasy. Composed by Igor Stravinsky, this ballet follows the story of Prince Ivan as he encounters the mythical Firebird, a creature with magical feathers. The ballet is celebrated for its enchanting score and the captivating choreography by Michel Fokine.


In the narrative, Prince Ivan captures the Firebird but eventually spares her life. In gratitude, the Firebird gives him one of her magical feathers, which later helps him navigate a series of challenges, including facing the evil sorcerer Kastchei. The ballet features a triumphant and exhilarating conclusion as Prince Ivan defeats Kastchei with the Firebird’s assistance.

the firebird ballet

What makes The Firebird distinctive is its mystical and otherworldly atmosphere, enhanced by Stravinsky’s evocative music. The ballet’s choreography incorporates elements of Russian folk dance, showcasing dynamic movements and the expressive storytelling characteristic of early 20th-century ballet. 

The Firebird stands as a significant and innovative work in the ballet repertoire, demonstrating the fusion of music and dance to create a magical and immersive experience.

There you have it, my lovely dancers—a delightful selection of ballet shows that will transport you to worlds of magic, emotion, and artistry. These performances showcase the immense talent, dedication, and beauty that ballet brings to life. 

Why it's important to watch classical ballet performances

Watching ballet performances, not only is a very pleasant experience, but it can truly transform your own performance and I’ll explain why:

  1. You can witness ballet technique at a very high level, which can make you notice details about your own technique.
  2. Each ballet performance has its own style. You can learn how the same steps can be translated in various ways.
  3. Every ballet step you learn is training you for a more complete step or combination of steps that can be shown on stage. So, by witnessing a full performance, you can see the end result of what you spend your time learning.
  4. It’s very inspiring and motivating for your own practice.

If you’re new to ballet or you haven’t started yet but you’re thinking about it, read the article Learning Ballet as an Adult’ for the best advice for a smooth start. 

👉🏼 So, wonderful dancer, which performance have you seen and which are you going to see next? Share in the comments below. ⬇️

Picture of Olia Tsopela - George

Olia Tsopela - George

Olia, a dance educator since 2012, has brought her love for ballet to both children and adults. With a Diploma in Dance Education and a Master's degree in Dance, she combines her teaching expertise with a wealth of knowledge. Since 2020, she exclusively and wholeheartedly serves the adult ballet community.

P.S.: If you enjoyed my ballet insights in this blog, and you’d like to say “thank you” by buying me a cup of coffee, you can do so below.

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I am the science-focused ballet educator for adults.

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