The role of the male in a ballet both anchors and elevates the performance. The frothy confections of the corps de ballet and the angsty or angelic perfection of the female soloists and principal dancers need the grounding of dynamic male choreography for balance. Throughout history, the greatest men performing the art of ballet have forged an unforgettable legacy that continues today.
The name Vaslav Nijinsky is synonymous with ballet. Nijinsky could fly; his long aerial leaps elicited frenzied ovations and made him one of the most celebrated dancers of all time. His partnerings with legendary ballerinas, such as Anna Pavlova, were intense, emotional journeys that showcased his acting ability and, occasionally, his work en pointe - atypical in the extreme for a male dancer. Nijinksy, born in Kiev, Russia, lived from 1890 to 1950, but he retired from the stage in 1919 when he was 29, apparently after suffering a nervous breakdown. Very little footage of him dancing exists although he is considered without peer in the world of danseurs.
Rudolf Nuryev, who was born in Russia in 1938, was a soloist for the Kirov Ballet by the time he was twenty. He was a spectacular dancer, more performer than perfectionist, but working at a caliber few ever approached. Nuryev's partnering with Dame Margot Fonteyn in Romeo and Juliet is a high-watermark in the history of ballet. The two mesmerized audiences all over the globe. As a soloist, Nuryev owned the stage; off-stage his life was no less colorful. He sought asylum in Paris in 1961 to escape censure in the Soviet Union and dazzled western audiences until his untimely death from AIDS in 1993.
Mikhail Baryshnikov challenges both Nijinsky and Nuryev for the honorific of greatest male dancer in the history of ballet. "Misha" was born in Latvia in 1948 and joined the Kirov in 1967. He defected from the Soviet Union in 1974 when he was 26, seeking political asylum in Toronto while on a tour. Eventually, he became a U.S. citizen and principal dancer with American Ballet Theater where his virtuosity and audience appeal ensured standing room only crowds. Baryshnikov's gorgeous leaps and powerful presence onstage won him lasting fame, embellished further by his Oscar nomination for his role in the film The Turning Point and his TV portrayal of Carrie Bradshaw's Russian lover in Sex and the City. He continues to dance, innovate contemporary styles, run dance projects and companies, and choreograph, and he is lionized in the ballet world and beyond.
Alexander Godunov is the last of the fabled ballet dancers to be known solely by his last name. Godunov was a bull of a muscular dancer with long blond hair whose barrels and other showy moves were heart-stopping and eagerly anticipated at every performance. "Sasha" was born in Russia in 1949 and defected at age 30 while on a 1979 Bolshoi Ballet tour in New York City. Godunov danced in the U.S. as a principal with American Ballet Theater for several years under the directorship of his friend Baryshnikov. After the two had a falling out, Godunov had an acclaimed career as a guest soloist with prominent ballet companies. He made several notable film appearances in Witness, Diehard, and The Money Pit. Alexander Godunov died from complications of alcoholism in Los Angeles in 1995.
Peter Martins was a boyish-looking Danish dancer when he joined the Royal Danish Ballet at age nineteen in 1965. He quickly rose to soloist stature, became an international sensation, and was invited to guest at the New York City Ballet (NYCB) by George Balanchine. Ultimately, Martins joined NYCB as a principal dancer, personally mentored by Balanchine. He was an electrifying dancer and simultaneously filled the role of co-Ballet Master with Balanchine, retiring from the stage to focus on running the company with Jerome Robbins after Balanchine's death. Martins was nominated for a Tony as a choreographer and has received numerous prestigious awards for his work. He is currently Ballet-Master-in-Chief with NYCB.
Carlos Acosta was born in Cuba in 1973 and danced as a principal with the Royal Ballet for 17 years. He retired in 2015 to the dismay of the wild fans who treasured his dramatic and compelling performances. Acosta's sharp and powerful moves owned the stage, and he has been compared to Baryshnikov and Nuryev. He is a charismatic dancer. His face is as mobile as his body, and he inhabits his roles almost effortlessly, a complete immersion in the music and the character. Acosta was the eleventh child in an impoverished family and was sent to the Cuban National Ballet School for the discipline, to contain his exuberant energy, and for the free lunch. He distinguished himself sufficiently to attract guest invitations abroad, including repeat guest roles with the Houston Ballet. Acosta won admission to the National Ballet of Cuba in 1992 under famed artistic director Alicia Alonso and became a principal in the company by 1994. Today, he works as an independent guest artist for major ballet companies and writes and choreographs his own shows.
Pennsylvania-born Ethan Stiefel was recruited to study at the School of American Ballet and joined the corps of NYCB at age 16 in 1989. He was made a principal dancer with NYCB in 1995 and was lured away to be a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre (ABT) two years later. Stiefel danced the classic repertoire to widespread acclaim as a gifted and technically impressive artist; he was considered among the best in the world during the height of his career. He retired from the stage in 2012 with a farewell tour-de-force in the demanding Le Corsair during ABT's season at the Metropolitan Opera and spent three years as artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet before returning to New York to choreograph for stage and television.
Marcelo Gomes, born in Manaus, Brazil in 1979, is a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, which he joined in 1997. Gomes performs all over the world; he is an idolized and sought after guest soloist. The much-decorated danseur partners with internationally acclaimed prima ballerinas to sold out houses. He debuted with the Bolshoi Ballet in 2013 in Onegin with Diana Vishneva, and he partnered Alessandra Ferri on her international farewell tour. Gomes marries exquisite form with bold style and brings his crowd-pleasing moves to his work both as a dancer and as a choreographer. The 1996 winner of the prestigious Prix de Lausanne Prize now serves on the jury of the competition, where he revisited his own youthful audition.
Enrico Cecchetti was, literally, born backstage in a theater in Rome in 1850. He studied with the finest teachers of his day and began dancing professionally in his teens, making his La Scala debut at age twenty. He was a sensation, a gifted mime, considered the finest male dancer of his time. Cecchetti danced with the Mariinsky Ballet and taught in the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg and in Poland, became exclusive coach to Anna Pavlova, toured the world with the Diaghilev Ballets Russes and settled in London as a renowned teacher of the sought after method he developed. He ended his long career teaching at La Scala at Arturo Toscanini's invitation. Cecchetti died in 1926 at age 76, but the Cecchetti Method influenced Pavlova, Nijinsky, Dame Alicia Markova, George Balanchine, and many others and is still taught today.
Sergei Polunin is ballet's bad boy. In 2012 at the age of 22, Polunin walked out of a rehearsal of the Royal Ballet in London, where he was a principal dancer, and threatened to quit dance. His departure sent the ballet world into a frenzy. Polunin is a natural talent, stunning in his ability and potential, and still developing as an artist. The Ukrainian was born in 1989, trained as a child gymnast, then switched to dance. By thirteen, he was studying at the British Royal Ballet School, and he became the company's youngest-ever principal in 2010. But he chafed at the discipline and the relative obscurity of ballet as an art form in the West. He was a wild child off stage, covering his arms and torso in tattoos, partying to all hours, and ultimately marching out the door. Today, he's found a stable home as a principal in the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre and the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre. His mentor and director arranges his obligations to permit frequent guest appearances and the mastery of challenging new roles. Polunin is a crowd magnet who dances like a dream on-fire: he soars and hovers in the air; his every emotion is expressed in the slightest gesture; he is an effortless and breathtaking athlete. If Sergei Polunin stays focused on his art and talent, he seems destined to join the greats in the history of ballet.
Tights and Tiger Balm
The career of danseur is accessible to any boy who is in love with movement and dreams of flying across a stage. Classes for young boys are generally offered separately at dance studios, focused on both discipline and athleticism. As a young dancer matures, most studios are generous with scholarships to promising boys who show the physique, the talent and the determination to become serious ballet dancers.