A long line of famous dancers have made ballet what it is today with their contributions to the arts. Some of these dancers are greatly remembered, while others' names have faded into oblivion despite their considerable contributions to the world of ballet. Hailing from around the world, these dancers have brought grace, beauty, and strength to the world's stages.
The Most Famous Ballet Dancers
Many famous ballerinas and dancers got their early training in Russia, but other centers of ballet include Paris, London, and New York City. In addition to these spots, some famous ballet dancers have popped up in surprising places.
One of the most famous Russian ballet dancers (born in Latvia while it was part of the Soviet Union), Baryshnikov's dancing is complex and captivating. Heralded as one of the 20th century's greatest ballet dancers, he started dancing in Leningrad, but later moved to Canada in 1974. From Canada, he made his final move to the United States, where he began working with the American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet as both a dancer and choreographer.
He has also enjoyed great success as an actor on both stage and screen, as well as an influential modern dancer, consistently producing new works. He founded the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City in 2005.
One of the most cherished of ballet dancers, Pavlova was a Russian ballerina in the early part of the 20th century. Credited as the first dancer to partake in a world tour, she is widely known for her Dying Swan dance, which is still admired today. Originally rejected from the Imperial Ballet School because she was too small, her imprint upon the world of ballet is virtually untouchable within the realm of ballerinas.
Besides her beautiful dancing, she revamped the pointe shoe, due to her extremely curved arches. Some accused her of "cheating" the craft; however, anyone who saw Pavlova dance knew that she was simply magical. She died of medical complications in hospital just before her 50th birthday. In addition to being one of the most famous female dancers in history, she was also a generous philanthropist.
Born in Ecuador, Ashton attended an Anna Pavlova performance at the age of 13. The choreography captured him so powerfully, he was convinced from that day forward that he too would grow up to be an influential dancer. He moved to England in 1919, where he became a student at Dover College, which prepared him for his first choreography attempt in 1926. It was a wild success, and he went on to become a resident choreographer of The Royal Ballet during the 1930s.
While Ashton's name is not nearly as recognizable as Pavlova's or Baryshnikov's, he is responsible for the timeless ballet adaptation of Cinderella, and was known to dance the role of one of the ugly stepsisters on more than one occasion. Frederick Ashton was knighted for his tremendous contributions, and he passed away in his England home in 1988.
Born in Surrey, England in 1919, Margot Fonteyn joined Sadler's Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet) during the 1930s. By her 20th birthday, she was the star of the company, inspiring Frederick Ashton to choreograph roles for her and stealing the hearts of every audience who saw her.
Most ballet fans know her as the female half of the Nureyev-Fonteyn pair, famous for their performances of Romeo and Juliet, among other romantic pairings. While Fonteyn was almost 40 years old when they danced together for the first time, and, therefore, should have been on the brink of retirement, the perfect match that was Nureyev-Fonteyn inspired her to keep dancing. The partnership was a fiery one, with enough grace and beauty to fill the theater up to the very last row of the audience. Dame Margot Fonteyn passed away in 1991 in her adopted country, Panama.
Born 18 years after Margot Fonteyn, Nureyev was just starting his world career, having defected from Russia, when he danced with Fonteyn for the first time in Giselle. This partnership rocketed Nureyev to worldwide fame. His strength and charisma made his dancing unforgettable; while his technique was irreproachable, it was the fire he infused this technique with that audiences around the globe were infatuated with. Nureyev passed away at the young age of 54, just one year after Fonteyn's death.
A celebrated dancer, choreographer and writer, this multitalented Danish ballet star began his career with the Royal Danish Ballet when he was only nine years old. He became a soloist in the company at age 20, and was also featured in a 1952 MGM film. Heralded for his impressive technique and artistic flair, he wrote a book entitled Beyond Technique, and went on to direct the Swedish Opera Ballet and then the National Ballet of Canada until his death in 1986.
Long before the rest of these famous ballet figures graced the stage, Marie Camargo's name was an important one in the dance world. Growing up poor with a violinist and dance-master Belgian father, young Camargo performed as "premiere danseuse," or "featured dancer," at the Paris Opera Ballet. She was able to perform footwork so complex that she was the envy of several fellow dancers, and is given credit for both the creation of shortened ballet skirts (originally hemmed upward to showcase her impressive technique).
As a performer in 78 ballets and operas through the years, she later was the inspiration of a ballet titled after her surname. While it has not been performed since 1917, it was highly celebrated during its heyday. Marie Camargo died in 1770, but her name is an important one in the history of ballet.
Grace and Strength
While all of these famous dancers had their own signatures on the stage, what made them famous was a unique mix of graceful movement paired with the strength to carry out gravity-defying steps. Looking at both the men and women whose names are forever etched into the history of ballet, you'll see a unique mix of power and grace in all of them.