Ballet Styles

Ballet spans over centuries and continents. It has years of experimentation and artistic inspiration to establish its unique methods, techniques and styles. Ballet started with court ballet before evolving into opera-ballet and the comédie-ballet, and later the classical ballet which is widely spread today.

In this article, we will discuss the different styles created, mainly the 4 important ones: Classical Ballet, Romantic Ballet, Neoclassical Ballet and Contemporary/Modern Ballet.


Classical Ballet

2019 Elevate_IBGPS_2Classical ballet is the foundation from which nearly all dance genres have developed. It requires strong technique, athleticism and grace. It is the oldest and structured according to the framework established in the 19th century based on both traditional vocabulary and technique. Its main characteristics are the orchestrated music, story-driven, balance and symmetry, etherealness, elaborated costumes and sets narrated in formal mime gestures. Pointe work, poise, formation in dancers, long lines, turnout and graceful expressions are emphasised.

One of the most well-known classical ballet production is Swan Lake, but it was actually a bit too avant-garde for the audiences back when it premiered in 1877. Swan Lake’s dancers, orchestra and decor were not well received. Audiences disliked Tchaikovsky’s now-classic score citing it too complex. Critics and audiences warmed up to the ballet after the 1895 revival of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov‘s Swan Lake at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Audiences were particularly charmed by Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani (1868 – 1930), who played Odette between 1894 – 1895. She turned 32 fouettés in the final scene of the ballet, emphasising strength and technique. She first performed the 32 fouettés en tournant in the coda of the Grand Pas d’action of the ballet Cinderella, and was famous as the first ballerina to execute that.


Romantic Ballet

2019 Elevate_HKCCDC_12Romantic ballet was an artistic movement of classical ballet and extremely important because it was the first time female dancers went on pointe. Prior to the romantic period, it was uncommon to have a female heroine. The romantic era was marked by the emergence of pointe work, female dancers’ predominance and longer soft tutus that attempt to exemplify softness and delicate aura. It emphasised intense drama and emotion as a source of aesthetic story-telling. The plots of many romantic ballets revolved around sylphs or mythological creature or spirit and ghosts who enslaved the hearts and senses of mortal men. This style was based on the conflicts between both good and evil, beauty and ugliness, fantasy and spirit.

Three notable romantic ballet are La Sylphide 1832, Giselle 1841 and Coppélia 1870.

Marie Taglioni (1804 – 1884), who first danced in La Sylphide and her choreographer and teacher father, Filippo Taglioni (1777 – 1871) were considered the pioneer in romantic ballet. Her sylph ethereal qualities, grace, and dramatic capabilities made her the famous ballerina of the era. For the first time, supernatural storyline performed on stage. The concept was about an unfortunate hero, forever chasing a supernatural force and ultimately face a tragic destiny.

Nine years later Giselle, a romantic-ballet-pantomime was staged. Carlotta Grisi (1819 – 1899) was known for her ability to perform as both the sensual and spiritual dancer when she debuted as Giselle. A dual role of the sensual and playful peasant girl in the first act and the ghostly spiritual in the second act.

Arthur Saint-Léon’s (1821 – 1870) Coppélia premiered in May 1870. It was considered to be the last work of the romantic ballet. It is a comic romantic ballet featuring a young protagonist, dancing dolls, and magic, but had a dark history with the ballet’s original run interrupted by the Franco-Prussian war and a terrible siege in Paris. The ballet was only performed 12 times before the theatre was shut down and later used as a storage facility during the siege.


Neoclassical Ballet

Elevate_neoclassicalNeoclassical ballet emerged in the 1920s and evolved throughout the 20th century. Artists of many disciplines began to rebel and distance themselves against the overly dramatised style of the romantic ballet. As a result, dance returned to a more simplistic style like the original classical ballet except bolder, stronger, more athletic and free of distractions. Neoclassical ballets uses traditional classical ballet vocabulary but far less rigid and are sophisticated, sleek, modern, and clean because of the focus on dance itself as opposed to the marriage of sets, costumes, makeup and dance. It is usually abstract with non-narrative and no clear plot, using simple costumes or sets. The work are usually increased in speed, energy and attack, asymmetry with an off-balance feel. Dancers’ movement are the main artistic medium which is the hallmark of neoclassical ballet; meaning the revival or adaptation of the classical style. It is aimed for the purity of expression and sophisticated movement by eliminating distracting theatrical elements.

George Balanchine (1904 – 1983), a graduate of the Imperial Ballet School in Russia, was considered to represent the neoclassical style and is well-known for his modern-yet-classical clean aesthetic.  Balanchine used flexed hands and turned-in legs, off-centered positions and non-classical costumes such as leotards and tunics instead of tutus, to distance himself from the classical and romantic ballet traditions. He built upon the traditional classical ballet vocabulary by extending lines and positions, playing with speed and tempo, freedom of movement and new positions outside of the ballet vocabulary. The staging is more modern and complex.

Balanchine found a home for his neoclassical style in the United States, when Lincoln Kirstein (1907 – 1996) brought him to New York in 1933 to start a ballet company. He started a school, where he trained dancers in his technique and the School of American Ballet was founded in 1934. He invented the Balanchine technique, which is now widely used in the United States. A topic we will discuss in another article. Many of his most famous neoclassical ballets were choreographed in both his school and his own company the New York City Ballet, which was founded in 1948 and still exists today. Balanchine’s first foray into the neoclassical style was Apollon Musegete, choreographed in 1928 for the Ballets Russes. Unlike many of his later works, this ballet tells a story which indicates that Balanchine had not yet completely broken free from the romantic tradition. This ballet first premiered with large sets, costumes and props. Balanchine continually revised it as his style evolved and renamed the ballet simply Apollo. He produced more plotless, musically driven ballets such as The Prodigal Son 1929, Serenade (1934), Concerto Barocco (1941), Symphony in C (1947), Agon (1957) and Jewels (1967).


Contemporary/Modern Ballet

Elevate_modernballetContemporary ballet is influenced by classical ballet, modern and sometimes jazz. It takes inspiration from classical technique, use of pointe work and expanded with a greater range of movement that are not found in the strict discipline of old school teachings. Many of its concepts come from ideas and innovations of modern, including floor work, turned-in legs and greater range of movement and body line.

There is no set rules for contemporary ballet. It can be performed on pointe, barefoot or soft shoes. Contemporary ballets, unlike neoclassical ballet, may include mime and acting, and the same versatile approach goes for the music, setting, and costumes. It does not require certain standards to be met or conform to any limits. Classical ballet requires classical music, tutus, pointe shoes and scenery but contemporary ballet uses different types of costumes, ranging from traditional to more modern tunic type versions and music can range from traditional to new popular music.

Experimentation and creativity are the two main points, driving the audience to think upon the aesthetic lines the body conveys and the power of movement. According to Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, classical ballet was very much directed toward the audience. Neoclassical started to change shapes but was still toward the audience. With contemporary ballet, the audience is asked to look at what is happening between the dancers. Another notable choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon said the style also means any ballet choreography that is made today.

Today someone training as a dancer will be expected to perform the formal classical work, lyrical and free neoclassical work, technical modern and the undefined contemporary work. There are many contemporary ballet companies and choreographers all over the world. Notable companies include Nederlands Dans Theater, Rambert Dance Company, Hubbard Street Dance ChicagoComplexions Contemporary Ballet and Dutch National Ballet. Likewise, many traditionally classical companies now regularly perform contemporary works. It is very common for ballet companies to have an official choreographer in residence to create new contemporary work.


References & Further Readings

History of Ballet – How did Ballet start?

Italy – Origin:

Ballet comes from the Italian word “ballare,” which means “to dance”.

Elevate DA Appreciation Series - Ballet History - Renaissance Court Dance
Renaissance Court Dance. Sourced from

It began in 15th – 16th century in Italy during the Renaissance period as a court dance, in grand estates and palaces. It was the aristocratic money that dictated the ideas, literature and music used as ballet was for the aristocrats’ entertainment and political propaganda, and predominantly performed by men. Tutus, ballet slippers and pointe work were not yet used. The choreography was adapted from court dance steps.

Ballet was participatory with the audience joining the dance at the end. Steps composed were small hops, slides, curtsies, promenades, and gentle turns as dancers wore sumptuous restrictive clothing such as heavy headdresses, masks, formal gowns and layered brocaded costuming to re-enact mythology which is heavy on gods and heroes. Ballets were first included in to the midst of an opera to allow the audience a moment of relief from the dramatic intensity.


France – Classical Ballet:

Ballet de Polonaise 1573
Ballet de Polonaise 1573. Sourced from

When an Italian aristocrat, Catherine de Medici (1519 – 1589) married the French King Henry II, she introduced early dance styles into court life in France and offered financial help. She commissioned the first formal ‘ballet de cour’ or court ballet, Ballet de Polonaise in 1573 to honour the Polish ambassadors who were visiting Paris upon the accession of Henry of Anjou to the throne of Poland. And later along with her compatriot, Balthasar de Beaujoyeulx commissioned Ballet Comique de la Reine 1581 which was the first court ballet that integrated poetry, dance, music and set design to convey a unified dramatic storyline.

In the late 17th century, terminology and vocabulary of ballet was then formalised and codified in French. French choreographer, dancer and composer Pierre Beauchamp codified the five positions of the feet and arms.

Famous ballet dancer and choreographer Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632 – 1687) often cast the King Louis XIV, a passionate dancer, in his ballets. Lully with Moliére, a French playwright created the comédie-ballet genre; a spoken play with intermission containing both music and dance. The first example was Les Fâcheux. Lully also created the tragédie en musique genre; French opera which was based on stories from Classical mythology or the Italian romantic epics, which covered nobility and grandness, and the stories may not necessarily have a tragic ending.

Elevate DA Appreciation Series - Ballet History - King Louis XIV 1653
King Louis XIV in Lully’s Ballet Royal de la Nuit 1653. Sourced from

King Louis XIV who performed many of the popular dances himself, established the Academie d’Opera in 1669. The forerunner of the Paris Opéra Ballet, which paved the way for ballet as a profession. Ballet soon started to develop from the courts to theatre-stage performance-focused art form, although was initially associated with opera. Gradually, professional dancers were hired. 

Before 1681, there were no women ballet dancers. Men danced the feminine roles. The first major woman dancer was Marie Anne de Cupis de Camargo (1710 – 1770), who danced 1726 – 1751 and was one of the first dancers to wear slippers instead of heeled shoes and also the first woman to execute the entrechat quatre.

The 18th century was a period when ballet became an independent dramatic art form on par with the opera. Previously, ballets were only performed in between the acts of an opera. Several choreographers developed ballet as a story-telling medium, mainly still with mythology but addition of nobles and princesses, peasants and romantic rendezvous. The technical standards of ballet advanced and central to this was the work of Frenchman Jean-Georges Noverre (1727 – 1810). He argued that ballet should be technical but also emotional with simple and understandable pantomime and, unified plots with supporting scenery and music. The birth of Classical Ballet.



Ballet then spread to other nations. The Royal Danish Ballet (1748) and the Russia’s Imperial Ballet (1738), now known as Mariinsky Ballet, also formerly known as Kirov Ballet were founded.

Elevate DA Appreciation Series - Ballet History - Jean-Baptiste_Lande
Jean-Baptiste_Lande, founder of the Russian Imperial Ballet. Sourced from

In Russia, ballet expanded widely as the state decided to make ballet an official art form with centralised planning and the shrewd use of resources. Teachers from France and Italy were brought in. At Russia’s Imperial Theatres and ballet schools, the Italian pantomime and traditional court ballet of Louis XIV’s reign were not only conserved, but nurtured and evolved further.

Ballet reached a high level in Russia partly because it was the most popular form of entertainment among the Russian aristocrats whereas opera was number one among the nobility in western Europe.

Russians of all social strata have also long been obsessed with dancing. Young Russians saw ballet as the quickest route to national and international glory, and the state strongly supported the development of promising dancers.


Change – Romantic Ballet:

Elevate Appreciation Series - Ballet History - Marie Taglioni as Flore in Charles Didelot 1831
Marie Taglioni as Flore in Charles Didelot 1831. Sourced from

The 19th century was a period of substantial social change. Ballet shifted from the aristocrats that had dominated earlier periods to the growing middle class. 

Romanticism or also known as the Romantic era, was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and a rejection of the Age of Enlightenment. The Industrial Revolution, about 1760 to between 1820 and 1840, was a period of development which saw massive changes to the way people lived and worked. It was a time when the goods manufacturing moved from small shops or homes to large factories. People moved from rural areas to big cities to work. The movement focused on art, science, reasons, literary, music and rationality. Cities were expanding with people leaving the countryside and scientific reasoning had taken over from the old religious belief and superstition.

Romantics tried to escape industrialism and turned to idealised imagination and nature. Young artist wanted the freedom to express in an unconstrained and individual way. They rejected the original classical ideas of order, balance and harmony; and turned to human themes of tragedy, love and loss as a source of inspiration.

Romantic Ballet was created, focused on sensuality and spirituality. Preliminary dancing on toes with only satin ballet slippers darned at the tips of the toes became popular at this time. The romantic tutu, a calf-length, full skirt made of tulle, was introduced. It was at this time, most creation was danced by female dancers, and male dancers were no longer an equal star. Technical proficiency rose, lighter costumes to portray elaborate and difficult movements, greater leaps to portray lightness, removal of masks and headdresses to allow expressive face, arms became softer and rounder to create delicate and elegant feel and forward tilt to create the sylphlike look.



During the latter half of the 19th century, especially after 1850, the popularity of ballet flourish in Russia and Denmark although it was beginning to wane in France.

Elevate DA Appreciation Series - Ballet History - Students-of-the-imperial-ballet-school-1891
Students of the Imperial Ballet School (St Petersburg) in Petipa’s Fairy Tale 1891. Sourced from

Masters such as August Bournonville (1805 – 1879), Enrico Cecchetti (1850 – 1928) and Marius Petipa (1818 – 1910) created great ballets in Russia. This made Russia the leading creative center of the dance world as ballet continued to evolve. When Frenchman Marius Petipa was appointed as the ballet master of the Mariinsky Theatre in 1871, he began to create some of the world’s most-loved ballets over four decades; The Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadere, and in collaboration with his deputy Lev Ivanov (1834 – 1901), they created Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. Mikhail Fokine (1880 – 1942), Vaslav Nijinsky (1889 – 1950), Léonide Massine (1896 – 1979), Bronislava Nijinska (1891 – 1972) and George Balanchine (1904 – 1983) were all the products of the Imperial Ballet School, and began their dance careers at the Mariinsky Theatre, as did Tamara Karsavina (1885 – 1978), Anna Pavlova (1881 – 1931), Adolph Bolm (1884 – 1951), Alexandra Danilova (1903 – 1997), Lydia Lopokova (1892 – 1981) and countless others.

In the 20th century, after the Russian Revolution 1905, many of Petipa’s choreographic notations were smuggled to the west and are still preserved and used to infuse modern ballet stagings.

Elevate DA Appreciation Series - Ballet History - Anna Pavlova
Anna Pavlova 1881–1931. Sourced from

In 1909, the Russian ballet moved to France, where the Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev (1872 – 1929) rooted in Paris and toured throughout Europe, the United States and South America. It was recognised as the most influential ballet company of the 20th century where it transformed the future of ballet in the world. The company which was softly premiered in Russia brought together collaborations between artists, composers, choreographers, dancers, and fashion designers, with familiar names such as Picasso, Stravinsky, Balanchine, Nijinsky, and Chanel, among many others. It looked at both Russian and Western traditions in the form of stories, movements, music and design and turned them into one unity. The company’s famous principal choreographer was the original Fokine while his student Nijinsky emerged as the most prominent principal dancer. 

The classical tutu, much shorter and stiffer than the romantic tutu, was introduced at this time to allow freedom of movement, reveal ballerina’s legs and show the difficulty of footwork and movements.

More new companies were formed worldwide including The Royal Ballet (1931), the San Francisco Ballet (1933), American Ballet Theatre (1939), the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (1939), the New York City Ballet (1948), the National Ballet of Canada (1951).


References & Further Readings:

Modern Theatre – What Is It? What We Do?

What is Modern Theatre?

Modern Theatre is a rhythmic dance style which originated in America before travelling to the rest of the world. It incorporates the style and technique of modern, contemporary, jazz, lyrical and musical theatre under one umbrella.

Modern is often seen on the stages of musical productions and is known for its theatrical qualities e.g. Bob Fosse or Martha Graham’s work. The style uses floor work, travelling steps, high kicks, elevated jumps, extended leaps, and strong turns which require strong technique, secure posture, stamina, flexibility, sense of musicality and various style. 

Modern is free form and a break-free from the strict classical ballet technique, with movements that origin from the core of the body, uses elements like contract and release, floor work, fall and recovery such as body drop, deep controlled movements, and improvisation.

Suitable for boys and girls age 5 and above.


  • Beginner Level (Primary for age 5-7) – Develop natural movement such as walking, running, jumping and skipping to encourage imaginative and rapid response, sense of line, coordinated movements and ability to express a feeling
  • Graded Level (Grade 1 – 6 for age 6+) – Develop technical accuracy with correct body placement, versatile range of movement, all-round strengths and abilities, sense of self-expression and creative improvisation
  • Vocational Level (Intermediate Foundation, Intermediate, Advanced 1 & Advanced 2 for age 12+) – Develop virtuosity in performance, awareness of audiences and self-expression, comprehensive technique in the styles of modern, jazz, lyrical and contemporary, as well as mature improvisation skills

International Examination Board:
– Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD), United Kingdom:

Established in 1904, the ISTD is a registered educational charity and membership association, and is one of the world’s leading dance examination boards with 12 faculties from ballet, modern, ballroom, dance sport and social dance. ISTD mission is to educate the public in the art of dancing in all its forms, to promote the knowledge of dance, to provide up-to-date techniques, and to maintain and improve teaching standards across the globe. The ISTD is always moving with the times to keep pace with the latest developments in dance. Currently, ISTD has more than 7,500 members in over 50 countries throughout the world and holds 250,000 examinations each year.

Sample of the syllabus at vocational level.

Classical Ballet classes for young children (age 5-9)

Our beginners Classical Ballet classes for young children age 5-9 incorporates the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) syllabus of Pre Primary and Primary. It delivers the core foundation of Classical Ballet and develop awareness of body parts, space, control, co-ordination, movement dynamics and being able to perform expressively to depict a story. Suitable for boys and girls.

Our experienced teachers conduct the classes with imaginative, fun and engaging approach. At the end of the course, students will attempt the exam and achieve the RAD certification.

Each class is structured as following:

  • Age group for Pre-Primary – 5 to 6 years old, Primary – 6 to 9 years old
  • Duration – 45 mins per class (once a week)
  • RAD Primary exam – students attend an additional coaching class for 6 months before the annual examination (twice a week)

Sample of the RAD Primary syllabus (ages 6-9) – Bend and Point

Taipei Dance Exchange – 24th – 29th Nov 2019

Some of our higher grades girls went to Taipei for a dance exchange from 24th – 29th November 2019. There, we participated in an intensive week of ballet focusing solely on the Vaganova ballet technique. We also spent an evening at a street dance school for open classes. The girls had a blast and fulfilling trip; attending ballet, conditioning, pointe, variations, contemporary, jazz funk and hip hop classes. Not forgetting, shopping and eating around the city.

At Elevate, we aim to organise at least one overseas immersion trip every year as part of our extension programme. More photos and video.

Singapore International Dance Challenge – 12th – 13th Sep 2019

The 2nd Singapore International Dance Challenge was held from 12 to 13 September 2019 at The Ground Theatre, Scape. More photos here.

Congratulations to all awardees..!

  • Champion – Open Age Group (Any Other Style)
  • 2nd runner up – Open Age Solo (Any Other Style) – Ang Shi Min
  • 3rd runner up – Open Age Solo (Any Other Style) – Tan Wei Lin, Cheryl
  • 4th runner up – Open Age Solo (Any Other Style) – Ang Jing Yan


Hong Kong Challenge Cup – 27th – 29th July 2019

10 senior girls participated in the Hong Kong Challenge Cup Dance Competition held on 27th – 29th July 2019 at Y Theatre, organised by the Inspired Dance Company Hong Kong. Many whom are above 20 years old and attempting their very first solo on stage. The senior girls also attempted their very first self-choreography for the dances. The group came back with 1 Silver, 2 Bronzes and 12 Certificates.

Well Done and Congratulations to all awardees! More photos here.