Isn’t it somehow weird that ballet is both the name of the dance as well as the performance? When you want to see ballet, you go the ballet. If you want to see tap dancing, you don’t go to the tap. If you want to see break dancing, you don’t go to the break. With origins that stretch back to the royal courts of Italy in the 15th century, even those of us who might not get excited by the prospect of an evening at the ballet need to acknowledge the sheer skill that’s involved. If the average person was to attempt to dance en pointe (which is the fancy name for when ballet dancers balance on the tips of their toes)… well, that person should get used to limping and only wearing comfortable, sensible shoes for a couple of months. To have its own professional ballet company can be a sign of prestige for a major city, just like a much-instagrammed monument – something else for people to brag about. But which cities have the most right to brag about the quality of ballet on offer in their neck of the woods? Some of these places might feel rather likely when you think of quality ballet, but some might be a little surprising.
- Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow
Who knew that a show put on for orphans would eventually lead to one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world? It was back in 1773 when a Moscow orphanage formed a small dance company in order to entertain both the residents and anyone else who might be interested. By 1776 the dance group had grown in acclaim and were employed by the royal family. Though popular, it wasn’t for more than a hundred years that the company truly became one of prestige, refining the classicism of ballet, arguably helping to give it the reputation it has today. The company has been based in the Bolshoi Theatre since it opened in 1824.
- Staatsballett Berlin
Germany is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, which is why it’s surprising to think that its capital city is heavily in debt. This debt affected numerous parts of the city, leading Berlin’s numerous ballet companies to amalgamate into one group or face extinction. Many of these companies had been around for centuries, although the current Staatsballett Berlin only came into being in 2004 after the merger. With a significant amount of money now freed up, the company had a greater ability to actually serve their purpose – putting on world class ballet. Their calendar hints at a more classical approach, similar in scope to the next ballet company on this list.
- The Australian Ballet in Melbourne
While Sydney is perhaps better known internationally, residents of Melbourne like to talk about the difference between Sydney and yogurt (in case you were wondering, the yogurt has culture). Melbourne is arguably the more culturally vibrant of the two cities, and it’s now home to the Australian Ballet. It’s a newer ballet company (their first performance was in 1962), although the majority of the company was formed from an earlier group that had been around since 1940. They’re a major ballet company without a dedicated performance space, and they have a reputation for bringing ballet to the masses, regularly touring Australia. Their most interesting performance is undoubtedly their annual open air season on Hamilton Island in the Great Barrier Reef. If you have ever doubted the athleticism of ballet, just watch these dancers perform in the savage Australian heat.
- Cuban National Ballet in Havana
The physicality of ballet might make it seem like the domain of the young, but this is not true in all parts of ballet. OK, so it might have changed by the time you’re reading this (since humans only get a certain number of years on this earth), but at the time of writing, the head of the Cuban National Ballet is Alicia Alonso. A renowned dancer, she gave her final performance in 1993… when she was 72 years old. Now in her mid 90s, she still runs the entire company in a way that is innovative and youthful. With a determined nod towards Cuban’s other styles of dance, she stages shows that make Havana one of the most electrifying cities on earth for ballet. It’s a shame that the company is no longer based in their former home – the astoundingly beautiful Gran Teatro de la Habana, but a walking tour in Havana will show you this grand building.
- La Scala Theatre Ballet in Milan
And now it’s time to go back to where ballet began, or close enough, anyway. The actual La Scala Theatre was opened in 1778, in the region where the style of dance was born. The ballet company had been in existence well before their official home opened its doors, but the opening of a prestigious home in effect formalised the ballet company. If you want to see a ballet company that has been operating out of the same building for close to 230 years, then La Scala is the place to do it. There’s also something significant about seeing an art form in the place where it was developed.