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Must-see Ballets


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I “discovered” ballet four years ago and have been watching as much as I can ever since. I find that my tastes are fairly conservative – I most enjoy narrative works of the romantic and classical periods. I have listed below the ballets I have become familiar with, and wanted advice on which ones to make a point of seeing sooner rather than later, with my tastes in mind. I put asterisks next to some (yes, conservative) favorites. Thanks for your suggestions.

· Afternoon of a Faun

· Allegro brilliante

· Cinderella

· Coppelia

· Don Quixote*

· Firebird

· Giselle*

· Jewels

· La Bayadere*

· La Fille Mal Gardee

· La Sylphide

· Le Corsaire*

· Le Sacre Du Printemps

· Les Sylphides / Chopiniana*

· Manon

· Nutcraker

· Onegin

· Paquita

· Raymonda

· Romeo and Juliet

· Sleeping Beauty*

· Spectre de la Rose

· Swan Lake*

· Sylvia

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The problem with many of the classical ballets is that there are so many versions, and some are a lot better than the others. Even when they're both great -- for example, Ratmansky's "Don Quichot," which is available on DVD and for download, and the Cuban National Ballet's "Don Quixote" are very different, even if the "greatest hits" are the same or similar (Kitri's variation, last act PDD.) The Bolshoi's "Raymonda" is a different kettle of fish than the Mariinsky's "Raymonda," except for parts of the third Act and at least one of Raymonda's variations. On the other hand, even though many classical companies do very different "after Petipa" ballets -- "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty," "La Bayadere," "Le Coraire," "Giselle" (which he saved from extinction and changed), "Raymonda," "Paquita," the latter two, often in suites or single act versions -- you can say you've "seen" the ballet, and if you really love it, you can seek out other versions instead of going broad. (Petipa's name has been stuck to a lot of interesting things.) I love what I've seen of the Mariinsky's reconstruction of "Sleeping Beauty," but they decided to go back to the version that was classic for the current roster.

Romeo and Juliet was never a Petipa ballet, and there are a ton of versions. There isn't a "sacred" text, although there's a great version (Lavrosky) with Galina Ulanova made specifically as a film. The Macmillan R&J is widely performed and the one you'd likely see in NYC. I have a thing for Rudi van Dantzig's that's often available on YouTube, but I don't know if anyone performs it. Ib Andersen did a wonderful production for Ballet Arizona, but the only place to which I know it has toured is Kansas City, which is a shame.

If you have a chance to see Ashton's or Mark Morris' "Sylvia", do. They are very different, but each worth watching. ABT does the Ashton. The Morris was created for San Francisco Ballet, and it hasn't been revived in years.

Of those ballets, if you want to see the standard text, your best chances are "Jewels," Robbins' "Afternoon of Faun" or any of the "after Nijinsky" versions, "Les Sylphides," Cranko's "Onegin," "Spectre de la Rose," or the Ashton "La Fille mal gardee." These were done within living memory or have been passed down in specific versions, often controlled by family trusts or foundations, usually rather strictly. Aside from "updates" of the classics, "Firebird" and "Rite of Spring" can be anything, and you're not going to a definitive version, unless it's a Folkine "Firebird," or something like the Joffrey reconstruction of "Rite," which most aren't: each choreographer makes it his or her own.

You have to go out of your way to not see "Nutcracker" starting in December (and November in some places).

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By all means, start with the ones you've already marked with asterisks. As Helene noted, there are no standard versions of Cinderella, The Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet or Sylvia, so it can be difficult to predict whether you'll come across a good one. However, since Sylvia and especially Raymonda are performed rarely in the Anglophone world, don't pass on the chance to see them. Personally, I think Coppelia makes for a great introduction to the art form, assuming it's based on the traditional Petipa/Cecchetti version, or if it's Balanchine's production.

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Ashton's "A Month in the Country" is a very enjoyable short ballet based on the Turgenev play. It's one of his later works and was made for Lynn Seymour, a very expressive dancer. The Royal Ballet still performs it from time to time but I'm not sure where else you might be able to see it.

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If you see Sacre de Printemps, you should try to see it on the same bill and immediately following Les Sylphides, to get the full "shock" treatment as the original audience did... though I don't think anyone actually pairs these two together any more.

I'd add Bright Stream to your list, and more Balanchine.

I haven't seen a Spectre yet that explains the legend's lustre... Nijinsky must have had a truly unique stage presence.

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I like both the Ashton and Balanchine versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream. There's video out there of Alessandra Ferri dancing the Balanchine version with the La Scala company opposite Roberto Bolle and the Ashton version with ABT opposite Ethan Steifel.

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Any Balanchine that you can see. The classics that are danced fairly regularly -- some by many companies -- are "Agon," "Concerto Barocco," "Symphony in C," "Serenade," "Apollo," "Theme and Variations," "Four Temperaments," "Stravinsky Violin Concerto," "Symphony in Three Movements," but there are so many great Balanchine ballets aside from them that aren't performed by many or any than NYCB, like "Liebeslieder Walzer," "Divertimento No. 15," "Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2/Ballet Imperial," "Episodes," the list goes on. (Unfortunately, there are two many "Western Symphonies" being performed, in my opinion.) Some are too big to be performed by mid-sized companies (ie everything but NYCB, SFB, ABT), like "Vienna Waltzes" and "Union Jack."

Anything by Robbins, but especially "Fancy Free" and "Dances at a Gathering."

"La Sylphide" is the most frequently performed Bournonville, but sometimes you can find "Napoli" without going to Denmark. (Ballet Arizona is doing a new production this year.)

Anything by Ashton, including his "Cinderella" and "The Dream." I see "Les Patineurs" and "Symphonic Variations" on North American rosters every once in a while. Sarasota Ballet has been doing more and more of Ashton's work to acclaim. At it's best it needs a specific style and technique, and it's better seen by companies with experience than ones who throw it on the schedule every once in a while.

The two big names in ballet today are Ratmansky and Wheeldon. Peck and Scarlett are the up-and-comers. Lots of companies have house choreographers or very good choreographers on staff or among the dancers, but, unfortunately, their work is limited to home audiences.

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"Serenade" has the advantage of being performed by many companies and even some company schools. It's a beautiful rite of passage for students, since it was made for students, albeit more mature and less trained students. (There were many more soloists in the original, and the parts were later combined for three women.) Ironically, because of a whole lot of scheduling changes and conflicts, it was one of the last Balanchine ballets I saw for the first time.

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so basically you're asking us 2 things: (1) ballets that a relatively new ballet fan would enjoy, and (2) desert island ballets (or at least recordings of them). Those are two different things.

Also, I would love love love if PNB would do the Morris "Sylvia". I know 2016 has R+J by Malliot on the slate, and probably another round of Giselle to get more use out of the new sets. But the Morris Sylvia would be cake. And more David Dawson would be frosting! (religiously crossing myself.....From my typepad to Peter Boal's ears!)

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Also, I would love love love if PNB would do the Morris "Sylvia". I know 2016 has R+J by Malliot on the slate, and probably another round of Giselle to get more use out of the new sets. But the Morris Sylvia would be cake.

Absolutely agree about the Morris! At least we get to see the company here again this year...

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I would add a huge yes to all the Balanchine ballets mentioned in the posts above and add one: "Chaconne," which is available on DVD. It is a gorgeous ballet with exquisite music, and you get to see Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins in the principal roles that were made on them. I would also strongly recommend "Who Cares?" and "Prodigal Son," the latter of which is also available on DVD with Baryshnikov in the title role.

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And here's another list -- I've tried to sort them out based on how easy it is to see credible performances (either live or on video)

Things that are pretty easy to see (live or video)

Serenade (Balanchine)

Romeo and Juliet (Macmillan)

Romeo and Juliet (Lavrovsky)

Bournonville beyond Sylph (Napoli)

Nutcrackers (Ivanov, Balanchine, and others)

Something of Grigorovich (maybe Spartacus)

After the Rain pas de deux (Wheeldon)

Something of Ratmansky (Concerto DSCH?)

Things that are harder to find

Apollo (Balanchine)

Fancy Free (Robbins)

Petrouchka (Fokine)

Dances at a Gathering (Robbins)

Symphonic Variations (Ashton)

Midsummer Night’s Dream (Balanchine)

The Dream (Ashton)

Lilac Garden (Tudor)

Three Cornered Hat (Massine)

Agon (Balanchine)

4 Temperaments (Balanchine)

Forsythe (In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated or Artifact Suite)

Concerto Barocco (Balanchine)

Gaite Parisiene (Massine)

Push Comes to Shove (Tharp)

Any of Ashton’s non-narrative choreography

Things you should jump on if they come by

Monotones (Ashton)

The Green Table (Jooss)

Billy the Kid (Loring)

Rodeo (deMille)

Sacre du Printemps (Nijinsky, Bausch)

Dark Elegies (Tudor)

Les Noces (Nijinska)

Les Biches (Nijinska)

Deuce Coupe (Tharp)

Something by Bejart (others will argue, but he was influential)

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Some on the harder-to-find/jump-on list are available on DVD:

  • "Agon" and "Concerto Barocco" in the "Balanchine in Montreal" series
  • "Agon" Pas de trois and Pas de deux in the "Balanchine Celebration" series
  • "Apollo" on the Jacques d'Amboise DVD (also "Afternoon of a Faun")
  • "Four Temperaments" on the "Dance in America" series
  • "The Dream" with ABT
  • "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with PNB (live from London)
  • "Gaite Parisienne" film with Danilova and Franklin
  • "The Green Table" with Joffrey Ballet
  • "Monotones I & II" on the "Ashton Celebration" DVD
  • "Le Sacre de Printemps" on the "Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes" DVD (Mariinsky Ballet)
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I don't know if this is a desert island list or what. Most of the ballets involve use of the whole stage, the corps as well as leads, and describe space in a unsual way.


Bournonville ballets:




Tschaikovsky ballets

La Bayadere

2. Afternoon of a Faun - Nijinksy/Debussy

3.[Picasso sets, costumes and curtain for Parade; Satie music]

4. Triadisches Ballett - Oskar Schlemmer

5. Prodigal Son - Balanchine/Prokofiev - remnants of 20s Soviet style choreography

6. The Bolt - Ratmansky/Shostakovich - somethng of 1930s Soviet style

7. Serenade - Balanchine/Tchaikovsky

8. Green Table - Joos/Cohen

9. Facade - Ashton/Walton

Paris Opera Ballet:

10. Suite in Blanc - Lifar/Lalo

11. Le Palais de Cristal

Symphony in C (both) - Balanchine/Bizet

12. The Four Temperaments - Balanchine/Hindemith - Phlegmatic or Melancholic variation

13. Symphony in 3 Movements - Balanchine/ Stravinsky

14. Cinderella - Ashton/Prokofiev

15/16. Liebeslieder & Donizetti Variations (same year) - Balanchine, Balanchine’s Bournonville

17. Square Dance (long) - Balanchine/Corelli

18. Crises (1960) & Variations V (1966) - Cunningham/Rauchenberg/Nancarrow/Cage

19. Stravinsky Violin Concerto - Balanchine

20. Shostakovich Trilogy - Ratmansky

Could add Onegin duel scene only, also needs a Soviet 50's ballet like Spartacus, but not Spartacus. Balanchines could be reduced.

Cunninghams are more important than they look on this scroll.

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This is a list of ballets; Cunningham would be duking it out for the top on a list of modern dance works. Unfortunately, there aren't as many modern dance DVDs out there.

Was interested in different styles and how they cross-fertilize. Some similarities between Agon and Cunningham (whether ballets or not) – and Cunningham and Ratmansky. Septet (Cunningham/Satie,1953) looks like a version of Apollo. Crises was livestreamed last week from NYU. Variations V is available online from Cunningham trust.

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Septet (Cunningham/Satie,1953) looks like a version of Apollo.

It does, doesn't it.

For what it's worth - I'm not sure I believe Cunningham - David Vaughan has written that

Cunningham rejects this comparison, saying that the quartet in fact refers to the legend of Krishna and the Gopis.

Crises, which I'd only seen excerpts of prior to Friday's two (!) complete online performances, is my new favorite Cunningham.

Helene wrote

Cunningham would be duking it out for the top on a list of modern dance works.

As a choreographer in general, he dukes it out with Balanchine for me!

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