The Five Best Male Ballet Dancers Of All Time!

Ballet is one of the most charismatic dance forms of all times. It has captured minds for years with its elegance, style and drama. While all those who contribute to ballet in some way or the other are important, some people are etched into memory forever.

People think of ballerinas when they hear of ballet. But male ballet dancers have their own charm and charisma. Some of these dancers have made their own mark in the history of ballet. Read on to know more about the five most influential ballet dancers of all time!

You probably know Mikhail Baryshnikov even if you haven’t watched ballet, as he appears in many movies. Baryshnikov is a Latvian-born ballet dancer who started his dazzling career with the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad.

Misha, as he was fondly called, was a short dancer. Even when dancing pointe, he was shorter than ballerinas. Therefore, he was mostly given secondary roles. That, along with the restrictive traditions of the USSR was frustrating to him. When on tour with the Mariinsky Ballet, he defected to Canada.

Later, he moved to the States in 1974 and became the principal dancer at New York City Ballet. Here, he worked with George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Soon, he became the director at American Ballet Theatre, introducing many new dancers and choreographers.

After his work at the American Ballet Theatre, Misha began to work at the White Oak Dance Project, as a co-founder. Through this, he produced original work for older dancers. In 2003, he won the Prix Benois de la Danse for lifetime achievement.

Currently, he works at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York, where he produces different ballets. The company also performs on tour in different locations in the world.

Born on the Trans-Siberian express, Rudolf Nureyev spent his childhood in the capital of the Soviet Republic of Bashkir, Ufa. He was admitted to the Kirov Ballet School in Leningrad in 1955, and trained under Alexander Pushkin. Later, he joined the school as a soloist and debuted as in the pas de trois in Swan Lake.

Rudolf’s success was a turning point in his life, and when he appeared on stage at the Palais Garnier, he defected to France. He met with Erik Bruhn who was the principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet and left for Copenhagen to study with him.

He began to perform there with Margot Fonteyn and kept working with them. When he performed Act III from La Bayadere, he became an international dancer. Dancing as a guest star for major ballet companies in Europe, the States and Australia, he started to try many different styles.

Soon, he was remounting classic tales like the Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote, Swan Lake and Raymoda, also choreographing Tancredi and Manfred.

He later became the director of the Paris Opera Ballet and held that position for 6 years. He performed for a few more years after this, dying at the age of 54. Unlike Misha, however, Rudolf returned to Russia to see his mother once.

  1. Sergei Polunin

A relatively younger face in the world of ballet, Sergei is a mere 30 years old. At the young age of 19, he was the principal dancer in the Royal Ballet of London, the youngest ever!

Sergei graduated from the Kyiv Choreographic Academy and then joined the British Royal Ballet School. He received many accolades including the Prix de Lausanne, Youth America Grand Prix and was named the Young British Dancer of the Year. He became a soloist at the age of 19 and was praised for his portrayal of the Knave in Alice in Wonderland.

He began a freelance career to focus on his creativity and began working as a guest dancer in a few ballet companies. Of recent, he has started Project Polunin to create original works of ballet. Through the company, he aims to bring many different artists under the same roof to create interesting works of ballet.

  1. Vaslav Nijinsky

The Russian Nijinsky had legendary fame and was celebrated for his leaps and sensitivity. He had an excellent school career and then became a soloist at the Mariinsky theatre in 1907. Here, he had famous ballerinas as partners, including Mathilde Kschessinskaya and Anna Pavlova.

Vaslav Nijinsky

After joining there, he performed in Giselle, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. When Serge Diaghilev formed his company, Ballet Russes, Nijinsky joined him. The choreographer created Le Spectre de la rose, Petrushka, Scheherazade and other ballets exclusively for him. When they performed in Paris, Nijinsky took the theatre by storm. His body and expression were beautiful, featherlight and strong. His dramatic acting made him a genius of the ballet.

When he began his choreography career, he created ballets for Diaghilev’s company. His choreography was considered original and was highly praised. Sadly, at 29, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and lived out his life in Europe, dying in London in 1950.

  1. Carlos Acosta

Cuba might be late to the ballet scene, but it has made a brilliant debut with Carlos Acosta. He started as a poor child in a family with 11 kids. To help him avoid bad company, his father enrolled him in a funded dance school. Here, he found his passion for ballet and graduated with the highest honours.

He began working in North American and European companies and joined London’s Royal Ballet in 1998. While there, he was described as “a dancer who slashes across space faster than anyone else, who lacerates the air with shapes so clear and sharp they seem to throw off sparks”. His skill made people draw parallels with him and Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev.

Carlos has danced with many companies and was a permanent member of the Royal Ballet. He was then associated as a Principal Guest Artist there, enabling him to focus on international guest appearances. He worked there for 17 years and finished his career there by dancing in and choreographing Carmen.

Acosta is slated to be the next artistic director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2020.


So, do you feel inspired to learn ballet? It can be a very beautiful art form to watch and learn. These are just a few of the many artists who have left their mark on ballet as it is today. Someone you know could be next!

The Five Best Male Ballet Dancers Of All Time!Rate this post

Famous Male Ballet Dancers

There are thousands of dancers in the world but only a handful of famous male ballet dancers. While famous ballerinas may often have the spotlight, let’s take a look at the men who’ve helped shape ballet into what it is today.

Mikhail Baryshnikov

Mikhail Baryshnikov

When you talk about famous male ballet dancers, there is always one household name that comes up: Baryshnikov. From dancing to sold out audiences in New York and around the world, to several movies and a season of Sex and the City, Mikhail Baryshnikov’s career has been nothing short of stardom. Born in Latvia to Russian parents, “Misha” (his nickname, common in Russia for people named Mikhail) began ballet training at the age of 12 and won the Gold Medal at the International Ballet Competition in Varna in 1966. He soon joined the Kirov Ballet where he danced as a principal until his defection in 1974 in Toronto, Canada while on tour with the company. He soon left for the US where he joined American Ballet Theatre as a principal from 74-78, where he would often partner Gelsey Kirkland. From 78-80, he joined New York City Ballet as a principal to dance the works of George Balanchine. Only two years later, he rejoined ABT as both a principal director and its director. During this time, he danced to sold out audiences around the world while directing one of the greatest companies in the world. After his departure from ABT, he formed the White Oak Dance Project with Mark Morris, a small modern company. In 2005, he opened the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York City which provides space not just for dance, but also theater, film, music and visual arts.

Standing about 5’7 and unable to partner taller women when they were up on pointe, Baryshnikov is not your typical tall male ballet dancer. This however did not stop him from achieving international star status in and out of the ballet world. He starred in several dance related movies, such as “White Nights,” “The Turning Pointe,” and “Dancers,” movies that he plays the roll of a famous male ballet dancer and also in the spy film “Company Business” where he plays a KGB mole. He is also known for playing the role of a Russian painter, Aleksandr Petrovsky, on the final season of Sex and the City.

While there were famous male ballet dancers before his time, Baryshnikov has certainly played a huge part in shaping ballet into what it is today, especially for male dancers.

Ethan Stiefel

Ethan Stiefel performing in Swan Lake. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Next on our list of famous male ballet dancers is Ethan Stiefel, an astounding male dancer of superb technical ability and balletic line who has had an amazing international career. Stiefel is also widely known for his bad-boy role of Cooper Nielson in the hit ballet movie “Center Stage” played alongside Amanda Schull and Sascha Radetsky. After training at several schools, among School of American Ballet (SAB), he joined New York City Ballet in 1989 as a corps de ballet dancer, leaving just three years later to perform with Zürich Ballet and returning once again a year later to NYCB as a soloist. He was promoted to principal at NYCB in 1995 and left in 1997 to join American Ballet Theatre as a principal. Ethan’s talent is immense; he not only has beautiful, balletic lines with his legs and feet but also an ability to perform very difficult, technical ballet steps with an explosive, yet refined, style. After a 15 years of performing with ABT (23 years total), he retired from the stage with his final performance in July 2012, dancing Ali the Slave in the ballet Le Corsaire.

Formerly the dean of the the School of Dance at North Carolina School of the Arts, the director at Ballet Pacifica and more recently at Royal New Zealand Ballet, the dance world has much to look forward to from one of the world’s most talented and famous male ballet dancers.

Rudolf Nureyev

Rudolf Nureyev, famous male ballet dancer and director of Paris Opera Ballet

Rudolf Nureyev easily makes the list of the most famous male ballet dancers. Born in 1938 in Soviet Russia, Nureyev started his serious ballet training quite late at the age of seventeen at the ballet school of the Kirov Ballet. He was actually not immediately placed in the top level, but after some time, he asked his teacher to watch him perform a variation which earned him a spot in the higher level. After graduation, he was offered a position in the Kirov Ballet and was soon promoted to a soloist. During a special European tour in 1961, he defected in Paris, France. Shortly after in 1962, he joined the Royal Ballet as a principal dancer and began, what would become a legendary partnership, to dance with Margot Fonteyn. He began guesting all around the world and quickly rose to international stardom. It is often said, there is, and may never will be again, a star like Nureyev. While his talent and popularity was undeniable, his personality was often very difficult for people to swallow. He had very little patience for rules and often had an explosive temper.

In 1983, Nureyev became the director of Paris Opera Ballet while still dancing as a principal dancer. He was known for seeing talent in people, working with them and promoting their careers, such as with Sylvie Guillem and Manuel Legris. He was and possibly will forever be the richest dancer ever, owning an apartment in the Dakota building in New York City and his own island, Amalfi Island, off the coast of Italy, as well as an extremely large collection of art among many other things. Nureyev sadly passed away in 1993 after battling with AIDS but left an undeniable mark on the world.

More Famous Male Ballet Dancers

There are many more famous male ballet dancers who have greatly impacted the world of ballet, including:

  • Erik Bruhn, Danish, danced mostly at Royal Danish Ballet
  • José Carreño, Cuban, danced mostly at American Ballet Theatre
  • Peter Martins, Danish, danced with New York City Ballet, currently its director
  • Carlos Acosta, Cuban, danced mostly at Royal Ballet
  • Ivan Vasiliev
  • Vladimir Malakhov
  • Julio Bocca
  • Herman Cornejo


The RNZB is kicking off its 2018 season with an unmissable rendition of the acclaimed New Zealand film, The Piano. Reimagined by Jiří Bubeníček and presented in association with the Auckland Arts Festival, we took five minutes to speak to lead dancer Shaun James Kelly. Herein is a glimpse into the life of a male ballet dancer.

What does being a ballet dancer prohibit you from doing on a day-to-day basis, if anything? Ballet is not only a passion but a way of life. Keeping your body in check with gym, Pilates and, of course, daily classes help you to stay in the best possible shape. I am lucky enough to be in a beautifully diverse company as part of the RNZB. If there is one thing I miss every day, it’s my beautiful family all the way on the other side of the world in Scotland. I’m so lucky to have a lovely supportive family but of course I would love to see them every day and have them attend my performances.

Did you always want to be a ballet dancer? Dancing is just something that I loved to do as a kid. I was always singing and dancing to the radio. I started with tap, jazz and Scottish country dancing, then fell in love with the beauty, strength and discipline of classical dance.

What is the biggest misconception about what you do? That it is easy — so much hard work and dedication goes into making dance look effortless.

If not a ballet dancer, who would you be? Ballet is just a part of me. I would love to continue to work on my choreography and grow in that direction as an artist.

What is the end goal/top billing for a career as a ballet dancer? After having a long career dancing I would love to develop more as a choreographer and hopefully, one day, have a main stage ballet. I can’t wait for the day I’m able to hand down all my years of knowledge and stage experience to the next generation and watch them flourish.

How early in life do you need to start with ballet to have a successful career? As a male I believe it is never too late. I started ballet when I was age 11. As long as you have passion drive and love for dance, I say go for it.

What is the pay like? Per show, hourly, cut of the attendance? We are on an annual salary pay scale.

Are the tights comfortable? I wouldn’t use the word comfortable . We do get to design and buy our own from places like Yumiko, a dance retail designer website. They have lots of different styles from unitards to shorts, in different fabrics. I do love to wear bright colours — it’s a great way to express yourself every day.

What is the reaction when you tell people what you do? Lots of people are surprised but really excited at the same time. We’re so lucky that our job let us travel, be artistic and have a passion.

What is the greatest thing about your job? To inspire the next generation. I get to do what I love every day — to express myself freely through movements to live music and performance.

And the least exciting? Waking up early.

What does your workout/exercise routine involve? Warm up for 30 minutes into Daily Class, rehearsals from 11am-6pm with a lunch break and small breaks throughout, then a daily cool down and stretching session for 30 minutes at the end of the day.

What kind of foot and nail maintenance do you have to do? Lucky not much for a boy. I have dislocated and broken a few toes.

What is a good posture exercise for people who sit all day at work? If you have a desk job I would suggest shoulder rolls and neck circles, standing up every so often and touching your toes and a wall chair sit — all little things you can do without any equipment.

Watch Kelly perform in The Piano at ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, from 8th-10th March.

Male ballet dancers photos

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