facebook play-alt chevron-thin-right chevron-thin-left cancel location info chevron-thin-down star-full help-with-circle calendar images mail whatsapp directions_car directions_bike train directions_walk directions_bus close spinner11
Will Bozier as The Swan in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake (Photo: Johan Persson)

Will Bozier as The Swan in Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake (Photo: Johan Persson)

The history of ballet in London

Carly-Ann Clements

By Carly-Ann Clements Published 13 November 2018

This winter, the English National Ballet is putting on a programme of exquisite productions – just in time for both Christmas and that “be more cultured” New Year’s resolution. But before you book your tickets to see the sensational Nutcracker, Swan Lake or Manon at the London Coliseum, here’s a brief history of ballet in our fair capital.

Where it all began

English National Ballet's Nutcracker (Photo: Laurent Liotardo)

We may now associate ballet with tights and tutus but it was quite a different artform when it first started in the 15th century. Originating in the Italian Renaissance courts, ballet was a celebration of dance at extravagant events held by Italian nobles. During these early days, ballet was a mixture of spoken word, music, dance and pantomime. They were often based on Greek and Roman myths and used to entertain the bored nobles. Costumes were detailed and heavy meaning movement was limited.

The spread of ballet

By the 17th century, it spread to the French courts thanks mostly to King Louis XIV who would often host and appear in ballets. King Louis also started the world’s first ballet company, the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, making him instrumental in the dance’s growth.

The form’s popularity grew even further in the 18th century when it spread through Europe. However, despite its rising popularity in other countries, it started to decline in France leaving countries like Denmark and Russia to develop it further.

By this time, stories about normal people and fairy tales were staged and a lighter costume donned allowing the performers more freedom of movement. And with the introduction of fairy tale stories, the concept of ballerinas and pointe-work started to form leading to the dance we know today.

The rebirth of ballet

In the late 19th century, many of the world’s favourite ballets were written including Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (1876) and The Nutcracker (1892). Serge Pavlovich Diaghilev and his company the Ballet Ruses travelled to Paris and reinvigorated Europe’s passion for the performance style in the early 20th century. Due to the Russian Revolution, the expats could not return back to their homeland so remained in Western Europe causing ballet’s popularity to spread once again.

Ballet’s re-introduction to London

English National Ballet's Nutcracker (Photo: Laurent Liotardo)

Until then, ballet was a niche artform in the UK. However, in 1931 Ninette de Valois – a former dancer with Ballets Russes – founded Vic-Wells Company, the original iteration of what is now known as the Royal Ballet. By the mid-1930s, Ninette had recruited talented dancers and choreographers to join her company. This included Frederick Ashton, a choreographer whose works continue to exert influence on contemporary ballet. The high-calibre performances drew praise and audiences, though these audiences were limited to the upper-class.

During the war

The outbreak of WWII in 1939 inspired Ninette to embark on a tour of Great Britain. With the Vic-Wells Company’s male dancers drafted into military service, the repertoire was reworked to feature female dancers only. The tour meant the growing company could entertain war-weary Britons seven nights a week rather than the typical fortnightly runs typically performed in London.

The war years were spent touring Great Britain and Europe. They performed for a wide audience which included Allied troops. This fundamentally changed the public perception of ballet taking it from something foreign and inaccessible to part of national culture. It ultimately reshaped the artform as entertainment for everyone and created fans throughout the country.

Setting up home in Theatreland

After the war, the now popular ballet Company was ushered into the London theatre scene. They debuted at the Royal Opera House on 20 February 1946 with King George VI, his wife Queen Elizabeth, and the two princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in attendance. By 1956, Vic-Wells Company officially became the Royal Ballet.

The start of the English National Ballet

English National Ballet's Nutcracker (Photo: Laurent Liotardo)

In 1950, following the success and popularity of the Royal Ballet and the general rise in national interest in the dance, ballet stars Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin, joined with Julian Braunsweg to create the Gala Performances Of Ballet. They then changed the company’s name to the Festival Ballet before changing it once again to London Festival Ballet which remained until June 1989.

At its heart, the company which eventually became the English National Ballet, was a touring company. It toured both England and overseas maintaining the presence and accessibility of ballet.

Growing Significance

In 1968, the Festival Ballet Company began performing at the London Coliseum, home to the English Nation Opera. In 1980, the London Festival Ballet became the first British classical ballet company to establish a formal outreach and education programme, culminating in the 1988 opening of the English National Ballet School. In 1989 they officially adopted the name English National Ballet.

Both the Royal Ballet and the English National Ballet still honour the traditions of classical ballet while continuing to innovate, bringing ballet to the widest possible audience both here with London shows and abroad. 

If you’ve been inspired to experience one of the English National Ballet productions, visit the Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Manon pages.


Sign up

ballet english national ballet london coliseum manon nutcracker swan lake

Related articles

Due to the current pandemic various venues and productions are making announcements for their individual shows. Please bear with us as we try to keep this page as up to date as possible. If you find a mistake, please let us know by emailing enquiries@soltukt.co.uk. If you click through to seat selection (where you'll see either best available or a seating plan), you will be seeing the most up-to-date prices. If this differs from what we've written on the calendar, please bear with us, as those prices will update soon.

We now sell our famous TKTS Booth discounts online here at Official London Theatre.

We are now cancelling all performances up until and including 31 May 2020 to help us process existing bookings whilst we wait for further clarity from the government in terms of when we will be able to reopen.

We are so sorry that in these testing and difficult times you are not able to enjoy the show you have booked for and hope the following helps clarify next steps in respect of your tickets .

There is nothing that you need to do if your performance has been cancelled, but we do ask for your patience.

If you have booked directly with the theatre or show website for an affected performance, please be assured that they will contact you directly to arrange an exchange for a later date, a credit note/voucher or a refund. If you have booked via a ticket agent they will also be in contact with you directly.

We are processing in strict date order of performance, so you are likely to be contacted after the date you were due to go to the theatre. However, we want to reassure you that you will be contacted, and your order will be processed, but please do bear with us.

We’d like to thank everyone who has been patient and kind in dealing with their ticket providers so far and we are sorry that we cannot process your order as quickly as we would like.

Please do not contact your credit card company as that will slow the process down and put an additional burden on our box office and ticket agent teams.

In order for us to serve our audiences the best we can, please do not get in touch with your point of sale if you have booked for performances after 31 May. Please be reassured that if we have to cancel future performances you will be directly contacted by your theatre or ticket provider. Our producers continue to plan for all eventualities dependent on the individual needs of their shows and we will provide further updates on specific shows as and when they become available.

We look forward to welcoming you back into our theatres as soon as we are allowed to resume performances. In the meantime stay safe and healthy.

While theatres are currently closed, various venues and productions are making announcements for their individual shows, including cancellations and rescheduled performances. Please check with the individual shows for details.