There are many amazing ballerinas in the world, but there’s only a handful of truly famous ballerinas. Here’s BalletHub’s list of famous ballerinas, in no particular order because they’re all amazing in their own right:
Margot Fonteyn may be the all-time most famous ballerina in the world; the Babe Ruth of ballet. Fonteyn was born in May of 1919 in England and began ballet classes at age four. She had a long career with The Royal Ballet and was soon to retire at age 42 until Rudolf Nureyev appeared on the scene. To his encouragement, she continued dancing and partnered with Nureyev until she eventually retired at 61. Together, they debuted MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet and had the ballet “Marguerite and Armand” choreographed specifically for them by Sir Frederick Ashton.
She has also appeared in many ballet videos available for purchase online, including Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, The Sleeping Beauty and more.
She died at the age of 71 in February of 1991 in Panama, leaving an incredibly huge mark on the world of ballet having danced thousands of performances to rave and adoring audiences. The name Margot Fonteyn is usually the first brought up in a discussion of famous ballerinas.
Alicia Alonso is a famous ballerina born in Cuba in 1921. At the young age of nineteen, she began to lose some of her vision and became partially blind, even after a few surgeries to attempt to restore vision. This affliction did not stop her from becoming a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater (then, simply Ballet Theatre) and receiving rave reviews for her portrayal of Giselle, among other roles.
To help with only being able to partially see out of one eye, she required partners to always be in exact positions and also had set designers install different colored spotlights to act as guides while she performed on stage. Despite her handicap, she wow’d audiences for years before returning to Cuba to found the National Ballet of Cuba in 1959. She performed extensively throughout the world and has definitely earned a spot in our list of famous ballerinas.
Julie Kent makes our famous ballerinas list for many reasons. Not only is she a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, she has also appeared in several ballet videos and motion pictures including the film “Dancers” co-staring with her former director, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and a role in the ballet-hit “Center Stage.” Julie Kent is a true ballerina in all of sense of the title; beautifully classical port de bras and lines with strength to match.
Now retiring in the 2014-15 season at ABT, she has dance professionally for almost thirty years. She was born “Julie Cox” and took the stage name Julie Kent at the suggestion of Baryshnikov.
You can’t talk about famous ballerinas without talking about Sylvie Guillem. Born in 1965 in France, Guillem had an early rise to stardom, joining Paris Opera Ballet at the age of 16 as a corps de ballet member being promoted to the top position of étoile, the youngest ever in the company’s history, in 1984 by the company’s then-director Rudolf Nureyev after a performance of Swan Lake. In 1989 she became a freelance performer and international star, also dancing with Royal Ballet as a principal guest artist.
Aside from several awards including winning the gold medal at the Varna International Ballet Competition in 1983 and the Nijinsky prize for “world’s best ballerina” in 2001, she is also known for her amazing technical ability and seemingly perfect body built for ballet with long, sculpted legs, high-arched feet and exceptional extensions with strength to match. Sylvie is adored by fans worldwide and still performs in contemporary pieces throughout the world.
One of the finest Russian ballerinas, Natalia Makarova, had a performing career that spanned the globe, starting with the Kirov Ballet in 1956. In the 1960s, she was deemed a prima ballerina and later defected while on tour with the company in London. She began performing with American Ballet Theatre, alongside recently the defected Mikhail Baryshnikov, and with the Royal Ballet in London. She quickly became one of the most prominent and famous ballerinas dancing in the West with audiences rushing to see her most notable roles, such as Giselle and Odette/Odile in Swan Lake.
She also performed in the broadway musical “On Your Toes,” which she won a Tony Award, among others awards. As a dancer, and continuing after her retirement from the stage, she staged ballets for many of the most famous ballet companies and has been a judge for prestigious ballet competitions. Throughout her career, she’s received over 20 awards, including the Kennedy Center Honors in 2012.
A famous American ballerina, Gelsey Kirkland joined New York City Ballet at the young age of fifteen and was promoted to principal rank in just four years by 1972. Just two years later, with Baryshnikov just defecting, she joined American Ballet Theatre to dance with him as a principal where they would dance for constantly sold out audiences.
Throughout her career at NYCB and ABT, she had many ballets created on her by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins as well as danced practically every major classical ballet role. She’s released a two autobiographies about her life titled “Dancing on my Grave,” and “The Shape of Love,” that detail her struggles with eating disorders and drug abuse. She is likely most recognized by the general public as dancing Clara in the 1977 production and taping of Baryshnikov’s “The Nutcracker” which has been watched by the thousands.
Currently, she is a co-director of her own ballet school in New York City, the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet.
A list of famous ballerinas isn’t complete without Anna Pavlova. As a principal dancer with the Imperial Russian Ballet and the Ballet Russes, she is most known for dancing the iconic role “The Dying Swan,” a short solo made for her by famed choreographer Michel Fokine.
She began ballet after watching a live performance of Petipa’s original production of “The Sleeping Beauty” and she began taking classes at age ten, after a first failed attempt at being accepted to the Imperial Ballet School. Ballet came very difficult to the young Pavlova, however after several years at the school, she was invited to join the Imperial Ballet as a coyphée, skipping the rank of corps de ballet.
Her career quickly sky-rocketed and she became a leading ballerina with the company; her scores of fans called themselves “Pavlovatzi.” In the early 1920s, she would become the first ballerina to tour around the world and earning worldwide recognition among famous ballerinas everywhere.