By BalletHub on October 20th, 2014

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

famous male ballet dancer 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

famous male ballet dancer 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

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