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When we talk about ballet, it is often the most famous productions that get the most conversation times. They are iconic and for good reason. But there are also ballets that have shocked, inspired and redefined what people think of as ballet. Here let’s look at what these are and what made them so revolutionary.

La Sylphide

La Sylphide was revolutionary simply by being one of the first ballets performed. The original was created by Taglioni in 1832 but sadly this version was lost. The one performed today was created by Bournenonville, four years later. It was also the first time that the classic pointe ballet shoe was used to emphasise function of figure rather than just to make the dancers a little ungraceful.


Giselle was the first ballet that paired the choreography and the score together from the start and created a seamless flow that hadn’t been seen before. The choreography of Coralli and Perrot even used mime, and this is visible in the version by Adolphe Adam that we see today.

The Rite of Spring

The Rite of Spring definitely qualified as avant-garde when it was first produced in 1913. The score was so discordant that one orchestra broke into nervous laughter when performing it, much to Stravinsky’s rage! It is a ballet that doesn’t have a plot as such but focuses on pagan Russia.


Sylvia was released in Paris in 1876 and was far from a success. However, in the 1950s, Frederick Ashton had a dream where the original composer, Delibes, pleaded with him to resurrect the production. The resulting production was something different as the female dancers all wore armour and were warriors loyal to Diana.

The Firebird

The Firebird was the first ballet commissioned for Ballet Russes in 1910 and was notable not so much for the original production but for the number of reincarnations it has had, all while keeping the same score. It was also the first piece in Igor Stravinsky’s career and is notable for ‘The Infernal Dance’ featuring the male principal who plays the part of Prince Ivan.


Revelations was released in the 1960s and was centred around liberation from slavery for African Americans. Created by Alvin Ailey, it included contemporary African-American music including gospel and jazz and also featured three distinctive movements.


Manon was choreographed in 1974 by Kenneth Macmillan but is based on a much older story from the 1730s. It features three main pas de deux, dances between two partners and the story is about a French prostitute and her lover trying to escape from the law. The dances emphasise the long history of violence and aggression that can be portrayed in dance.

Swan Lake

Swan Lake has many incarnations but the production by Matthew Bourne from the mid-1990s was notable for a number of reasons. The story was re-fashioned to concentrate on a young prince who is trying to break free from royal obligations and his mother. It also features a striking pas de deux between the prince and a male swan.