Classical ballet was born out of the European courts, where ballet-like spectacles were performed as early as the late 1500s. Indeed, it was in the court of French king Louis XIV (1643-1715) that dance as an art became elevated in importance. An accomplished dancer himself—he was famous for dancing the role of the Sun King—Louis XIV devised and promoted the creation of thematic performances and for many years he and his courtiers put on large-scale entertainment that involved hundreds of dancers and went on for many hours. These spectacles were the beginnings of what we now recognize as choreographed ballets.
In 1661 Louis XIV established the Académie Royale de Danse which codified teaching methods and trained dancers for court ballets by skilled dancing masters. This was the beginning of the professionalization of classical ballet, and soon thereafter a group of dancers formed the first ballet company, the precursor to the Paris Opera Ballet, which was founded in 1672 and still exists today.
The Paris Opera Ballet flourished and produced celebrated ballerinas such as Marie Camargo and Marie Sallé, each famous for her unique interpretation of the art form. "La Camargo," as she was called, shortened her skirts to show off her delicate ankles and crisp footwork, while Sallé discarded the restrictive dresses and elaborate hair styles of the day in favor of loose hair and costumes that gave her the freedom to move without constraint.
The 1800s ushered in what is called the Romantic period. Blocked shoes (pointe shoes), which allowed dancers to rise onto the tips of their toes, were developed and in Paris, the famous ballerina Marie Taglioni captivated audiences dancing on pointe in the ethereal role of a Sylph in La Sylphide. Ballets like La Sylphide and Giselle capture the romantic spirit of the times, telling mystical stories with supernatural themes that featured ghostly sprites portayed by ballerinas delicately balanced on pointe in soft white tutus.
In the late 19th century, Russia became the center of ballet and the French dancer and teacher Marius Petipa became chief choreographer of the Imperial Russian Ballet. Perhaps the most important choreographer in classical ballet, Petipa created many grand evening-length ballets that featured not only ballet, but also mime and national folk dances. Lavish works such as The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, with lush musical scores composed by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, are just two of the lavish works Petipa created under the patronage of the Czar.
A new era of ballet was ushered in with the 20th century when Russian emigré and impressario Serge Diaghilev founded the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev gathered around him an array of composers, visual artists and choreographers whose colloborations would redfine classical ballet. Michel Fokine, Leonide Massine, George Balanchine, Bronislava Nijinska—these were just a few of the dance-makers whose talents Diaghilev fostered. Many works made famous by the Ballets Russes, such as Fokine's Petrouchka and Balanchine's Apollo, not only broke the mold for classical dance, they continue to be performed even today.
Anna Pavlova, one of the Ballets Russes most celebrated stars, brought the art of ballet to a wider audiences, especially in North America, where she toured extensively from 1910 to 1920—often performing her signature role The Dying Swan.
As ballet grew in popularity in the mid-20th century, North American ballet companies also gained distinction in the world of classical ballet. SF Ballet, along with The Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and New York City Ballet, contributed to developing the new world of ballet and today, they are among the top ballet companies in the world.