Ballerina en pointe

Ballerinas Every Dancer Should Know

For centuries, ballet has existed in a balance between tradition and innovation; the classical meeting the avant garde. Because of this long history, it’s easy to forget that ballet is like an island with an active volcano; it is constantly forging new ground, transforming boundaries, and creating new experiences from the vibrant forces of its cultural center. It is a living art after all, and as such, it relies on new people to put on its costumes and make its motions their own.

Throughout its history, no figure has been as important to ballet as the ballerina. They are the spirits that bring life to movement and steps, they are the muses upon which ballets are reconfigured, and they are the reason many ballet-lovers return to the theatre again and again. Here are some of the ballerinas working today who you need to know about.

Tiler Peck

Dancer jumping in passé on bare stage
Tiler Peck in The Barre Project, photographed by Geo Santillan

Californian Tiler Peck has enjoyed a diverse career, getting an early start on Broadway before studying at the School of American Ballet and apprenticing at the New York City Ballet. In the decade since she became a soloist there, she has blossomed into a multi-talented artist, designing her own dance clothing, working as an actress in musical theater performances, and collaborating with world-renowned choreographer William Forsythe on The Barre Project, a groundbreaking piece conceived via zoom and produced by CLI Studios during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland in pink and black leotard
Misty Copeland for Under Armour

No list of contemporary ballerinas would be complete without including Misty Copeland. For over 20 years, she has dominated the landscape of ballet, setting the pace for dancers of all disciplines and breaking into new territories in the multifaceted media landscape of the 21st century. Although she started training late by most standards, at the age of 13 she hit the ground running and was considered an immediate prodigy with an innate talent that has only grown with her career.

In 2015, she became the first African American woman to earn the position of prima ballerina at the American Ballet Theatre, the company where she grew and matured as a dancer and soloist. She has also crossed over into Broadway productions, toured with Prince and starred in one of his music videos, and appeared as a guest judge on the hit show So You Think You Can Dance. Misty’s talents are not limited to the big stage, as she has modeled (including an iconic Under Armour partnership that ended this year), performed for presidents and heads of state, and become an author and much respected public speaker. Copeland has truly set the standard of what stardom means for the modern ballerina in the 21st century.

Marianela Núñez

Dancer in arabesque with fan in hand in front of stage scenery
Marianela Nuñez as Kitri in Don Quixote, The Royal Ballet

From her native Buenos Aires, to her current home in London working as a principal dancer for The Royal Ballet, Marianela Núñez has lived a life of dance that most people have only dreamed about. Offered a spot in The Royal Ballet’s roster when she was still a teenager, Núñez’s repertoire soon grew into regular star billings in the prestigious companies productions, with roles like Alice in Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland, and Kitri in the classic Don Quixote, attracting massive laudatory attention from the press. An occasional international dancer who has made guest appearances in New York and Milan, Marianela Núñez continues to attract attention as one of the established prima ballerinas of the modern scene.

Oleysa Novikova

Dancer in oversplits leap in third arabesque wearing a white flowing dress
Oleysa Novikova as Juliet in Sergei Prokoviev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky.

A 2002 graduate of the Vaganova Academy and winner of the Vaganova-Prix Ballet Dancer’s Competition in the same year, Leningrad-born ballerina Oleysa Novikova is a force to be reckoned with. Her repertoire includes work as a soloist in Edwaard Liang’s Flight of Angels, as well as more established canonical works by George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, and Marius Petipa.

She was recently made a principal dancer at the Mariinsky Ballet Theatre, her artistic home since graduation. A continuation of the Imperial Russian Ballet, the Mariinsky Theatre is home to a continuing tradition of classical Russian ballet excellence, epitomized by the technical grace and power of Novokova.

Olga Smirnova

Dancer in black leotard jumping with arms rounded behind back
Olga Smirnova by Darian Volkova and Alisa Aslanova

Another graduate of the Vaganova Academy, Olga Smirnova was immediately enlisted by the revered Bolshoi Ballet upon finishing her studies, and quickly rose in its ranks to become a prima ballerina at the age of 25. Lithe and long-limbed like the sylphe dancers of the 19th century, Smirnova’s style and powerful physical control all bear a cultural lineage to the classical age of Russian ballet. Praised as an immense talent by the international press, Olga Smirnova might be the best contemporary example of the quintessential Russian ballerina.

Marla Minadeo

Ballet dancer being partnered onstage
Marla Minedeo performs with the Cleveland Ballet

Finally on this list we have an emerging talent who you should definitely pay some attention to. Cleveland native Marla Minedeo began studying dance at the age of 2, and through unparalleled hard work and innate talent, became a professional ballerina with the Cleveland Ballet in 2019 at the remarkable age of 16. In the time since, she has risen quickly as a performer, dancing principal roles in productions of The Nutcracker and Alice. Keep an eye out for the young Ms. Minadeo, something tells us she is going places!

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