Ballet is perhaps the most delicate, refined, and elite of all performance arts, with opera as its only possible rival. Its beauty lies in the dancer’s ability to evoke emotion through exceedingly difficult physical activity while making it look graceful, to move in a way that appears effortless when it is anything but. The ballerina is, not surprisingly, a paragon of femininity. The ballerino (or danseur), a man like Rudolf Nureyev who revolutionized the male role in the art form, is a revered artist in high demand around the world. Ballet schools are the entrance into this world of cultivated patrician nobility. Most major metropolitan areas have dance schools, but only a few can be counted among the most prestigious in the world.
The Royal Ballet School
The Royal Ballet School in London, England, is the apex of English dancing. Founded in 1926 as the Academy of Choreographic Art, it is a relative newcomer to the world scene. What it lacks in history it more than makes up for in reputation. The school’s admission process is based purely on merit. A dancer’s ability alone will gain them admission to the hallowed studios (many remember it as the academy that a young Billy Elliott dances his way into in the hit film). Some of the finest artists in the form, like Alessandra Ferri, have honed their craft at the Royal School. It is the only school to have four graduates be named Prima Ballerina Assoluta, a title rarely bestowed and reserved only for once-in-a-generation talent.
The Vaganova Academy
Founded in 1723 in St. Petersburg, the Vaganova Academy is one of the world’s oldest ballet schools. It is the companion academy of the Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) Ballet Company, perhaps the most celebrated in the world. Rudolf Nureyev, mentioned above, trained here. Nureyev is considered by many to be the finest male performer in history. The only other contemporary male dancer mentioned in the same conversation is another alumnus, Mikhail Baryshnikov (who also had a turn on Sex and the City as Carrie Bradshaw’s romantic interest, Aleksandr Petrovsky). The Vaganova Academy auditions around 3,000 students each year. Of that number only 60 are selected and of those only around 25 go on to complete the rigorous training and graduate as the absolute creme-de-la-creme of dance.
The School of American Ballet
The newest of the ballet schools on this list, it was founded in 1934 in New York City, where it is still located. It is a feeder school for the New York City Ballet, one of the most prestigious companies in the world. American is an adjective that describes not only the school’s location, but the particular style of dance it teaches. American ballet is generally considered less slavish in its devotion to form, encouraging dancers to become artists with creative agency and individual expression. Many of its earliest instructors came from the Vaganova Academy as defectors from the Soviet Union. Today its alumni dance in the best companies both in the US and overseas.