The best Christmas ballets of all time

When the holiday season approaches, there's nothing quite like a trip to the ballet with all the family to get you in the festive spirit. We've picked out some of the best ballets to enjoy as winter draws nearer...

Best Christmas ballets to see

The busiest time of year for ballet companies is, without a shadow of a doubt, Christmas. They bring out their most festive, magical offerings to capture the attention of audiences from the age of one to 100. We’ve brought together some of the best festive ballets that you might want to look out for as things start to get booked up this Christmas…

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Swan Lake

Swan Lake began life as a short ballet called The Lake of Swans, written by Tchaikovsky to entertain his nieces, but it was later developed into the full-length ballet we know today. First performed at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre in 1877 with somewhat weak choreography, the music was instantly a hit and stood out from the usual crowd of ballet scores. The director of Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, supported the composer and inspired him to compose two subsequent ballets: Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. 

Read more about the story of Swan Lake here.

Unsurprisingly, we named Swan Lake as one of the best pieces of music inspired by swans.

We named Tchaikovsky as one of the best ballet composers of all time.

The best recording of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake

State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia/Vladimir Jurowski
Pentatone PTC 5186 640

The Nutcracker

Is there a sound more festive than the celesta in the celebrated ‘Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy’? Its sound is reminiscent of the music boxes of the time – just one of the many sounds of toys heard throughout Tchaikovsky’s colourful score. You can also hear toy trumpets, toy drums, cuckoos, quails and cymbals, designed to be played on-stage by the child dancers.

Unlike many other ballets, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker really is one for the whole family. With children forming a key part of the plot itself, there’s another crucial aspect of the ballet to mention to parents and would-be audiences. Despite being a ‘full-length’ ballet, The Nutcracker is barely more than half the length of either of Tchaikovsky’s ballets that came before it: Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. In other words, you can get the kids home and in bed before midnight. Bonus.

The ballet crops up in various guises in popular culture, from the Barbie film adaptation and The Simpsons to a Joan Collins film and a Cadbury advert from the 1970s.

We named Tchaikovsky as one of the best ballet composers of all time.

The best recording of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker

State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia/Vladimir Jurowski
Pentatone PTC 5186 761

Very neat, very precise, very Russian – everything you’d want from this festive classic. The orchestra bring out rhythmic passages with clarity and revel in the glorious moments.

Cinderella

Prokofiev’s score for Cinderella is one of his most joyful, with lush orchestrations and playful leitmotifs (themes). Based on the folk tale which has existed for generations around the world, the story has undergone many transformations in the world of opera and ballet, but none more famous than Prokofiev’s ballet score. Its plot might not be as typically festive, but the magical characters and spectacular scenery make it a popular choice for ballet companies at Christmas.

Prokofiev wrote Cinderella off the back of the success of his score for Romeo and Juliet and instantly became a hit. He really is a masterful storyteller.

The story of Cinderella has more recently been transformed into a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

We named Prokofiev as one of the best ballet composers of all time

The best recording of Prokofiev’s Cinderella

London Symphony Orchestra/André Previn, Philharmonia Orchestra/Lovro von Matacic
Warner Classics 9677062

A sense of rarified enchantment impresses in Previn’s silkily recorded Cinderella. A warm welcome back, too, to von Matacic’s Glazunovian chivalry.

The Sleeping Beauty

Another collaboration between Tchaikovsky and Ivan Vsevolozhsky, Sleeping Beauty brought on board the legendary choreographer Marius Petipa, who subsequently rejoined the team for the sequel ballet, The Nutcracker. 

Carabosse curses Princess Aurora on her 16th birthday, pricking her finger and sending her into a 100-year slumber. The curse will only be broken if she will be kissed by a prince, which will awaken her.

It’s another Christmas classic thanks to its battle between good and evil, each with leitmotifs representing its characters. Granted, it’s Tchaikovsky’s longest ballet, but there’s plenty of juicy story here to keep the little ones entertained from start to finish.

We named Tchaikovsky as one of the best ballet composers of all time

The best recording of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty

James Ehnes (violin), Robert deMaine (cello); Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi
Chandos CHSA5113

Romeo and Juliet

Sometimes, Christmas can be just a little too cheery. The joy gets a little too intense and we might fancy retreating into darker, stormier territories. The opera fans might turn to Puccini’s La bohème, while ballet fans need look no further than Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Based on the tragic Shakespearean tale of young love, the work was so popular that Prokofiev even wrote three suites of music based on the ballet score. Any fans of The Apprentice will recognise its centrepiece, ‘The Montagues and Capulets’ (sometimes known as ‘The Dance of the Knights’) as the theme from the programme.

Shakespeare’s story of Romeo and Juliet has been adapted for many works of classical music. We name some of the best uses of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet here. You might have also come across another interpretation of Shakespeare’s great love story by another leading ballet composer, Tchaikovsky. His version differed though, as it was written for orchestra rather than for stage. Here, we name the best recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.

We named Prokofiev as one of the best ballet composers of all time

The best recording of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet

London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
LSO Live LSO0682 

The Red Shoes

In more recent years, choreographer Matthew Bourne has helped develop a tranche of new ballets – many of which are worth exploring during the festive period. The Red Shoes uses the music of the Golden Age film composer Bernard Herrmann to tell the story of Hans Christian Andersen‘s story of the same name. It was initially was designed as an adaptation from the 1948 film, which featured a ballerina as the central character.

Bourne created the score for The Red Shoes from a selection of Herrmann’s film and concert scores, much of which had never been danced to before.

Hansel and Gretel

In 1943, Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel became the first opera to be shown on television. It tells the story of two children whose parents have fallen on difficult times and they try and cheer themselves up by dancing into the woods, where they get lost.

Humperdinck initially planned to create the Brothers Grimm story of Hansel and Gretel as a children’s play, but it quickly evolved into a full-scale opera. Since then, it has been taken on by various ballet companies and adapted for stage.

The best recording of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel

Philharmonia Orchestra & New London Children’s Choir, Sir Charles Mackerras
Chandos CHAN31432

The Snow Queen

Another adaptation of a story by Hans Christian Andersen, The Snow Queen centres around the struggle between good and evil in the two protagonists, Gerda and Kai.

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There’s no established score for The Snow Queen yet, with each production using a different musical accompaniment. Some have used original music by contemporary composers (such as Randall Michael Tobin and John LaSala), while others feature arrangements of other works. A 2007 English National Ballet production used a score which drew from Prokofiev’s lesser-known ballet The Stone Flower, and more recently, the Scottish Opera staged The Snow Queen using arrangements of works by Rimsky-Korsakov.