When Billy Elliot was growing up, he could have looked to several famous men in ballet as role models. Scroll down to see clips of these beautiful dancers and learn more about their lives.
A young Baryshnikov dances in a ballet competition in 1968.
Any list of the greatest male ballet dancers would be incomplete without Mikhail Baryshnikov. You may know him as Carrie Bradshaw’s love interest in the final season of Sex in the City or from his Oscar®-nominated role in The Turning Point, but Baryshnikov was a ballet dancer first and foremost. After reaching acclaim in his native USSR in the 1960s, Baryshnikov defected to Canada in 1974 to work with innovative Western choreographers like Alvin Ailey, Jerome Robbins, and Twyla Tharp. Shortly afterward, he moved to New York to dance with the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre (where he later became the Artistic Director). Mrs. Wilkinson calls Billy “Baryshnikov” during the song “Solidarity” – listen for it when you see the show.
Nureyev dances Siegfried’s solo in Act 1 of Swan Lake.
Rudolf Nureyev was born in motion – his mother gave birth to him on a train traveling through Siberia in 1938. Nureyev began studying ballet when he was eleven years old, and his focus on technique really changed the game for male ballet dancers.
Nureyev became the first Russian ballet dancer to defect from the USSR when he appealed for asylum in Paris in 1961. He went on to direct the Paris Opera Ballet from 1983–86 and danced with companies in London, New York, Chicago, and other major cities all over the world. He was known as a tireless, totally committed technical perfectionist, but he also had an unmistakable star quality on the stage that really connected with audiences. Later in his career Nureyev was a household name, popular enough outside of the dance world to appear as a guest on The Muppet Show.
Nureyev dances with a very talented muppet in The Muppet Show‘s “Swine Lake.”
Nureyev met his partner, Danish dancer Erik Bruhn, shortly after his defection to Paris and the two were involved in a tempestuous relationship until Bruhn’s death in 1986. Nureyev died in 1993 from complications related to AIDS, and he is buried in Paris.
Erik Bruhn dances a solo from The Sleeping Beauty in 1962
Erik Bruhn was a Danish dancer who worked with most of the major companies in Europe and North America, including the Royal Danish Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre, and the National Ballet of Canada (among many others). He was known for his grace, fluidity, and emotional performance style that focused on the development of the characters he was playing – very different from his partner Nureyev’s emphasis on technical perfection. After partially retiring from performing, Bruhn became the director of the Swedish Opera Ballet and later the National Ballet of Canada. He died in Toronto in 1986 from lung cancer, and he’s still admired as one of the greatest, most artistic dancers of all time.
Nijinsky’s groundbreaking choreography from The Rite of Spring