Blog: Billy's Role Models: Famous Men in Ballet

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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.

Mikhail Baryshnikov

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.

Rudolf Nureyev

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

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.

Vaslav Nijinsky

Nijinsky’s groundbreaking choreography from The Rite of Spring

Vaslav Nijinsky was born in Poland in 1889 but moved to Russia as a child. He popularized the concept of male dancers dancing en pointe and was known for his gravity-defying leaps and dynamic stage personality.

Nijinsky began choreographing original ballets with the Ballets Russes in 1912, and his choreography and artistic choices were often controversial: Nijinsky choreographed The Rite of Spring, a production that incited a now-notorious riot on its opening night in Paris. Audiences didn’t know what to make of this unsettling work, with its shocking choreography that was miles away from the beauty and grace of traditional ballets like Swan Lake.

Nijinsky also suffered from schizophrenia and was in and out of asylums for the last thirty years of his life until his death from kidney failure in 1950. Norman Allen’s play Nijinsky’s Last Dance, based on the dancer’s life, premiered here at Signature in 1998.

Arthur Mitchell

Mitchell dances the groundbreaking pas de deux from Agon with Diana Adams.

Arthur Mitchell was an influential dancer, choreographer, and leader in the dance world in the 1950s and 60s. He was best known for breaking the color barrier in ballet as the first African American dancer in the New York City Ballet, and he went on to become a principal dancer in the company. Born in Harlem to a poor family, Mitchell was forced to support his family financially when he was 12 years old by working odd jobs after school. He started dancing as a teenager at the High School of Performing Arts and quickly won a scholarship to study with the New York City Ballet.

Mitchell made history by partnering with white ballerina Diana Adams in 1957, which scandalized many audiences. They performed the Agon all over the world but were not allowed to dance together on commercial television until 1968, when they appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. In 1968, Mitchell was inspired by the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to found the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the first black classical ballet company in the world. DTH still performs in New York and provides educational opportunities for young dancers in the community. Arthur Mitchell died on September 19, 2018 of congestive heart failure at the age of 84.

Gene Kelly

Gene Kelly dances with Jerry the mouse in Anchors Aweigh

Gene Kelly had a long road to becoming the most popular dancer in America of his time. He was born in Pittsburgh in 1912, and his mother signed him up for dance classes when he was 8. He quit after being bullied by the neighborhood boys, but fortunately he started dancing again when he was 15 and could defend himself. Although he originally planned to become a lawyer, Kelly dropped out of law school after two months to pursue a full-time career as a dance teacher and performer.

Kelly used his strong technique, athletic grace, and charming good looks to single-handedly bring ballet to the most popular form of entertainment, movies. Audiences fell for him in classic films like Anchors Aweigh, his first time choreographing a film, Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, On the Town and more.

Gene Kelly died in 1996 after a series of strokes. Watch this short clip of his dream ballet sequence from An American in Paris and you’ll see why he’s remembered as both a movie star and a great ballet dancer.