Russia has made a unique contribution to the development of ballet. Ballet was introduced in Russia together with other aristocratic dance forms as part of Peter the Great's Westernization program in the early 1700s. The first ballet school was established in 1734, and the first full ballet company was founded at the Imperial School of Ballet in St. Petersburg in the 1740s. Italian and French dancers and choreographers predominated in that period, but by 1800 Russian ballet was assimilating native elements from folk dancing as nobles sponsored dance companies of serfs. European ballet critics agreed that the Russian dance had a positive influence on West European ballet. Marius Petipa, a French choreographer who spent fifty years staging ballets in Russia, was the dominant figure during that period; his greatest triumphs were the staging of Tchaikovsky's ballets. Other noted European dancers, such as Marie Taglioni, Christian Johansson, and Enrico Cecchetti, performed in Russia throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, bringing new influences from the West.
The most influential figure of the early twentieth century was the impresario Sergey Diaghilev, who founded an innovative touring ballet company in 1909 with choreographer Michel Fokine, dancer Vaslav Nijinksy, and designer Alexandre Benois. After the staging of Stravinskiy's controversial The Rite of Spring
, World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution kept Diaghilev from returning to Russia. Until Diaghilev died in 1929, his Russian dance company, the Ballet Russe, was headquartered in Paris. In the same period, the émigré dancer Anna Pavlova toured the world with her troupe and exerted a huge influence on the art form.
After Diaghilev, several new companies calling themselves the Ballet Russe toured the world, and new generations of Russian dancers filled their ranks. George Balanchine, a Georgian émigré and protégé of Diaghilev, formed the New York City Ballet in 1948. Meanwhile, the Soviet government sponsored new ballet companies throughout the union. After a period of innovation and experimentation in the 1920s, Russia's ballet reverted under Stalin to the traditional forms of Petipa, even changing the plots of some ballets to emphasize the positive themes of socialist realism. The most influential Russian dancer of the mid-twentieth century was Rudolf Nureyev, who defected to the West in 1961 and is credited with establishing the dominant role of the male dancer in classical ballet. A second notable émigré, Mikhail Baryshnikov, burnished an already brilliant career in the United States after defecting from Leningrad's Kirov Ballet in 1974. The large cities of Russia traditionally have their own symphony orchestras and ballet and opera houses. Although funding for such facilities has diminished in the 1990s, attendance at performances remains high. The ballet companies of the Bol'shoy Theater in Moscow and the Kirov Theater in St. Petersburg are world renowned and have toured regularly since the early 1960s.