Our Top Ten Spookiest Ballets!

Like a scary movie, sometimes it’s fun to watch a ballet that’s a little creepy or unsettling – especially this time of year! With Halloween just around the corner, we asked our faculty, pianists and staff to share which ballets give them the chills. Here’s the rundown of their picks in order of our staff votes – with number one being the most agreed upon top choice. Some of these ballets are well-known classics while others are newer works that you may be discovering for the first time. Either way, we hope you explore each one of these spooky ballets as they are sure to put you in the Halloween spirit!

10. Firebird

Firebird - New York City Ballet
Photo by Paul Kolnik, Firebird, choreography by George Balanchine ©️The George Balanchine Trust. Courtesy New York City Ballet

Set to Igor Stravinsky’s hauntingly gorgeous score, Firebird is filled with fantastical creatures and has an eerie quality that is true of most traditional fairytales. Our favorite is George Balanchine’s version, which includes incredible sets and costumes originally designed by Marc Chagall. The monster costumes are particularly striking and true to the style of Chagall’s most famous paintings, the entire production looks like something out of a vivid, surreal dream.

9. Orpheus

Based on the Greek myth, Balanchine’s Orpheus was part of NYCB’s inaugural performance in 1948. It was a performance of this work that led Morton Baum, chairman of the executive committee of the City Center of Music and Drama, to invite Ballet Society to become its permanent ballet company, under the new name, New York City Ballet. Set to a commissioned score from Stravinsky, this highly-stylized, narrative ballet depicts Orpheus’ journey to rescue his beloved Eurydice from the underworld. If you know the story, you know you shouldn’t ever look back – but this is a ballet we’d love to see time and again!

8. Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring

A posed group of dancers in the original production of Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring, showing costumes and backdrop by Nicholas Roerich.
A posed group of dancers in the original production of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, showing costumes and backdrop by Nicholas Roerich. Unknown author / Public domain

The Rite of Spring is another ballet and orchestral concert work by Igor Stravinsky, and while there have been many interpretations of the ballet, the original version choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky with stage designs and costumes by Nicholas Roerich is perhaps the most infamous and creepy. It premiered during the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and both the avant-garde style of the music and choreography upset patrons so much they reportedly began to riot. The story of the ballet on its own is enough to give you the heebie-jeebies. Set in a pagan country town, one young woman is chosen to be sacrificed and dances herself to death through an intense series of jumps. While Nijinsky’s choreography was thought to be lost, the Joffrey Ballet managed to restage it based on research conducted over 16 years by dance experts Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, who traveled the globe hunting down first-hand testimony and documentation of the original performance.

7. Prejlocaj’s Spectral Evidence

Angelin Preljocaj’s Spectral Evidence is the French choreographer’s second commissioned work for NYCB and premiered at the Fall Gala in 2013. Set to a haunting John Cage score filled with sounds of thunder, fire, and breath, this ballet is inspired by the Salem witch trials and the ballerinas are dressed in sheer dresses with red silicon patches that resemble blood. It’s a perfect ballet for this witchy time of year.

6. La Sylphide

La Sylphide, New York City Ballet
Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy New York City Ballet

Perhaps La Sylphide is not as unnerving as some of the previously listed ballets, but it makes our spooky list for two main reasons – it’s a beautifully romantic tragic tale and it features a classic wicked witch. In fact, the second act of the ballet begins with the witch, accompanied by her fellow witches, casting a spell around a cauldron! The ballet was originally choreographed in 1832 by Filippo Taglioni, but only August Bournonville’s 1836 version survived and remains the basis of all modern-day stagings of the work.

5. Giselle

Lithograph by unknown of the ballerina Carlotta Grisi in en:Giselle. Paris, 1841. Image was scanned from the book The Romantic Ballet in Paris by Ivor Guest.
Lithograph by unknown of the ballerina Carlotta Grisi in en:Giselle. Paris, 1841. Image was scanned from the book The Romantic Ballet in Paris by Ivor Guest. Public Domain

Giselle is another spooky favorite. This beloved, two-act ballet is another romantic tragedy and essentially a ghost story. After she dies of a broken heart, Giselle becomes a Wili. Wilis are the spirits of maidens who died after being betrayed by their lovers and they take revenge in the night by dancing men to death by exhaustion. First premiering in 1841, Giselle is one of the most commonly performed ballets in history. Originally choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, the versions that have been passed down to the present day derive primarily from the revivals staged by Marius Petipa.

4. Variations pour une Porte et un Soupir

Here’s one that you may not be as familiar with, but trust us – this ballet is definitely creepy! Considered to be one of Balanchine’s most experimental works, Variations pour une Porte et un Soupir is set to a score by Pierre Henry that uses sounds associated with human sighing and the creaking, slamming, and swinging of doors on ungreased hinges. Translated as “Variations for a Door and a Sigh,” this avant-garde work presents a black-caped woman in the role of the Door, an imposing barrier to the male soloist who portrays the Sigh.

3. La Sonnambula

La Sonnambula - Sterling Hyltin holding a candle
Photo by Paul Kolnik, La Sonnambula, choreography by George Balanchine ©️The George Balanchine Trust. Courtesy New York City Ballet

Certainly a favorite among the SAB staff is Balanchine’s La Sonnambula. Balanchine choreographed this work (then called Night Shadow) in 1946, for Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and it tells the story of a Coquette, a Poet, and a beautiful Sleepwalker. The image of the Sleepwalker – gliding across the stage on pointe while holding a single candle – perfectly encapsulates the moody atmosphere of this spooky, but lovely ballet.

2. The Cage

Photo by Paul Kolnik, The Cage, choreography by Jerome Robbins. Courtesy New York City Ballet

And what’s Halloween without a few creepy crawlies? Jerome Robbins’ The Cage takes us into a colony of female insects whose male counterparts are also their prey! This thrilling work, set to Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for String Orchestra, is one that stays with you long after you’ve seen it. With plenty of shocking and grotesque movements emphasized through angular lines, The Cage is sure to give you the creeps.

1. La Valse

And finally, our number one spooky ballet – with far and away the most votes – is La Valse! With a truly haunting score by Maurice Ravel, this neo-romantic work from George Balanchine features couples waltzing in a cavernous ballroom. The lead ballerina, dressed in white, is at once horrified and fascinated by the uninvited figure of death who seduces her with black jewelry and gloves. From the very beginning of the ballet, there is a sense of foreboding hidden behind the dancers’ superficial gaiety. And as the music and dance builds to a surging, swirling and tragic conclusion you can’t help but feel chills. In the video above, New York City Ballet principal dancer and SAB alumna Sara Mearns describes performing La Valse.

Music Bonus:

A few of our musicians on staff also shared a few of their favorite, spooky pieces of classical music. Add these to your Halloween playlist to bring some symphonic spookiness to your holiday!

Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre
Aram Khachaturian’s Masquerade Waltz
Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique
George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae
Janacek’s “Into the Mist: No 1 Andante”

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