The first ballet performance in Melbourne was given on 21 June 1845, only two months after the opening of the Queen's Theatre on the corner of Queen and Little Bourke streets, the first suitable venue for a proper performance. The company was made up of assorted European dramatic, musical and dance artists who had gathered around the Royal Victoria Theatre in Hobart. Director George Coppin, who was also an actor, initially took them on tour to Launceston and then to Melbourne. Company members Mr and Mrs Charles Young performed a tarantella during an opera program, which is the way most ballet was presented in 19th-century Australia. Three months later, Coppin's company staged La Sylphide (Filippo Taglioni, 1832), the revolutionary work that put ballet en pointe. So, from its very beginnings, Melbourne was a welcoming place for ballet, eager to embrace its international flavour, its exoticism and exhilarating aesthetic.
Although tickets to the ballet could be so hard to get that they were once even sold by auction for performances by Thérèse Ferdinand-Strebinger, paradoxically a major work like Giselle, staged in 1855 by the same ballerina, flopped. This was one of the many new works brought by the wave of visiting dance artists heralded by the 1850s gold rush. By the mid-1850s Melbourne had three theatres and the procession of performers who appeared on their stages included Aurelia Dimier, Jerome Carandini, Andrew Torning, the notorious Lola Montes, the Leopold Family, the Edouin Family, Thérèse and Jules Schmidt, Céline Celeste, the Martinetti Troupe, the Lehman Ballet and the Chambers family. By the 1870s pantomime was the principal vehicle for dancers' art in Australia. The establishment of entrepreneur J.C. Williamson's theatrical empire in the closing quarter of the 19th century gave Melbourne audiences many lavish dance productions, both local and imported.
The stream of visiting artists continued and included such ballet legends as Adeline Genée (1913), Anna Pavlova (1926, 1929) and Olga Spessivtzeva, who was the star of the 1934 visit by the Dandré-Levitoff Russian Ballet. The visits of the three Ballet Russe companies run by Colonel de Basil (1936-37, 1938-39, 1939-40) led to the formation of the Borovansky Ballet (1943-60), a full European-style company dancing the classical repertoire of the day as well as original new works. Although Sydney shared equal billing with Melbourne on the international ballet touring circuit, the Borovansky Ballet and its direct offspring the Australian Ballet (1962- ) chose Melbourne as their home.
The National Theatre Ballet, which staged Australia's first full version of Swan Lake (1951, leads danced by Lynne Golding and Henry Danton), and the Victorian Ballet Guild (1946-63), which spawned the Victorian Ballet (1963-67) and subsequently Ballet Victoria (1967-75), were also important Melbourne institutions.
Since Pavlova's day, many of the 20th century's greatest dancers have appeared in Melbourne: Serge Lifar, Anton Dolin, Margot Fonteyn, Erik Bruhn, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova, Maya Plizetskaya, Maris Liepa and Anthony Dowell. Major ballet companies that have visited Melbourne since 1980 include the Bolshoi Ballet, Kirov Ballet, New York City Ballet, the Royal Ballet (historic full company visit, 1988) and Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet.
Melbourne photographer William Baxter documented professional ballet on the Melbourne stage from the 1960s, building up a significant visual collection. Another Melburnian, Edward H. Pask, was author of Enter the colonies dancing (OUP, 1979) and Ballet in Australia (OUP, 1982), the definitive history of ballet and dance in Australia 1835-1980. Although Dance Australia magazine is now published in Sydney, it was started in Melbourne in 1980 by Dally Messenger and played an important role in promoting ballet and dance art during the 1980s.
Ballet schools are an integral part of ballet culture and Melbourne boasts many excellent private schools. Australia's leading ballet training institutions, the Australian Ballet School, School of Dance at the Victorian College of the Arts and the National Theatre Ballet School, are all based in Melbourne.