Alicia Markova, Anton Dolin and Julian Braunsweg founded Festival Ballet in 1950. It arose from successful gala programmes featuring Markova and Dolin that had been presented throughout the previous year. The Company's original title was chosen by Markova to reflect the imminent Festival of Britain. From the start, touring throughout England has been at the heart of the Company's activities and from 1951 the Company has toured abroad on a regular basis. In 1951 the Company began touring both nationally and internationally. The first appearance in Manchester was on the 5 February 1951 at the Opera House which is where English National Ballet had been on the pre-company tour which consisted of the Gala Performances.
Originally London Festival Ballet was privately financed and the Company led a precarious existence. This phase came to a dramatic end in 1965, when costs on a new production of Swan Lake over-ran significantly and the Company headed for bankruptcy. In the salvage operation that followed the commercial impresario, Donald Albery, took over the direction of the Company and persuaded the Arts Council to grant subsidy in recognition of its important work in bringing popular ballet to the regions.
In 1968 Beryl Grey became Artistic Director and in the following year was able to capitalise on Sadler’s Wells Opera's recent acquisition of the London Coliseum to raise the Company's profile through long annual Spring seasons there with varied repertoire. The Coliseum’s large stage enabled Rudolf Nureyev to mount his Sleeping Beauty for the Company’s 25th Anniversary and create his Romeo and Juliet for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. These acclaimed productions enabled the Company to undertake a number of prestigious and lucrative foreign tours.
In 1979 John Field succeeded Beryl Grey. The emphasis turned more to developing the Company's own talents rather than depending as much on guest artists. Two notable developments occurred at this time. The first was the establishment of small scale touring which heralded the mid-scale Tour de Force programme now integral to the annual programme. Secondly, in 1980 London Festival Ballet became the first British classical ballet company to establish an Education Unit.
In 1984 Peter Schaufuss took over as Artistic Director. He considerably widened the repertoire adding works by Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor, Michael Clark and Roland Petit as well as inviting such distinguished figures as Sir Frederick Ashton, Natalia Makarova and Sir Kenneth MacMillan to work with the Company. Christopher Bruce was appointed Associate Choreographer. 1988 saw the opening of English National Ballet School, (now in its own premises in Hortensia Road in Chelsea), to provide a dependable source of talent for the first time in its history. With the Company’s ability to field two tours at once and thus increase substantially the number of towns visited each year and a reduction in the length of its London Seasons, as well as changes in the funding system, it was decided in 1989 to change the Company's name to English National Ballet.
In September 1990, Ivan Nagy succeeded Peter Schaufuss and in March 1993 Derek Deane became the new Artistic Director. Under Schaufuss and Nagy the Company had embraced a range of dance styles whereas Deane preferred to build up a strong classical company. This aim still allowed for a rich variety of choreography ranging from Balanchine to Bigonzetti. Through the 1990s the full evening classics were freshly produced while shorter signature works including Etudes first danced in 1955 and Graduation Ball (1957) remained alive in performance.
1997 saw the start of a new relationship with the Royal Albert Hall, with a season of Swan Lake in the Spring, followed by an equally successful production of Romeo and Juliet in 1998. In June 1999 Swan Lake also toured to Hong Kong and Australia, and the Royal Albert Hall season was followed by an arena tour in the UK. Romeo was taken to Australia this Summer. For these arena seasons the Company is increased to 120 dancers (essentially twice its normal size) and a totally different audience is attracted (in addition to regular supporters) than for other performances. This season Swan Lake will be revived with a new, fourth arena production being created in 2003.
1997 also saw the start of a new relationship with the London Coliseum. After more than four decades of performing the annual Nutcracker seasons at the Royal Festival Hall, the Company moved its five-week Christmas Season to the London Coliseum, providing it with the opportunity to perform in the best venue for dance in London.
The 2001-02 season sees the start of a new era for English National Ballet as Matz Skoog and Christopher Nourse join Angela Rippon at the helm of the Company. They have exciting plans for the years ahead. The Company will however continue to tour throughout England performing in towns and cities including Manchester, Liverpool, Oxford, Bristol and Southampton. The original 1950s aspiration for the Company - to take popular ballet to the widest geographical audience at a price they can afford - remains as valid today as when first expressed by the Company's founders.
In 2006, Wayne Eagling took over as director of English National Ballet. In February 2012, Eagling announced his resignation. The company celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2010. Following Eagling’s leave in 2012, Tamara Rojo announced her return to English National Ballet as Artistic Director beginning in the Autumn 2012 season. Along with Tamara’s new position, the Company also began re-branding. George Williamson became Associate Artist of the company. His first commission for English National Ballet was Firebird in March 2012; Williamson has also choreographed the My First Ballet series, a joint initiative between English National Ballet and English National Ballet School, his My First Ballet: Sleeping Beauty will tour the country in Spring 2016.
Since joining as Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo has been determined to reinvigorate the Company, introducing innovative new works to the repertoire while continuing to honour traditional ballet. New productions under Rojo’s artistic directorship include Le Corsaire, with English National Ballet being the only UK company to have the full work in its repertoire; Lest We Forget, a programme of new works by three of the most sought after choreographers Akram Khan, Russell Maliphant, and Liam Scarlett; and Modern Masters, a triple bill honouring icons of 20th century choreography. 2014 saw English National Ballet became the first Associate Company of Sadler’s Wells, London. Future new productions include She Said, a triple bill of new works by female choreographers; and new version of Giselle choreographed by Akram Khan.
The Company remains committed to its original aspiration, taking world-class ballet to the widest possible audience, through its national and international tour programme, offsite performances at festivals including Glastonbury and Latitude, and being a UK leader in creative learning and engagement practice and delivery, building innovative partnerships to deliver flagship programmes such as English National Ballet’s Dance for Parkinson’s.