Classical ballet was born out of the European courts, where ballet-like spectacles were performed as early as the late 1500s. In 1661 Louis XIV, the king of France, established the Académie Royale de Danse which codified teaching methods and trained dancers for court ballets by skilled dancing masters. This was the beginning of the professionalization of classical ballet, and soon thereafter a group of dancers formed the first ballet company, the precursor to the Paris Opera Ballet, which was founded in 1672 and still exists today.
The 1800s ushered in what is called the Romantic period. Pointe shoes, which allowed dancers to rise onto the tips of their toes, were developed. Ballets like La Sylphide and Giselle capture the romantic spirit of the times, telling mystical stories with supernatural themes that featured ghostly sprites portayed by ballerinas delicately balanced on pointe in soft white tutus.
In the late 19th century, Russia became the center of ballet. French dancer and teacher Marius Petipa became chief choreographer of the Imperial Russian Ballet. He choreographed important works like The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, with musical scores composed by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
A new era of ballet began in the 20th century when Russian emigré and impressario Serge Diaghilev founded the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev gathered around him an array of composers, visual artists and choreographers whose colloborations would redfine classical ballet. Michel Fokine, Leonide Massine, George Balanchine, Bronislava Nijinska--these were just a few of the dance-makers whose talents Diaghilev fostered.
As ballet grew in popularity in the mid-20th century, North American ballet companies also gained distinction in the world of classical ballet. San Francisco Ballet, along with The Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and New York City Ballet, contributed to developing the new world of ballet and today, they are among the top ballet companies in the world.