Similarly to other European capitals, court ballets began appearing in the everyday life of the Polish royal court starting from the 16th century. They enjoyed the patronage of Polish queens from the Habsburg family: Anna and Constance of Austria (consecutive wives of Sigismund III Vasa), and especially Cecilia Renata of Austria (wife of Ladislaus IV Vasa). We don’t know all the names of the ballet-masters who stayed at the royal court in Kraków and then in Warsaw during this time, but they were usually Italian or Austrian dancers. For example, we do know that during the reign of Polish kings from the Vasa dynasty, they included: Ambrosio Bontempo (1592), Pietro da Mell (1596-1597), Georg Dobna (1626-1628), Paul Bärtmann (1628-1629), and Santo Ventura (1637-1638).
Ballet productions started being performed at the Polish royal court in the first half of the 17th century. The court theatre of King Ladislaus IV Vasa (1633-1648) presented ballet scenes in Italian opera productions. For many years, though, practically only foreign dancers performed in Warsaw. Famous European ballet-masters worked for the Polish court: Louis de Poitiers, Charles Duparc, Jean Favier, Antoine Pitrot, Antonio Sacco, and Francesco Caselli. The greatest dancers of the time performed on the Warsaw stage: Louis Dupré (1724-1726), Charles Le Picq with Anna Binetti (1765-1767), Gaetano Vestris (1767), and many others. In 1766, even the great Jean-Georges Noverre applied for the position of ballet-master in Warsaw, though unsuccessfully. He dedicated and sent his famous reformatory work Théorie et pratique de la danse to King Stanislaus Augustus. The work has survived to this day, and is housed in the Warsaw University Library's Picture Collection.
The theatres of King Stanislaus Augustus in the years 1765-1785 employed many Italian, French and Austrian dancers and ballet-masters. In Warsaw, they staged and danced all the most fashionable ballets from the repertoire presented by the theatres of Venice, Paris and Vienna as well as creating their own original choreographies. The first Polish soloist and ballet-master of this period was Maciej Prenczyński, who not only danced in Warsaw and at the court theatres of Polish magnates, but also performed at Venice's famous Teatro San Benedetto (1773/74) and in Vienna (1775/76).
In 1785 King Stanislaus Augustus became the patron of a group of 30 home-grown dancers, who had trained earlier in Lithuania at the estate of Count Antoni Tyzenhauz. This first professional Polish ballet company, known as His Majesty's National Dancers, formed the beginnings of Polish ballet. It was run by François Gabriel Le Doux from Paris and Daniel Curz from Venice - “the fathers of Polish national ballet”. In those days, other ballet-masters also came to work in Warsaw for a time, among them the legendary dancer and choreographer Charles Le Picq (autumn 1785), who not only gave guest performances but also staged six different ballets here. The leading Polish dancers of the time were: Michał Rymiński, Marianna Malińska, Dorota Sitańska, Adam Brzeziński, and Stefan Holnicki – the most talented alumni of the Lithuanian dance school of Count Tyzenhauz. Le Doux later ran Warsaw’s first private ballet school, training more and more new Polish dancers.
The Polish National Ballet is heir to the traditions dating back to those times.
In the Romantic period, the Warsaw ballet was regarded as one of Europe's leading ensembles, rivalling the Ballet of the Parisian Opera, and the St Petersburg ballet. The ballet company was headed, among others, by two outstanding French ballet-masters, Louis Thierry (1818-1823) and Maurice Pion (1824-1843), and its repertoire included the most famous European works as well as original ballets by Polish choreographers to the music of Polish composers. Thierry also organized a new ballet school in Warsaw; next to him, initially the teachers were Henri Debray and Maurice Pion from France, who were later replaced by Polish teachers. Poland hosted great Italian choreographer Carlo Blasis (1856), and the legendary Filippo Taglioni was the director of the Warsaw ballet company from 1843-1853. The stars of the Warsaw ballet at this time included, in succession: Julia Mierzyńska, Antonina Palczewska, Karolina Wendt, Konstancja Turczynowicz, sisters Anna and Karolina Straus, Maria Frejtag, and Kamila Stefańska (who later became the Baroness von Kleydorff, wife of a Hesse prince, Emil zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg); their partners were: Maurice Pion, Mikołaj Grekowski, Roman Turczynowicz, Feliks Krzesiński (Felix Kschessinsky), Hipolit Meunier, brothers Aleksander and Antoni Tarnowski. Guest performers in Warsaw included: Helena Schlanzowska, Maria Taglioni, Carlota Grisi, Nadezhda Bogdanova, Paolo Taglioni, and Claudina Cucchi.
The choreographer and teacher Roman Turczynowicz was an outstanding Polish ballet-master of the Romantic period. In the late 1840s and in the 1850s, he fulfilled a role similar to that played by August Bournonville in Copenhagen. Unfortunately, Poland's stormy history destroyed the achievements of national choreography of that time, and after Turczynowicz, barely a memory survived in the pages of the history of ballet. The National Ballet School in Warsaw is named after him.
In later years, the company's ballet-masters included Hipolit Meunier, Virgilio Calori, Pasquale Borri, José Mendez, Raffaele Grassi, Enrico Cecchetti, Piotr Zajlich, and Jan Ciepliński. The leading Polish female dancers of those times were: Helena Cholewicka (the only Polish “primabalerina assoluta” in the years 1872-1882), Zofia Mikulska, Waleria Gnatowska, Anna Gaszewska, Halina Szmolcówna (Schmolz); and their partners were: Ludwik Rządca, brothers Wiktor and Aleksander Gillert, Michał Kulesza, Jan Walczak, and Zygmunt Dąbrowski. Many famous foreign dancers performed on the stage of the Teatr Wielki, including Henrietta Lamare, Maria Giuri, Virginia Zucchi, Mathilda Kschessinska, Pierina Legnani, Cecilia Cerri, Olga Preobrayenska, Vera Trefilova, Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, and Isadora Duncan.
During the first 48 years of its existence, the Warsaw ballet worked in the National Theatre building at Krasińskich Square, together with opera and drama groups. In 1833, a new theatre building was erected in the centre of Warsaw, known today as the Teatr Wielki - Polish National Opera, which continues to be the residence of the Warsaw ballet. During the war and the years of occupation (1939-1945), the ensemble suspended its activities and the theatre building was completely destroyed. Afterwards, the ballet and opera used substitute theatre halls. It was only after the reconstruction of the Teatr Wielki was completed in 1965 that both groups gained one of the biggest and most modern theatres in Europe as their residence.
A new Ballet School was set up in Warsaw (1950), modelled on the Russian school of classical dance. Leon Wójcikowski (Woizikovsky), a former soloist of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, played a significant role in the development of the Warsaw School. Many Polish dancers were trained by this outstanding teacher.
After the wartime break, the Warsaw ballet had to begin almost from scratch. The renewed creation and shaping of the ballet company was to take many years, and its managers included Leon Wójcikowski, Stanisław Miszczyk, Raissa Kusnetsova, Maria Krzyszkowska and Emil Wesołowski. The company has presented such classics as: La Fille mal gardée (Frederick Ashton's version), La Sylphide (Bournonville/Ralov), Giselle (Coralli, Perrot/Petipa), La Gitana (Filippo Taglioni/Lacotte), Grand pas de quatre (Perrot/Alicia Alonso), Swan Lake (Petipa, Ivanov/Sergeyev), The Sleeping Beauty (Petipa/Grigorovich), Les Sylphides (Fokine) and The Graduation Ball (Lichine). It has presented contemporary works of choreographers such as: Françoise Adret, George Balanchine, Maurice Béjart, John Butler, Birgit Cullberg, Mats Ek, Antal Fodor, Joseph Lazzini, Serge Lifar, Hans van Manen, Alberto Méndez, Asaf Messerer, John Neumeier, André Prokovsky, Alfred Rodrigues, Alexei Tchitchinadze, Oleg Vinogradov, Erich Walter, and Yuriko. Lorca Massine worked here for several years, adding his popular production Zorba the Greek to the theatre's repertoire.
Productions prepared by Polish choreographers have also been staged regularly, including works by Leon Wójcikowski, Stanisław Miszczyk, Feliks Parnell, Jerzy Gogół, Eugeniusz Papliński, Witold Gruca, Witold Borkowski, Jerzy Makarowski, Marta Bochenek, Mariquita Compe, Henryk Konwiński, Jerzy Graczyk, Teresa Kujawa, Zofia Rudnicka, Andrzej Glegolski, Emil Wesołowski, Ewa Wycichowska, Waldemar Wołk-Karaczewski, Krzysztof Pastor, Marek Różycki, Gustaw Klauzner, and Jacek Przybyłowicz.
The Warsaw ballet has always attracted the best Polish artists. After the war, many brilliant Polish dancers performed on the Warsaw stage, including Barbara Bittnerówna, Olga Sawicka, Maria Krzyszkowska, Witold Borkowski, Witold Gruca, Henryk Giero, Stanisław Szymański, Wojciech Wiesiołłowski (Woytek Lowsky), Feliks Malinowski, Zbigniew Strzałkowski, Elżbieta Jaroń, Bożena Kociołkowska, Janusz Smoliński, Wacław Gaworczyk, Gerard Wilk, Andrzej Ziemski, Helena Strzelbicka, Renata Smukała, Ewa Głowacka, Barbara Rajska, Anna Białecka, Anna Grabka, Elżbieta Kwiatkowska, Anita Kuskowska, Izabela Milewska, Dariusz Blajer, Waldemar Wołk-Karaczewski, Ireneusz Wiśniewski, Łukasz Gruziel, Janusz Mazoń right up to Andrzej M. Stasiewicz and Sławomir Woźniak. Some of them had a successful international career, as soloists of Béjart's 20th Century Ballet, Neumeier's Hamburg Ballet, and other well-known European ballet companies.
Famous world ballet dancers have appeared on the Warsaw stage, including Natalia Bessmertnova, Natalia Dudinskaya, Eva Evdokimova, Margot Fonteyn, Carla Fracci, Marcia Haydée, Doris Laine, Maya Plisetskaya, Ludmila Semenyaka, Raissa Struchkova, Paolo Bortoluzzi, John Neumeier, Konstantin Sergeyev, Michael Somes, as well as Anne Adair, Johanna Björnson, Laura Connor, Wendy Ellis, Gigi Hyatt, Ann Jenner, Lubov Kunakova, Ana Laguna, Lilla Pártay, Nadezhda Pavlova, Malika Sabirova, Anna Seidl, Eglé Spokaité, Marion Tait, Miyako Yoshida, Paul Chalmer, Marat Daukaev, Imre Dózsa, Wayne Eagling, Clint Farha, Vyacheslav Gordeyev, Maximiliano Guerra, Stephen Jefferies, Nicholas Johnson, Irek Mukhamedov, Christian Musil, Anders Nordström, Roland Price, Faruh Rusimatov, Konstantin Saklinsky, Reda Sheta, Yuri Vasutchenko, Arne Villumsen, and lately: Maria Eichwald, Alina Somova, Filip Barankiewicz, Denis Matvienko, Rubi Pronk, and Jan-Erik Wikström.
The Teatr Wielki - Polish National Opera Ballet has been on many tours, visiting most European countries as well as the United States and Canada, Argentina and Brazil, China, Israel and Taiwan.
In March 2009, the world-renowned Polish choreographer Krzysztof Pastor from the Dutch National Ballet was appointed director of the ballet company at the Teatr Wielki. Under his management, the Polish National Opera's ballet received the artistic autonomy which had been demanded for a long time. On 29 April 2009, upon a motion from General Director of the Teatr Wielki – National Opera Waldemar Dąbrowski, Minister of Culture Bogdan Zdrojewski turned the ballet company into a separate entity in the theatre's structure and elevated it to the status of the Polish National Ballet, an equal partner of the Polish National Opera at the Teatr Wielki.