Russian ballet has its roots in a school founded by the Empress Anna Ivanovna in 1738 for the teaching of ballet to selected servants' children. Under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Landé, this produced a small company which during the subsequent decade performed in entertainments staged in the royal palaces of both St Petersburg and Moscow. After Landé's death ballet productions were staged by the impresario Giovanni Locatelli in an old opera house in St Petersburg, and under continuing royal patronage the art form flourished. Many guest ballet masters were invited to the city to stage their ballets, such as Hilverding and Angiolini, and though most principal dancers were foreign a new generation of Russian talent was also emerging. The young ballerina Nastasia Parfentyevna Birilova (1778–1804) was outstanding and in 1794 the first Russian ballet master Ivan Valberkh was appointed to direct the St Petersburg School and oversee the company which now performed at the city's Bolshoi Theatre. Outside St Petersburg developments were more limited. In Moscow a dance school was attached to the city's orphanage in 1773 under the direction of the Italian ballet master Filippo Beccari and in 1776 a company of 24 dancers began giving stage performances in the Znamensky Theatre. Elsewhere, many landowners funded their own troupes of serf dancers, performing folk and ballet.
Russia finally became a major centre of ballet when Didelot came to work in St Petersburg (1801–11 and 1816–34). During his reign he dramatically raised the standards of both the Imperial Company and its school as well as bringing important new works into the repertory. He was succeeded by Alexis Blache from France and Antoine Titus from Berlin and it was under Titus that M. Taglioni was invited to give her debut performance in St Petersburg, dancing La Sylphide on 6 Sept. 1837. She caused a sensation, and her continuing guest appearances over the next five years served to rekindle public enthusiasm. She also inspired a new generation of Russian dancers such as Andreyanova, although many foreigners continued to guest in the city, e.g. Grahn in 1843 and Elssler in 1848. Between 1851 and 1859 Perrot worked in St Petersburg, staging many of his ballets there and was succeeded by Saint-Léon (1859–69) who created his popular hit The Humpbacked Horse in 1864 and promoted the career of the Russian ballerina Marfa Muraieva. It was under Petipa, however, that Russian ballet entered its golden age, developing its own distinctive style (a fusion of French elegance, Italian virtuosity, and Russian flamboyance) and its own major repertory. He had arrived in 1847 as a dancer (his father, Jean Petipa, was a teacher at the Imperial School) and after his appointment as ballet master began to create a body of about 50 ballets for the St Petersburg and Moscow companies, including Don Quixote (1869), La Bayadère (1877), Sleeping Beauty (1890), Swan Lake (1895, with Ivanov), and Raymonda (1898). The great Tchaikovsky ballets were commissioned by Vsevolozhsky who was director of the Imperial Theatres from 1881 to 1899. Dancing many of the leading roles were celebrated Russian dancers such as Kshessinska and Preobrajenska who now rivalled popular guest virtuosos like Legnani and Cecchetti. At the beginning of Petipa's reign performances were given at the Bolshoi Theatre, later they alternated between there and the Mariinsky Theatre (built 1860) which from 1889 became the sole venue for grand ballet.