Though many dance fans identify Britain’s Royal Ballet with luxurious productions of Russian classical ballets, it is, ironically, one of the few European ballet companies that did not originate in a royal court. The Royal Ballet came into being quite late in the day, in the year of 1931, when Ninette de Valois began working with Lilian Baylis, the visionary who established what would ultimately become the National Theatre and the English National Opera. Baylis’s M.O. was first-rate productions of works old and new, offered at affordable prices. This conviction was at the heart of de Valois’s fledgling company.

De Valois, who had danced with Sergei Diaghilev’s Mariinsky-trained but spiritually modernist Ballets Russes in the 1920s, was committed to developing her dancers in the classical style, even though producing Russian classics was a major financial risk. After all, Diaghilev’s elaborate 1921 London production of The Sleeping Beauty had almost bankrupted his company at a time when audiences were used to triple bills.

But de Valois persevered and produced several full-length ballets based on Mariinsky notes that were smuggled out of the Soviet Union. One of these was The Sleeping Beauty, which opened the Royal Ballet’s triumphant first visit to the United States, in 1949, and led Americans to equate British classicism with full-length tutu ballets.

Hannah Grennell and Giacomo Rovero in Secret Things, by Pam Tanowitz.

The young company, however, was not all classics all the time. Frederick Ashton, its first resident choreographer and a lyric poet of classical dance, worked in many styles, from full-length fairy tales to one-act abstract works. His impeccable musicality, which let his choreography emerge effortlessly from any score he chose, and his love of steps—especially elegant little jumps and turns, quickly darting under a flowingly articulate upper body—became hallmarks of the Royal Ballet style.

Though Ashton was a master of plotless works, his ballets always glow with humanity, warm and witty, and the Royal Ballet was and is noted for its subtle and detailed characterizations. Kenneth MacMillan, the Royal Ballet’s principal choreographer from 1977 until his death, in 1992, created many intense, passionate, and often raw ballets, full of vivid and memorable characters; his Romeo and Juliet, Manon, and Mayerling have become world standards. Wayne McGregor, the company’s current resident choreographer, comes from a modern-dance background and has extended the Royal Ballet’s style to include sharp, clear, angular movements that contain unexpected tensions.

Frederick Ashton’s Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan, performed by the Sarasota Ballet at the Royal Opera House.

What to expect at the Pillow? Royal principals Matthew Ball, Mayara Magri, Marcelino Sambé, Anna Rose O’Sullivan, and Sarah Lamb will dance works by Ashton, MacMillan, and Christopher Wheeldon, who cut his teeth at the Royal. A world premiere from McGregor and the U.S. premiere of Secret Things, by Pam Tanowitz, are also scheduled. And on opening night, the celebrated ballerina Natalia Osipova dances Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan—Ashton’s 1976 salute to the legendary dancer he loved. “She had a wonderful way of running forward,” he said of Duncan, “in which she, what I call, left herself behind and you felt the breeze running through her hair.” Breezes, historical and spontaneous, are common coin at Jacob’s Pillow.

The Royal Ballet will perform at Jacob’s Pillow, in Becket, Massachusetts, from July 3 to July 7

Mary Cargill has written about dance for Ballet Alert, Dance Magazine, and DanceView. She currently writes for DanceView Times