Marius Petipa: the Tsar of Ballet

By Valentina Bonelli, January 16, 2020

Marius Petipa in 1898

Marius Petipa in 1898

Petipa was most probably the most influential ballet choreographer there has ever been. He was the Premier Maître de Ballet of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres from 1871 to 1903. He created a huge number of ballets among which were "Swan Lake", "The Nutcracker" and "Sleeping Beauty".

Even in the one hundredth anniversary of his death. Marius Petipa still remains a partially unknown figure. For an anniversary that is so important for the history of ballet, it is surprising there have been no conferences, no publications and no festivals dedicated to his memory to fill in the gaps in his biography and his contribution to dance that is mainly documented by his Memoirs, Petipa’s own diaries and the very scanty documentation from his own era. Yet, the truth is, the story of the life and works of the prime mover of the late Romantic Russian ballet are worthy of the great figures of the Nineteenth century.

Marius Petipa was born in 1818 in Marseille and he had a peripatetic youth in France and Belgium as part of a family of ballet performers. From his father Jean-Antoine, maître de ballet, the young Marius learned the art of ballet, which he began practising from an early age with his brother Lucien, who became the most famous ballet dancer of the Romantic period. He was audacious and something of an adventurer, he spent his youth wandering from theatre to theatre in Spain, New York and eventually returning to France as he recounted some fifty years later in his Memoirs, with a touch of nostalgia brought on by his dotage.

Carlotta Brianza and Pavel Gerdt as Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré in Act III of Sleeping Beauty, Mariinsky Theatre, 1890.

Carlotta Brianza and Pavel Gerdt as Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré in Act III of Sleeping Beauty, Mariinsky Theatre, 1890.

He was not an exceptionally gifted dancer and his talent as a choreographer was still undiscovered so he decided to gamble on Russia by accepting an invitation from the Imperial Theatres of St. Petersburg. Petipa arrived in the capital of the Russian Empire in 1847, an empire about which he had heard tales of its vastness, distance and terrible cold. The tsars, adored ballet and were determined to overtake France in its supremacy as the world capital of ballet. In that period the tsars were investing significant sums to guarantee the services of the best French maîtres de ballet and the most famous ballerinas of the time. Even while Petipa was performing as first dancer, albeit more appreciated for his sense of character than his elegance as a danseur noble, he soon began to produce ballets himself, putting on the productions of others with a successful touch and some new variations for the prima ballerina or a charming ballet blanc for the corps de ballet. He also composed petits ballets for his young and beautiful first wife, Mariia Surovshchikova. However, for 20 years, he worked in the shadows, until the first maîtres de ballets, Jules Perrot and then Arthur Saint-Léon, the maitres of the French romantic school became the maitres de ballet. Finally, the public’s taste began to take his side and define his increasingly magnificent ballets à grand spectacle as triumphs. By that time, Petipa had no rivals who could outdo him in appealing to the “row of diamonds”, as the capricious Saint Petersburg audience was called. He was unique in his ability to capture the taste of that crowd of aristocrats, courtesans, beribboned officials that packed the dazzling Marinsky Theatre every night all done up in their grande toilette.

Mathilde Kschessinska and Vera Trefilova as Flora and Cupid in the Awakening of Flora, Peterhof, 1894

Mathilde Kschessinska and Vera Trefilova as Flora and Cupid in the Awakening of Flora, Peterhof, 1894

Original ballets, revivals of old works, petits ballets, divertissements, pièces d’occasion: hundreds of productions with the most various subjects: historical, fantastic, mythological, literary, folkloristic, anacreontic, fairy tales and character pieces as the titles suggest: King Candaule, Trilby, The Aventures of Peleus, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mlada, The Pearl, Bluebeard, The Cavalry Halt. Even when the scenes were exotic and the plots extraordinary, his ballets were never naive, but planned in great detail. If he could not actually travel to personally see those distant and exotic lands that archaeological expeditions and anthropologists were beginning to uncover and that the beau monde was turning its haughty curiosity to – such as the Middle East, India, Africa and even Spain, Montenegro and Scandinavia – Petipa prepared his productions by studying literary and artistic sources and a rich collection of sources on local customs taken from the chronicles of the time or from illustrated journals such as the French «L’Illustration» or «L’Univers Illustré». His works: The Pharaoh’s Daughter, The Beauty of Lebanon, Don Quixote, La Bayadère, Roxana, the Beauty of Montenegro, The Snow Maiden, Zoraya of the Moorish Girl in Spain gave the impression of recreating little worlds.

He was appointed maître de ballet in 1869, and the high point of his career as absolute Tsar of the Imperial Theatres coincided with the 17 years at the head of the Imperial Theatres of Ivan Vsevolozhsky, a cultivated francophile courtier, and thanks to whom the collaboration between Petipa and Tchaikovsky became a reality, leading to the creation of: Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. These last two were in collaboration with the second maître de ballet Lev Ivanov, the assistant that Petipa had at his side above all during the years between 1892 and 1895, devastated as he was by the illness and the tragic death of his fifteen year old daughter Eugenia, the only one of his daughters who had a true gift for dance, and for whom her father held out great hopes.

At the end of the 19th century, moving on from more structured narratives Petipa progressively moved towards an orchestration of dance which took the form of choreographed symphonies, thus acting as a precursor – one could safely say – to the real novelty of the avant-garde of the 20th century: The Awakening of Flora, Raymonda, The Seasons, his latest works were little more than a profusion of dances held together by a labile libretto, as with his Sleeping Beauty.

Marius Petipa, caricature by Nikolai and Sergei Legat.

Marius Petipa, caricature by Nikolai and Sergei Legat.

In the eyes of his contemporaries his work on choreographic composition was also considered remarkable; when he arrived at the theatre to rehearse with the dancers, he was fast and he never hesitated. Petipa had prepared everything in detail in advance. He did not use the methods of the steno-choreographer which existed even then, but sketched out designs on pieces of paper that were filled with geometric shapes seen from above or anthropomorphic drawings in the shape of the dancers, laid out so as to create a detailed map of his choreography as seen from above. To obtain a perspective or a three dimensional view of his compositions, he used little shapes of carta-pesta on a base: he had already by that stage distributed the roles, and each one had written on it the name of the corps de ballet that it represented. Petipa would move them about, trying out different choreographic combinations, at home, as if it were an engrossing board game.

On stage, the compositional work of Petipa was transformed into a cascade of enchaînements of surprising variety, in a triumph of dances of inexhaustible imagination, with the clear ensembles of the corps de ballet, the dazzling counterpoint of the pas de trois or feminine variations, the pas d’action which as a narrative links right up to the high point of form and dramaturgy which for Petipa was the pas de deux. But if technique was of fundamental importance, the ballet was by no means short of it. Falling into the character, living the libretto, listening to the music: were the key things that he kept reminding the dancers. For the tireless maître de ballet a new production was never just a tired reworking, even just a new dancer could justify the adapting of old dances to his characteristics and habits or better, the composition of new dances. The ballet troupe, which thanks to him, had become the best in Europe, was the perfect instrument for his creative genius.

At the end of the century, the legacy of Petipa was already all there, in all its greatness. It defined a style, and nationally authentic technique, still evident today in Russian ballet. It is the end result of a fusion of the elegance of French style, grown in its country of origin, with the virtuosity of Italian technique, introduced by that pléiade of ballerinas of the Scuola del Teatro alla Scala di Milano that was all the rage in St. Petersburg at the end of the century.

Petipa remained at the centre of the imperial microcosm, for an incomparably long time, with the favour of the court, the public, the press and the powerful factions of the ballet aficionados. Apart from his artistic talent, he charmed everyone with his elegant manners of the French bon vivant, the fact that he never learned the Russian language despite the fact that he had two Russian wives. But the fact that he was sincerely devoted to the Emperor and the royal family, whose saints days he marked in his diary, because he had learned to venerate Russia which he came to consider his second homeland.

Pavel Gerdt as Prince Siegfried in  Petipa/Ivanov's Swan Lake, St. Petersburg, 1895

Pavel Gerdt as Prince Siegfried in Petipa/Ivanov’s Swan Lake, St. Petersburg, 1895

Petipa held a powerful position, in his years as head of the Imperial Ballet, and he had no enemies or detractors who were able to call into question his position, almost everyone recognised his talent and superiority. To celebrate his 50 years with the Imperial Theatre he was nominated “Soloist of his Imperial Majesty” – the first ballet artist to be given such an honour – it was the crowning glory of a perfect career.

Everything changed all of a sudden with the arrival of a new Director, Vladimir Telyakovsky, an ex army colonel. The two of them were in open warfare. In his detailed Diaries and in his Memoirs which were later published, Telyakovsky took the opportunity to criticise the methods and work of Petipa, and express sympathy for the outdated aesthetics of the elderly artist. Over and above their mutual distaste for one another, the conflict had to come to a head eventually. Telyakovsky and Petipa represented, with their powerful personalities, two artistic epochs and two theatrical aesthetics that had become irreconcilable opposed.

With the benefit of hindsight, with the clarity that historical distance gives, it does not appear to have been the hostility of an enemy and his entourage, that led to the sudden ruin – something unimaginable a few years previously – of the omnipotent Petipa. His “fall” looks more like the implosion of an era, the result of the force of the new artistic movements that were taking centre stage.

The productions of the last two ballets of Petipa, The Magic Mirror and The Romance of the Rose and the Butterfly, which took place under dubious omens, suspicious absences of dancers at the rehearsals, actual and apparent boycotts by the management – were the final bitter acts of a maître de ballet in his twilight years.

After two similar disappointments, perhaps Petipa understood that his era was over, and he accepted, with no apparent suspicions the “fabulous” pension of 9,000 rubles from the management. No one had any doubt, even at the time, that this was the most elegant way to get rid of him.

So, all of a sudden, Petipa found himself unemployed for the first time in his life. He had no choice but to dedicate himself to a domestic life with his large family that he was so attached to but it is true that as he had always been so completely immersed in his work, that he had participated in family life from afar in a slightly distracted fashion. Now, this domestic daily life became his only horizon, with the days passing, one after another. His older children had already left home, and the elderly father saw little satisfaction in his new role. His sons, Marius, Victor and Marii, had become actors but only Marius had seen much success, Mariia, his eldest daughter, was a well known ballerina but of character parts. Nadezhda and Liubov had abandoned the stage at an early age to dedicate themselves to the family and after the tragic death of Eugenia, Vera too was obliged to give up her career due to an illness.

Petipa too had health problems, he suffered from a serious form of a nervous illness that led to lesions on his skin, an illness known as “pemphigus”, which during his years of enforced inactivity caused him much more trouble than usual.

So much so that the elderly maître spent long days at home alone in his study. Unlike in his heyday, few friends and acquaintances came to call, but there was the prima ballerina Olga Preobrazhenskaya and the young and promising Anna Pavlova, who despite the ostracism of the theatre towards Petipa frequently came to visit the maître, to learn a variation or to ask some advice. The only link with his golden years was his connection with the ex Director Ivan Vsevolozhsky: Petipa often went to visit him and he continued to hold him in very high regard, he even dedicated his Memoirs to him. His Memoirs were published in Russian in 1906 and the aim it appears was less to write a biography but they had the declared aim of reminding the Russian artistic world about his past work and to unmask those who felt to be the guilty of his demise.

The old maître de ballet began to follow, first from afar, and then hardly at all, the artistic life at the Imperial Theatres., from his voluntary exile, in his house on Fontanka or increasingly so as he got older from his dacha in Gurzuf, near Yalta, where he was obliged to spend time due to his deteriorating health.

It was too painful for him to catch glimpses of his beloved world from the outside, a world which had left forever, and about which he did not really want to hear, above all because it caused him too much pain to see what disasters these new maîtres de ballets – identifying above all his ex-student, Viktor Gorsky – made of his most famous ballets that did not even have his name on the poster.

A new era had clearly begun, soon that golden and carefree world, that Petipa had represented on stage, would fall victim to the passage of time and history. The merciless XX century, with its social and artistic revolutions, swept away in just a few years, those glorious years of the Russian Empire, in the most violent way, on the one hand by the Bolsheviks, literally decimating the nobility that both commissioned and enjoyed classical ballet and on the other hand, the avant-garde of the XX century, which was determined to break the self reflecting mirror of this aristocratic art.

Petipa, who died at the age of 92 in Gurzuf, in Crimea, far from his beloved St Petersburg, left this world just at the right time, in time to foresee but not to experience directly the end of his world. But his legacy has survived even the most violent vicissitudes of history and art.

Valentina Bonelli is a journalist and dance critic who writes for a variety of titles such as Vogue Italia and L’Uomo Vogue and the magazines Tuttodanza and Dans. She is the author of presentations and essays for Italy’s major theatres and dance festivals. She translated into Italian and edited “le Memorie di Marius Petipa”, Gremese editore 2010.

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