Spotlight Saturday: Marius Petipa

This week's Spotlight Saturday features prolific choreographer Marius Petipa, who created over fifty ballets and revived some forty others.

Petipa, 1898

Victor Marius Alphonse Petipa was born on March 11 1818, in Marseille, France. His parents were Jean Antoine Petipa, the esteemed ballet master, and his mother, Victorine Grasseau, was a tragic actress and drama teacher. Petipa had five siblings, two of whom died young. When he was only 3 months old, the family moved to Brussels. The young Petipa received his general education at the Grand College, and also studied music (he played the violin) at the Fetis Conservatory and learnt dance from his father, beginning at age 7. To begin with Petipa did not care for ballet, but out of respect for his parents he continued and soon found himself in love with the art form. He made his debut aged 9 in his father's staging of Pierre Gardel's ballet La Dansomanie.

Petipa, in his debut in 'La Dansomanie', 1827

In 1830, the Brussels Revolution broke out in the middle of a performance of the opera Fenella, or La Musette de Portici ('The Dumb Girl of Portici', which is incidentally also the subject of a silent film starring Anna Pavlova). Naturally, this put rather a strain on the theatres and they were forced to close for fifteen months. Jean Petipa was now without a position, and in 1834, accepted an offer to become ballet master of the Grand Theatre de Bordeaux, in France. It was here that Petipa completed his training, under the great French ballet master Auguste Vestris.

Petipa, c. 1833, aged about 15

In 1838, aged 20, Petipa was made principal dancer at the Ballet de Nantes. It was here that he first began to show signs of skill as a choreographer; he created several one-act ballets and divertissements, as well as dances for the opera, including Le Droit du seigneur ('The Right of the Lord'), La Petite Bohemienne ('The Little Bohemian'), and La Noce a Nantes ('The Wedding in Nantes'). In 1839, Petipa accompanied his father and a small group of French dancers on tour to America. They opened in New York at the National Theatre with Jean Coralli's La Tarentule, the first ballet to be performed in America. The tour, however, was a disaster: Americans, having never seen ballet before, were generally disinterested, and an American impresario stole some of the dancers' pay.

Jean Petipa, Petipa's father

Petipa then went to Paris, where his brother Lucien was the principal dancer of the Paris Opera Ballet. Petipa made his Paris debut aged 21 at the Comedie Francaise, as the partner of the celebrated Romantic prima ballerina Carlotta Grisi. In 1841, Petipa returned to Bordeaux as the principal dancer of the Grand Theatre. He studied further under Vestris and starred in the lead male roles in La Fille Mal Gardee, Giselle, and La Peri, once again as the partner of Carlotta Grisi. Whilst in Brodeaux, Petipa again demonstrated his skill in choreography, staging four successful ballets: La Jolie Bordelaise ('The Pretty Bordelaise'), Les Vendanges ('The Harvest'), L'Intrigue Amoureuse ('The Lover's Plot'), and Le Langage des Fleurs ('The Language of the Flowers').

Petipa, c. 1855, shortly after his arrival in Russia

After a successful season in Bordeaux, Petipa was invited to Madrid in 1844 as the principal dancer of the Royal Theatre. Here, too, he created several ballets: Carmen et son torero ('Carmen and her Toreador', 1845), La Perle de Seville ('The Pearl of Seville', 1845), L'Aventure d'une fille de Madrid ('The Adventure of the Girl of Madrid', 1845), Depart pour la course des taureaux ('Departure for the Bull-fight', 1845), La Fleur de Grenade ('The Flower of Grenada', 1846), Forfasella o la hija del infierno ('Forfasella, or The Daughter of Hell', 1846), and Alba-Flor la pesarosa ('Alba-Flor the Mournful [?]' 1847). In 1847, however, Petipa's spell in Madrid came to an end when the husband of the Spanish noblewomen he had been having an affair with challenged him to a duel. Instead of keeping his appointment, Petipa high-tailed it back to France, never to return to Spain again.

Maria Surovshchikova-Petipa, 'Le Diable a Quatre', c. 1861

While in Paris, Petipa took part in the farewell performance of Therese Elssler, sister of the Romantic ballerina Fanny Elssler. Petipa and his brother Lucien partnered the sisters in a Pas de Quatre at the Paris Opera. Petipa did not stay in Paris long; having received an invitation from the director of the Russian Imperial Theatres, Alexander Gedeonov, Petipa joined the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg as principal dancer on June 5, 1847. He would spend the rest of his life in Russia, though he never mastered the Russian language. This did not entirely matter, since it was the fashion in Russia at the time to speak French (even the Imperial family did). However, he did Russianize his name to Marius Ivanovich Petipa. The following year, 1848, Jean Petipa followed his son to St. Petersburg, where he taught the class de perfection at the Imperial Ballet School until his death in 1855.

Above: Mathilde Kschessinskaya, 'Paquita', 1895; Below: Lev Ivanov, 'Le Corsaire', 1875

Gedeonov commissioned Petipa to stage his own debut, with fellow Frenchman Pierre Frederic Malevergne; they chose Paquita, a ballet by Joseph Mazilier, in which Petipa danced the lead male role of Lucien d'Hervilly. The ballet premiered October 8 1847. On February 22 1848, Petipa and his father staged a revival of Le Diable amoureaux, under the title Satanella; it had originally been created by Mazilier in 1840. The revivals of French works continued, especially after the arrival of the celebrated French ballet master Jules Perrot in 1849, including F. Taglioni's Leda, ou la Laitiere Suisse ('Leda, or the Swiss Milkmaid', December 16 1849, with Perrot and Jean Petipa), Giselle (February 7 1850, with Perrot), and Le Corsaire (January 24 1858, with Perrot). Meanwhile, in 1850, Petipa's son Marius Mariusovich Petipa was born following a brief association with a woman named Marie Therese Bourdin, who died in 1855. In 1854, Petipa married a Russian ballerina, Maria Sergeyevna Surovshchikova. They had two children: Maria Mariusovna Petipa (b. 1857), the celebrated ballerina, and Jean Mariusovich Petipa, (b. 1859), who died age 12.

Maria Surovshchikova-Peitpa, 'The Parisian Market', 1859

In 1855, Petipa once more commenced staging his own ballets, most of which were choreographed especially for his wife. The first was a divertissement called L'Etoile de Granade ('The Star of Granada'), which was also his first collaboration with composer Cesare Pugni. L'Etoile de Granade premiered on January 21 at the Palace of Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, who was a patron of the Imperial Theatres and a ballet fanatic. This ballet was a success, and was followed by many others, including La Rose, la Violette, et le Papillon ('The Rose, the Violet, and the Butterfly', 20 Oct 1857), Un Mariage sous la Regence ('A Marriage Under the Regency', 30 Dec 1858), La Carnaval de Venise ('The Carnival of Venice', a pas de deux for Amalia Ferraris, later added to Satanella, 24 Feb 1859), Le Marche des parisien ('The Parisian Market', April 30 1859), La Somnambule ('The Sleepwalker' [?], revival, 21 Dec 1859), Le Dahlia Bleu ('The Blue Dahlia', April 12 1860), and Terpsichore (28 Nov 1861). Maria Surovshchikova-Petipa was soon named prima ballerina of the Imperial Theatres.

Above: The Grand pas des chasseresses from Act I of Petipa's final revival of 'The Pharaoh's Daughter', 1898, centre right Mathilde Kschessinskaya as Princess Aspicia and centre left Olga Preobrajenska as the slave Ramze; Below: Mathilde Kschessinskaya as Aspicia in 'The Pharaoh's Daughter', 1898

At this point Petipa was not yet ballet master. When Perrot left Russia in 1858, Petipa hoped to succeed him, but the position was given to another Frenchman, Arthur Saint-Leon, who would become Petipa's rival. Petipa meanwhile remained principal dancer, while also contributing to the repertoire. On January 30 1862, Petipa staged the colossal four-act ballet The Pharaoh's Daughter, which was one of the most successful ballets of all time. This was Petipa's last role as a dancer, dancing the lead role of the English lord, as following the ballet's huge success he was appointed second ballet master. Saint-Leon, not one to be out-done, soon staged his own successful ballet, The Little Hump-Backed Horse, in 1864.

Above: Italian ballerina Carlotta Brianza as Esmeralda, c. 1890; Below: Marie Petipa in 'Coppelia', 1880

Petipa's years as second ballet master were fruitful. His ballets included La Beaute du Liban, ou l'Esprit des montagnes ('The Beauty of Lebanon, or The Spirit of the Mountains', Dec 24 1863), La Danseuse en voyage ('The Dancer's Journey', revival after Perrot, Nov 16 1865), Florida (Jan 22 1866), Titania (30 Nov 1866), Faust (revival after Perrot, Nov 19 1867), L'Amour bienfaitur ('Love is Good' [?], for the Imperial Ballet School, March 18 1868), two lavish revivals of Le Corsaire (1863 and 1868), Le Roi Candaule ('King Candaules', Oct 31 1868), L'Esclave ('The Slave', May 11 1869), Don Quixote (first collaboration with Ludwig Minkus, Dec 26 1869), Trilby (Feb 6 1870), and Catarina (revival after Perrot, Nov 13 1870). Saint-Leon left Russia in 1870, and naturally Petipa succeeded him as first ballet master of the Imperial Theatres, on March 12 1871.

Above: Olga Preobrajenska as Venus in 'Bluebeard', 1896; Below: a tableau from 'Bluebeard', Pierina Legnani (centre) as Ysaure, Sergei Legat (kneeling) as Arthur, and Olga Preobrajenska (right) as Anne, 1896

This was the Golden Age of ballet, the Classical Era; during this period, from 1871 to the early 1900s, Petipa's best works were born. Ludwig Minkus was the official Composer to the Imperial Theatres, though Petipa also had fruitful partnerships with Cesare Pugni and Riccardo Drigo. The ballets of this period included Les Deux etoiles ('The Two Stars', Jan 12 1872), La Camargo (Dec 29 1872), Le Papillon ('The Butterfly', revival after M. Taglioni, Jan 19 1874), La Naiade et le Pecheur ('The Naiad and the Fisherman', revival after Perrot, Nov 7 1874), Les Brigands ('The Highwaymen', Feb 6 1875), Les Aventures de Pelee ('The Adventures of Peleus', Jan 30 1876), Le Songe d'une nuit d'ete ('A Midsummer Night's Dream', July 26 1876), Roxana, la beaute de Montenegro (Roxana, the Beauty of Montenegro', Feb 10 1878), Ariadne (Dec 26 1878), La Fille des Neiges ('Daughter of the Snows', Jan 19 1879), Frisac, ou la Double Noce (Frizak the Barber, or The Double Wedding', March 23 1879), Mlada (Dec 14 1879), and La Fille du Danube (revival after F. Taglioni, March 8 1880). But the greatest work to come from this period is La Bayadere, a collaboration with Minkus that premiered February 4 1877. The Kingdom of the Shades section is one of the most celebrated pieces of Petipa's choreography.

Above: The Kingdom of the Shades scene from Petipa's final revival of 'La Bayadere', 1900, with Mathilde Kschessinskaya as Nikiya (centre), Pavel Gerdt as Solor (centre, kneeling), and (from left to right, kneeling) Vavara Rhykliakova, Claudia Kulichevskaya, and Anna Pavlova as the three shades; Below: Anna Pavlova as one of the three soloist shades, 1900

In 1875, Petipa separated from his wife, who died of smallpox in 1882. He married the ballerina Lyubov Leonidovna Savitskaya, with whom he had six children Nadezha (b. 1874), Evgenia (b. 1877), Victor (b. 1879), Lyubov (b. 1880), Marius II (b. 1884), and Vera (b. 1885).

A caricature of Petipa by Nikolai and Sergei Legat

In 1881, Ivan Vzevolozhosky was appointed Director of the Imperial Theatres. He transferred the Imperial Ballet from the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre to the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in 1885. Petipa began to stage lavish revivals of older works, including an 1881 revival of Paquita. His works in this period include Zoraia, ou la Maure de Espagne ('Zoraia, or the Moor of Spain', Feb 13 1881), La Vivandiere/Markitenka (revival after Saint-Leon, Oct 20 1881), Paquerette (revival after Saint-Leon, Jan 22 1882), La Nuit et le Jour ('Night and Day', May 30 1883, for the coronation gala of Tsar Alexander III), Pygmalion, ou La statue de Chypre ('Pygmalion, or the Statue of Cyprus', Dec 23 1883), Coppelia (revival after Saint-Leon, Dec 7 1884), Le Diable a Quatre/La Femme capricieuse ('The Devil in Four/The Capricious Woman', revival after Mazilier, Feb 5 1885), La Fille Mal Gardee/La Precaution inutile ('The Unguarded Girl/The Useless Precaution', revival after P. Taglioni, with Lev Ivanov and Virginia Zucchi, Dec 27 1885), Les Pilules magiques ('The Magic Pills', Feb 21 1886), L'Ordre du Roi ('The King's Order', Feb 26 1886), L'Offrande a l'Amour ('The Offering to Love', August 3 1886, in honour of Empress Maria Fyodorovna), La Esmeralda (revival after Perrot, Dec 29, 1886), and Fiametta (revival after Saint-Leon, Dec 18 1887).

Above: Mathilde Kschessinskaya as Flora, 'Awakening of Flora', 1900; Below: dancers of the corps de ballet as Swan Maidens, 'Swan Lake', 1895

The last few decades of Petipa's career saw some of the best dancers the world had ever seen grace the St. Petersburg stage. Petipa created La Vestale ('The Vestal', March 1 1888) and Le Talisman ('The Talisman', Feb 6 1889) for Italian prima ballerina Elena Cornalba. Among the ranks of the Imperial Ballet's principal dancers were Pierina Legnani, Mathilde Kschessinskaya, Olga Preobrajenska, Nikolai and Sergei Legat, and Enrico Cecchetti. Petipa's works in this period (and the list is long) include some of the best ballets ever created: The Sleeping Beauty (with Tchaikovsky, Jan 15 1890), Nenuphar ('Waterlily[?]', Nov 23 1890), Kalkabrino (Feb 25 1891), La Sylphide (revival after F. Taglioni, Jan 31 1892), The Nutcracker (with Lev Ivanov and Tchaikovsky, Dec 18 1892), Cendrillon/Zolushka ('Cinderella', with Lev Ivanov and Enrico Cecchetti, Dec 17 1893), Swan Lake (revival after Reisinger, with Ivanov and Tchaikovsky, Jan 27 1895), The Little Hump-Backed Horse/The Tsar Maiden (revival after Saint-Leon, Dec 18 1895), La Halte de la cavalerie ('The Cavalry Halt', Feb 2 1896), Barbe-bleue ('Bluebeard', Dec 20 1896), Raymonda (Jan 19 1898), Les Caprices du papillon ('The Caprices of the Butterfly', June 17 1889, for the wedding of Princess Alexandra of Greece and Grand Duke Pavel Alexandrovich), La Foret enchantee ('The Enchanted Forest', revival after Ivanov, July 25 1889), Un conte de fees ('A Fairytale', April 16 1891, for the Imperial Ballet School), Le Reveil de Flore ('The Awakening of Flora', August 9 1894, for the wedding of Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna and Grand Duke Alexandra Mikhailovich), La Perle ('The Pearl', May 29 1896, for the coronation gala of Tsar Nicholas II), Les Noces de Thetis et Pelee ('The Wedding of Thetis and Peleus', August 9 1897). He also staged his final revivals of Coppelia (1894), The Pharaoh's Daughter (1898), La Esmeralda (1899), and La Bayadere (1900).

The cast for Act I of 'The Sleeping Beauty', 1890: Carlotta Brianza as Aurora (centre)

Marie Petipa as the Lilac Fairy and Lyubov Vishnevskaya as her attendant, 'The Sleeping Beauty', 1890

Anna Johannson as the Fairy Canari, 'The Sleeping Beauty', 1890

Petipa's final years with the Imperial Ballet were made difficult by the appointment of his bitter enemy, Colonel Vladimir Telyakovsky, to be Director of the Imperial Theatres in 1902, despite knowing almost nothing of the performing arts. His main objective seems to have been to dethrone the old Maestro, as Petipa was known. He invited Alexander Gorsky to revive Don Quixote for the Imperial Theatres; his version of the ballet made Petipa furious, but although aged 83, he showed no signs of retiring. Telyakovsky apparently sabotaged Petipa's next ballet, The Magic Mirror (on the story of Snow White, Feb 22 1903) through appalling staging. Nevertheless, Petipa continued to show up to rehearsals and create new variations or tweak existing ones for new dancers. His works during this period were generally short one or two act ballets, including Les Ruses d'Amour/The Trial of Damis ('The Ruses of Love', Jan 30 1900), Les Saisons ('The Seasons', Feb 20 1900), Les Millions d'Arlequin (now known as Harlequinade, Feb 23 1900), Les Eleves de Dupre ('The Students of Dupre', Feb 27 1900), and Le Coeur de la marquise ('The Heart of the Marquise', March 7, 1902). He revived Giselle in 1903 for Anna Pavlova and coached her for Paquita in 1904. In 1903, Petipa was also creating what was meant to be his final ballet, La Romance d'un Bouton de rose et d'un papillon ('The Romance of the Rosebud and the Butterfly', meant to premiere Feb 5 1904); the ballet's cast included Vaslav Nijinsky in his first stage role. However, just two weeks before the premiere, Telyakovsky abruptly cancelled the ballet, officially because of the Russo-Japanese War. Petipa was devastated, becoming increasingly absent from rehearsals.

Above: Pierina Legnani, 'Raymonda', 1898; Below: full cast of 'Raymonda' Act III 1898, including Pierina Legnani (centre), and (on the right of the stage, from right to left) Claudia Kulichevskaya as Clemence, Olga Preobrajenska as Henriette, Pavel Gerdt as Abderakhman, and Nikolai Legat as Beranger

He stayed in St. Petersburg until 1907, when his doctors advised him to move to the resort in Gurzuf in the Crimea, on account of his failing health. He died there on July 14 1910, aged 92. His body was brought back to St. Petersburg for the funeral on July 17; according to an eye witness, no-one from the Imperial Theatre Administration was in attendance. Petipa is buried in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. It is impossible to overstate the mark he left on the ballet; his works almost singlehandedly fill the list of the most beloved ballets of all time, and are still regularly performed around the globe. In recent years many of his best works have been reconstructed from the Sergeyev collection of dance notations at Harvard; this has seen the resurrection of one of his most celebrated lost works, The Pharaoh's Daughter; other reconstructed works include The Sleeping Beauty, Coppelia, Raymonda, Le Talisman, and The Awakening of Flora.

Funeral procession of Marius Petipa, St. Petersburg 1910

Grave of Marius Petipa, Alexander Nevsky Monastery

Example of the Stepanov method of dance notation; from the 1900 revival of Petipa's 'La Bayadere', currently in the Sergeyev collection at Harvard.

Thanks for reading! Next week the Spotlight will be on Olga Spessivtseva.

- Selene

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