Marius Petipa (1818-1910) is one of the most significant figures in ballet history. This prolific French choreographer created more than 50 ballets, many of which are audience favorites today. In helping to solidify Russia’s classical style, he also revolutionized corps de ballet and codified the pas de deux. Nearly a century later, the apogee of a ballet dancer’s career is still marked by the soloist and principal roles Petipa choreographed for such works as The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and Le Corsaire.
Petipa was born in Marseilles, France, in 1818 to a family ensconced in the world of dance. His father, Jean Petipa, was a well-known teacher and dancer who founded Brussels’ Conservatoire de la Danse. His older brother, Lucien, was a premier dancer and choreographer for the Paris Opéra.
Petipa trained at his father’s school and performed in Bordeaux, Paris and Spain before turning to choreography. In 1847, he accepted a one-year choreography contract with Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he remained until 1903. Initially, he worked under Jules Perrot and Arthur Saint-Léon, two other choreographers imported from France, but after the debut of his first ballet, Daughter of the Pharaoh (1862), he was promoted to chief choreographer.
Over the course of his life, Petipa created or restaged such now-canonical works as The Nutcracker, La Bayadère, Paquita, Le Corsaire, Don Quixote, Giselle, Raymonda, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, often collaborating with assistant choreographer Lev Ivanov and such composers as Ludwig Minkus and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. (The original production of Giselle was choreographed by Perrot and Jean Coralli in 1841, but Petipa’s rendition is considered the standard today.)
Some of Petipa’s most inventive work was for the corps de ballet. He placed dancers in diagonal or parallel lines and utilized the proscenium stage to its fullest potential. Two of his most famous divertissements for the corps, La Bayadère’s “The Kingdom of the Shades” and the “Dance of the Wilis” in Act II of Giselle, which both feature dancers clad in diaphanous white tutus, make use of repetition and symmetry. In “The Kingdom of the Shades,” the corps dancers enter the stage one at a time, executing a series of simple, hypnotic arabesques. In Act II of Giselle, the wilis, ghosts of women engaged to be married who died before their weddings, crisscross the stage in arabesque voyagés, representing revenge.
Petipa also revamped the pas de deux, now a treasured trademark of the classics. Aided by innovations in pointe shoe construction, he reworked the pas de deux from a piece in which the man and woman dance side by side to one in which the woman, on pointe, is placed in front of and supported by the man. This made way for balances, multiple turns and overhead lifts. The pas de deux now consists of three distinct sections: the opening supported adagio, separate solo variations for the female and male dancers and the coda.
Under Petipa’s direction, Russia became the leader in ballet during the 19th century. Today, his ballets stock the repertories of companies worldwide. No doubt Petipa’s works will continue to delight audiences for years to come.
New York City-based Vanessa Manko is the dance editor of The Brooklyn Rail.