Dance History

Meet Marius Petipa—His Ballets are the Core of Company Repertoires

Petipa choreographed Swan Lake in 1895, near the end of his career. (Photo by Natasha Razina, courtesy of the Mariinsky Theatre)

When Marius Petipa began his career as a choreographer with Russia's Imperial Theaters in 1847, he forever changed the face of ballet. He made more than 50 ballets, and many are still part of the classical repertory of ballet companies all over the world. His far-reaching influence includes a reimagining of the corps de ballet, which was until then little more than background decoration for the featured dancers. He also pioneered a new structural model for the pas de deux and demanded a higher technical standard from dancers.


Petipa (1818–1910) was born in Marseille, France, into a dance family: His father, Jean, was a renowned dance teacher. Though Petipa danced as a principal with the Comédie-Française and St. Petersburg's Bolshoi Theatre, he didn't gain significant attention until 1847, when he accepted a contract to choreograph for St. Petersburg's Imperial Ballet (now the Mariinsky). After the great success of his first ballet, Daughter of the Pharaoh, he was promoted to chief choreographer in 1862. Seven years later, when he became the chief ballet master, he was in the unique position to train the dancers specifically for his choreography. He remained with the company for his entire career.

Petipa's new vision for the corps de ballet—formerly just a picture frame for solos—is well-illustrated in the “Dance of the Wilis" in Giselle, where the corps enters in crisscrossing lines, traveling their arabesques with small hops. Petipa also revamped the pas de deux, formerly a side-by-side duet for the man and woman. He divided it into three sections—the opening adagio, separate solo variations and the coda—and placed the woman in front of and supported by the man for balances, turns and lifts. Petipa married twice—both times to ballerinas. Toward the end of his career, he had a strained relationship with newly appointed Imperial Theaters director Vladimir Telyakovsky. Within a year of the ill-received premiere of The Magic Mirror, Petipa retired at the age of 85. He later published his memoirs. —Rachel Rizzuto

The Work

Petipa's works were beloved by the balletomanes of his generation, and his ballets have stood the test of time. The following three pieces demonstrate his attention to research, his revolutionizing of the corps and his unique collaborative style, respectively.

Daughter of the Pharaoh (1862) In Petipa's first evening-length ballet for Imperial Theaters, the heroine drowns herself in the Nile rather than marry against her will. Petipa visited Paris museums in order to research the customs and lifestyle of ancient Egyptians.

La Bayadère (1877) This ballet contains the famous “Kingdom of Shades" scene, in which corps members enter the stage one at a time, repeating simple, hypnotic arabesques—giving the effect of an infinity of dancers. It requires complete synchronicity and is the litmus test of a corps de ballet.

The Sleeping Beauty (1890) Petipa boldly gave Tchaikovsky a detailed map of what he needed the music to be, including the number of dances, how many bars to each dance, the tempo and the style of music. Though it received a lukewarm reception from the critics, the ballet became a box-office success.

Fun Fact: Because entire seasons of the Imperial Ballet would be comprised solely of Petipa ballets, the demand for seats was unusually high, forcing even distinguished patrons of the ballet to write for reservations—and thus the concept of season subscriptions was born.

Style

The Petipa ballet was a multi-act spectacle, elaborately staged and maximizing the scenic potential of the proscenium stage. The typical Petipa work has a mad scene, a vision scene and a scene of reconciliation or resolution between the male protagonist and heroine. The ballet blanc, or “white act," was also a standard element—a divertissement for the female corps de ballet.

The Legacy Lives On

Many Mariinsky Ballet graduates, influenced by Petipa, went on to change the look and sound of ballet in their own ways, including Mikhail Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova and George Balanchine.

Photos from top: courtesy of the Mariinsky Theatre; by Natasha Razina, courtesy of the Mariinsky Theatre

The Museum Workout. Photo by Paula Lobo, courtesy of the Met

As you tally up the reasons to be grateful this Thanksgiving, take a moment to reflect on a few of the world premieres that broke new ground this year. Some changed our perspective on dance, and others were just plain fierce, but they all got our attention and inspired our work as dance teachers.

Keep reading... Show less
Thinkstock

With Thanksgiving approaching, we're all ruminating on the things we are most thankful for in the world. Of course, as dance teachers, our students are always at the top of our list. They make us laugh, they make us cry and sometimes they make us want to pull our hair out, but at the end of the day, they are the reason for everything we do in the studio each day. To get you thinking about how much you love your dancers, here are five videos of kids dancing that are sure to make your heart happy! We want to see the dancers you're thankful for this season, too, so share your favorite videos on social media, tag us and include #gratitudedance in the caption. Happy Thanksgiving, y'all!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

No matter how hard I work to change it, I'm often told that I have a shallow plié. Is there any hope for improving the depth of my plié through special stretches to make it juicier? I'm doing a lot of exercises, but I don't seem to getting any results. Looking forward to reading your advice. Thanks!

Keep reading... Show less
Videos

When New York City–based dancer Dan Lai began choreographing Figure 8, he had a specific vision in mind. Inspired by a song by FKA Twigs, he wanted the movement to represent the music's "dark and twisted vibe." "My thought process was to make shapes and phrases that were abstract and unique that complimented the intricate beats of the music," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Buzz
Thinkstock

Science has proven again, again that dancing is just, well, good for you. And not even in moderation. Like drinking water or laughing, there's no such thing as too much dancing. So, let's rejoice for this new dance perk to add to the list.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
To make dancers stronger and less injury-prone, Burns Wilson suggest adding floor barre or conditioning classes. Photo courtesy of Burns Wilson

With a career spanning 30-plus years in the dance field, Anneliese Burns Wilson has cultivated a unique perspective on health and injury prevention for dancers. From teaching ballet to teaching anatomy, she then founded ABC for Dance, which publishes dance-teaching materials. Now through research for her next book, which will focus on training the female adolescent dancer, she's delving even deeper into topics many dance teachers have overlooked.

Keep reading... Show less
Erdmann (left) on set for Hairspray Live. Courtesy of Erdmann

When Wicked ensemble member Kelli Erdman was training at Westlake Dance Center in Seattle, her teacher Kirsten Cooper taught her that focused transitions would be pivotal to her success as a dancer. Now as a professional, Erdmann applies this advice to her daily performances, asserting that she will never let the details of her dancing get blurry.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored