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
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.
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