Marius Petipa

From New World Encyclopedia

Maestro Marius Ivanovich Petipa, Maître de Ballet of the Imperial Theatres. St. Petersburg, February 14, 1898. Photo reads - "Souvenir à Mlle. A. Vaganova. M. Petipa 14/2 98. St. Pétersbourg"

Marius Ivanovich Petipa (ru. Мариус Иванович Петипа) (March 11, 1818 - July 14, 1910) was a ballet dancer, teacher, and choreographer. Marius Petipa is often given the title "Father of Classical Ballet," and is cited nearly unanimously by the most noted artists of the classical ballet to be the most influential balletmaster and choreographer that has ever lived (among them—George Balanchine, who cited Petipa as his primary influence).

Petipa is equally noted for the ballets he created, some of which have survived to the present day in versions either faithful to, inspired by, or reconstructed from the original—The Pharaoh's Daughter (1862); Don Quixote (1869); La Bayadère (1877); The Talisman (1889); The Sleeping Beauty (1890); The Nutcracker (choreographed by Lev Ivanov, with Petipa's counsel and instruction) (1892); The Awakening of Flora (1894); The Calvary Halt (also known as Halte de Cavalerie) (1896); Raymonda (1898); and Harlequin's Millions (also known as Harlequinade) (1900).

Petipa also resurrected a substantial amount of works created by other choreographers which had long left the stage of other European theaters. By way of Petipa's productions, many of these works lived on to the present day—Le Corsaire (1856, 1863, 1868, 1885, and 1899); Giselle (1850 with counsel and instruction from Jules Perrot, 1884, 1899); La Esmeralda (1866, 1872, 1886, and 1899); Coppelia (1884, 1894 with Enrico Cecchetti); Paul Taglioni's La Fille Mal Gardée (1885 with Ivanov); The Little Humpbacked Horse (also known as The Tsar Maiden) (1895); and Swan Lake (1895 with Ivanov). There are a number of various divertissements and incidental Pas from Petipa's original works and revivals that have survived in performance even when the full-length work did not, either in versions based on Petipa's original or choreographed anew by others—the Grand Pas Classique, Pas de Trios, and Children's Polonaise and Mazurka from Paquita (1881); the Venetian Carnival Grand Pas de Deux (also known as the Fascination Pas de Deux from Satanella) (1859/1870); The Talisman Pas de Deux (1889); the La Esmeralda Pas de Deux (1899); the Diane and Actéon Pas de Deux (1903/1931 in a version by Agrippina Vaganova); The Cavalry Halt Pas de Deux (1896); the Don Quixote Pas de Deux (1869); the La Fille Mal Gardée Pas de Deux (1885/1894); and the Harlequinade Pas de Deux (1900). All of the full-length ballets and individual pieces which have survived in performance are today considered to be cornerstones of the Classical Ballet repertory.

Early life and career

Marius Petipa was born Victor Marius Alphonse Petipa in Marseilles, France on March 11, 1818. His mother Victorine Grasseau was a well-known tragic actress and teacher of drama, while his father, Jean Petipa was a much respected Balletmaster, choreographer, and teacher. At the time Marius Petipa was born his father was engaged as Premier Danseur (Principal Male Dancer) to the Ballet du Grand-Théâtre de Marseille (also known as the Ballet du Salle Bauveau), and in 1819, was appointed Maître de Ballet (First Balletmaster/Chief Choreographer) to the theatre. The young Marius spent his early childhood traveling throughout Europe with his family, as his parents' professional engagements took them from city to city. By the time he was six years old his family had relocated to Brussels, Belgium, where his father was appointed both Maître de Ballet and Premier Danseur to the Ballet du Théâtre de la Monnaie, and one of the first of the first teachers of the Conservatoire de la Danse, which he helped to establish. The young Marius received his general education at the Grand College in Brussels, while also attending the Brussels Conservatoire where he studied music and learned to play the violin.

Portrait of Marius Petipa at age nine in his début performance as a Savoyard in his father Jean Petipa's production of La Dansomani, Brussels, 1827.

Petipa's father began Marius' lessons in ballet at the age of seven. At first the young boy resisted, caring very little for the artform, but very soon he came to love the ballet that was so much the life and identity of his family, and he excelled quickly. He made his debut in 1827 at the age of nine in his father's production of Pierre Gardel's La Dansomani, performing in the juvenile role of a Savoyard. Soon afterward the Belgian Revolution of 1830 left Jean Petipa without employment, and the Petipa family was left in dire straits for some years.

In 1834, the Petipa family relocated to Bordeaux, France, where Marius' father had secured the position of Maître de Ballet to the Ballet du Grand Théâtre. Here, Marius completed his academic education, as well as his ballet training under the great Auguste Vestris, and by 1838, at the age of twenty he was appointed Premier Danseur to the Ballet de Nantes in Nantes, France. During this time in Nantes the young Petipa began to try his hand at choreography, creating a string of one-act ballets and divertissements.

In July 1839 the twenty-one year old Petipa accompanied his father on a tour of the United States with a group of dancers. Among the many engagements was a performance of Jean Coralli's La Tarentule at the National Theater on Broadway, being the first ballet performance ever seen in New York City. The tour proved to be a complete disaster however, as many in the uncultured American audiences of that time had never before seen ballet. To add to the fiasco, the American impresario who arranged the engagements stole a large portion of the performance receipts and subsequently disappeared without a trace. Upon leaving for France, Petipa's ticket only allowed him passage to Nantes, but instead of returning to that city he stowed away in the cabin of a woman he befriended so that he may continue on to Paris. By 1840 he had made his début as a dancer with the famous Comédie Française, and during his début he partnered the legendary Ballerina Carlotta Grisi in a benefit performance held for the actress Rachel. Petipa also took part in performances with the Ballet du Théâtre de l'Académie Royale de Musique (or the Paris Opera Ballet, as it is known today), where his brother Lucien Petipa was engaged as Premier Danseur.


Petipa was offered the position of Premier Danseur to the Ballet du Grand Théâtre in Bordeaux in 1841. There, he studied further with the great Vestris, all the while dancing the leads in such ballets as La Fille Mal Gardée, La Péri, and Giselle. While performing with the company his skills as not only a dancer but as a partner were much celebrated; his partnering with Carlotta Grisi during a performance of La Péri was talked about for years to come, particularly one acrobatic catch of the ballerina that dazzled the audience, prompting the famous dramatist Théophile Gautier to say that the feat would become "…as famous as the Niagra Falls." While in Bordeaux Petipa began mounting his own original productions, which were viewed with considerable respect. These included La Jolie Bordelaise (The Beauty of Bordeaux), La Vendange (The Grape Picker), L’Intrigue Amoureuse (The Intrigues of Love), and Le Langage des Fleurs (The Voice of the Flowers).


In 1843, Petipa was offered the position Premier Danseur at the King's Theatre in Madrid, Spain, where for the next three years he would acquire an acute knowledge of traditional Spanish Dancing, while producing new works, most of them on Spanish themes—Carmen et Son Toréro (Carmen and the Bullfighter), La Perle de Séville (The Pearl of Seville), L’Aventure d’une Fille de Madrid (The Adventures of a Madrileña), La Fleur de Grenada (The Flower of Grenada), and Départ Pour la Course des Taureaux (Leaving for the Bull Races). In 1846, he began a love affair with the wife of the Marquis de Chateaubriand, a prominent member of the French Embassy. Learning of the affair, the Marquis challenged Petipa to a duel and, rather than keep his fateful appointment, Petipa quickly left Spain, never to return. He then travelled to Paris where he stayed for a brief period. While in the city, he took part in a performances with the Ballet du Théâtre de l'Académie Royale de Musique where he partnered Thérèse Elssler, sister of Fanny Elssler.

St. Petersburg, Russia

Early career

Petipa accepted the position of Premier Danseur to the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg, Russia, a position which had become vacant upon the departure of the French Danseur Emile Gredlu. On May 24, 1847, the twenty-nine year old Petipa arrived in the imperial capital. It is possible that Petipa's name was changed from Victor Marius Alphonse to Marius Ivanovich upon being baptized into Russian Orthodoxy.

For his début, Petipa mounted the first Russian production of Joseph Mazilier's celebrated ballet of 1846 Paquita,, staged with assistance of the Danseur Frédéric Malevergne. In this work Petipa made a successful début on September 26, 1847, in the largely mimed role of Lucien d’Hervilly. Petipa then staged another of Mazilier's works with his father (who had followed Petipa to Russia not long after he arrived there), the celebrated 1840 ballet Le Diable Amoureux (The Devil In Love), first presented in St. Petersburg under the title Satanella on February 10, 1848, for which Petipa performed the lead male role of Fabio. It is significant to note that Petipa's father became teacher of the Classe de Perfection for the graduating class of Ballerinas at the Imperial Ballet School (school of the Imperial Ballet—known today as the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet), and held the position until his death in 1855 at the age of fifty-nine.

At the time Petipa had arrived in St. Petersburg, the Imperial Ballet had been in a considerable decline since the 1842 departure of the great Marie Taglioni, who had been engaged in the Imperial Capital as guest Ballerina. The productions of Paquita and Satanella brought about a measure of praise and attention for the company. According to the critic Raphael Zotov—"Our lovely ballet company was reborn with the productions of 'Paquita' and 'Satanella,' and its superlative performances placed the company again at its former level of glory and universal affection."

In December of 1849, Petipa then presented his own original, full-length ballet, Leda, the Swiss Milkmaid. Later that month Petipa staged the ballet sections of Friedrich von Flotow's Alessandro Stradella for the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Opera, which would prove to be the first and last choreography he would stage for the next six years, as his duties as a dancer would soon take first place to those as fledgling choreographer.

Students of the Imperial Ballet School in the Petipa/Minkus Children's Polonaise and Mazurka from Act II of Paquita, St. Petersburg, 1881

In the winter of 1849, the great French Balletmaster Jules Perrot arrived in St. Petersburg, having accepted the position of Maître de Ballet to the Imperial Ballet. He was accompanied by his chief collaborator, the prolific Italian ballet composer Cesare Pugni, who was appointed First Imperial Ballet Composer. The majority of the works that Perrot would go on to stage in St. Petersburg were revivals of ballets he had already produced with Pugni in London for the Ballet of Her Majesty's Theatre, where he had been engaged previously as Maître de Ballet. Petipa not only danced the principal roles in many of Perrot's productions (those in which Perrot did not dance the lead himself) but also assisted in staging them (such as Giselle in 1850, and Le Corsaire in 1858), all the while learning a great deal from the man who at the time was arguably the greatest choreographer in all Europe. Although Petipa did not create his own original works during this period, he was nonetheless allowed by Perrot to stage a substantial number of dances for various operas, many of which survived well into the early twentieth century. It was around this time that Petipa began teaching at the Imperial Ballet School.

By 1850, Petipa's first child, a son named Marius Mariusovich Petipa (1850-1919) was born. His mother, Marie Thérèse Bourdin, with whom Petipa had a brief liaison, died only five years later. In 1854, Petipa married the Ballerina Mariia Surovshchikova-Petipa. Together they had two children—Marie Mariusovna Petipa (1857-1930) (who would go on to become a celebrated dancer with the Imperial Ballet, creating the role of the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty in 1890), and Jean Mariusovich Petipa (1859-1971). In spite of his marriage, Petipa was well-known for his many affairs with women, which he made no effort in hiding, much to the chagrin of his wife.

On January 9, 1855 Petipa presented his first original ballet in over six years, a divertissement titled The Star of Grenada, for which he collaborated for the first time with the composer Pugni. The work was presented not on the main stage of the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theater (principal theater of the Imperial Ballet and Opera until 1886) but in the theatre of the Mikhailovsky Palace. It would be two years until Petipa would present his next work, mounted especially for a gala performance at Peterhof on October 8, 1857—The Rose, the Violet, and the Butterfly, to the music of Prince Pyotr Georgievich of Oldenburg, proved to be very successful, though when it was presented on the stage of the Bolshoi Kamenny Theater two weeks later the production was credited to Perrot. On April 23, 1859, Petipa mounted The Parisian Market to the music of Pugni, with his wife Mariia in the lead role of Lizetta. The ballet was a great success, so much so that Petipa was invited to Paris two years later to mount the work at the Théâtre Impérial de l´Opéra under the title Le Marché des Innocents, with his wife reprising her role.

In 1858, Perrot retired to his native France, never to return to Russia again, and Petipa hoped to succeed him as Maître de Ballet—choreography was a logical alternative to dancing for the now 41 year old Petipa, who was soon to retire from the stage, and he had shown much promise in the annals of creating ballets. But it was not to be; the great French choreographer Arthur Saint-Léon was given the position instead by the director of the Imperial Theaters Andrei Saburov, and soon a healthy and productive rivalry between he and Petipa ensued, bringing the Imperial Ballet to new heights throughout the 1860s. Petipa's ten years as an assistant to Perrot had taught him much, and although he had only staged two ballets of his own in previous decade, the success of The Parisian Market, as well as the many dances for various operas he staged allowed him to perfect his talent, and in 1862 he staged a ballet that shown with the genius for which he would be forever remembered.

The Pharaoh's Daughter

The great Italian Ballerina Carolina Rosati had been engaged as guest artist with the Imperial Ballet since 1855, and by 1861 her contract with the company was coming to an end. Upon leaving St. Petersburg, the Ballerina had decided to retire from the stage forever. By contract she was allowed one last benefit performance in an all new production, and in late 1861 she requested from the director Saburov that preparations begin post haste. Saburov soon put all other rehearsals and projects on hold, and asked Petipa if he could stage a ballet for Rosati in only six weeks. Confidently, Petipa answered, "Yes, I shall try, and probably succeed."

While in Paris staging his ballet, The Parisian Market, Petipa had received the completely worked out scenario from the dramatist Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges for a ballet titled The Pharaoh's Daughter (Saint-Georges was a much celebrated and sought-after librettist, having created among many other libretti the scenario for the Romantic masterwork Giselle). Petipa decided that this scenario, set in exotic ancient Egypt, would be perfect for the effective production Rosati so desired. During this time Europe was fascinated with all things concerning the art and culture of the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs, and Petipa was sure that a ballet on such a subject would be a great success.

Petipa began work immediately, collaborating with the composer Pugni, who wrote his melodious and apt score with the quickness for which he was well known. The Pharaoh's Daughter premiered on January 18, 1862, to an unrivaled success; the work exceeded even the opulent tastes of the age, as so lavish and exotic a ballet had not been seen on the Imperial stage for some time. The work went on to become the most popular ballet in the entire repertory, having been performed 203 times by February of 1903. The great success of the work earned for Petipa the position of second Balletmaster, with perhaps only Saint-Léon's contract preventing him from attaining the coveted post of Maître de Ballet. The ballet reconstitution one can see today is due to French choreographer Pierre Lacotte.

Saint-Léon answered the success of Petipa's The Pharaoh's Daughter with a ballet adaptation of Pyotr Yershov's famous poem The Little Humpbacked Horse. The work proved to be a great success equal to that of The Pharaoh's Daughter, with its series of fantastical Grand Ballabile set on an enchanted Isle and under-water, grand processions, and well staged national dances. Though Saint-Léon was by title and technicality Petipa's superior, the two men were viewed as equals by the critics and balletomanes, and would rival one another with splendid productions throughout the 1860s, with the two of them having not only their own respective audiences but also their own Ballerinas. Petipa mounted the majority of his works at that time for his wife, the Prima Ballerina Mariia Surovshchikova-Petipa, while Saint-Léon mounted his works mostly for the great Marfa Muravieva (interestingly, nearly every work Petipa and Saint-Léon produced during the 1860s was set to the music of the composer Pugni). Petipa's final ballet of the 1860s would prove to be one of his most successful and enduring works; Don Quixote was mounted for the Ballet of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, and was the first ballet in which Petipa collaborated with the Czech composer Léon Minkus.

Maître de Ballet of the Imperial Ballet

In 1868 Petipa presented the exotic grand ballet Tsar Kandavl (also known as Le Roi Candaule). This work, set to the usually tuneful and apt music of Pugni was an enormous success, going on to break attendance records at the theater. In 1869, Saint-Léon's contract was set to expire. The failures of his two most recent ballets—his 1866 Le Poisson Doré (a ballet adaptation of Pushkin's 1835 poem The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish), and his 1869 Le Lys (The Lily)—caused the Minister of the Imperial Court to not renew his contract. While in the Café de Divan in the Avenue de l'Opéra in Paris Saint-Léon died of a heart attack on September 2, 1870, and not long before him so had the composer Pugni, Petipa's chief collaborator, on January 26 of that same year.

Petipa was named Première Maître de Ballet en Chef on February 29, 1870. For the remainder of the nineteenth century Petipa would transform the ballet of St. Petersburg with his ballet à grand spectacle, all the while redefining the pure-dance element in ballet. His masterfully composed ensembles, Grand Pas, variations, and incidental dances demanded the highest execution of technique from his dancers. Although the Imperial Ballet School (school of the Imperial Theaters) had always been among the greatest ballet academies in Europe, a renaissance in the quality of teaching methods of the instructors of the school began, improving the quality of teaching even more. As a result a syllabus of sorts began to evolve for training the young students, though it would be decades before this form of teaching the art of ballet would be cultivated, perfected, and given a name—the Vaganova method.

In 1875, Petipa and his wife, Mariia Surovshchikova-Petipa separated, and in 1882, she died of virulent smallpox in Pyatigorsk. In 1876, Petipa married the Ballerina Lyubov Savitskaya, who before she married Petipa had given birth to their first child. Together, they had six children–Nadezhda Mariusovna Petipa (1874-1945), Evgeniia Mariusovna Petipa (1877-1892), Victor Mariusovich Petipa (1879-1939), Lyubov Mariusovna Petipa (1880-1917), Marius Mariusovich Petipa II (1884-1922), and Vera Mariusovna Petipa (1885-1961). With so many children, Petipa stood at the head of a rather large family by the time he reached his 70s, having many grand-children, in-laws, and god-children. Although he was well provided for at the expense of the Imperial treasury, he was not rich, and lived strictly within his means. He kept track of all of his living expenses in journals, as well as box-office receipts at the theater. But he was also by no means a "penny-pincher," always lavishing presents upon his children and grandchildren, or giving them money whenever he could.

In 1877, Petipa mounted his greatest masterwork to date—La Bayadère, set in exotic ancient India, proved to be a work that would endure well into modern times. The widely-cheered premiere on January 23, 1877, turned out to be a point of intersection for the art of ballet; La Bayadère contained Petipa's masterfully choreographed Grand Pas Classique set in the context of a vision scene (or Ballet Blanc) that would in essence mark the transition of the Romantic ballet evolving into what we now know today to be the Classical Ballet—The Kingdom of the Shades. This scene was and has remained perhaps one of the ultimate tests for the Corps de Ballet, the Classical Ballerina, and the Premier Danseur.

By the early 1880s Petipa began mounting revivals of older ballets more frequently. Many of these works had all but disappeared from the stages of Europe in spite of the great receptions they had been given upon their premieres, and Petipa would breathe new life into them in such a way that many of them would endure to the present day in stagings derived from his versions. Among them, his definitive revival of Mazilier's Paquita in 1881, for which he added a Grand Pas Classique, Pas de Trois, and Children's Polonaise and Mazurka to the music of Minkus. These dances, particularly the Grand Pas Classique, would go on to be one of his most enduring and celebrated compositions, surviving well into the present day. Another was Mazilier's 1856 Le Corsaire, a ballet Petipa had revived in 1856, 1863, and 1868, he would present his most definitive staging to date in 1885.

Petipa also revived Giselle—another ballet that Petipa had revised quite a few times—and 1884, would see his definitive revival of the work, a version which it is said is still performed in his staging largely unchanged by the Mariinsky Ballet. Other ballets Petipa would revive during the 1880s include Saint-Léon's final ballet Coppelia in 1884, Paul Taglioni's 1864 version of La Fille Mal Gardée (with his Second Balletmaster Lev Ivanov) in 1885 for the visiting Italian Ballerina Virginia Zucchi, and Perrot's La Esmeralda in 1886, again for Zucchi.

In 1881, the new Emperor Tsar Alexander III appointed Ivan Vsevolozhsky director of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theaters. An extremely cultured and noble aristocrat, he would prove to be one of Petipa's greatest confidants and collaborators. In 1886, he prompted the inspection of the Bolshoi Kamenny Theater by architects who found the building to be unsafe, and rather than spend millions of rubles on a renovations, Vsevolozhsky soon transferred both the ballet and opera to the Imperial Mariinsky Theater, much to the chagrin of the orchestra and opera singers who found Mariinsky's acoustics to be weaker. Both companies remain at that theater today.

The Golden Age of Petipa and the Imperial Ballet

The ballets of Petipa were lavish spectacles that could have only been produced in the opulent atmosphere of the Imperial Russian court, which was at the time the wealthiest and most resplendent in all Europe. The treasury of the Tsar lavished over 10,000,000 rubles a year on the Imperial Ballet, opera, and the Imperial Theatrical School, home of the Imperial Ballet School (today the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet). Every season Petipa presented a new ballet, as well as revivals of older works, the staging of dance sections for operas, and the preparations of various galas and celebrations for royal nuptials, birthdays, official state visits, or for visiting Royalty.

The works of the Imperial Ballet were presented to a public that adored the ballet, and knew the artform very intimately. They had the highest expectations and standards, with many critics from various newspapers reporting in detail every performance. To create ballets for such a public meant that Petipa had to constantly maintain the utmost level of perfection and excellence in his works. With the art of ballet flourishing in this kind of an environment, the 19th century saw the Imperial Ballet reached what is considered to be it's "golden age."

This era began in the late 1880s, when Petipa presented his colossal extravaganza set in ancient Rome The Vestal, set to the music of the composer Mikhail Ivanov, a student of Tchaikovsky's. Then, in 1889, the director Vsevolozhsky commissioned Tchaikovsky to score music for Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty in 1889. The ballet's premiere on January 3, 1890, was a resounding success, and is today considered to be the quintessential Classical Ballet, as well as among Petipa's ultimate masterpieces of choreography. The ballet proved to be so popular in fact that by April of 1903 it had been performed 100 times in only thirteen years, being one of the most popular works in the Imperial Ballet's repertory, second only to Petipa's The Pharaoh's Daughter.

In essence, what is now considered to be the art of Classical Ballet and classical technique came into its own in the 1890s in St. Petersburg, where virtuoso Ballerinas were finally met in technique from the Danseurs, and lavish productions accentuated the masterful choreography Petipa created for not only his new works but for his many revivals of older ballets, such as Perrot's Ondine and Philippe Taglioni's original La Sylphide, both staged in 1892.

Vsevolozhsky then commissioned a second score for a ballet from Tchaikovsky. The Nutcracker was perhaps doomed from the start. The libretto, created by Petipa from E.T.A. Hoffman's tale was completely devoid of the dramatic action and mime sequences then in vogue with ballet audiences, and the role of the lead Ballerina was reduced merely to a Grand Pas de Deux in the second act. Petipa soon passed on the duties of mounting the ballet to his Second Balletmaster Lev Ivanov. It is believed that this was done because Petipa fell ill, but illness did not keep him from rehearsing other ballets during that time. It is likely Petipa "washed his hands" of the ballet, as long experience showed him that such a work would not be well received. (There are many contemporary accounts that site Petipa as choreographer of The Nutcracker, with Ivanov merely putting on the "finishing touches"). The Nutcracker premiered on December 6, 1892, on a double bill with Tchaikovsky's opera Iolanta, and was indeed received in manner that in no way pointed to the place the work would one day have in the ballet repertory. Petipa's illness kept him from composition for nearly the whole of 1893, but he still found strength to supervise the production of a work where perhaps the greatest Ballerina since Marie Taglioni would make her début on the Imperial stage.

A ballet adaptation of Charles Perrault's Cinderella (or Zolushka) was chosen for the new production of the 1893-1894 season to music by the composer Baron Boris Fitinhof-Schell. Because Petipa was ill the choreography fell into the hands of Lev Ivanov and Enrico Cecchetti. In the title role the new guest Ballerina, the Italian virtuosa Pierina Legnani made her début, and on the evening of the premiere, December 3, 1893, her phenomenal technique and beauty of execution swept all before her. In the coda of the Grand Pas d'action of the last act she astounded the audience by performing a feat never before executed by any Ballerina–32 fouettés en tournant. The public demanded an encore, and Legnani performed no less than twenty-eight more fouettés. According to press accounts of the performance she never moved an inch. Legnani's success in Cinderella was so great she was quickly named Prima Ballerina Assoluta of the Imperial Ballet, and though her initial contract was for only two years, she was nevertheless invited to remain with the Imperial Ballet for eight more years. In 1894 the Ballerina Mathilde Kschessinskaya was named Prima Ballerina of the Imperial Ballet, second only in rank to Legnani, and although she was eventually named Prima Ballerina Assoluta it was nevertheless Legnani who proved to be Petipa's greatest muse, as nearly every new ballet he mounted throughout his remaining years with the Imperial Ballet was with Legnani in the principal role. Among them were Raymonda in 1898, and Les Ruses d'Amour in 1900. He gave Kschessinskaya almost all of the leads in his revivals, including his 1898 revival of The Pharaoh's Daughter and his 1899 revival of La Esmeralda.

In 1894 Petipa returned to choreography from his illness with his first completely original ballet since The Sleeping Beauty. Set to the score by Drigo, the one-act The Awakening of Flora was mounted especially for the celebrations at Peterhof of the wedding of Tsar Alexander III's daughter, the Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna to the Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, premiering on July 28, 1894. The short work was hailed as a masterpiece, as was Drigo's score. Drigo would in fact prove to be Petipa's chief collaborator for his remaining ten years with the Imperial Ballet. The composer not only wrote completely new scores, but the bulk of his duties would be in revising older scores for Petipa's revivals, as well as the endless task of scoring supplemental Pas and variations.

In 1893, Tchaikovsky died, and in February 1894, a memorial concert was given in his honor at the Mariinsky Theater. For the occasion Lev Ivanov mounted the second scene from Tchaikovsky's 1877 Swan Lake, a work first produced in Moscow that was not successful. It was soon decided that a revival of the full-length work be mounted for the 1894-1895 season. Ivanov would stage the scenes with the swans (act I-scene II and act III–or act II and act IV as in most western productions), while Petipa would stage the rest of the work (act I-scene I and act II, or act I and act II in most modern western productions), Drigo would revise the 1877 score in accordance with Petipa's instructions, and Tchaikovsky's brother Modest would revise the ballet's scenario. The premiere on January 15, 1895 with Legnani in the dual role of Odette/Odile was a great success, and in Petipa and Ivanov's version Swan Lake would go on to become one of the greatest of all ballets, remaining to the present day as one of the ultimate tests for the Classical Ballerina and the Corps de Ballet.

The turn of the twentieth century

Feeling his advanced old age, Petipa would spend the remainder of the turn of the 20th century devoting most of his energies into staging revivals. The old Maestro saw to it that these productions, as well as the rest of the repertory of the Imperial Ballet, would be preserved in the method of Stepanov choreographic notation in an effort to preserve his life's work (today this collection of notation is called the Sergeyev Collection). In the winter of 1895 Petipa presented lavish revivals of his 1889 ballet The Talisman, and Saint-Léon's 1864 The Little Humpbacked Horse (as The Tsar Maiden), both with Legnani in the principal roles. The turn of the twentieth century saw Petipa present even more spectacular revivals—The Pharoah's Daughter in 1898, La Esmeralda, Giselle, Le Corsaire in 1899, and La Bayadère in 1900. These revivals would prove to be Petipa's final "finishing touch" on these works.

But Petipa also mounted new works. On May 14, 1896, the new Emperor and Empress, Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna were coronated at the Upensky Sobor Cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin. For the celebrations in honor of the event which were held at the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre three days later, Petipa presented a one-act ballet to Drigo's music–The Pearl. The ballet, set in an under-water kingdom, proved to be the greatest success on the bill.

On January 7, 1898, the near eighty year old Petipa presented one of his greatest ballets–Raymonda. Set in Hungary during the middle ages to the music of Alexander Glazunov, it premiered to great success. Petipa's Pas classique hongrois (AKA Raymonda Pas de Dix) from the last act of the ballet would go on to be one of his most celebrated and enduring excerpts, with the challenging choreography he lavished onto Legnani (who danced the title role) becoming one of the ultimate tests of the Classical Ballerina.

Petipa presented what would prove to be his final masterpiece on February 10, 1900 at the Hermitage Theater–Harlequin's Millions (known more popularly today as Harlequinade, based on George Balanchine's 1965 revival), a balletic Harlequinade set to Drigo's music. Harlequinade was dedicated by both Drigo and Petipa to the new Empress, Alexandra Feodorovna, a work which would prove to be the last enduring flash of Petipa's choreographic genius.

Petipa's final years with the Imperial Ballet

In spite of his vast accomplishments, Petipa's last years with the Imperial Ballet were anything but easy. By the turn of the twentieth century new innovations in the art of classical dance began to become apparent. With all of this, Petipa's rocky relationship with the new director of the Imperial Theaters, Vladimir Telyakovsky, appointed to the position in 1901, served as the catalyst of the Balletmaster's end. Telyakovsky made no effort in disguising his dislike of Petipa's art, as he felt that the ballet had become stagnant under him, and felt that other, more youthful Balletmasters should have a chance at the helm of the Imperial Ballet. But even at the age of eighty-three, and suffering from the constant pain brought on by a severe case of the skin disease pemphigus, the old Maestro Petipa showed no signs of slowing down, much to Telyakovsky's chagrin.

One example of Telyakovsky's efforts in his attempt to "de-throne" Petipa came in 1903 when he invited Alexander Gorsky, a former Premièr Danseur to the Imperial Ballet, to stage his own version of Petipa's 1869 ballet Don Quixote. Gorsky had been engaged as Balletmaster to the Ballet of the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre, and in 1900 he mounted a complete revision of Don Quixote in a version radically different from Petipa's original, though it was still in many ways based on it. Petipa was of course furious when he learned this new version would completely replace his own, as he had not even been consulted on the production of a ballet that was originally his creation. While watching a rehearsal of Gorsky's production at the Mariinsky Theater, Petipa was heard yelling out, "Will someone tell that young man that I am not yet dead?!" Petipa was further frustrated by the fact that the Imperial Theater's newly appointed régisseur Nicholas Sergeyev was traveling throughout the Russian Empire and mounting many of Petipa's works while being paid large sums with no regard given to their original creator.

Petipa made a rather unsuccessful attempt at being "innovative" with his 1902 one-act ballet The Heart of the Marquis, which aside from having the usual string of divertissements and various Pas and variations, boasted spoken passages where poetry was read by members of the St. Petersburg French Drama Troupe. The polite audience composed of the Imperial court applauded Petipa's efforts, but the work was completely mocked in the press and by many members of the Imperial Ballet.

In late 1902, Petipa began work on a ballet adaptation of the tale Snow White and the Seven DwarfsThe Magic Mirror. Petipa mounted the work for his own benefit performance, which was to mark a "semi-retirement" for the Balletmaster. The ballet, set to the music of the avant-garde composer Arsenii Koreshchenko, was given on February 9, 1903, at the Mariinsky Theater to an audience composed of the whole Imperial Family and many members of the St. Petersburg nobility. The production boasted an unorthodox score which from all accounts clashed with Petipa's classical, academic choreography. The bizarre décor and costumes were also considered to be unsuited for a classical ballet, and when they were revealed, the audience broke out into laughter, hisses, and whistles. From accounts of the dancers involved, Petipa's choreography was of great quality, but was unfortunately completely lost in the debacle of the unusual production. In spite of this Petipa received a roaring ovation from the audience at the end of the performance–the applause was not for the ballet, but for his life's work. The Magic Mirror was given scathing reviews in the press, and in the end the work was a failure. Petipa had created ballets before that were failures in the past, but at the age of eighty-four, and with severely strained relations with the director, the failure proved horrifically costly. Not long afterward rumor began to circulate that Petipa was to be replaced, and Telyakovsky even made an announcement to the Stock Trade Bulletin, a St. Petersburg newspaper, "The Ballet Company will have to get used to a new Balletmaster—Alexander Gorsky. He will stage his own versions of The Little Humpbacked Horse and Swan Lake. He has staged both ballets (for the Moscow Bolshoi Theater) entirely differently and in a much more original manner." In the end Gorsky never succeeded Petipa as Première Maître de Ballet en Chef. The coveted post would later go to Mikhail Fokine.

Telyakovsky knew that he could not legally end Petipa's employment, as he was still contracted as Première Maître de Ballet en Chef, so he began a cruel campaign in which to drive the aging Balletmaster from the theater. In 1902, Telyakovsky set up a new committee made up of influential members of the Imperial Theaters that would in essence take away Petipa's powers with regard to casting, repertory, and the appointment of dancers, though much to Telyakovsky's chagrin the members of the committee appointed Petipa chairman. Soon after Telyakovsky began purposely not sending carriages to collect Petipa for a particular rehearsal, or not sending him lists of casting for various ballets, and even not informing Petipa of various rehearsals taking place, for which the Balletmaster was legally required to know about. But at the age of eighty-four, and with his poor health, Petipa seemed to not have much energy to fight with a cruel theater director. He was invited in March of 1904 to stage The Pharoah's Daughter at the "new" Paris Opéra (the Palais Garnier) by relatives of Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges (who wrote the ballet's libretto), but his health prevented him from it.

Petipa's grave in the Alexander Nevsky Monestery, St. Petersburg, Russia

Despite the situation with Telyakovsky and the condition of his health, Petipa still managed to work, as he was constantly sought by the dancers of the Imperial Ballet for coaching, and he even managed to revise some of the dances in his old works. In 1904, the great Anna Pavlova, one of Petipa's favorite Ballerinas, asked him to revive the dances of Giselle especially for her. Petipa then coached Pavlova for her début in Paquita, and even created a new variation for her to Drigo's music that is still danced today by the lead Ballerina in the famous Paquita Grand Pas Classique. According to the Ballerina Olga Preobrajenskaya, "…by the time I entered His Majety's ballet in 1889, (Petipa) was a true master. I have always found myself fortunate to have witnessed such genius, for by the time Petipa reached his 80s, his art had reached a perfection unparalleled. Our ballet was unrivaled anywhere in Europe due to his genius."

Petipa's diaries reflect his constant fear of his aging body, and that his he had little time left to live. Aware of this, the Balletmaster spent nearly every minute he could creating variations and various numbers, as well as reworking many of the dances in his older works (including the dances of his 1868 ballet Tsar Kandavl in 1903, for which he added a new version of his celebrated Pas de Diane that would later become the famous Diane and Actéon Pas de Deux). Such work prompted him to write in his diaries "I am amazing."

Petipa then set to work on what would prove to be his final ballet—The Romance of the Rosebud and the Butterfly to the music of Drigo was, according to Preobrajenskaya, "…a little masterpiece." The work was scheduled to be presented on January 23, 1904, for a performance at the Imperial Theater of the Hermitage, but the director Telyakovsky abruptly cancelled the performance only two weeks prior to the premiere, giving no explanation as to why. For Petipa this was the final straw, and soon afterward he was rarely seen at the theater or the Imperial Ballet School (where rehearsals were held). The minister of the Imperial Court, the aristocrat Baron Fredericks gave Petipa the title "Balletmaster for life," and granted him a yearly pension of 9,000 rubles.

In his diaries Petipa noted his final composition on January 17, 1905—a variation to the music of Pugni for the Ballerina Preobrajenskaya from his own long-gone-from-the-stage revival of Paul Taglioni's 1849 The Traveling Dancer. He remained in St. Petersburg until 1907, and then, at the suggestion of his physicians, left with his family to the resort Gurzuf in the Crimea, where the air was more agreeable with his health. Petipa spent his remaining years in Gurzuf as a bitter and sad old man who constantly feared his own inevitable death, but more than anything he longed to choreograph. In 1907, he wrote in his diary, "I can state that I created a ballet company of which everyone said: St. Petersburg has the greatest ballet in all Europe." Petipa died on July 14, 1910, at the age of ninety-two, and was laid to rest three days later in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg.

The notation of Petipa's work

It was in 1891 that many of Petipa's original ballets, revivals, and dances from operas began to be notated in the method of Dance Notation created by Vladimir Stepanov. The project began with a demonstration to the committee of the Imperial Ballet (consisting of Petipa, Lev Ivanov, the former Prima Ballerina Ekaterina Vazem, the Jeune Premier Danseur Noble Pavel Gerdt, and the great teacher Christian Johansson) with Stepanov himself notating Lev Ivanov and Riccardo Drigo's 1893 ballet The Magic Flute, and not long afterward the project was set into motion. After Stepanov's death in 1896 the great Danseur Alexander Gorsky took over the project, all the while perfecting the system. After Gorsky departed St. Petersburg in 1900 to take up the post of Balletmaster to the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theater, the project was taken over by Nicholas Sergeyev, former Danseur of the Imperial Ballet (and later régisseur in 1903) with his team of notators; Alexander Chekrygin joined the project in 1903, and Victor Rakhmanov in 1904.

A Page of the Stepanov choreographic notation from the Sergeyev Collection for the Petipa/Minkus La Bayadère, c. 1900

After the Russian Revolution of 1917 Nicholas Sergeyev left Russia with the notations in hand. In 1921 Sergeyev took over the post of régisseur to the Latvian National Opera Ballet in Riga, and during his appointment there he added a substantial amount of the musical scores belonging to the notated ballets. In the 1930s, with the aid of the notations, Sergeyev went on to stage Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Coppelia (as danced by the Imperial Ballet), and The Nutcracker for the Vic-Wells Ballet of London (later the Royal Ballet) who still almost religiously perform the ballets with little changes from when they were first staged; it was through these revivals by Sergeyev in London with aid of these notations that the great ballets of Petipa where first staged in the west, forming the nucleus of what is now known as the Classical Ballet reperotry for not only the ballet of England but for the world.

In 1969 the Harvard University Library purchased the collection, which is today known as the Sergeyev Collection. The collection consists of choreographic notation documenting the compositions of Marius Petipa for his original ballets and revivals (the collection also includes two notations for ballets by Lev Ivanov (his 1893 The Magic Flute and 1887 The Enchanted Forest), and one by the brothers Nikolai and Sergai Legat (their 1903 revival of The Fairy Doll), as well as Petipa's choreography for dances from operas, along with various Pas, incidental dances, etc. from various other works. Not all of the notations are 100% complete, with some being rather vague in sections, leading some historians/scholars who have studied the collection to theorize that they were made to function simply as "reminders" for the Balletmaster or régisseur already familiar with these works. The collection also includes photos, set and costume designs, and music for most of the ballets in performance score editions (mostly in piano and/or violin reduction), many of which include a substantial number of dances, variations, etc. interpolated from other works.


Petipa's importance to the field of ballet and choreography are hard to overestimate. His staging of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake are the definitive versions of those ballets.


Excerpts of the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet's reconstruction of Petipa's 1890 production of 'The Sleeping Beauty'

Video of the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet's production of 'Raymonda'

Video of the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet's production of 'Le Corsaire'

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Beaumont, Cyrl W. Complete Book of Ballets. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1938. OCLC 1353877.
  • Garafola, Lynn, and Marius Petipa. The Diaries of Marius Petipa. Studies in Dance History. 3 (1) (Spring 1992).
  • Guest, Ivor Forbes. Jules Perrot - Master of the Romantic Ballet. Princeton Book Company Publishers, 1984. ISBN 9780871271402.
  • Guest, Ivor Forbes. Letters from a Ballet Master—The Correspondence of Arthur Saint-Léon. Dance Books, 1981. ISBN 9780903102582.
  • Petipa, Marius. Memuary Mariusa Petipa solista ego imperatorskogo velichestva i baletmeistera imperatorskikh teatrov (The Memoirs of Marius Petipa, Soloist of His Imperial Majesty and Ballet Master of the Imperial Theatres).
  • Wiley, Roland John. Dances from Russia: An Introduction to the Sergeyev Collection. The Harvard Library Bulletin 24 (1).
  • Wiley, Roland John (ed. and trans.) A Century of Russian Ballet: Documents and Eyewitness Accounts 1810-1910. Oxford University Press, 1991. ISBN 9780193164161.
  • Wiley, Roland John. The Life and Ballets of Lev Ivanov. Oxford University Press, 1997. ISBN 9780198165675.
  • Wiley, Roland John. Tchaikovsky's Ballets. Oxford University Press, 1991. ISBN 9780198162490.


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