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Ballet Encyclopedia

Marius Petipa

born: 1818
died: 1910

The son of Jean Petipa, an excellent ballet dancer and teacher himself, Marius Petipa was the second of the two boys that made up this dancing family. Petipa's older brother by three years, Lucien, ended up as a dancer and ballet master at the Paris Opera.

Marius Petipa was born in 1818 in Marseille, France. He received his early training, starting at the age of seven, with his brother from their father.

The family moved to Brussels where Petipa attended the Grand College and also studied music at the conservatoire. He disliked dancing as a youngster but made such progress that he appeared in his father's La Dansomanie n 1831. In 1838 Petipa became a principal dancer at the theatre in Nantes, France where he also staged opera dances for the theatre.

In 1839 Jean Petipa took a leave from his post as ballet master at Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels when he was invited to America and Marius, recovering from a broken leg, accompanied him there. While in the United States Petipa performed at the National Theatre on Broadway in La Tarentule bringing a little bit of ballet to America eighty-four years before Balanchine arrived in 1933. La Tarentule however was far from a hit and so Marius and Jean Petipa went back to Europe that winter.

Petipa returned to Paris where he danced at the Comédie Française then at the Paris Opera where Lucien was a premier danseur. While at the Paris Opera Petipa studied with August Vertris. It was around the time that Marius was dancing at the Paris Opera that Jean left the Théâtre de la Monnaie and became a teacher at the Imperial Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg.

Marius grew tired of living in Lucien's shadow at the Paris Opera and struck out on his own. He went to Bordeaux for a year in 1842 then to Madrid for four years. It was in Madrid that Petipa learned about Spanish dance which would come through in the Spanish dances he choreographed for ballets in Russia.

In 1847 Petipa was engaged to dance at the Imperial Theatre, (also known as the Mariinsky Theatre), in St. Petersburg, Russia. His first appearance at the Mariinsky was that fall in Paquita. As a dancer Marius Petipa had developed a reputation as a talented pantomime artist and an outstanding dancer and partner for the time.

Petipa's first choreography in Russia occurred in 1949 for Flotow's opera Alessandro Stradella in Moscow. He did not, however, choreograph a ballet for several more years.

Petipa married another dancer, Marie Scurvshikova, in 1854, the same year he became an instructor at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg and in 1857 Marius and Marie had a daughter together, also named Marie.

Petipa choreographed his first original ballet in Russia, Un mariage sous régence, for his wife in 1858. He still was not very well known as a choreographer partly because he was working under Jules Perrot and Arthur Saint-Leon their fame by far outshone Petipa's.

Petipa continued choreographing and four years later invented La fille du pharon, his first outstanding success. Because of La fille du pharon Marius Petipa was made Choreographer-in-Chief of the Imperial Theatre. In 1869 Petipa was made the Premier Ballet Master of the Imperial Theatre. 1869 wasn't all good news for Marius though, it was then that he and Maria were divorced.

Over the next several years Petipa choreographed several classics which not only survive to this day but are some of the pillars of classical ballet. He brought us the ballet Don Quixote to music by Minkus in 1869 and La Bayadère in 1877.

Petipa excelled at stylized dances for operas. In fact many of Petipa's ballets had a choreographic counterpart in the dances he created for operas. For example the ballet Camargo has a similar subject to the dances Petipa choreographed in the opera Manon. Petipa especially favoured Spanish dances – something that came from his time spent in Spain, and he rarely choreographed Russian dances; he would usually assign these to native Russian choreographers working under him.

Petipa brought the French and Italian traditions to Russia and gave increased importance to dance over pantomime. He was talented at pleasing audiences and dealing with the bureaucracy of the Imperial Theatres while still maintaining artistic integrity in his works.

In 1881 when Ivan Vsevolojsky was appointed Director of the Imperial Theatres. His patronage led to the creation of the three great Petipa/Tchaikovsky masterpieces: The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake. Although they were not immediately successful these three ballets have become considered by many to be the greatest ballets of all time show classical ballet at its best. They are definitely the most popular ballets in existence.

In 1882 Marius Petipa's former wife Maria died and he re-married a dancer from the Moscow ballet named Lubova Leonidovna.

Unfortunately Vsevolojsky's tenure at the Imperial Theatres came to an end and he was replaced by Colonel Telyakovsky who pressured Petipa to change. The result of this change was a ballet called The Magic Mirror which was a total flop. After The Magic Mirror Marius Petipa retired in 1903 and was barred from the Imperial Theatres that had been his home for fifty-six years. He wrote his memoirs which were published in 1906 and died an unhappy man in the Ukraine in 1910 at the ripe old age of ninety-two.

After a lifetime of ballet Marius Petipa, the Frenchman who came to be known as "the father of Russian ballet," left us a legacy of classical ballet that continues to this day. He greatly expanded the role of male dancers and we have him to thank for the leaping, twirling, breathtaking men's choreography we see in ballets now. While numbers are hard to find it appears that he staged at least fifty original ballets and created dances to thirty-five operas in addition to reviving another seventeen ballets. In reality he probably contributed to many, many more productions.

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