the Ballet
the History

Petipa and the Russian Ballet

Marius Petipa was still a leading dancer with the St. Petersburg ballet in 1862 when he created his first multi-act ballet for the tsar's imperial theatre, The Pharoh's Daughter, an incredible fantasy that included such Egyptian happenings as mummies awakening and poisonous snakes, much like an Indiana Jones movie. This ballet led to other ballets and eventually to what the world considers Classical Ballet.

In 1869 Petipa took over the position of Ballet Master in Chief to the Imperial Tsar. In his role of leadership Petipa created many multi- and single-act ballets for presentation on the imperial stages of Russia. In 1869 he went to Moscow and created Don Quixote for the ballet of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Then in 1877 he created La Bayadère for the Bolshoi Theatre in St. Petersburg, (There was a Bolshoi in both Moscow and in St. Petersburg - the word Bolshoi meaning "big").

In earlier years Petipa had choreographed the dances of les wilis in the second act of Giselle while acting as an assistant to Perrot and this form of female corps dancing representing shadows or spirits became known as ballet blanc and is common to Giselle, La Bayadère, and many other ballets.

Also in 1877 a ballet so popular its name and image represents classical ballet premiered in Moscow. Swan Lake, set to Tchaikovsky's first ballet score was the first of the "Big Three" of Russian Ballet. Originally set by Austrian Wenzel Reisinger, (1827-1892), Swan Lake has been reworked by many people including Joseph Hansen, (1842-1907), and then again by Petipa in 1895.

During the 1880s Petipa restaged in Russia two ballets that had been very successful in Paris. The first was Giselle which he had been involved in the first time, and the second was Saint-Léon's Coppélia, (originally presented in 1870). Interestingly enough, it was the music to Coppélia which inspired Tchaikovsky to write music for the ballet. With Petipa as the chief ballet master, many more Russian born and trained ballerinas danced on the imperial stages at this time than did at the beginning of Russian ballet. Now the Russians are known the world over as ballet dancers of extreme quality.

In 1890 the Italian ballerina Carlotta Brianza, (1867-1930), was chosen by Petipa to dance the title role in a new ballet called Spyashchaya Krasavitsa in Russian, La belle au Bois Dormant by the Francophile Russian Court, and The Sleeping Beauty in English. With music by Tchaikovsky composed "to spec" for Petipa, this ballet is the second of the Russian "Big Three" and is one of the great classical ballet masterpieces.

Then, continuing on their roll of success, in 1892 Petipa, Tchaikovsky, designer Ivan Vsevolozhsky, and assistant ballet master Lev Ivanov, (1834-1901), created The Nutcracker. This third of the Russian "Big Three" was based on a sweetened French retelling of the story by E.T.A. Hoffman. The Nutcracker has enjoyed huge popularity in hundreds of different versions as a "Christmas ballet."

In 1895 Petipa restaged Swan Lake including major choreographic additions. One of these was as the thirty two fouetté turns in the coda of the pas de deux from the ballroom scene.

In 1898 Petipa choreographed his last ballet with any staying power. Raymonda is a three-act ballet with music by Alexander Glazunov. Similar in style to the three Tchaikovsky ballets Raymonda is very difficult to follow because it showcases an impressive variety of dancing more than it portrays its plot line.

As the new century began, people started to get tired of Petipa's ideas and principles of ballet and looked for fresh ideas. By now the Russian ballet had surpassed the French ballet and many Russian dancers had become international stars. Probably the most notable ballerina of this time was Anna Pavlova, (1881-1931), who is known for dancing The Dying Swan.

In 1907 Mikhail Folkine, (1880-1942), started to push the rules of costume in the imperial theatre. He felt that the "open parasol" look that all of the ladies wore was getting boring and pornographic, so with his Greek style ballet, Eunice, he made it look like the dancers were in bare feet, (to have bare feet or legs was against the rules of the imperial theatre), by having toes painted on the dancers' shoes. He also chose to use serious music, rather than dance music.

In 1909 Sergei, (or Serge), Diaghilev, (1872-1929), created the Ballets Russes. This dance company started with strong Russian Character works. However, Le Pavillon d'Armide was the first ballet to be shown and it had a strong French influence. One of the dancers who performed in Le Pavillon d'Armide in both St. Petersburg and Paris was Vaslav Nijinsky, (1889-1950), who is known as one of the better jumpers of all time. Also presented in Paris by the Ballets Russes was a ballet formerly known as Chopiniana, because all of its music was by Chopin, but rechristened Les Sylphides, (different from La Sylphide but given a similar name because the Paris audience had recently seen La Sylphide), for the French public. Over the next several years, the Ballets Russes performed many ballets that have since become famous including Scheherazade, (1910), Firebird, (1910), and Petroucha, (1911).

One of the performers in Petroucha, playing a pantomime part because he was far past his dancing prime, was Enrico Checchetti, (1850-1928). Checchetti had also been known for dancing the roles of the wicked fairy Carbosse and of the Bluebird in Petipa's 1890 The Sleeping Beauty and later became famous as the creator of the Cecchetti method of teaching ballet.

In 1913, Nijinsky created a new ballet called Le Sacre du Printemps, or The Rite of Spring. This ballet, set to Stravinsky's score of the same name actually had the audience fighting it was so dark in its mood.

The last major production of the Ballets Russes in Paris was in 1921 and 1922, when Diaghilev restaged Petipa's 1890 version of The Sleeping Beauty. The four month run of the show did not recoup the financial outlay of the show, and as a result it was dubbed a failure. However, The Sleeping Beauty rekindled the European audience's interest in the evening-length ballet.

One young dancer and choreographer with the Ballets Russes was Georgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze, (1904-1983), whose name was later Frenchified to George Balanchine. He choreographed several works for the Ballets Russes, the most famous of which being Apollon Musagète in 1928, which has become a classic of the neo-classical ballets. Apollon Musagète, which later became Apollo, is a one-act ballet with a Greek look to it. After Diaghilev died Balanchine left the Ballets Russes and set out on his own for a while before ending up directing the dance company Ballets 1933. When that company folded he was invited to come to America by Lincoln Kirstein, (1907-1995). Kirstein knew almost nothing about ballet, and Balanchine know almost nothing about America, (except that it produced women like Ginger Rogers), and decided to take the offer and establish ballet in America. At this time Kirstein started his wish list of ballets he wanted to see in America; leading the list was Pocahantas.

In 1934 Balanchine established the School of American Ballet, which gave its first performance, a new piece called Serenade that same year.

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