Marius Petipa: The Emperor's Ballet Master

Simon Morrison writes:

M arius Petipa​ not only created ballets but made ‘ballet’ itself into an art. He choreographed the bulk of the 19th-century canon, including La Bayadère, Don Quixote, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, maintaining a classical style in the face of shifting trends – from Romanticism in the mid-1800s to Symbolism at the turn of the 20th century. Alone and in collaboration, with his father, Jean-Antoine Petipa, also a choreographer, and his assistant, Lev Ivanov, he created grand multi-act, multi-set and multi-cast ballets on historical topics as well as fanciful ones; revived and remade the ballets of others (Satanilla, Lida, or the Swiss Milkmaid as well as Giselle and Coppélia); supplied dances for operas, including Bizet’s Carmen and Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades; contributed to coronation spectacles; and devised numerous occasional dances. His ballets became the foundation of the international repertoire, staples of the Sadler’s Wells (later Royal) Ballet thanks to its founder, Ninette de Valois, who acquired the three ballets Petipa made to Tchaikovsky’s music – The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake – along with Petipa’s versions of Giselle and Coppélia. Valois brooked few changes to what she considered, from her own experience as a dancer and the notation scores, the authentic choreography. Parisians, meanwhile, saw the more distant versions Serge Lifar and Rudolf Nureyev brought to the Paris Opéra Ballet. Similarly in Soviet Russia Petipa’s ballets morphed, with the fidelity of adaptations always a subject of debate. But there are no originals, in the German Romantic sense of a Werktreue, and not all that has been credited to Petipa was his invention.

(LRB 21 Mar 2020)