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Marius Petipa - Extrordinary Ballet Choreographer

Updated on November 18, 2015

Marius Petipa

Marius Petipa in costume as a dancer

Formal picture of this genius of ballet

Representation of a Petipa ballet including intricate set

A Brief Bio of Marius Petipa

When I started my ballet lessons at the ripe old ballet age of 19/20, other than brief history classes in ballet school, I never seemed to have time to learn a fuller history of ballet which in hindsight surprises me, as I love history. My knowledge of Marius Petipa was minimal at best. My inspiration came from quite unexpected places but inspiration should come on it's own and usually does come when one least expects it. I had bought a DVD which was a documentary based on a production of "Raymonda" performed at the Opera National de Paris. I always look at each and every name in the credits as everyone deserves ones attention for their contribution.

I read.... "Choreography and Stage Direction by Rudolph Nureyev after Marius Petipa". Nureyev was my first ballet inspiration beginning in my childhood, which of course has continued for the rest of my life. Of course I knew they both had a Russian connection. For Nureyev to give credit to Mr. Petipa, I knew that he had to be a great artist, and as I have rediscovered, a great artist on many levels.

Originally, my intention was to do research for my own knowledge. Since I am writing these articles to re-sharpen my writing skills, I decided to use my research to write an article so that any of my fellow lovers of ballet who wish to know more about Petipa can also learn. I may write more detailed analysis's about Petipa in the future but this will be a brief bio/history... well brief for me.

Another sign that Petipa was "reaching out" to me was when I recently went to the Pittsburgh Ballet production of La Bayadere. The director, Terrance Orr, had stated at a little informational before the show that he wanted to stick to Petipa's original choreography, as much as possible. Again that name! Mr. Petipa was calling out to me from all directions so I decided then and there, after a tolerable glass of wine, that I should do some research on Mr. Petipa and use it for an article.

I watched several different productions of Raymonda on DVD, my favorite being one by the Bolshoi Ballet. It seemed the ones I enjoyed the most were ones that tried to utilize, as much as possible, Petipa's original choreography. Raymonda was Petipa's last great ballet so it seemed a good starting point before I went back to the beginning. Petipa created at least 54 ballets. This is the most common count I could find from my research. Petipa's great works came when he was ballet master at the Marinski Theatre where he earned the well-deserved designation as "Father of Russian Ballet".

Petipa used many sources to create his own style. Most notably, he combined the clean French style with the energy and "savoir-faire" of Italian Ballet. Having moved from the country of his birth, France, to Russia where his genius came to fruition, the Russian Folk Dances which quite naturally would have seeped into his creative processes were "mixed" into his creative style.

His fusion of these styles was not always a smooth process. When one reads his notes during his creation of Don Quixote, he himself, had trouble at first finding a balance that satisfied him and his "entourage". Of course, he eventually worked out the problems and the resultant ballet was and is still a huge success.

At the time, some felt that in classical ballet, it was difficult to portray or show aspects of the character whom the dancer is portraying. Petipa circumvented this potential criticism with the introduction of more pantomime into ballet. More on that when I go through his chronologic history. One of Petipa's many strengths were his precision and careful planning. He made many detailed drawings to arrange space and actual floor area.

I had not realized until I did research, the short span of time between Petipa and Nureyev. Vsevoloysky was the patron of Petipa's ballets. He also initiated Petipa's and Tchaikovsky's introduction to each other. To go back to Petipa's French roots, we start with Georges Noverre who was ballet teacher to Marie Antoinette. From Noverre we go to Gluck who taught Petipa. When Petipa left the Marinski in 1904, he was followed by Nicolas Legat who was teacher to Pushkin who was Nureyev's most influential teacher. This is a simplification of the sequence of Russian Ballet to modern times but it suffices to show the brief but ever so influential trail.

Another interesting and ironic trail/circle is that French born Petipa went to Russia where by the passing of the ballet baton, influenced Nureyev, who brought his "Petipa influenced" style back to France where he choreographed many of Petipa's great ballets with the "Opera de Paris Ballet".

Now for the mundane but ever so important bio of Petipa:

Petipa was born in 1818 in Marseille, France to Jean Petipa. Jean was an excellent ballet dancer and teacher himself. Another irony is that Lucien, Petipa's older brother, also a ballet dancer, ended up as ballet master of the Paris Opera.

The family moved to Brussels where Marius went to Grand College and studied music at the conservatoire. Marius actually disliked dancing when he was young but his destiny was not to be denied and he made progress to where he became principal dancer in his father's "La Dansomanie" in 1831. In 1838, Marius became a principal dancer at the theatre in Nantes, France where he also staged ballets for the opera. Back then, it was the ballet interval of operas that often garnered the most interest.

Here is a fact that surprised me. In 1839, Jean took a leave from his position in Brussels when he was invited to go to the US. Marius, recovering from a broken leg ( I could not find out how he broke it), went with him. Jean performed at the National Theatre on Broadway in "La Tarentule", ala "early Balanchine". The ballet was not a success so father and son returned to Brussels.

Marius returned to Paris where he danced at the Paris Opera where Lucien was a premier danseur. While there, Marius studied under August Vertris. At this time, Jean in Brussels left his position there and became a teacher at the Imperial Ballet Academy in St Petersburg. Marius was not happy "competing" with Lucien and went to Bordeaux in 1842 for 1 year then onto Madrid where he learned about Spanish dances which he successfully incorporated in a number of his ballets when he went on to Russia.

In 1847, Marius was asked to dance at the Imperial Theatre/Marinski Theatre in St Petersburg. His first appearance there was in "Paquita" - a new favorite of mine. Marius's use of pantomime was applauded which he would later use extensively when he started to do choreography. His first choreography in Russia was for the opera "Alessandro Stradella" in Moscow. He would not do any ballet choreographies for several more years.

Marius married a dancer, Maria Scurvshikova, in 1854 which resulted in a daughter, Marie. He was still not a well known choreographer as he was working under Jules Perrot and Arthur Saint-Leon, both of whom were considered to be famous choreographers. To each their own time.

About four years later, he created "La Fille du Pharon" which was his first great success. Due to this success, he was made Choreographer-in-Chief of the Imperial Theatre. In 1869, Marius was made the Premier Ballet Master of the Imperial Theatre. This same year, he divorced Maria.

Over the next several years, Marius choreographed a number of classics which survive today and are still some of the most loved and beloved classical ballets we have today. With the composer Minkus, he created "Don Quixote" ( here comes the Spanish influence) in 1869 and "La Bayadere" in 1877.

Petipa excelled at stylized dances for the operas. Petipa especially favored Spanish dances which, as I stated earlier, he learned while in Spain. Surprisingly, he rarely choreographed the Russian dances in his ballets and usually assigned them to native Russian choreographers working under him. Knowing when to delegate is important for any genius such as Marius.

As Petipa's fame and confidence grew, he continued to incorporate French and Italian ballet along with pantomime into his ballets. He loved pleasing his audiences while dealing with the huge bureaucracy of the Imperial theatres (still huge today) while maintaining the artistic integrity of his work. No easy feat indeed.

In 1881, Ivan Vsevolojsky became director of the Imperial Theatres. His patronage of Marius led to the creation of three great Petipa/Tchaikovsky masterpieces, namely "The Sleeping Beauty", "The Nutcracker" and for the one that ignited my passion for ballet at the age of three, "Swan Lake". As with many artistic endeavors, the three ballets were not highly successful when they were premiered. As time progressed, they became among the most popular ballets in history and I feel portray classical ballet at it's best.

Vsevolojsky post at the Imperial Ballet , unfortunately, came to an end and he was replaced by a Colonel Telyakovsky who pressured Marius to change. This resulted in a ballet called "The Magic Mirror" which was a disaster to say the least. After this debacle, Marius retired in 1903 and was actually barred from the Imperial Theatre which had been his "home of artistic creation" for 56 years. Mr. Petipa wrote and published his memoirs in 1906. It is so sad he died a sad and disillusioned man in 1910 in the Ukraine at the age of 92.

Funeral Procession of Marius Petipa

A sad day indeed
A sad day indeed

Father of Russian Ballet

The man who became known as "The Father of Russian Ballet", left us with a breathtaking legacy. He greatly increased the role of male ballet dancers which was continued by Nureyev and even more recent ballet artists to an even greater degree. As I wrote earlier, over 50 ballets can be attributed to Marius along with ballet sequences for at least 35 operas. It is not known how many but some of his works have been lost forever. Regardless, Marius Petipa will live on and on due to his monumental contribution to the greatest of all arts (my opinion): ballet. Of course the designation of ballet as the greatest of arts is my humble opinion and prejudice. One I know that is shared by many others. As with many things I have studied, my study of Marius Petipa has made me realize the many facets this artist had which persuades me to learn more.


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    • profile image

      Austin Trillio 

      2 years ago

      Liked your article - I'm sure you read how Ratmansky researched Petipa and restaged his Swan Lake- wow! What are your feelings about that - keep writing!!

    • Peter Grujic profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Alexander 

      2 years ago from Pittsburgh

      Hi William - Thanks for reading my article. Due to a chaotic schedule, there was no time to study the history of ballet so I applaud your decision to study ballet along with your dance classes. I regret that I felt I could not follow through to do continue dance on an amateur level.

      I am readying future article and hope you like them. On Hub pages there are many great articles to read. Best of everything in your chosen profession.

    • profile image

      William Brealey 

      2 years ago

      Hi Peter- I am currently majoring in dance. I enjoyed your article on Petipa. I was always aware of his contribution but was saddened to read how he was treated at the end of his career. I am happy for you that you are now increasing your knowledge/history of ballet. I agree that it is important to understand and have appreciation of any profession one goes into. I look forward to more of your articles. Do you ever regret not returning to ballet class once you adjusted to your tragedy?

    • Peter Grujic profile imageAUTHOR

      Peter Alexander 

      3 years ago from Pittsburgh

      Hi Lisa - Thank you for reading my article. I hope it added to your knowledge and enjoyment of ballet. I think having a history of the things we have a passion for adds to that passion. Good luck in your classes and keep me updated!

    • profile image

      Lisa Cummings 

      3 years ago

      I also love ballet and want to take some classes. I didn't realize Petipa choreographed many of my favorite ballets. Thanks for the great article!


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