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Prominent Russians: Marius Petipa

March 11, 1818 - July 14, 1910

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“I can state that I created a ballet company of which everyone said: ‘St. Petersburg has the greatest ballet in all Europe.’” - Marius Petipa

Lord of the dance

Marius Petipa (born Victor Marius Alphonse Petipa) was the inventor of modern classical ballet. During the latter half of the 19th century Petipa elevated Russian ballet to international acclaim and recognition; the Frenchman who came to be known as “the father of Russian ballet,” left a legacy 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 now see in ballets.

His renown is undisputed and his work lives not only in the pages of dance history but in the ballet repertoire of most current Companies.

Petipa rose to fame in St. Petersburg, where he produced more than 60 major ballets and numerous shorter ones over his almost 60-year career. In total, he also reworked over 20 old pieces and arranged the dancing in over 35 operas. His fantasy was absolutely amazing, fueling such all time European classics as “Don Quixote,” “The Pharaoh’s Daughter,” “The Corsair,” “The Bayadere” and “Giselle.” Still, Petipa owed his biggest triumphs to his majestic staging of Russian ballets set to music by Tchaikovsky.

Nitpicking and demanding, the ever-tasteful perfectionist Petipa seemed to some an absolutely unbearable person; but it was under his watch that the Mariinsky Ballet (Russia’s Imperial Theater) made a quantum leap forward to become one of the very best in Europe and the world.

Over the course of his career in St. Petersburg as chief ballet master of Russia’s Imperial Theater he raised technical standards for dancing and set new ones for choreographing evening-length ballets.


Petipa was born in Marseilles into the family of a dancer and an actress. From the age of six Marius was educated in Brussels. His early years were spent touring Europe with his parents, Jean Antoine Petipa, the eminent French dancer, choreographer and teacher, and Victorine (born Grasseau), an actress and drama teacher.

Even though it was not immediately his passion, Marius began dancing at the age of seven, mostly because of his parent’s desire to see him enter their field. When still a child, he starred in one of his father’s productions and thus began his career as a dancer and later, a choreographer. Petipa's older brother by three years, Lucien, became a dancer and ballet master at the Paris Opera.

Marius perfected his craft in Brussels at the Grand College and the Conservatoire, where he studied music. In 1825 he took up ballet lessons. Although the family might have enjoyed a great deal of success in France, the Belgian Revolution forced them to move, first to Bordeaux in 1834 and then to Nantes, where they remained for a few years and where Marius became a principal dancer in 1838.

Bright beginnings

In 1839 Marius and his father embarked on a tour of America. They returned to France less than a year later and Marius began more intensive training with Auguste Vestris, a French superstar so popular in London that Parliament would adjourn to attend his performances. While never being a danseur noble, Marius acquired flair and versatility through lessons in the Spanish style and his studies with Auguste Vestris.

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His career as a dancer began to truly blossom and he partnered with some of the greatest ballerinas of the period such as Carlotta Grisi. His partnering with Grisi in “La Péri” was spoken of for generations, particularly one partnered catch that Gautier deemed would become “... as famous as the Niagara Falls.”

It was also during this period that Petipa began to dabble in choreography, although he was not entirely successful. He moved to Spain where he was employed at the King’s Theater and his abilities as a choreographer and dancer were recognized fully. Unfortunately, his stay in Spain was cut short after he engaged in an illicit affair. In 1846 he began a love liason with the wife of the Marquis de Chateaubriand, a prominent member of the French Embassy. Learning of the relationship the Marquis challenged Petipa to a duel. Petipa quickly left Spain, never to return.

A warm welcome in St.Petersburg

On 24 May 1847 Petipa departed for St. Petersburg at the suggestion of ballet master Titus. He left promptly, not knowing that he would go on to forever change the face of classical ballet in Russia as well as the rest of the world. He was offered a contract for one year as a principal dancer, replacing another Frenchman (Emile Gredlu) who was leaving the Imperial Ballet. By 1871 he had risen to the position of principal ballet master and he remained at the Mariinsky until 1907, before retiring at the age of 89.

Petipa was fortunate to be working in St. Petersburg, a city that welcomed and generously supported the French, Italian and Danish dance masters and performers who laid the foundation Petipa built upon. 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 Theater while still maintaining artistic integrity in his works. Although he made one ballet for Moscow’s Bolshoi, the Mariinsky was his home base.

The imperial ballet

The Imperial Ballet performed before a fanatical public that adored the ballet and knew the art form intimately. The audiences had the highest expectations and standards, with many critics from various newspapers reporting every performance in detail. To create ballets for such a public meant that Petipa and his company had to maintain the highest level of perfection and excellence in their work. With the art of ballet flourishing in such an environment, the late 19th century saw what is considered to be the golden age of Russian ballet, where virtuoso ballerinas were finally met in technique by the male dancers and lavish productions were created by some of the Russian Empire's most talented designers.

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The treasury of the Russian Emperor - who was at that time the wealthiest person in the world - lavished millions of roubles a year on the Imperial Ballet, opera, and the Imperial Ballet School (today the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet). Each new theatrical season required that Petipa create a new Grand Ballet. His duties also called upon him to stage the dance sections for various operas and to prepare galas and divertissements for court performances, royal nuptials, etc.

At the end of Petipa’s first season in Russia the critic Raphael Zotov wrote, “Our lovely ballet company was reborn with the production of “Paquita” and the production of “Satanilla” and its superlative performance placed the company again at its former level of glory and universal affection.” The first ballet Petipa choreographed in Russia was “The Swiss Milkmaid” in 1849.

The imperial theater

Petipa’s youthful creativity earned him a great deal of favor and he was allowed by Arthur Saint-Léon (the Maître de Ballet of St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet) to continue with the full support of the Imperial Ballet and was praised for revitalizing classical ballet. While he continued to be a vital part of the Russian ballet, Petipa’s superiors could not have sensed the depth of his flair for ballet production. Jules Perrot (dancer, ballet master of the Imperial Ballet) was called to St. Petersburg in 1848 at the behest of Fanny Elssler (an Austrian ballerina) to become resident ballet master. The immediate effect of Perrot, a choreographer of international stature, on Petipa’s career was to reaffirm his duties as a dancer. Despite some minor works (his first work in St. Petersburg was “The Star of Grenada” in 1855) Petipa’s muse fell silent for a decade. From performing the ballets of Perrot Petipa learned the value of intensely dramatic mimed scenes and the persuasive intervention of fantastic elements into everyday settings. He was also chosen to assist Perrot in producing new ballets.

This enriched Petipa’s native talents as a superior mime, an expert character dancer and, behind the scenes, a politically astute courtier observing the state of ballet affairs. By the late 1850s Petipa must have known Perrot’s days in St. Petersburg were numbered. He returned modestly to choreography with “A Regency Marriage” (1858), “The Parisian Market” (1859) and “The Blue Dahlia” (1860) all of which were vehicles for Maria Sergeyevna Surovshchikova, whom Petipa had married in 1854. They had three children, one of whom became a well-known dancer, Marie Mariusovna Petipa.

Aging body

Around 1850 Marius still danced despite his aging body and continued to choreograph new works. His body required him to concentrate more on choreography than dancing. For Petipa, who turned 40 in 1858, composition was a logical alternative to dancing. Petipa’s breakthrough as a choreographer came in 1862.

One of the landmark pieces showcasing his choreography was “The Pharaoh’s Daughter” in 1862 based on a novel by Gautier. A ballet choreographed by Marius Petipa to the music of Cesare Pugni was to be ready in six weeks, as the dancer Carolina Rosati’s contract was about to expire. Even though “The Pharaoh's Daughter” has not been in repertory since the beginning of the 20th century (until the Bolshoi's 2000 production), its importance lies in the fact that it was Carolina Rosati's farewell performance to Russia and the occasion for Petipa's appointment as ballet master.

The work catapulted him to fame and after its great success he was named ballet master. He was successful in competing with Saint-Léon, who had replaced Perrot, also by championing Surovshchikova in a public rivalry against Marfa Muravyova (a dancer) whom Saint-Léon favored.

Petipa lightens Mariinsky

Petipa was promoted to take charge of the Mariinsky Company in 1869, the year that also saw the premiere of his “Don Quixote.”

Petipa established himself with his “ballets à grand spectacl,” among which “La Bayadère” (1877) counted most of all. It was hardly a new idea - ballets set in exotic locales had been around since the French Baroque - but Petipa linked the ballets to current events or fashions. “La Bayadère” came in the wake of a widely reported journey of the Prince of Wales to India.

Petipa’s ballet called for massive forces, luxurious productions and predictable choreographic components. In constructing the acts of a ballet he selected from a variety of elements: massed scenes, character dances which provided a sense of local color, classical dances (which normally called for a suspension of the narrative) and dramatic encounters between the principal characters, set either as pure mime or in “pas d’action,” a mixture of mime and dancing.

Lord of the stage

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Petipa was meticulous in his preparations, conducting exhaustive research and preparing minute plans for painters and composers. He always considered, however, that choreography should take precedence over everything else. He would come to rehearsals with ideas already prepared and teach the dancers what he had devised. “Without even looking at us he merely showed us the movements and gestures with words spoken in indescribable Russian,” wrote Mathilde Kschessinska (a dancer). Despite his many years in Russia, Petipa spoke little of the language and the dancers had to get used to his peculiar idioms. “You on me, me on you; you on mine, me on your,” meant that you had to move from one corner (“you”) to where he was (“me”). To make his meaning clearer he tapped his chest every time he said “me.” By this means Petipa taught some of the most widely performed and enduring masterpieces ballet has yet known such as “Swan Lake.”

Petipa-Tchaikovsky masterpieces

In 1881, when Ivan Vsevolozhsky (co-librettist with Petipa and costume designer) was appointed Director of the Imperial Theater, his patronage led to the creation of the three great Petipa/Pyotr Tchaikovsky masterpieces: “The Sleeping Beauty,” “The Nutcracker” and “Swan Lake.” Although they were not immediately successful these three ballets have come to be considered by many the greatest ballets of all time, showing classical ballet at its best. They are definitely some of the most popular ballets in the world still today.

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“The Sleeping Beauty” holds a notable place in the history of ballet, not only as a great work in its own right but also as a defining moment in many lives.
“The Sleeping Beauty” was interpreted as a ballet before the Petipa/Tchaikovsky version, but none of the prior versions enjoyed the longevity of popularity of the 1890 Russian version. It was the first successful ballet composed by Tchaikovsky. “The Sleeping Beauty” was also the first ballet seen by a sickly 8-year-old child named Anna Pavlova. After the performance she decided that she wanted to become a ballet dancer.

By 1888 Vsevolozhsky was considering dispensing with Petipa as audiences were not coming to the theaters. However, he decided to give him one more chance and that “The Sleeping Beauty” would be a fine vehicle. The work could display the talents of the many fine Russian soloists who were produced under Petipa's guidance, as well as showcase Petipa's great knowledge of classical dance. He also conceived it as a “no expense spared” production that would recreate the glories of the grand productions of Louis XIV but without the lengthy interpolations by actors and singers as in the 17th century. Although the great Petipa did not at first respond well to the idea of the theater director telling him what to create he gradually warmed to the idea of “The Sleeping Beauty.”


In spite of his vast accomplishments, Petipa's final years with the Imperial Ballet were difficult. By the turn of the 20th 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 Theater, Vladimir Telyakovsky, appointed to the position in 1901, served as a catalyst to the ballet master's end. Telyakovsky made no effort to disguise his dislike of Petipa's work; he felt that the art of classical ballet had become stagnant under Petipa and that other choreographers should have a chance at the helm of the Imperial Ballet. But even at the age of eighty-three, suffering from the constant pain brought on by a severe case of the skin disease, the old Maestro 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 1902 when he invited Aleksandr Gorsky, a former premier danseur, to the Imperial Ballet to stage his own version of Petipa's 1869 ballet “Don Quixote.”

Marius Petipa retired in 1903 after releasing “The Magic Mirror” and was barred from the Imperial Theater that had been his home for fifty-six years.

Petipa wrote his memoirs, which were published in 1906. His highly entertaining remembrances had never before been translated from French into English before their first publication in 1958. Petipa's memoirs reveal many interesting details of his career and the people he worked with, including Tchaikovsky and the young Pavlova, and provide an insight into his character and genius that it is not possible to gain from any other source. Written towards the end of his long life, in a mood of disillusion, when his work was neglected and in decline, he would have been delighted to know that his great ballets such as “Sleeping Beauty,” “Swan Lake” and “La Bayadere” are more popular today than ever before.

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Old-timers will never forget this small, hunched but always-elegant old man with a neatly trimmed Van Dyke and a gold-rimmed pince-nez. After all those years of living in St. Petersburg, he never learned to speak good Russian, but he left behind the great Russian school of ballet dancing. His productions are all classics now gracing the programs of the world’s finest theaters, including, of course, the Mariinsky.

Due to ill health Petipa moved to Gurzuf in southern Russia in 1907 where he lived until his death. He died an unhappy man in 1910 at the ripe old age of ninety-two. On 25 October 1917 as the Bolsheviks were grabbing power across Russia, the Imperial Theater (soon for decades it would become The Kirov Theater) was offering a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “The

Nutcracker” fairly tale produced by Marius Petipa.

A selection of ballets choreographed by Petipa in Russia

La Fille du Pharaon, 1862
Floride, 1866
Le Roi Candaule, 1868
Don Quixote, 1869
Trilby, 1870
La Camargo, 1872
Le Papillon, 1874
Les Bandits, 1875
La Bayadère, 1877
The Magic Pills 1886
The Talisman, 1889
The Sleeping Beauty, 1890
Kalkabrino, 1891
Cinderella (music Baron Shell), 1893
Swan Lake (with Ivanov), 1895
Halte de Cavalerie, 1896
Raymonda, 1898
Ruses d’Amour, 1900
Les Saisons, 1900
Les Millions d’Arlequin, 1900
The Magic Mirror (his last ballet), 1903

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