Uncovering Petipa

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Matthew Lawrence rediscovers the colourful life of the Greatest (choreographer) Of All Time.

A caricature of Petipa attributed to Nikolai and Sergei Legat. Source: Wikipedia-commons
A caricature of Petipa attributed to Nikolai and Sergei Legat. Source: Wikipedia-commons

Marius Petipa must have been crestfallen when he felt unwell shortly before The Nutcracker’s rehearsals at the Mariinsky Theatre studios in Russia. He had devoted much time to artfully moulding the musical template, scene by scene, with Tchaikovsky, only to have to hand over the choreographic reigns to his deputy, Lev Ivanov. It was 1892, and The Nutcracker premiered to mixed reviews.

As an avid collector of ballet literature, I happened upon these facts while sentimentally browsing an old Royal Ballet program, with a wonderfully written article on The Nutcracker by dance historian, Roland Wiley. Since the age of 11, I have been involved with five reinterpretations of Petipa/Ivanov’s Christmas classic: first as Fritz, later as the Prince, and now with the staging. And yet, that Petipa had not choreographed The Nutcracker because he was bedridden, and that the ballet initially received a lukewarm reception, was news to me. Which got me thinking, how much do I really know of the “GOAT” – Petipa – and his classics?

The father of Russian ballet was born in Marseille, France, in 1818. The Petipa family was renowned as performers: father Jean was a ballet dancer and rehearsal director, and mother an actress. Major influencers on Marius’s early career were his father and brother, Lucien (also a dancer), his teacher, Auguste Vestris – the anointed “God of dance” – and leading choreographer Jules Perrot. Vestris’s training lineage can be traced back to the earliest codified origins of ballet at King Louis XVI’s court, and certainly Petipa’s ballets have derived much inspiration from the opulence and divertissement of these early works presented in the gardens of Versailles.

Petipa was a premier danseur in France and then later Spain, where he gained knowledge of the national dances. It was during this period in Madrid that Petipa rose to notoriety, after performing an on-stage kiss in a production staged by his father. Petipa notes in his autobiography – Russian Ballet Master: The Memoirs of Marius Petipa – that after the performance, the chief of Madrid’s police “left his box and rushed to the stage, in order to announce to me the strictness of the prohibition of kissing a lady on the stage”. Later, after much public out-cry, the kiss was restored. Petipa was now a household name.

Marius Ivanovich Petipa (c 1898). Photo: Wikipedia-commons
Marius Ivanovich Petipa (c 1898). Photo: Wikipedia-commons

Much like Basilio from Don Quixote, Petipa was a passionate, strong-willed young man, who was not intimidated by punitive 19th century attitudes. His memoirs recount an outrageous incident, of Jane Austen ilk, which almost ended his career. It was over a beautiful young Spanish lady of high station, Carmen Mendoza y Castro, who had fallen salaciously in love with the celebrity dancer. Carmen’s mother, the Marquesa, did not approve, and her admirer, the Count, challenged Petipa to a duel. Petipa recounts in his memoirs that the Count’s gun mis-fired and his shot flew into the Count’s left jaw and neck; seriously maiming him but not killing. Soon after, Petipa and Carmen eloped, Romeo and Juliet style, to France, before they were found, arrested, and returned to their respective families.

Marius’s eventful career could have stopped there, if not for his brother, who intervened and secured a contract for Marius to join Russia’s Imperial Ballet. And the rest, as they say, is history. This colourful, passionate artist would become the star of Russian ballet. Initially he was a character dancer, then later a répétiteur and master choreographer. The French man had found a new home in Russia and added Ivanovich as his middle name to reflect his allegiance.

Petipa, according to his memoirs, claimed to have created many works before arriving in Russia. However, little to no evidence survives of his earliest works, such as the Spanish themed Carmen and her Toreador and The Adventure of the Daughter of Madrid (titles which sound suspiciously inspired by his first love). What is not refuted is that Petipa had an acute understanding of Spanish forms of dancing, the bones of which still exist, re-envisaged, in today’s versions of Don Quixote and Paquita.

Of the master choreographer’s 60 documented works, at least nine works were collaborations with Lev Ivanov. In fact, many academics argue – such as Roland Wiley in The Life and Ballets of Lev Ivanov: Choreographer of the Nutcracker and Swan Lake – that as Petipa suffered from poor health in his later years, Ivanov, as the second choreographer, was the true silent genius behind some of Petipa’s greatest works. Ivanov was only credited with his contributions posthumously and died in poverty. Accurate authorship of ballets in the 19th century were commonly sketchy. Likewise, Petipa’s The Rose, the Violet, and the Butterfly was credited to Jules Perrot, but Petipa always maintained in his memoirs that he was the choreographer.

Along with Petipa’s original works, he also revived around 20 productions (notably Paquita, Giselle, Coppélia and Le Corsaire). Today, Petipa’s works survive in reworked form, with the attribution: after Petipa. During the Russian revolution of 1919, the Stepanov notation scores and production notes from Petipa’s original ballets had been entrusted with ballet master Nikolai Sergeyev, who fled to the west. Sergeyev used this notation to stage various Petipa productions, notably with the Paris Opera and Vic Wells/Sadlers Wells Ballets in London. These restagings by Sergeyev created the template on which future productions were based, with each new iteration by various companies departing further and further away from the original. After Sergeyev’s death in 1951, knowledge of how to read his method faded until, many years later, the “Rosetta Stone” primer – making sense of the notation scores – was found deep in the Maryiinsky Theatre archives.

After a long hiatus, it was English choreographer, Sir Peter Wright, with the assistance of Wiley, who first used the Sergeyev Collection to inform his staging of The Nutcracker in 1984. This is a version which I have danced many times, both with the Australian Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet. For those with a keen eye, you may spot some original staging details, my favourite being the flapping owl clock striking twelve.

Recently, Alexei Ratmansky has painstakingly reconstructed many of Petipa’s classics. Of note are Harlequinade (recently performed by the Australian Ballet), The Sleeping Beauty and Giselle (a Petipa revival) currently performed by the newly founded United Ukrainian Ballet (the production was ironically first staged on the Bolshoi in 2019 before the conflict with Russia). Interestingly, there are some marked choreographic differences to “traditional” western versions – being slightly less flashy.  Technically, Ratmansky’s versions reinvestigate how various steps are partnered and positioned – for example, partnering pirouettes with one hand and positioning the retiré position lower.   

A scene from Petipa's 'Harlequinade', recently performed by the Australian Ballet. Photo: Jeff Busby.
A scene from Petipa's 'Harlequinade', recently performed by the Australian Ballet. Photo: Jeff Busby.

Petipa’s life is fit for a Hollywood blockbuster. His classics still form the core repertory of ballet companies today and have informed ballet’s training as the pure benchmark. If Petipa’s ballets were under copyright, his estate would be worth billions of dollars. But his royalty-free masterpieces have left ballet with something more precious: its survival.

Matthew Lawrence is Ballet Master at the Queensland Ballet.

This article first appeared in the April/May/June 2023 issue of Dance Australia. Print is for keeps! Subscribe and never miss an issue!

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