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Never An Easy Way

The battle to become a professional ballerina is tough enough for a middle-class European girl. For [Isabella] Coracy, it often feels like an insurmountable challenge. “These are not one-night wonders,” Finzi says. “This is not The X Factor.”  Dom Philips and Sarah Maslin Nir reporting on “Only When I Dance” for The Times

While we wait for biopic Mao’s Last Dancer to hit UK screens and for Carlos Acosta’s own No Way Home to be filmed, documentary Only When I Dance (Vida Ballet), screened at the Barbican’s Brazilian Film Festival last October, provides a  present-day look at the challenges faced by impoverished aspiring young dancers, this time in the context of escaping the harsh environment of the Brazilian favelas.

Having missed it on the big screen due to the Mayerling madness which hit The Ballet Bag for several weeks in the autumn I was glad for the opportunity to catch this gripping, poignant tale on UK TV (Channel 4) during the Christmas holidays. Only When I Dance follows two Brazilian ballet students, Irlan dos Santos Silva and Isabella Coracy. Both hail from favelas in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, definitely not your usual ballet dancer breeding ground. Thanks to scholarships and the foresight of headteacher Mariza Estrella (who won the “OUTSTANDING TEACHER AWARD” at Youth America Grand Prix in 2008) they are students in the same school where Royal Ballet Principal dancer Thiago Soares trained.

For the perfectly proportioned Irlan, one of the school’s most remarkable students, dreams of a professional career in ballet do not seem unattainable: as long as he passes school exams and continues to work hard, the chips might fall in the right places, especially if he manages to win a Prix de Lausanne scholarship. Of course nothing ever comes easy in the world of ballet but Irlan’s road seems much less bumpy than hard-working Isabella’s. Black, curvy and extremely graceful yet-no-virtuoso, her odds of securing a contract with a major ballet company are less favourable and she is well aware of this. While Irlan appears more confident about future options, she timidly says to the camera that her dream is “to perhaps dance in a classical ballet company”.

Director Beadie Finzi’s initial idea was to follow Irlan’s story exclusively but she was persuaded by Ms. Estrella that Isabella’s tale would make for an interesting contrast. This clever headteacher probably saw a chance to raise awareness to Isabella’s plight, a cause which seems very dear to her heart. During discussions and counselling with the Coracy family we see a realistic and yet encouraging Ms. Estrella as she hopes to see Isabella fight back and overcome professional obstacles. We also see Isabella’s supportive family struggle to arrange funds so that she can travel to YAGP where she hopes to win an award. From tears and the threat of injury to hope and back to tears, her story is what really makes the movie such an honest, riveting tale of holding on to your dreams. As her father Toti says “victory comes easy for those born rich, but the rest of us have to fight”.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

It is heartwarming to see Irlan achieve his dream of trading the dangerous grounds of the favela for a “better and calmer place” but a pity that the movie focuses so much of its final moments on his success (he is hired by ABT2) while neglecting to dwell on what might become of Isabella. Thanks to this article from The Times we discover she has secured a contract with a well known local ballet company and that she too is about to make her dreams come true.

Only When I Dance elsewhere on the web:

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Kool Thing

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As we prepare to send off 2009 and embrace a new decade, we look back into what was hot, fun & fab around the ballet blogosphere to pick our favorite things this year. Feel free to share yours too.

Favorite Blog Posts

Haglund Heel’s “ABT needs a Mayerling” campaign

The coolest ballet campaign of the year. We keep on crossing our fingers & sending positive vibes for Mayerling to be part of ABT’s repertory someday. We’d definitely cross the Atlantic to see Marcelo Gomes as Crown Prince Rudolf.

You Dance Funny on the mess with “Swan Lake’s third act Pas de Deux”

We love uncovering mysteries à la Sherlock Holmes / Dr. Gregory House.  Divalicious prima ballerina decides she doesn’t like the score for her Swan Lake 3rd Act solo and asks Ludwig Minkus to write another one. This in turn bothers the original composer, a certain Mr. Tchaikovsky, who then writes a second version which never makes it to the final cut after all. Complicated? This could very well yield material for a soap opera.

Bloggerina meets Mr. Clement Crisp

Once upon a time our favorite ballet critic, Mr. Clement Crisp, went on a trip to Canada to see a triple bill composed entirely of new ballets, something sadly unthinkable in our neck of the woods. He met the Toronto ballet audience & spoke about what can be done to ensure the future of ballet. We were left very jealous…

Bella Figura’s Make your own Ballet Xmas in Paris

While Eurostar #FAIL would have surely prevented us from celebrating a balletic Xmas in Paris this year, this post provided us a much needed insight into the pick and mix of POB‘s casting. We are very curious about the darkest of all Nutcrackers and we might be more than tempted next December when the Mariinsky will also be in town. The post also offers a witty description of a certain Bolshoi star who has a habit of hanging on to theatre curtains.

Demicontretemps’s “If Ballet Stars were comic book heroes”

We love graphic novels, comic books and movie adaptations of both. We also often imagine deathmatches between our favorite ballet stars… if only we could pitch this idea to MTV. In this very funny post Eric Taub imagines Ballet dancers as drawn by famous comic book artists.

Veronika Part on Wolcott and Swan Lake Samba Girl

She is one of the most glamorous things to have happened to ballet. Just as gossip started to circulate that she would leave ABT she turned the tables on the rumour mill and bagged a promotion for Principal and a spot on David Letterman. May she long continue to fascinate us.

Favorite Tweets/Social Media Stuff

Sanjoy Roy on How dance companies must embrace the internet. The Guardian dance writer Sanjoy Roy picks up on the Ketinoa debate.

Hedi Slimane’s short film featuring Royal Danish Ballet’s Oscar Nielssen rocking and phrasing beaten steps to the music of Supershine drummer Matthias Sarsgaard. We said it before and will say it again: Ballet Rocks! (as tweeted by @hedislimanetwit)

Crankocast – Who would you be cast as in a Cranko ballet? Over here we got the two Taming of the Shrew sisters, one for each Bag Lady. Spooky! How did they know? (as tweeted by Stuttgart Ballet Principal dancer @EvanMcKie)

Charlotte MacMillan’s Mayerling photos at The Arts Desk – breathtakingly sinister studio shots of one of our favorite dark ballets with one of our favorite casts (as tweeted by @Macmillanballet)

Mariinsky in Japan Little Humpbacked Horse photos – mouthwatering candy store-like pictures of the Ratmansky ballet we are dying to see (as tweeted by the lovely @naomip86 – our Japanese ballet guru)

Favorite Ballet Bag Stuff

Interviews – Three fabulous leading dancers with each of the Mariinsky, the Royal Ballet and ABT. Three very distinct personalities which resulted in very different interviews. We hope you enjoyed them as much as we did. We are crossing our fingers for more.

Bridge Over Troubled Water & other Social media posts – We are big believers in the power of social media. All of these posts were great fun to write & some even managed to stir some controversy (see Sanjoy Roy article above).

Supermassive Black Hole – Our resident physicist analysed BRB’s new ballet based on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Perfect for the job.

Grace – This was a tough cookie. Someone asked in our Facebook group if we could write something about the ballerina’s grace. It was hard to put a subjective concept into words but we really liked the final product, not least because it gave us a chance to quote from Pride and Prejudice.

Last but not least

Our favorite Dances of the Decade

Our favorite Dance articles of 2009 (Conventional Media)

Dancing Shoes

A small miracle took place when Italian ballerina Marie Taglioni first rose en pointe. She elevated a simple shoe into a tool for conveying sublime artistry. While it takes a ballerina long years and endless hours of training to be able to perform such miracles let us not forget that her shoes will have also followed a very laborious regime. The unsung heroes who manufacture them pour long hours of highly skilled work, preserving a long standing balletic tradition and a 150 year-old craft.

For any person as obsessed with watching ballet as we are, or for those who dance, dissecting this key component of classical dance gives a greater insight into the art itself. As we start a series of posts focused on dancer’s tools,  we look here into the anatomy of a pointe shoe and its manufacturing process.

Parts of a pointe shoe

Irrespective of brand, pointe shoes are typically composed of the same parts. We have illustrated this section with pictures of Capezio Pavlowas:

  • Most shoes have a stiff box – or block – made with layers of fabric, paper and glue (very much like papier-mâché), whose stiffness will vary depending on the shoe’s model, width and length.
  • As the box extends over the toes, it encases them and gives them a supporting platform upon which the dancer stands.
  • Halfway into the foot, the box’s upper layer of satin, leather and/or canvas forms the upper which is joined to the outer sole by a series of pleats.

  • The area covering the toes is known as the vamp. The edge of the shoe can be lined with a drawstring to help adjust the foot.
  • The inner shoe is lined with canvas.

Side view of a "traditional" pointe shoe

  • Underneath the shoe,  a small thin leather sole allows for flexibility. Most models have a full sole, but some have split soles or soles combining leather and fibre to increase shoe pliability and improve foot articulation.
  • Between the outer and the inner soles a hard spine made of leather or a more resilient synthetic material – the shank – forms the shoe’s core. A full shank runs the length of the sole. Ideally it should be hard yet supple and conform to the dancer’s arch.

Back view of a "traditional" pointe shoe.

Top view of a "traditional" pointe shoe.

Note that Gaynor Minden shoes are particularly distinctive. They neither have boxes made of a paper/fabric/glue combo, nor a separate leather shank. Instead they are built from a single box/shank combo made of long-lasting elastomeric (a synthetic material) to ensure the shoes do not soften too soon. With the shank and box forming one single piece there are no pleats underneath.

Manufacturing

Traditional pointe shoes follow a process referred to as turnshoe. They are put together inside out on top of a last (a foot-shaped mold made of wood or plastic). They are not separated into right or left although some ballerinas have custom made lasts to replicate the shape of their own feet. Parts of this process have been automated but most of the shaping work is still done by hand.

The Upper

The parts forming the upper (vamp, wings and lining) are cut from fixed patterns using hydraulic presses, with special orders hand-cut from individual patterns. Seamstresses join the upper with the backs and sew in the satin and cotton lining. A back strap is also sewn in and, if the model calls for it, a drawstring is added.

The upper is placed inside out over the last and the shoemaker assembles the block over the lining with several layers of fabric, paper and special glue, which need to be worked on for a long time. The shoemaker pulls the upper and handles it with various instruments molding it into a pointe shape (squared, tapered, etc).

The Soles

Soles (inner sole and outer sole) and shank are cut out of large pieces of leather using mechanical presses or by hand. They are shaven – to even out the surface – and buffed. They are placed inside the shoe and fastened with glue and nails.

Shaping & Stitching

The shoemaker works the shoe in the last, shaping it from the outside with a small hammer and getting rid of any bumps in the toe area. The final part of the process – pushing the handmade pleats into position – is one of the most critical, as it will determine the fitting and flexibility of the shoe. The pleats are stitched and the excess fabric is removed. The upper is also stitched to the sole and the shoe is turned right side out. Finally the shoe is placed on a rack (or a hot-air oven) to dry all the glue.

See a video of a pointe shoe being manufactured

For those of you interested in the specifics of manufacturing Gaynor Mindens, see this video featuring the company’s Head of Design, Eliza Gaynor Minden

If you are interested in pointe shoes or other ballet tools generally, look no further than our Tools of the Trade playlist in our YouTube channel.

Sources and Further Information

  1. The Pointe Book by Janice Barringer and Sarah Schlesinger. Princeton Book Company, 2nd Edition, 2004. ISBN-10: 087127261X [link]
  2. Russian Pointe Shoe Fitting Guide [link]
  3. Gaynor Minden’s official website [link]
  4. The Pointe Shoe Information Exchange – All about brands and makes – [link]

Bag of Steps: Adagio

If jumps and turns are generally favoured by bravura dancers who have a “need for speed” showing off their technical abilities, then adagio dancing, with its slow, lengthened and connected movements is where highly lyrical dancers make their mark. It is typically in the adagio, rather than in complicated combinations of double-quadruple fouettés, where the audience can sit back and contemplate the poetry and emotion ballerinas convey through their bodies.

Here we highlight some of the steps which might appear in adagio sequences in ballet. Note that steps which are typical of allegro work might also appear here (pirouettes, ronds de jambe) and vice versa, so none of them are exclusive to one form or another.

Mercury by Giambologna (1580) housed in the Bargello Museum, Florence. Photo: Alinari/Art Resource © Source: Britannica ©

Adagio

(in French: adage) in Italian means ‘At ease’, ‘leisurely’; a movement in slow tempo. In ballet Adagio refers to a series of slow and refined movements performed as a single phrase, in a fluid manner, each preparatory step seamlessly linking to the next. The adagio is typically the opening section in a grand pas de deux (followed by the variations and the coda), the part where the ballerina performs slow movements with the assistance of her partner.

Attitude

A ballet pose which originated from a statue by Giovanni de Bologna (Giambologna, see figure). One leg is lifted behind in a well turned-out manner, with the knee forming a 90 degree angle.

Arabesque

The term derives from a type of Moorish decoration. One leg supports the body while the other is extended behind, with the shoulders and hips kept square to the line of the body.

Devéloppé

Developing movement (originally, temps développé). Starting from fifth position, the working leg is raised following the supporting leg up to the knee (in retiré). It is then slowly extended to an open position en l’air and held there. The body is kept square to the direction the dancer is facing, with the hips aligned. Développés can be performed in any direction (devant, à la seconde, derrière, etc.).

Lauren Cuthbertson does an arabesque as the Winter Fairy in The Royal Ballet's Cinderella. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Tour de Promenade or Tour Lent

Refers to a slow turn done on one foot. The dancer moves her/his heel while keeping a specific pose such as arabesque or attitude. The turn can be executed en dehors (outwards) or en dedans (inwards).

Penché or Penchée

To lean or incline. For example, as in an arabesque penché.

At the 0:36 mark Alina Cojocaru (as Giselle) does a développé à la seconde, following with a tour de promenade en attitude; and at 1:20 a beautiful arabesque which lowers into a penché.

Fondu

To melt, to sink. The term is used to describe the lowering or “melting” of the body towards the floor through the bending of the supporting leg.

Détourné

A pivot turn on pointe. For instance, starting in fifth, the dancer relevés and turns towards the back foot. As the dancer lowers his/her heels the back foot becomes the front one.

Marianela Nuñez (as Gamzatti) does an arabesque en fondu ending on a penché at 0:24 and a detourné at 0:51.

You can also see plenty of detournés in the Sugar Plum Fairy variation.

Dégagé

Disengaged. The working leg is lifted or tossed lightly into the air in an open position, the foot pointed. It is generally used as a connecting step, for instance, to transfer the body’s weight.

Dégagé à l’arabesque en tournant

Starting in croisé devant en l‘air (with the front leg extended and raised), the dancer slowly turns outwards on the flat of the foot, passing the working leg through the second position while turning the body from the waist so that the  working leg is extended in arabesque croisé derrière. See Tatiana Terekhova video below for example.

The reverse, starting from arabesque croisé and ending croisé devant is referred to as Détourné en l’air.

Rond de Jambe

It literally means round of the leg or, in other words, a circular movement of the leg. They can be done outwards (en dehors) or inwards (en dedans). Though usually a barre step, it can also be done par terre (on the floor) as a connecting step. The Prelude in Les Sylphides includes ronds de jambe par terre.

Rond de Jambe en l’air

Here the circle is drawn by the toe. Both legs are turned out. The working leg moves from the knee down so that the thigh is as steady, high and as horizontal as possible.  The toe creates the circle from the supporting leg’s knee into second position en l’air. The movement is accentuated when the working leg reaches the extended position à la seconde.

At the 1:00 mark, Kirov ballerina Tatiana Terekhova does a series of ronds de jambe en l’air while hopping on pointe. This Don Q. variation starts with an arabesque fondu, followed by attitude. Watch out also for a Dégagé à l’arabesque en tournant (starting from attitude croisé devant) at 0.21.

Grand Rond de Jambe

This movement is usually preceded by a développé devant from which the leg extends from the hip and draws a semi-circle from the front passing through second position en l’air to end up in fourth derrière en l’air. It can also be done in reverse, starting with a développé derrière and drawing the semi-circle towards the front.

Myriam Ould Braham (as Aurora) does some Grand Ronds de Jambe en l’air at the beginning of The Sleeping Beauty’s Act II variation.

Pas de Bourrée Couru

A series of “running” (couru) steps on pointe or demi-pointe with the feet close together. If done in fifth position the steps are said to be en cinquième or a pas suivi. If done in first position, legs are kept turned in and they are said to be en première or simply, pas couru.

At 0:27 Marianela Nuñez (as Myrtha) enters the stage in a series of gliding bourrées. She also does an arabesque which turns into a tour de promenade (1:29), followed by a penché (1:46 ). Lookout for attitudes at 3:05.

Sources and Further Information:

  1. Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet by Gail Grant. BN Publishing. ISBN 1607960311.
  2. The Borzoi Book of Ballets by Grace Robert. Kessinger Publishing Co. ISBN 1419122010.

Note: Whilst we have used widely known names, note that terminology might vary slightly from school to school.

All I Want for Christmas

Dear Santa,

We know we had a lucky year with many wonderful ballet tickets filling our bags. We had a great time writing over here and making plenty of new friends on Twitter and Facebook some of whom we had the pleasure of meeting in person.

Having managed to strike a good balance between work & play we feel we now deserve some ballet candy for the new year. We’d happily trade that wonderful Rodarte dress or that anything Chanel we have coveted over the years for a few of these treats so, here’s what the Bag Ladies would really really like. Please and thank you.

  • More NYCB, ABT and Mariinsky stars guesting with the Royal Ballet. If Evgenia Obraztsova, Ekaterina Osmolkina and Yvonne Borree did so well over here in The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and Dances at a Gathering why can’t we have them more often and while you’re at it, can you please bring Ashley Bouder and Marcelo Gomes too?

  • Royal Ballet revivals of Onegin, Song of the Earth and La Sylphide with plenty of new casting delights… and preferably with Steven McRae as James.

  • Much smaller doses of such stalwarts as The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake or at least new designs for the latter. Yolanda Sonnabend’s are appreciated but they are starting to betray their age. If we are going to visit the lake once more let us see some different settings and costumes.

  • A new narrative ballet that is not based on a children’s tale. Don’t get us wrong, it’s not that we are not looking forward to Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland, but a while back we had this interesting discussion on Twitter and concluded there are so many books which would lend themselves wonderfully into ballet scripts. We’re thinking the whole Jane Austen canon, the Russian classics, plus some Edith Wharton & Henry James.

  • Sneak previews. If ballet seasons are planned so long in advance, we’d like to see the major ballet companies slipping some bits of information/trivia/teasers on what’s coming next or fueling discussion in their Facebook/Twitter pages like ABT did recently. Call us greedy but it’s more hype for them, less suspense for us. Everyone wins.

  • More visits from foreign companies. It’s time the Mariinsky  treated us to a full-length Ratmansky ballet (yes we do mean The Little Humpbacked Horse). ABT could follow suit and show us On the Dnieper instead of Le Corsaire and Don Q. (yawn, yawn). And let us not forget that Ms. Diana Vishneva still owes us a visit since pulling out of the Mariinsky season at Sadler’s Wells (2008) at short notice. Can you pls. give her the nudge?
  • Can we have more ballet companies embracing social media? We have great fun browsing SFB’s blog, ABT’s pictures and looking at NYCB, Mariinsky and Royal Ballet videos, but perhaps the Paris Opera Ballet and the Bolshoi can also follow suit?
  • Less injuries. This we wish for every dancer in every company out there.

Many thanks again. Don’t forget to grab your box of cupcakes from underneath the Christmas tree. We know how you like the Christmas pudding special from The Primrose Bakery.

    xoxo,

    Emilia & Linda

Oh! You Pretty Things

The Royal Ballet in Ashton's Tales of Beatrix Potter. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

In their final programme of the year The Royal Ballet celebrates Sir Frederick Ashton, the founder choreographer who gave this company a wonderful classical repertory and British ballet a defining style. Initially I thought of this double bill as a case of odd pairing since, on one corner, appealing to the Ashton addicts and older crowds, there’s the very chic Les Patineurs, and on the other, practically screaming “kids only”, the Tales of Beatrix Potter. Why match them?

Mr. Clement Crisp, the eminent Financial Times dance critic, has a strong opinion on Potter: “My reaction is to remind myself that the right place for a piglet is a roasting-dish, that squirrels are vermin and that mouse-traps are cheap”. But we must try to practice what we preach and approach ballets with an open mind. Having seen neither piece before, off I  went looking forward to a feast of Ashtonian body bends and patterns.

Cindy Jourdain and Laura McCulloch in Ashton's Les Patineurs. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Featuring a créme de la créme opening night cast I thought Les Patineurs was a ballet of sheer beauty. Ashton conjures a vintage ice rink and through the way the dancers move and the various divertissements we get glimpses of couples, groups and individuals, all having a jolly good time skating. To replicate the feel of dancing on ice the chassé is heavily used, as are fouettés and various forms of spinning and walking on pointe. Soloists emerge from the group dances, developing their own signature moves on ice, with blue girl Laura Morera giving a masterclass on the suppleness of the Ashtonian back and fellow blue skater Yuhui Choe combining quick footsteps with the most graceful upper body and showing off some amazing fouettés en tournant.

The central white couple was handsomely danced by Sarah Lamb and Rupert Pennefather. This pas de deux is such an elegant portrait of a couple in love, beautiful dance emanating from the simplest of stories, so truly and deeply Ashton. But the evening’s scene stealer is Steven McRae as the Blue Boy, a role that seemed created on him as it demands a combination of panache and precision, both of which he is able to deliver by the bucketload. Delighted, poised and completely in character as the ice-rink show-off he dazzled the house in series of sparkling beaten brisés and a jaw-dropping combination of turns on fourth gear.

Sarah Lamb in Ashton's Les Patineurs. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Next item on the bill, the parade of cute furry animals in Tales of Beatrix Potter, with their nostalgic, just-fresh-off-the-books manner, might have won over quite a few cynics in the audience. As a dance piece it might not be very complex, but consider this: every character onstage is dressed in a bulky costume weighing between 4 and 5 kilos, with the animals heads an extra 2 kilos (our thanks to Bennet Gartside – aka Bennet76 – for this interesting bit of Potter trivia). The fact that they can dance any steps at all baffles us, with the quick and imaginative footwork for Squirrel Nutkin (Paul Kay) and Mr. Jeremy Fisher (Kenta Kura), the underlying elegance of the pas de deux between Pigling Bland (Bennet Gartside) and Pig-Wig (Laura Morera), the quirky pantomime between Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Jonathan Howells) and the Fox (Gary Avis) seeming like a miracle.

There were, of course, plenty of kids amongst us but I could just as well see several adults gasping and smiling while Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb smashed the plates from the doll house. And so, by unleashing our inner kid and opening a window to a simpler past where the biggest problem was finishing homework before a good bedtime story, Potter weaves its Christmas magic. It worked on us.

Kenta Kura as Mr. Jeremy Fisher in Tales of Beatrix Potter. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Ashton’s Les Patineurs and Tales of Beatrix Potter will be at the Royal Opera House until December 31. For booking details visit the ROH website.

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Golden Years

The Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauties have just drawn to a close, giving way to the usual Christmas special of Nutcrackers. Notice anything in common? Both are Petipa ballets, both are amongst the safest for box office purposes, with blockbuster works such as Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, their lavish costumes, orchestral music and vast ensemble of dancers, always in demand with regulars and first timers alike. Petipa ballets may be overly done, but they remain definitive classics, with great choreography which survived more or less unscathed over the years since their Imperial Ballet days.

In this post we look at Marius Petipa and the scale of his achievements. This Franco-Russian choreographer changed the face of ballet and created masterpieces – the first ballets that come to mind when one thinks classical dance – that continue to inspire generations of dancers, new choreographers and audiences.

Marius Petipa in a Nutshell

Marius Petipa. Photo: Mariinsky Theatre

Victor Marius Alphonse Petipa was born on 11 March of 1822 in Marseille son of an actress, Victorine Grasseau, and a ballet dancer (and eventually ballet master) Jean Antoine Petipa. Petipa got drawn into the  ballet world early on, starting to train at age 7 in Brussels where his family had moved to. At the time, Petipa attended the Brussels Conservatory, where he studied music. He went to school at the Grand College.

Initially Petipa danced only to please his father who wanted to see him perform. However, he soon became enchanted with the art form and progressed so fast that he debuted at 9 in his father’s production of Pierre Gardel‘s La Dansomani. With the Belgian revolution forcing the family to move again, Jean Antoine secured a job as ballet master at the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux. There, Petipa completed his training under the watchful eye of Auguste Vestris. By 1838, he had a job as Premier danseur in Nantes.

The following year Petipa and his father toured the United States performing for audiences who had never seen or known about ballet. While the tour was disastrous it had plenty of historical significance. Performing at the National Theatre in Broadway, Petipa was involved in the first ballet ever staged in New York City. From there Petipa travelled to Paris were he debuted at the Comédie-Française (or Théâtre-Français), partnering Carlotta Grisi and at the Théâtre de l’Académie Royale de Musique (Paris Opéra).

In 1841 he returned to Bordeaux as a Premier danseur with the company, studying under Vestris while debuting in lead roles in Giselle and La Fille Mal Gardée. It was in Bordeaux that he started choreographing full-length productions. In 1843 he moved to the King’s Theatre in Madrid where he learnt about traditional Spanish Dancing which would come in handy for making character dances later on. He was forced to leave Spain after being challenged to a duel by a cuckolded husband, the Marquis de Chateaubriand, an important member of the French Embassy. Back in Paris, he took a position as Premier danseur at the Imperial Theatre of St. Petersburg where he arrived in 1847. His father soon followed, becoming a teacher at the Imperial Ballet School until his death in 1855.

Upon his arrival in St Peterburg, Petipa was recruited to assist in the staging of Joseph Mazilier‘s Paquita (originally staged at the Paris Opéra). Helped by his father, he also staged Mazilier’s Le Diable Amoureux. Both productions were praised and Petipa’s skills brought much needed respite to a company then in crisis.

The Mariinsky Ballet in Petipa's Le Corsaire. Photo: Valentin Baranovsky / Mariinsky Theatre ©

Towards the end of 1850 Jules Perrot arrived as Premier Maître de Ballet (Principal ballet master) for the St. Petersburg Theatres. His main collaborator, composer Cesare Pugni, had also been appointed as Ballet Composer at the Imperial Theatres. Petipa danced the main roles in Perrot’s productions and served as his assistant, staging revivals such as Giselle (1850) and Le Corsaire (1858). In parallel Petipa started to choreograph dances for opera and to revise dances for Perrot’s productions.

Petipa was now choreographing more frequently, making ballets for his ballerina wife Maria Sergeyevna Surovshchikova. A rivalry with Arthur Saint-Léon, the new Principal ballet master after Perrot’s retirement (1860) developed, the two competing for the most successful production. But while Saint-Léon’s The Little Humpbacked Horse was very well received he flopped with Le Poisson Doré (1866) and Le Lys (1869) which led to his contract not being renewed. Not long afterwards Saint-Léon died of a heart attack leaving an opening for Petipa to fill the position of Premier Maître de Ballet (March, 1871).

Before being appointed ballet master Petipa had already:

Photo of a scene from the choreographer Marius Petipa (1818-1910) & the composer Cesare Pugni's (1803-1870) 1862 ballet "The Pharaoh's Daughter". The photo shows the Grand pas des chasseresses from Act I of the ballet on the stage of the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in Petipa's revival of 1898. In the center can be seen the ballerinas (right) Mathilde Kschessinskaya (1871-1970) in the role of the Princess Aspicia, and (left) Olga Preobrajenskaya (1871-1962) in the role of the slave Ramzé.

1898 photo of Petipa's ballet "The Pharaoh's Daughter", Mathilde Kschessinska as Princess Aspicia and Olga Preobrajenska as Ramzé the slave. Photo: Imperial Mariinsky Theatre.

When Don Quixote was lavishly restaged in St. Petersburg its composer Ludwig Minkus became official Ballet Composer of the Imperial Theatres, leading Petipa and Minkus into a fruitful collaboration, with La Bayadère (1877) becoming one of Petipa’s most celebrated works.

Minkus retired in 1886 and Director Ivan Vsevolozhsky did not seek a replacement official composer, allowing instead for more diversified ballet music. This paved the way for Tchaikovsky to collaborate with Petipa in The Sleeping Beauty (1889) and create one of the most successful classical ballets of all time. At that time Petipa was diagnosed with a skin disease which meant long periods away from work. For The Nutcracker (1892) Tchaikovsky worked with Petipa’s assistant Lev Ivanov who would frequently cover for Petipa together with Enrico Cecchetti.

The Mariinsky Ballet in Petipa's Le Reveil de Flore (The Awakening of Flora). Photo: Natasha Razina / Mariinsky Theatre ©

During his tenure as balletmaster Petipa also:

  • supervised Ivanov and Cecchetti in the staging of Cinderella (1894) with italian virtuosa Pierina Legnani in the title role. Here she first performed the famous 32 fouettés en tournant later consecrated in Swan Lake;
  • choreographed The Awakening of Flora (1894) with music by Riccardo Drigo;
  • revived, together with Lev Ivanov, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (1895). Lev Ivanov worked on the second and fourth acts while Petipa was in charge of the rest. Together they turned this previously unsuccessful ballet into one of the all-time greatest;
  • Continued working (coaching Anna Pavlova in her debut in Giselle) despite the deterioration of his health and persecution from new artistic director Vladimir Telyakovsky following an illreceived adaptation of Snow White (entitled Le Miroir Magique);
  • Created a final ballet, L’Amour de la Rose et le Papillon, which was scrapped before its premiere by Telyakovsky due to the impending war with Japan.

Petipa retired to Gurzuf in southern Russia in 1907 at the suggestion of his doctors. He remained there until his death on July 14, 1910. A diary entry dated 1907 reads: “I can state I created a ballet company of which everyone said: St. Petersburg has the greatest ballet in all Europe.”

His Ballets

Petipa will be forever associated with lavish productions, character and classical dances, big ensemble and dramatic scenes in mime or in pas d’action (mime with dance). His dances combine the technical purity of the French school with the virtuosity of the Italian school. He was very involved in the creation of his ballets, researching subject matter extensively and working close with the composer and designer. He created choreography before going to the studio and teaching it to his dancers. He produced more than 46 original works and revised many more (e.g. Giselle), of which a large share is still being performed today.

The Mariinsky Ballet in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Natasha Razina / Mariinsky Theatre ©

Petipa’s ballets have survived more of less intact thanks to the availability of the  Stepanov Method of notation from 1891 onwards. The method combines the encoding of dance movements with musical notes, in two steps: first, the breaking down of a complex movement and second, the translation of the broken down/basic movement into a musical symbol. The project was taken over by Alexander Gorsky and eventually by Nicholas Sergeyev, a former Imperial dancer, who later brought Giselle to the Paris Opéra Ballet and The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Coppélia and The Nutcracker into The Royal Ballet. These notated versions became the standard choreographic text and have been adopted by nearly every major ballet company in the world.

A (non-exhaustive) list of his works

Original Works

  • Le Carnaval de Venise (Pugni on a theme by Nicolò Paganini, 1858)
  • The Pharaoh’s Daughter (Pugni, 1861)
  • Don Quixote (Minkus, 1869)
  • Les Aventures de Pélée (Minkus/Delibes, 1876)
  • La Bayadère (Minkus, 1877)
  • Roxana, la beauté de Monténégro (Minkus, 1878)
  • Pygmalion ou La Statue de Chypre (Trubestkoi, 1883)
  • La Fille Mal Gardée (with Lev Ivanov and Virginia Zucchi. Hertel / Hérold / Pugni, 1885)
  • Les Pilules Magiques (Minkus, 1886)
  • Le Talisman (Drigo, 1889)
  • The Sleeping Beauty (Tchaikovsky, 1890)
  • The Nutcracker (with Lev Ivanov – Tchaikovsky, 1892)
  • Cendrillon (Staged by Ivanov and Cecchetti under Petipa’s supervision – Fitinhof-Schell, 1893)
  • Swan Lake (with Lev Ivanov – Tchaikovsky revised by Drigo, 1895)
  • Raymonda (Glazunov, 1898)
  • Las Saisons (Glazunov, 1900)
  • Le Millions d’Arlequin (Drigo, 1900)
  • Le Miroir Magique (Koreschchenko, 1903)
  • La Romance de la Rose et le Papillon (Drigo, never premiered)

Revivals/Restagings

  • Paquita (after J. Mazilier with F. Malevergne – Deldevez / Liadov, 1847)
  • Giselle (after J. Coralli and J. Perrot with Jules Perrot and Jean Petipa – Adam / Pugni, 1850)
  • Le Corsaire (after J. Mazilier with J. Perrot – Adam / Pugni, 1858)
  • Le Papillon (after M. Taglioni – Offenbach / Minkus 1874)
  • Coppélia (after Saint-Léon – Delibes, 1884)
  • La Esmeralda (after J. Perrot – Pugni 1886)
  • La Sylphide (after F. Taglioni – Schnietzhoeffer/Drigo 1892)
  • The Little Humpbacked Horse (after Saint-Léon – Pugni, 1895)

Videos

  • Vikharev Reconstruction of Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty with Yevgenia Obraztsova as Aurora, Anton Korsakov as Prince Désiré and Anastasia Kolegova as The Lilac Fairy [link]
  • Vikharev Reconstruction of Petipa’s La Bayadère with Daria Pavlenko as Nikiya, Igor Kolb as Solor and Elvira Tarasova as Gamzatti [link]
  • Ratmansky and Burlaka‘s restaging of Le Corsaire for The Bolshoi, with Maria Alexandrova as Medora and Nikolai Tsiskaridze as Conrad [link]
  • Dance of the Animated Frescoes from The Little Humpbacked Horse, performed by students of the Vaganova Academy. [link]
  • Vikharev Reconstruction of The Awakening of Flora with Yevgenia Obraztsova as Flora, Xenia Ostreikovskaya as the Aurora, Vladimir Shklyarov as Zephyr, Maxim Chaschegorov as Apollo and Valeria Martynyuk as Cupid.  [link]
  • Pas de deux from Le Talisman by students from the Vaganova Academy [link]
  • Pas de deux from La Fille Mal Gardée by students from the Vaganova Academy [link]
  • Burlaka’s Reconstruction of the Paquita Grand Pas Classique with Svetlana Zakharova and Andrei Uvarov [link]
  • Mikhailovsky Theatre‘s staging of the Grand Pas Classique from La Esmeralda [link]
  • Ulyana Lopatkina as Odile and Danila Korsuntsev as Siegfried in Act III of Mariinsky’s Swan Lake [link]

Sources and Further Information

  1. Biography of Marius Petipa: His Life and Work. ArticleMyriad.com [link]
  2. Ballet Met Notes for Marius Petipa, Choreographer [link]
  3. Wikipedia entry for Marius Petipa [link]
  4. The Diaries of Marius Petipa. Edited and Translated by Lynn Garofola. Studies in Dance History, Society of Dance History Scholars. (1992) ASIN: B0006P1DJ6 [link]
  5. Russian Ballet Master: The Memoirs of Marius Petipa. Edited by Lillian Moore and Translated by Helen Whittaker. Dance Books LTD (2009) ISBN-10: 0903102005 [link]
  6. The Cambridge Companion to Ballet by Marion Kant. Cambridge University Press; 1st edition (2007). ISBN-10: 0521539862 [link]