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This week we have double reason to party. While at Covent Garden the Royal Ballet returns home for the 2009/2010 season, over here at the Ballet Bag we  celebrate 6 months of online balletomania. To mark the occasion we have prepared a – non exhaustive – balletic timeline of sorts, to highlight some of our favorite posts over this period. We hope you enjoy!

Picture 18

Image Copyright belongs to respective owners. Source: various

1738 – Tsarina Anna Ioannovna inaugurates the Choreographic School of St. Petersburg, training children of her staff at the Winter Palace to form the first Russian ballet company. The Mariinsky Ballet, August 2009 [link]

1830 – August Bournonville returns to Denmark to join the Royal Danish Ballet as a soloist, having danced for the Paris Opera and studied with Auguste Vestris. Dear Mr. Fantasy, August 2009 [link]

1886 – The refurbished Mariinsky opens its doors and becomes the permanent home for both the Imperial opera and ballet companies. The Mariinsky Ballet, August 2009 [link]

1889 – Prince Rudolf, heir to the Austro-Hungarian crown, forges a double suicide pact with his mistress Baroness Mary Vetsera at the royal hunting lodge of Mayerling. Mayerling, June 2009 [link]

1905 – Enrico Cecchetti returns from Poland to St. Petersburg to establish a ballet school and work as Anna Pavlova’s exclusive coach. The Scientist, July 2009 [link]

1909 – The Ballets Russes stage Les Sylphides in Paris at the Theatre du Chatelet, with an original cast led by Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky and Alexandra Baldina. Les Sylphides, May 2009 [link]

1910 – Premiere of the Ballets Russes’s Firebird with Tamara Karsavina & Mikhail Fokine. The Firebird, May 2009 [link]

1916 – Agrippina Vaganova begins teaching at the Imperial Ballet School, training ballet legends in the making such as Galina Ulanova, Natalia Dudinskaya and Maya Plisetskaya. Be True to Your School, May 2009 [link]

1934 – George Balanchine opens the School of American Ballet. Long Tall Sally, May 2009 [link]

1957 – Composer Hanz Werner Henze finishes work on the difficult score for Frederick Ashton’s water themed ballet Ondine. Ondine, May 2009 [link]

1976 – NYCB premieres Jewels at the New York State Theatre. Jewels, May 2009 [link]

1978 – Kenneth MacMillan choreographs Mayerling for the Royal Ballet. David Wall creates the character of Crown Prince Rudolph. Mayerling, June 2009 [link]

1979 – Bournonville’s sequence of enchaînements are published in printed format. Dear Mr. Fantasy, August 2009 [link]

1980 – Kim Brandstrup moves to London to study at the London School of Contemporary Dance with Nina Fonaroff. Life in Technicolor, September 2009 [link]

1992 – The Kirov ballet regains its former Imperial name thus becoming The Mariinsky ballet. The Mariinsky Ballet, August 2009 [link]

1999 – Sergey Vikharev reconstructs the Mariinsky’s original 1890 Petipa version of The Sleeping Beauty. The Sleeping Beauty, September 2009 [link]

2006 – Royal Ballet also goes back to its original Sleeping Beauty, restaging the 1946 production by Ninette de Valois after Nicholas Sergeyev to commemorate the company’s 75th anniversary. The Sleeping Beauty, September 2009 [link]

2008/2009 – Ballet companies boost investment in social media. The  Mariinsky launches an all English language multi platform initiative, NYCB joins Twitter, ABT has over 24,000 Facebook fans and the Royal Opera House produces the Twitter Opera. Virtually There, July 2009 [link]

2009 – Veronika Part, ABT’s newest Principal dancer appears in a US talk show and is interviewed by David Letterman, a rare occurrence in the ballet world. Beautiful Woman, July 2009 [link]

2009 – 23 year old Royal Ballet dancer Steven McRae is promoted to Principal. A Fiery Spirit, July 2009 [link]

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As the Mariinsky comes to the rescue of ballet-starved Londoners this week, we kick-off our series of features about ballet companies around the world, outlining their history, traditions and differences. Most readers will immediately associate the name Mariinsky to one of the premier ballet companies in the world but equally important are its links to the theatre, the city and the era where it originated, the regal and distinctive tsarist St. Petersburg.

The Theatre

Russia’s first theatrical events took place following a decree in 1742 by Tsarina Elizabeth, a patron of the arts who loved Italian opera and theatre. Initially, performances in St. Petersburg were given in the wooden stage of the Karl Knipper Theatre and in the Hermitage Theatre (for the aristocrats), but in 1783,  a bigger and better theatre, Antonio Rinaldi‘s Imperial Bolshoi (big) Kamenny (stone) Theatre, purpose built for the emerging ballet (see “The Ballet Company” below) and opera companies opened its doors with Il Mondo de la Luna, an opera by Paisiello.

The Bolshoi Kamenny theatre was renovated in 1836 by Alberto Cavos, who also conceived a neo-Byzantine building in Theatre Square (1849) first occupied by an Equestrian circus and later by Opera stagings. This other theatre burnt down in 1859 and re-opened one year later as the Mariinsky, a full-fledged opera house with more than 1500 seats and the biggest stage in the world, named after  its royal patroness Empress Maria Alexandrovna. Ballet productions alternated between the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi Kammeny (where La Bayadère and The Pharaoh’s Daughter premiered)  until 1886 when the Mariinsky underwent new works, finally acquiring its trademark blue façade and becoming the permanent home for both the opera and ballet companies.

The re-inauguration festivities were dedicated to Tsar Alexander II, and included the premiere of the first all-Mariinsky ballet, Marius Petipa‘s Les Pilules Magiques. In the years that followed, many other masterpieces would originate here: from the Petipa canon (The Sleeping Beauty in 1890, The Nutcracker in 1892, Raymonda in 1898 and Swan Lake in 1895), to a number of classic works by Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky.

The Mariinsky Theatre. Source: Books to the Ceiling. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

The Mariinsky Theatre. Source: Books to the Ceiling. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

During the Soviet years, the Mariinsky Theatre changed its name to Kirov Theatre, to honor General Sergei Kirov, the well-known early communist leader and Lenningrad’s party chief, but the theatre went back to its former Imperial name in 1992.

You can take a virtual tour around the theatre here (Quicktime required).

The Ballet Company

The ballet company timeline goes back to 1738, before the Bolshoi Kammeny and the Mariinsky theatres existed. It was the year Tsarina Anna Ioannovna inaugurated  the Choreographic School of St. Petersburg, training dancers at the Winter Palace to form the first Russian ballet company. These dancers, initially children of the Palace’s servants, were the first generation of the Imperial Russian Ballet, the school which eventually became the Imperial Ballet School, and later the Vaganova Academy. The school and the company attracted some of the most influential teachers (Franz Hilverding, Gasparo Angiolini, Giovanni Canziani, Charles Didelot) and famous stars from abroad ( Pierina Legnani – whiz ballerina who first performed 32 fouettées, Carlotta Brianza – the original princess Aurora – and Enrico Cecchetti), performing between 1783-1885 in the Bolshoi Kammeny and from 1860 onwards in the Mariinsky Theatre.

During the 1830’s Maria Taglioni performed with the company and impressed audiences with her virtuosity and artistry, her presence having left a profound impact. Later in 1859, Arthur Saint-Leon was hired as the Imperial Ballet’s maître de ballet. Saint-Leon created various pieces, of which unfortunately only Coppélia and Pas de Six (reconstructed for the Paris Opera Ballet) remain more or less complete, and inscribed the first ballet notation method, documenting the movements of the upper body. He was succeeded by the legendary Marius Petipa who created more than 60 ballets and introduced novel academic views.

Corps de ballet in La Bayadère. Photo: The Mariinsky Theatre © Source: Exploredance.com

The Soviet Era

At the time of the Russian revolution, under the modernist/neoclassical influence of Fokine (resident choreographer since 1910), the Mariinsky repertoire had evolved beyond the 19th century Petipa classics. Many of its stars joined Sergei Diaghilev in his European tours, collaborating with new influential artists and musicians. The 1917 revolution not only stalled this burst of creativity (Fokine and Diaghilev having left for the West), it also brought difficult times for the company, perceived by the government as unwanted symbols of the tsarist regime and depleted of many dancers (who had emigrated).

Thanks to Anatoly Lunacharsky, then minister of culture, the 1920’s saw a gradual acceptance of ballet as an art for the people. Ballet school and company, now re-established as the Leningrad State Choreographic School and the Soviet Ballet respectively, were to observe the principle that dance was a collective expression of the spirit and new ballets based on Russian literature or the struggles of the working class were created. At that time, former dancer turned teacher Agrippina Vaganova “fought tooth and nail” to preserve Marius Petipa’s and the Imperial Ballet’s legacy. During her directorship Vaganova managed to preserve some of the traditions inherited from the former Imperial Ballet while also developing new ideas into a new form of training, the renamed “Vaganova method”, which now has become synonym with the style of the Company.

The Mariinsky Ballet performs Swan Lake. Photo: Natasha Razina ©. Source: The Independent.

The Mariinsky Ballet performs Swan Lake. Photo: Natasha Razina ©. Source: The Independent.

The Soviet Ballet became the Kirov Ballet in 1934. During the Soviet years, many notable dancers emerged, including Lydia Lopokova, Galina Ulanova, Ninel Kurgapkina, Yuri Soloviev, Galina Mezentseva, Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. It was also during this time that Petipa’s choreographic texts were replaced with Konstantin Sergeyev‘s new versions: classics such as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Le Corsaire underwent cuts, such as those made to mime passages, and in the case of Swan Lake (1950), a happy ending was adopted.

During the 70’s, with defections aplenty (Nureyev, Makarova, Baryshnikov) and the Company’s morale at a low, director Oleg Vinogradov (1977) sought to retain and appease his crop of dancers by expanding the repertoire. Bournonville‘s La Sylphide and Napoli were brought in and staged by Elsa Marianne von Rosen, founder of the Scandinavian Ballet. Maurice Béjart and Roland Petit were invited to create new works. The Tudor Foundation allowed Lilac Garden and Leaves Are Fading to be performed, while Jerome Robbins staged In the Night. The current repertoire also includes ballets by George Balanchine (given his direct links to the Mariinsky), Kenneth MacMillan and William Forsythe and the debated yet acclaimed Sergei Vikharev reconstructions of Petipa’s original masterpieces which now coexist with Sergeyev’s Soviet versions.

The Style

The Mariinsky dancers have always distinguished themselves in their beautiful port de bras and upper body épaulement, both features of the Vaganova training method. The overall feel is of aristocratic elegance (think Petipa’s princesses), with fluid arms and expression (even if acting is not the main priority),  perfect coordination between head, shoulders, neck and torso. Attention to the smallest detail such as positions of the fingers in the hands – that meticulous – give us a sense of movement with musicality. The corps are always praised by their unity and purity of style. Their principal dancers prioritize lyricism and nobility over bravura, qualities that set the Mariinsky apart from its peers.

Ulyana Lopatkina & artists from the Mariinsky Ballet in Le Corsaire. Photo:The Mariinsky Theatre ©. Source: Exploredance.com

Ulyana Lopatkina & artists from the Mariinsky Ballet in Le Corsaire. Photo:The Mariinsky Theatre ©. Source: Exploredance.com

Their work day

Under the supervision of newly appointed artistic director Yuri Fateyev, dancers are given three-day schedules listing their activities. They attend class first thing in the morning. There are four classes, two for men and two for women with teachers switching between both. Members of the corps de ballet attend a specific class whilst soloists can attend either and then it’s rehearsals for the rest of the day. The Mariinsky continuously rehearses all the ballets in their repertoire, since the company usually stages two performances of one production in a row and then switch onto another ballet. There may be five different ballets staged in a week, sometimes with half of the company at home and the other half performing on tour (thanks to their roster of over 200 dancers). Corps members often carry on rehearsing until the last minute and end their day around 10 pm (as they appear in all ballets),  while for the soloists it’s a mixture between rehearsal-only and performance-only days.

Videos

Legends

The current generation

* Indicates dancers who are due to perform in 2009 London tour

Sources and Further Information

  1. Mariinsky Theatre Main Webpage [link]
  2. Step-by-step guide to dance: Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet by Sanjoy Roy. The Guardian, September 2008 [link].
  3. Mariinsky Theatre Wikipedia Entry [link]
  4. Mariinsky/Kirov Ballet Wikipedia Entry [link]
  5. Superstars of Dance: The Mariinsky Ballet by Zoe Anderson. The Independent, August 2009 [link]
  6. The Mariinsky Theatre by Nick del Vecchio at Living at the Opera [link]
  7. Interview with Ekaterina Osmolkina by Margaret Willis. Dancing Times Magazine, August 2009.
  8. Kennedy Center information about the Mariinsky Ballet. [link]
  9. Light Steps from Leningrad by Martha Duffy. Time Magazine, May 1982. [link]

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We now turn to one of ballet history’s most successful training methods: Cecchetti, a complete and structured system for dancers, which sets a strict, rigid hierarchical regime and which is still an ongoing influence for virtually every major ballet school in the world. Its creator, Enrico Cecchetti (1850-1928), was an Italian virtuoso dancer who would in time become a teacher at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg and train ballet legends such as Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina, Alicia Markova, Léonide Massine and Royal Ballet founder, Ninette de Valois.

Enrico Cecchetti. Source: Wikipedia ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Enrico Cecchetti. Source: Wikipedia ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Cecchetti came from a dancing family, his father having taught him the basics of ballet but later sending him to train with a string of dance luminaries. First, Giovanni Lepri, an accomplished pupil of the great Carlo Blasis of  the “Traité élémentaire, théorique et pratique de l’art de la danse” (1820), one of the foremost treaties of classical ballet techniques of that era,  then with Cesare Coppini at La Scala and Filippo Taglioni. All this practical knowledge served as a background for Cechetti’s own ideas on ballet which he was to develop later as an immigrant in Russia.

Cecchetti was already a virtuoso performer when he arrived in St. Petersburg, astonishing audiences with his great jumps and multiple pirouettes (though he could only turn in one direction) and excelling in mime. Such abilities, best displayed when he created the roles of Bluebird and Carabosse in Petipa‘s The Sleeping Beauty, not only secured him a job as Premieur Danseur with the Mariinsky Ballet but also a 15 year long tenure as Ballet Master of  the Imperial Ballet School, where he taught various notable dancers of the era. After teaching in Poland for 3 years he returned to St. Petersburg, establishing a school in 1905 and working as Anna Pavlova’s exclusive coach until 1909. He went on to contribute to modern classical ballet’s birth upon joining  Diaghilev‘s Ballets Russes as ballet master and mime artist. Later years saw Cecchetti teaching at his own dance school in London (1918) and subsequently returning to his native Italy to teach at La Scala (1923), a position he would hold until his death in 1928.

Cecchetti’s method, developed by mixing his own experiences as a dancer and teacher with Carlo Blasis’s heritage, is a strict form of training. Specific exercises are prescribed for every day of the week and there’s an overall objective of making dancers internalise the principles of ballet and have an innate feeling for graceful lines. This very scientific method leaves no room for improvisation: it dictates that steps be introduced in planned sequences, that all parts of the body be worked on evenly. Daily class consists of barre work, which is then repeated at the centre, followed by adagio and allegro sequences. Only at the end of class may the teacher introduce and incorporate certain new steps to develop the student’s ability to assimilate quickly.  Cecchetti strives for pure and clean classical lines, so dancers can respond to the demands of different styles and choreographers.

Enrico Cecchetti teaches students. Source: The Cecchetti Society of SA ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Enrico Cecchetti teaches students. Source: The Cecchetti Society of SA ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

The method has its own vocabulary, including over 40 set adages and 8 ports de bras, all developed by Cecchetti. Quality rather than quantity is also emphasized (e.g. do the exercise correctly once rather than many times in a sloppy way).

In 1922, assisted by Cecchetti protegés (Stanislas Idzikowski, Margaret Craske and Derra de Moroda), Cyril W. Beaumont collected and codified the basics of Cecchetti’s technique in what became the official syllabus (The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet). Cecchetti also allowed Beaumont, a close friend, to establish the Cecchetti Society for the continuity of his principles and preservation of standards and theoretical knowledge. Along with leading methods such as Vaganova, Balanchine, RAD, Bournonville & the French school, Cecchetti  continues to train future generations of dancers.

With branches in many parts of the world, the Society promotes the method through a series of graded levels and examinations with specific goals for students to work towards. It originally consisted of three levels (nowadays grades 5, 6 and Intermediate Foundation), but now comprises six grade levels. The major grades are Intermediate Foundation, Intermediate, Advanced 1 and 2. In order to become a ballet teacher, candidates must pass the “Associate examination” after Advanced 1.

In the UK, the Cecchetti Society has been absorbed by the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD), even though its syllabus, the Imperial Classical Ballet Syllabus, is still kept separately from ISTD’s own.

Maestro Cecchetti left a great imprint on the English School. The important aspects of his teaching will remain part of the academic tradition of our English Ballet. (Ninette de Valois)

If I had my way, I would always insist that all dancers should daily do the wonderful Cecchetti ports de bras. It inculcates a wonderful feeling for line and correct positioning and the use of head movement and épaulement which – if properly absorbed – will be of incalculable use throughout a dancer’s career. (Frederick Ashton)

Sources and Further Information:

  1. Wikipedia Entry for Enrico Cecchetti
  2. Wikipedia Entry for the Cecchetti Method
  3. The Cecchetti Council of America [link]
  4. The Cecchetti Society of Canada [link]
  5. Cecchetti Ballet Australia [link]
  6. ISTD Cecchetti Ballet Faculty [link]
  7. The Cecchetti Method of Classical Ballet: Theory and Technique by Cyril W. Beaumont, Stanislas Idzikowski. Dover Publications (2003). ISBN-10: 0486431770, ISBN-13: 978-0486431772
  8. Using Class Notes to Document Advances in Late-Nineteenth-Century Ballet Technique by Norma-Sue Fisher-Stitt. International Association of Libraries and Museums of the Performing Arts. [link]
  9. Andros on Ballet. An overview of Cecchetti classical ballet vocabulary.

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