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A staple in the repertoire of all major ballet companies, Giselle has always been an audience favourite. Romantic ballet fans will have a sentimental connection with this quintessential story dealing with man’s encounter with supernatural characters. They cherish not only its iconic solos, the challenges they pose to the the central ballerina and her partner  but also the dark beauty and awe of its ensemble pieces, one of the ultimate tests for a company’s corps de ballet.

Elena Glurdjidze and Artists of English National Ballet in Giselle. Photo: Daria Klimentová / ENB ©

Mary Skeaping, a scholar of Romantic ballets, created for the English National Ballet a very particular production of Giselle. It attempts to stray as little as possible from its original conception in 19th century France. Missing pieces of the choreography have been restored, the second act featuring an additional scene where a group of gamekeepers is surrounded by the ghostly Wilis, as well as the complete fugue in which the Wilis circle Giselle and Albrecht, arms raised in threat.

Skeaping’s production also employs mime more frequently (she learned the original mime directly from Tamara Karsavina) and alters certain sequences to emphasise key aspects of the story. Thus, the peasant pas de deux, with one variation for each peasant and Giselle’s solo woven in, becomes a sort of divertissement for the nobility. Since the villagers are gathered to celebrate the vine harvest, the group dances center around the event, with a new pas de deux and additional solos for Giselle and Loys/Albrecht. For those familiar with Giselle, a first glimpse at Skeaping’s version might come as a mild shock; differences between hers and other more conventional productions popping out here and there. Whether these changes actually enhance the storytelling is a question I can only answer after additional viewings.

Any successful production of Giselle will also depend on a strong leading ballerina and, in this respect, Elena Glurdjidze hits the spot. She is a sweet Giselle with a beautiful expressive upper body, a powerful jump and the sound technique to deliver Spessivtseva‘s famous diagonal without a glitch. In the mad scene Glurdjidze’s Giselle is haunting and heart-wrenching, as a Wili she stays rooted in the Romantic style (think rounded arms, ethereal steps, tilted torsos). Arionel Vargas, her Albrecht, is a dancer of elegant lines but ultimately not entirely convincing as the repentant Count, never fully projecting transcendence through Giselle’s love.

Elena Glurdjidze as Giselle and Arionel Vargas as Albrecht in English National Ballet's Giselle. Photo: Daria Klimentová / ENB ©

In addition to Glurdjidze, the evening’s highlight was the corps de ballet. English National Ballet boasts a strong and disciplined set of dancers; few times have I seen such stunning Wili scenes, sweeping lines of Wilis in shades of white and green moved across the stage in menacing waves, creating images of dark beauty. They were led by Chantel Roulston, solid in technique but somewhat lacking in the icy, commanding manners of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis.

The evening’s programme began with Men Y Men, a short “all male” ballet set to Rachmaninoff. Choreographed by ENB’s Artistic Director Wayne Eagling, the piece showcases the male contingent’s technical gifts, giving them extra stage time in an evening dominated by the women. Despite some interesting sections of choreography in canon (i.e. in succession, with the next dancer overlapping the movement of the previous dancer) and flashy solos to dazzle the audience, I thought the piece lacked substance and that the dark tights worn by the dancers against a dark setting led to a strange effect of torsos floating on air. It did not leave a lasting impression, unlike Giselle and its eternal supernatural powers.

Elena Glurdjidze as Giselle and Arionel Vargas as Albrecht in English National Ballet's Giselle. Photo: Daria Klimentová / ENB ©

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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]

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While over this side of the channel we continue to bury ourselves in Mayerlings and other fall season balletic offerings, Paris Opera Ballet  has returned to the Palais Garnier from their summer break with the eternal Romantic classic Giselle. As they are just a couple of hours away by Eurostar, our friend Juliet Ashdown could not resist the lure of a daytrip. Here she shares some impressions of last week’s performance:

Mathias Heymann and Dorothée Gilbert in a rehearsal of Giselle. Source: Syltren.blogspot.com Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Mathias Heymann and Dorothée Gilbert in a rehearsal of Giselle. Source: Syltren.blogspot.com Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

It has often been remarked that the Paris Opera Ballet dancers might seem cold in their interpretation of ballet classics which prioritizes classical excellence over drama. It is true that in this Giselle, adapted by Patrice Bart from the original choreography by Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot and Marius Petipa, the first act mime is not conveyed as clearly as in Sir Peter Wright‘s production for the Royal Ballet and it is also true that the dancers lack a certain warmth overall, but they more than make up for it with their stylish dancing.

Fortunately Alexander Benois‘s staging leaves them more room to display all this style, with the two huts set further back in the stage and a backcloth with a castle far in the distance, making the Royal Ballet’s sets seem cluttered by comparison.  The colours for sets and dancers are also brighter here, with creams, reds and greens.  The peasants’ dresses are longer and floaty, although it is a pity that the puffed sleeves should give them such an aristocratic air.

While Dorothée Gilbert‘s more reserved Giselle did not act out the most poignant mad scene I have ever seen,  she really came into her own in Act 2, so assured and elegant, her first développé into arabesque long held and rock solid. She dazzlingly travelled though her series of backward entrechats and in the main pas de deux with Matthias Heymann‘s Albrecht, she was enthralling, ethereal.

22-year old Heymann, POB’s newest (and youngest) étoile had only recently debuted as Albrecht. He was excellent, his grief totally embodied in the role, his dancing fautless. His jumps are very powerful but understated enough to show the grim situation he finds himself in whilst overpowered by the Wilis. However, there was nothing understated about his flawless series of over 30 entrechats-six, which earned him an enthusiastic  mid-performance ovation.

From left to right, Matthias Heymann, Dorothée Gilbert and Stéphanie

From left to right, étoiles Matthias Heymann and Dorothée Gilbert and Premiere Danseuse Stéphanie Romberg. Source: POB © Copyright belongs to its respective authors.

The 2nd Act of Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen, not only because of the perfection of their strong corps who present us with a superb Wilis scene but also thanks to the gorgeous sets and costumes. The Wilis’ tutus are of the lightest fabric and look more shimmery than those worn in the Royal Ballet version, their veils disappear all at once thanks to crafty pulling from the stage wings.  In the background we see the ruins of an abbey and Giselle’s grave has a large cross from which we see her rise.

Yet, it is not just the stagecraft but the little details, like Myrtha’s (Stéphanie Romberg) chilling crown which looks like ice from the back of her head or the way she bourrées forward so silently, so ghost-like, that make this Giselle such an endearing production.

Juliet Ashdown

The Wilis in Paris Opera Ballets production of Giselle. Source: syltren.blogspot.com Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

The Wilis in Paris Opera Ballet's production of Giselle. Source: syltren.blogspot.com Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

This is a review for the matinée performance held on October 10, 2009 at the Palais Garnier. Giselle is in repertoire until the 12th of October. Casting available from the Paris Opera Ballet’s Website.

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