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Marius Petipa, choreographer
(Compiled April, 2000)
A selection of his works
Marius Petipa was born in Marseilles March 11, 1822. His father Jean Antoine Petipa was a dancer, choreographer and teacher who brought up both Marius and his elder brother, Lucien, to follow the same profession. Lucien made a better name for himself as a dancer; among the many roles he created was that of Albert (Albrecht) in Giselle.
Marius Petipa began his dance studies at age 7, but at first did not care much for the art form. He received a general education from the Grand College in Brussels. His performing debut came as a child in his father’s production of Pierre Gardel’s La Dansomanie in 1831 at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. The Belgian revolution followed soon afterwards placing the family in dire straits. Jean Petipa moved the family to Bordeaux in 1834, and then on to Nantes where Marius became a principal dancer in 1838.
Marius and his father Jean toured North America in 1839 after which Marius studied with Auguste Vestris in Bordeaux. There he appeared as principal dancer in many ballets including, Giselle, La Fille mal Gardée and La Péri. A noted partner, Marius’ partnering of Carlotta Grisi in La Péri was spoken of for generations, particularly one partnered catch that Gautier deemed would become "... as famous as the Niagara Falls."
In Bordeaux Marius Petipa also choreographed his own work, La jolie Bordelaise, La Vendange, L’Intrigue amoureuse and Le Langage des fleurs. Following the failure of the impresario in Bordeaux Marius was immediately engaged at the King’s Theatre, Madrid. He remained in Spain as a dancer for four years, also studying Spanish dance. This influence led him to choreograph Carmen et son Toréro, La Perle de Séville, L’Aventure d’une fille de Madrid, La Fleur de Grenade, and Départ pour la course des taureaux.
In 1846 he began a love affair with the wife of the Marquis de Chateaubriand, a prominent member of the French Embassy. Learning of the affair the Marquis challenged Petipa to a duel. Petipa quickly left Spain, never to return. On May 24, 1847 he went to St. Petersburg at the suggestion of ballet master Titus. He was offered a contract for one year as a principal dancer, replacing another Frenchman (Emile Gredlu) who was leaving.
Petipa was alarmed to discover that the company had just begun a four-month holiday, but his concern turned to delight on learning that he would receive full pay for the period. For his debut he assisted dancer Frédéric in mounting Joseph Mazillier’s Paquita on the imperial stage, and he enjoyed much success in the largely mimed role of Lucien d’Hervilly. By February 1848, Petipa and his father had produced Mazilier’s Le Diable amoureux. Since Marie Taglioni’s departure from St. Petersburg in 1842 the ballet had slumped into insignificance. 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 [as Le Diable amoureux came to be known in Russia] and its superlative performance placed the company again at its former level of glory and universal affection." The first ballet he choreographed in Russia was The Swiss Milkmaid (1849).
The ability to mount revivals and make dances was the predictable outcome of Petipa’s rigorous apprenticeship, evidenced by his composing ballets as a teenager in Nantes and later in Bordeaux and Spain. The next step - allowing skill to ripen into creativity - took many years.
Petipa’s superiors could not have sensed the depth of his flair for ballet production (given his lack of celebrity at the time, it likely would have made no difference) when Jules Perrot was called to St. Petersburg in 1848 at the behest of Fanny Elssler 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 Granada in 1855) Petipa’s muse fell silent for a decade. From performing the ballets of Perrot and Arthur Saint-Léon, Petipa did learn the value of intensely dramatic mimed scenes and the persuasive intervention of fantastic elements into everyday settings. He was also chosen by Perot to assist him in producing new ballets.
This assimilated knowledge 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.
For Petipa, who turned 40 in 1858, composition was a logical alternative to dancing. Petipa’s breakthrough as a choreographer came in 1862 with the creation of La Fille du Pharaon based on a novel by Gautier. On the strength of the success of this ballet Petipa was appointed one of the company’s ballet masters. He was successful in unseating Saint-Léon, who had replaced Perrot, by championing Surovshchikova in a public rivalry against Marfa Muravieva whom Saint-Léon favored. Petipa was promoted to take charge of the Maryinsky company in 1869, the year that also saw the premiere of his Don Quixote.
Petipa established himself with his "ballets à grand spectacle", of which Le Roi Candaules (1868) and La Bayadère (1877) count. 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 à grand spectacle" 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.
Petipa was meticulous in his preparations, doing exhaustive research and preparing minute plans for painters and composers. He always considered, however, that choreography should take precedence over all 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 Kschessinka. 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.
Petipa married a second time in 1882 to a member of the Moscow Ballet, Lubova Leonidovna.
Inevitably with such a long career (56 years in the service of the one company), fashion turned against Petipa. Although officially titled ‘ballet master for life’, the disaster of his The Magic Mirror (1903) brought about a retirement order. He retired with full ballet master’s pay. In 1906 Petipa’s memoirs were published, then subjected to harsh attack. Due to ill health Petipa moved to Gurzuf in southern Russia in 1907 where he lived until dying on July 14, 1910.
A selection of the approximately fifty ballets choreographed by Petipa in Russia.
La Fille du Pharaon, 1862
Le Roi Candaule, 1868
Don Quixote, 1869
La Camargo, 1872
Le Papillon, 1874
Les Bandits, 1875
La Bayadère, 1877
The Magic Pills 1886
The Talisman, 1889
The Sleeping Beauty, 1890
Cinderella (music Baron Shell), 1893
Swan Lake (with Ivanov), 1895
Halte de Cavalerie, 1896
Ruses d’Amour, 1900
Les Saisons, 1900
Les Millions d’Arlequin, 1900
The Magic Mirror (his last ballet), 1903
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