Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master 
by Nadine Meisner.
Oxford, 514 pp., £22.99, July 2019, 978 0 19 065929 5
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Marius Petipa​ not only created ballets but made ‘ballet’ itself into an art. He choreographed the bulk of the 19th-century canon, including La Bayadère, Don Quixote, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, maintaining a classical style in the face of shifting trends – from Romanticism in the mid-1800s to Symbolism at the turn of the 20th century. Alone and in collaboration, with his father, Jean-Antoine Petipa, also a choreographer, and his assistant, Lev Ivanov, he created grand multi-act, multi-set and multi-cast ballets on historical topics as well as fanciful ones; revived and remade the ballets of others (Satanilla, Lida, or the Swiss Milkmaid as well as Giselle and Coppélia); supplied dances for operas, including Bizet’s Carmen and Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades; contributed to coronation spectacles; and devised numerous occasional dances. His ballets became the foundation of the international repertoire, staples of the Sadler’s Wells (later Royal) Ballet thanks to its founder, Ninette de Valois, who acquired the three ballets Petipa made to Tchaikovsky’s music – The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake – along with Petipa’s versions of Giselle and Coppélia. Valois brooked few changes to what she considered, from her own experience as a dancer and the notation scores, the authentic choreography. Parisians, meanwhile, saw the more distant versions Serge Lifar and Rudolf Nureyev brought to the Paris Opéra Ballet. Similarly in Soviet Russia Petipa’s ballets morphed, with the fidelity of adaptations always a subject of debate. But there are no originals, in the German Romantic sense of a Werktreue, and not all that has been credited to Petipa was his invention.

The bicentennial of Petipa’s birth in 2018 was marked by performances, conferences, symposia and publications in Russia, France, Spain and the United States. Nadine Meisner’s Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master is the first comprehensive English-language biography. Avoiding strict chronology, she places the details of Petipa’s life alongside those of his parents, siblings (his handsome older brother, Lucien, danced with the Paris Opéra) and children. He was born in 1818 in Marseille and died in 1910 in the Crimea. He danced as a young man in Nantes, Bordeaux and the Teatro del Circo in Madrid, and his account of his youth could serve as a plot for a ballet. In his memoirs, published in Russia in 1907, he writes about a tour to America in 1839 that never really happened, or at least not to him: his father took the trip. He claims he was forced to leave Spain in 1846 or 1847 after being challenged by a French diplomat over a girl. Although there was a duel, it happened in September 1844. According to Laura Hormigón’s recent book Marius Petipa en España, 1844-47, Petipa had been giving dancing lessons to Carmen Mendoza y Castro, the daughter of the marquis of Villagarcía. The two fell in love but her family opposed the match and they were forced to flee the country early in 1847. They were discovered in hiding in France, and Carmen was arrested and sent by her father to a convent in Rouen, while Petipa went to St Petersburg, where he joined the Imperial Ballet, eventually becoming premier maître de ballet under four Russian emperors.

Petipa’s first wife, Mariia Surovshchikova, was a dancer in the corps de ballet. She was his ‘first muse’, an eloquent performer whose ‘charm, plastique and expressiveness’ defined, among other ballets, The Wilful Wife. Petipa didn’t admire such wilfulness in real life and mistreated her, on one occasion throttling her. An official ‘complaint of M. Petipa, actress of the Imperial Theatres, about her husband’s cruel treatment’, is preserved at the Central State Historical Archive in St Petersburg. It was brought to light in a 2002 Russian newspaper article titled, in English, ‘Criminal pas de deux’; Petipa’s idealisation of women did not, it seems, extend beyond the footlights. In Petipa’s works, the ballerina is as abstract as Goethe’s Eternal Feminine. His heroines, as Alastair Macaulay writes, are advocates of traditional values who ‘live only for marriage and (even beyond their mate’s adultery and the grave) true love’. Yet they dominate the dance, ruling ‘space, time, music and drama like monarchs’.

Mariia left to take refuge with her mother in 1867. The previous year, Petipa had staged a ballet called Florida, in which the poor heroine, Florida, dances her way to marriage and social advancement. It was inspired by Mariia and premiered as a benefit for her. The plot is slight, and some of the dances are recycled from other works. The setting and choice of dances are also odd, but that was the point. Petipa was experimenting with genre and style so saw no problem including a muzhichok, a Russian peasant dance, in a ballet set in Italy under Spanish rule. In the first act, Florida wins the affection of a nobleman by performing a fetching garland dance at a gala to raise funds for flood victims. Later, she becomes a he, dancing the muzhichok en travesti and winning the approval of her lover’s aristocratic parents. Beyond the plot, the ballet is about Surovshchikova’s enchanting movement and the power of the ballerina to move through different times and places – even across genders. Quite early in his career, Petipa was already creating ballets about ballet. Florida attracted the attention of the intelligentsia and inspired a long poem by the radical writer Nikolai Nekrasov, which satirises the elite Russian patrons of dance. Petipa put merchants, pirates, sailors, peasants and people from the kingdom of Phrygia on stage only to caricature them; this, according to Nekrasov, was also the way the regime treated the lower classes – as incidental, background colour, less than human.

Information about Petipa’s original dances is sparse. There are signed and unsigned newspaper reviews, recollections and letters, but these only vaguely describe the dancing. Often one dancer or one style is praised and another dismissed, ballet being an exceedingly partisan enterprise. Reviews generally don’t get much beyond the plot, and the plots, like the number of fouetté turns in a coda, often changed. So did the music. Meisner notes the ‘cavalier approach to existing scores’ and describes the music for the 1858 version of Le Corsaire as ‘a patchwork of additions and cuts by other hands’. Tight budgets affected performances, as did changes in technology (lighting moved from gas to electricity in Petipa’s time), the quality of the scenery (sometimes recycled from operas), and of course injuries. The ballerina only seems celestial – her art is wholly embodied.

Most (but not all) of the ballets are lost. We know from the archival material that The Magic Pills (1886), for example, ‘followed the féerie strategy of excitingly varied locations, starting in a pharmacy and moving on to settings such as a Madrid square, the crater of a volcano, and the bedroom of a sorcerer’. The ‘World of Amusements’ divertissement moved the dancers around like pieces in a board game. Petipa wrapped one ballerina, Zinaida Frolova, in ribbons for a sensational spinning solo, and the show also included a ballet des nations of sorts, depicting the needlework of different countries. What we know about the ballets comes from those in Petipa’s inner circle who preserved material against his wishes: scenarios (his own and those of others), cast lists, floorplans, reviews and articles, interviews, recollections and photographs. Moscow’s Bakhrushin Museum has roughly eight hundred folders on Petipa, and his imperial service records survive in other Russian Federal Archives. Even so, there are enough gaps in the record to support different interpretations of the same ballet. Meisner offers the example of a lesser-known Petipa ballet about the Roman goddess Vesta, La Vestale, from 1888. The score was written by Mikhail Ivanov, who praised his own music in print, claiming it was superior to the ‘string of waltzes’ Tchaikovsky produced for Swan Lake. Meisner enlisted the musicologist Lidia Ader to examine the surviving score; she concluded that ‘Ivanov lacked nuance’ and ‘tended to repeat the same devices – always a tutti orchestration for dramatic moments, always the same instruments for dramatic moments’. Tchaikovsky, by contrast, varied his effects. In the ballets Petipa made before their collaboration, which began in 1890 with The Sleeping Beauty, styles and genres mix in a pastiche intended to please a particular audience at a specific time.

Several choreographies, however, are preserved in the system of notation devised by the dancer Vladimir Stepanov and refined by the choreographer Alexander Gorsky, thanks to the efforts of Nikolai Sergeyev, the régisseur of the Imperial Theatres of St Petersburg, who embarked on a Petipa preservation project in 1900. Sergeyev notated the ballets he knew, meaning those from Petipa’s immensely productive mature years, including the Tchaikovsky ballets. The notation is musical, translating physical movement into notes on a stave: lines denote the direction of movement and circles represent turns. In addition, Alexander Shiryaev, a character dancer and choreographer with the Imperial Theatres, turned his recollections of Petipa productions into stop-motion films using handmade dolls and paper-strip animations. The hoop dance in George Balanchine’s 1954 adaptation of The Nutcracker is almost identical to Shiryaev’s animation, even though Balanchine never saw it. Both relied on their memories of the original of 1892, which Petipa choreographed up to the first act party scene and Ivanov completed.

In his memoir, Petipa’s score-settling pushes out details of the construction of his ballets. Meisner explains what Petipa took from Jules Perrot and Arthur Saint-Léon, his collaborators at the Imperial Ballet; how French and Italian techniques intermingled in the Russian context; how grand ballets differ from ballets-féeries; and how Petipa responded to demands for more or less patriotic content. She emphasises the importance of enchaînements (the sequences of steps) in establishing Petipa’s ‘spare and linear classicism’, and his insistence on expressive arm movements. She also analyses the symbolic power of the ballerinas he placed centre stage (the men in his ballets were ‘vassals’) and the beautiful geometric patterning of the corps de ballet in his best-known works.

If there is a misstep in Meisner’s book, it’s her emphasis on individual styles and genres over the longue durée. Imperial Russian politics were complex, and ballets often obliquely reflected contemporary society. The Sleeping Beauty (1890) ends with a mazurka, a Polish dance that was popular at Russian balls. The Polish nationalist associations are suppressed in the ballet. Meisner claims that ‘The Sleeping Beauty achieves an ideal balance of spectacle allied to an inspired story with allegorical and mythical undercurrents’ – although most reviewers didn’t allude to these. Similarly, the national dances in The Little Humpbacked Horse, or The Tsar Maiden, a ballet adapted in 1895 by Petipa from the 1864 original by Arthur Saint-Léon, allegorise the expansion of the Russian empire.

Petipa benefited from the development of sturdier pointe shoes that made new choreography possible. In the decades that followed the premiere of La Sylphide, the pointe shoe was transformed from a fragile slipper of leather and satin into a hard-wearing athletic shoe. To support arches and protect toes, the soles were thickened and the fronts squared to make ‘boxes’. These allowed the bravura Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani to spin in place and skip across the stage on her tiptoes. Russian ballerinas further stiffened the design. In Swan Lake, which Petipa and Ivanov staged in 1895, the heroine, Odette, and her supernatural doppelgänger, Odile, are defined by their steps. Odile goes en pointe; Odette doesn’t. The original version, choreographed by Wenzel Reisinger and premiered in 1877 at the Bolshoi in Moscow, failed to impress, and the ballet seemed consigned to oblivion. Since Petipa, the roles of Odette and Odile (shared by a single dancer) have passed from one eminent ballerina to another and Swan Lake has become an allegory of ballet itself, and the psychology of prima ballerinas.

Meisner gently but firmly corrects the errors in what remains the most important yet most troublesome source: Petipa’s memoirs. He began writing them in 1896 and finished eight or nine years later. By 1904 he was unwell, both mentally and physically, having been forced into retirement the year before by Vladimir Telyakovsky, the director of the Imperial Theatres. The circumstances of his retirement – he was pushed out after the failure of a new ballet, The Magic Mirror – seem monstrously unjust, and Telyakovsky doesn’t come across well either in Petipa’s memoirs or Meisner’s biography. But perhaps Telyakovsky wasn’t entirely in the wrong. Petipa was 85 in 1903. He had become unreliable and his work was considered old-fashioned. The Ballets Russes was only six years away.

Ballet is above all allographic: it can’t be bound to a single authored version. Even the most rigid choreographies mutate over time. The resident choreographer at the American Ballet Theatre, Alexei Ratmansky, has studied the Stepanov notation of Petipa’s ballets. ‘You can’t remove a step without destroying the whole structure,’ he has said. But ‘so much small footwork’ has been lost: the hop between fouetté and the arabesque in a sequence in Paquita, for example. Ratmansky restores them to the stage. Despite this, I don’t suppose he would want productions to be bound to absolute fidelity to extant notation, musical manuscripts and drawings. The disappeared ballets, those that don’t exist even in notation, remind us that a ballet’s appeal resides (until it doesn’t) in performance.

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