Ballet Stars

Petipa at 200: Why the 19th-Century Choreographer's Works Still Speak To Us Today

ABT in "Swan Lake." Petipa often collaborated with Lev Ivanov, who choreographed this ballet's white acts. Photo by John Grigaitis, Courtesy ABT.

Two hundred is the new 30. Or at least it seems so for Marius Petipa, whose ballets are as active as ever as we celebrate his 200th birthday this year.

Nearly all major ballet companies dance Petipa's iconic ballets, which reflect his prolific creative output. And they are heavy hitters: Swan Lake, La Bayadère, Le Corsaire, Don Quixote, The Nutcracker, Paquita, The Pharaoh's Daughter, Raymonda and The Sleeping Beauty, to name just a few of the 50-plus ballets he choreographed. He also revived and reworked earlier productions of Coppélia, La Fille mal gardée and Giselle. During American Ballet Theatre's 2018 spring season, five out of its eight weeks will be attributable to Petipa, including the debut of artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky's newly reconstructed Harlequinade.

Gabe Stone Shayer and Misty Copeland in "The Sleeping Beauty." Photo by Doug Gifford, Courtesy ABT.


So what makes him "The Dude"—maybe even more popular and certainly more widely known in the 21st century than in the 19th? His works are not only classical ballets, but also classics. Even in short excerpts, they remain powerful. Petipa's variations represent the gold standard at most ballet competitions, because they test dancers to the full range of their classical technique, musicality and artistic expression.

And what makes them classics? "Petipa's ballet step-sequences are simple, logical and organic," says Larissa Saveliev, the former Bolshoi Ballet dancer who founded the Youth America Grand Prix in 1999 with her husband, Gennadi. "But they are so perfectly matched to music and so well composed together, that this beauty becomes timeless and captivates our imagination as much today as it did when they were first choreographed."

Former ABT ballerina Cynthia Harvey, who danced many of the great Petipa roles and now heads the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, lauds Petipa for using his knowledge of ballet training to elevate the choreography: "He really pushed the male dancer's role to have greater importance—using bravura steps for the first time, as well as capitalizing on the ballerina's abilities."

Marius Petipa. Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

If classical ballet technique comprised the spine of his work, Petipa's artistry imbued a rapturous soul into the art form. "Petipa had a gift for storytelling and a sense of imagination and poetry," says Harvey. "His structure with big ensemble dances suited the Imperial Ballet and brought them to new heights. His storytelling and use of symphonic orchestrations for his creations captured the attention of the culture of Russia at that time."

Petipa was born in Marseille, France, the son of a famous ballet master. He studied intensively with the legendary teacher Auguste Vestris and later danced with the Grand Théâtre in Bordeaux, often partnering Carlotta Grisi. In 1847, he became the premier danseur of the Imperial (now Mariinsky) Theatre of St. Petersburg. During his dance career, he helped Jules Perrot and others restage older works. Petipa then began choreographing himself, eventually becoming the premier maître de ballet of the Imperial Theatre. His first seminal success was with The Pharaoh's Daughter in 1862, followed by La Bayadère in 1877. His work with ballet master Lev Ivanov, who specialized in choreographing for the corps de ballet, cemented his legacy. His last ballet was completed in 1905, five years before his death. In one of his final diary entries, Petipa wrote, "I can state that I created a ballet company of which everyone said: St. Petersburg has the greatest ballet in all Europe."

Members of ABT in a scene from "La Bayadère." Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.

When ballerina Valentina Kozlova danced with the Bolshoi Ballet in the Soviet Union, she discovered a black-market silent film with subtitles of Petipa teaching ballet class. She realized he was saying the same things about the refinement of training that she had learned in her Vaganova studies. The enormously influential teacher Agrippina Vaganova, often called the "Queen of Variations," worked closely with Petipa and performed at the Mariinsky until 1916. She began teaching in 1921 and codified the Russian technique. "[Vaganova] says you should do less to appear that you are doing more," says Kozlova, who later became a principal with New York City Ballet and then founded the Valentina Kozlova International Ballet Competition. "One part of our training that comes from Petipa is that women have to be extremely light in their steps. He created the épaulement—the beautiful turn of head and neck—and expressions of your arms and hands that is disappearing today."

Petipa's ingenious approach to music also makes his choreography worth dancing and watching today. While he collaborated with many composers, it was with Tchaikovsky that he made pure magic. Think of the sweeping graciousness of the Lilac Fairy's variation or the exhilaration of the Rose Adagio. Petipa and Tchaikovsky worked closely with librettists to properly convey the desired theatricality and knew how to shape phrases. "In these classics, you dance by phrase, but not by count," says Kozlova. "You should be on the music, but it also gives you freedom to move by phrase."Another reason that Petipa stays in vogue: Ballet dancers love the challenges. Performing Aurora, Kitri or Odette/Odile is akin to a climb up Mt. Everest. You can't fake the requisite technique and artistry. (He often choreographed different versions of his variations for different ballerinas with varying strengths, which is why you will see several versions of the Black Swan variation.) "Petipa's ballets are like a litmus test to reveal your training," says Saveliev. "You can hide or work around your shortcomings in some others' work. But with Petipa, you can't."

David Hallberg and Gillian Murphy in "Swan Lake." Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.

Learning to engage the entire body is often the greatest challenge. "There is this perfect balance between the gracefulness of the upper body and the strength and precision of your legs," says Saveliev. "Today, dancers often concentrate on jumps, tours and footwork—and they sometimes do not pay enough attention to the upper body. But the true beauty of Petipa's choreography is in a perfect combination of both."

What is also built into his choreography is the full expression of the characters. They tell the story of who they are, what they fear, love or loathe, and what they desire through their steps and mime. Think of the innocence and joy of Aurora's Act I variation, the command and regality of Raymonda's "clap" variation or the Bluebird's gravity-snubbing ballon. The dynamics of character development and storytelling are enormous. Audiences feel that.

Although Petipa's ballets have been restaged and adapted over time, there have been recent attempts to restore them to their original versions. Alexei Ratmansky and his wife, Tatiana, have used the Stepanov notations from the Sergeyev Collection at the Harvard Theatre Collection at Houghton Library to reconstruct The Sleeping Beauty for ABT, as well as Swan Lake and Paquita in Europe. Their newly reconstructed Harlequinade for ABT debuts June 4 at Lincoln Center.

Joseph Gorak as the Bronze Idol in ABT's production of "La Bayadère." Photo by Mary Sohl, Courtesy ABT.

Some complain that the classical warhorses are not moving ballet forward in this century. And there are archaic, sometimes uncomfortable images (the peddling of slave girls in Le Corsaire) and stereotypes (The Nutcracker's ethnocentric national dances) in Petipa's work. Nonetheless, plenty of choreographers are still happy to create works "after Petipa," because the frameworks of his ballets are so sturdy and the stories still resonate.

"Most of these ballets are based on stories of a historic romantic ideal, and a certain innocence—boy meets girl (or swan), love has obstacles, love conquers all," says Harvey. Today's audiences crave a dose of innocence along with their desire for escapism.

Petipa, as they say in marketing, is box office gold. That not only pays for a lot of pointe shoes, but also, through these enchanting story ballets, piques the imagination of the next generation.

Show Comments ()
Ballet Training
Torija coaches BalletMet Dance Academy summer intensive student Polina Myers. Photos by Jennifer Zmuda, Courtesy BalletMet.

It's the complex transfer of weight that makes piqué turns en dehors—commonly called "step-overs"—so tricky. Maria Torija, director of the BalletMet Dance Academy, shares her ideas on how to successfully navigate these inevitable variation-ending turns.

What's in a name: " 'Step-over' is the American way," Maria Torija explains. But the turn has many names. "Vaganova calls it 'tour dégagé.' 'Lame-duck'—that's the English! Maybe we should go to the French. The Paris Opéra calls it 'tour piqué en dehors.' "

Walk the line: Whether you tombé front or side, Torija stresses the importance of precision in consecutive piqués en dehors. "Hold the passé until you finish the turn, and then tombé right in the path you're going, like on a tightrope." The leg doesn't extend to the front or side. That's a different step. "Tombé means you fall into it. It's a very quick motion."

Keep reading... Show less
Viral Videos
Josephine Lee exploring Oklahoma. Photo Courtesy Lee.

Earlier this summer, we followed master pointe shoe fitter Josephine Lee of the California-based The Pointe Shop as she made her on a pointe shoe fitting tour around the West Coast and California. Now she's back, this time on a 45-day tour from California to Chicago, educating students on all things pointe shoes and helping them to find their perfect fit. Lee's making stops at top ballet companies and academies across the country, interviewing school directors and chatting with professional ballerinas to find out how they customize and break in their pointe shoes. Below, check out Lee's stop at Oklahoma City Ballet. She touches base with company soloist Amanda Popejoy and school director Penny Askew. Stay tuned for more!


Keep reading... Show less
Sarah Beth Marr. Photo by Oliver Endahl of Ballet Zaida, Courtesy Marr.

Several years ago, Sarah Beth Marr, then a dancer with Mejia Ballet International in Arlington, Texas, went to see a famous ballerina give an interview at a nearby theater. She was eager to hear the dancer's insights on navigating a ballet career. "I was hoping for some kind of secret sauce in order to keep going," she says. When it came time for a question and answer period, several in the audience asked the ballerina about what got her through challenging times. "Her answer was that she worked really hard and pushed herself and tried to be the best," says Marr, "and there's a lot of truth in that." But she was left with a heavy feeling inside. "Is it all about working really hard and striving and carving my own path, or is there something deeper?"

Keep reading... Show less
News
Joffrey Ballet's April Daly, Yoshihisa Arai and Amanda Assucena in Christopher Wheeldon's Swan Lake. Assucena will make her debut in the role of Odette/Odile this week. Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey.

Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Training
Remie Goins, a student at International City School of Ballet in Atlanta, performs at the YAGP finals. Photo by VAM, Courtesy YAGP.

You've watched First Position, the 2011 documentary about dancers at Youth America Grand Prix. You've studied videos of past ballet competition winners online. Now, you're interested in joining those elite ranks by entering a competition yourself. But what if your school doesn't have a program set up to guide you through the process? Pointe asked four experts to break down what ballet competition newbies need to know.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Joseph Gordon, pictured here in George Balanchine's Who Cares?, became New York City Ballet's newest principal this weekend. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

On October 13, the evening before the close of New York City Ballet's fall season and longtime principal Joaquin De Luz's retirement performance, Jonathan Stafford, the leader of the company's interim artistic team, promoted seven company dancers: six men and one woman. In addition to De Luz, NYCB lost three other principal men this fall. Chase Finlay, Zachary Catazaro and Amar Ramasar were fired last month in the midst of a scandal surrounding the sharing of sexually explicit communications. With principal Adrian Danchig-Waring out of commission while recovering from a broken foot, the company has been in need of male dancers to bolster its upper ranks.

Joseph Gordon has been promoted to principal, and Daniel Applebaum, Harrison Coll, Claire Kretzschmar, Aaron Sanz, Sebastian Villarini-Velez and Peter Walker have been promoted to soloist. All seven made a number of debuts throughout the year and shone in featured roles; we've rounded up some of their recent accomplishments below.

Keep reading... Show less
News
From left: ABT principals Devon Teuscher, Christine Shevchenko and Gillian Murphy isn Praedicere. Photo by Marty Sohl, Courtesy ABT.

Last spring American Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin McKenzie announced the company's Women's Movement, a multi-year initiative to support the creation of new work by female choreographers. ABT's fall season, running October 17–28 at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater, sets the project in full swing. The opening gala features a world premiere by tap extraordinaire Michelle Dorrance. A co-commission with the Vail Dance Festival, this work marks ABT's third collaboration with Dorrance this year: She created Praedicere, a pièce d'occasion for ABT's spring gala, as well as a work on company dancers at Vail last summer. The gala performance also includes past and present works by two female choreographers: Twyla Tharp's 1986 In The Upper Room and Lauren Lovette's 2017 Le Jeune, which will be danced by the ABT Studio Company.

Keep reading... Show less
popular
Sarah Lane and Jeffrey Cirio in Harlequinade. Photo: ErIn Baiano

American Ballet Theatre's two months of performances at New York City's Metropolitan Opera House can be an exciting but demanding time for the dancers. With nine ballets in eight weeks including Whipped Cream and Harlequinade, a night off is hard to come by.

James Whiteside as Harlequin in Harlequinade. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

Keep reading... Show less
Viral Videos
Josephine Lee outside Ballet West Academy. Photo Courtesy Lee.

Earlier this summer, we followed master pointe shoe fitter Josephine Lee of the California-based The Pointe Shop as she made her on a pointe shoe fitting tour around the West Coast and California. Now she's back, this time on a 45-day tour from California to Chicago, educating students on all things pointe shoes and helping them to find their perfect fit. Lee's making stops at top ballet companies and academies across the country, exploring schools and getting know academy directors. Below, check out Lee's stop at Ballet West. She touches base with academy director Peter Merz. Stay tuned for more!

Editors' List: The Goods
San Francisco Ballet soloist Koto Ishihara stretches in her warm-up boots. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Dance Magazine.

With cooler weather finally here, it's time to talk warm-ups. And while your dancewear drawer is probably overflowing with oversized sweaters, leggings and enough leg warmers to outfit the whole class, warm-up boots are often forgotten. To keep your feet and ankles cozy in between rehearsals, we rounded up dance warm-up boots that suit every style.

Bloch Inc. Printed Warm-up Bootie

via Bloch Inc.

Created by Irina Dvorovenko and Max Beloserkovsky, this collection comes in a variety of tie dye, floral and even butterfly prints.
blochworld.com, $48

News
Kimin Kim and Soobin Lee. Photo Courtesy SunHee Kim.

Kimin Kim may be a huge star in Russia, but he hasn't forgotten his roots. The prodigious South Korean dancer, who became the Mariinsky Ballet's first foreign principal in 2015, trained at the Korea National University of the Arts, also known as K'Arts. He owes much of his success, he says over email, to the academy's teachers, who prepared him well for his high-profile career. So when dean SunHee Kim approached him about guest-starring in the American premiere of her original ballet Song of the Mermaid, which K'Arts Ballet brings to New York City next week, he didn't hesitate to sign on. "I had performed the role of the Prince while I was at school in Korea and it was such a memorable performance," Kim says. "I've always wanted to do it again, so I happily accepted her offer."

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Viral Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!