Marius Petipa Biography; The Royal Danes and Mark Morris

Petipa, Petipa, Petipa. His name has become almost synonymous with classical ballet. The French ballet master spent over 60 years in Russia, first as a dancer and then of course as a ballet master. During that time he created, partially choreographed or revised so many of the full-length classics that still make up the backbone of ballet repertoire: Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Raymonda, La Bayadere, Don Quixote. It's his versions of Giselle and Coppélia that audiences are familiar with today. Yet until now there hasn't been a comprehensive biography of the man's life. (It's an odd gap but there isn't a comprehensive biography of George Balanchine either.) Now, thanks to Nadine Meisner's exhaustively researched biography, we finally know can understand Petipa the man AND are given a priceless snapshot into pre-Revolution Imperial Ballet.

Marius Petipa was born in 1818 and came from a dancing family. His father Jean was a noted dancer; his brother Lucien was maybe the most distinguished dancer of the family -- Lucien created the role of Albrecht in Giselle and danced with such prima ballerinas as Fanny Elssler, Carlotta Grisi, and Marie Taglioni. The Petipas were a close-knit family. Their careers took them to different places in Europe but they would rely on each other their whole lives for what might today be called "networking" -- finding jobs for each other and supporting each other when the chips were down. Marius's sister Victorine was a singer and also remained close to Marius her entire life.

Marius Petipa
Marius spent the early years of his career in Spain where he was considered a good if not great dancer. He was praised for his partnering and mime, but unlike Lucien wasn't considered a romantic leading man. However he soon ran into personal troubles. He began an affair with the daughter of a marquise. The marquise did not approve, and the daughter's father challenged Petipa to a duel. Instead of observing the rules of a duel Petipa took a "cheap shot" -- shooting while the man was loading his pistol. The father survived, as did Petipa's affair with the daughter. In 1847 they eloped to France. Meisner's research has unearthed both the name of the paramour (Carmen Mendoza y Castro), and also the details of their disastrous elopement -- Carmen was arrested in Paris on request of the Spanish authorities. Soon afterwards Marius received an invitation to dance in St. Petersburg. The rest, as they say, is history.

Meisner relies on diaries, newspaper articles, autobiographies, pictures, and other primary sources to piece together Petipa's long life. What she unearths is not necessarily a flattering picture of the grand ballet master. Petipa's affair with Carmen might have flamed out but his penchant for volatile relationships did not. In 1950 Marius had an illegitimate son with a woman named Marie Thérèse Bourdin. In 1854 Marius married the beautiful ballerina Maria Surovshchikova. The couple had two children -- Marie (who became a noted dancer) and son Jean.

Maria Petipa
Alas, the marriage was not a success. In the book's most harrowing passage Meisner presents a hair-curling legal complaint Maria Petipa filed against her husband for physical abuse. Even by 19th century standards the abuse sounds egregious -- according to Maria Petipa, Marius routinely isolated her from her friends, destroyed her belongings, attacked her by choking and spitting on her, locked her in the bedroom and beat her unconscious, and beat her in front of her children and servants. Maria Petipa cites specific witnesses to the abuse who could presumably vouch for the veracity of her claims. In 1874 the couple separated for good and in 1882 Maria died of smallpox.

Here is one small passage from Maria's complaint. She describes an incident that she says "broke her endurance."
"On this day, when I was returning from the theater in a carriage with my maid, my husband, having caught up with the carriage, stopped it, dragged my servant out of it, sat in her place, seized me by the throat, and began to throttle and spit in my face. I was not able to bear this latest insult and, with the resolve to find protection from the Law from my cruel husband, quickly left him and moved in with my mother, with whom I am now living."

This abuse is chillingly familiar -- it so describes the escalating physical abuse of many domestic violence victims.  Meisner simply presents the evidence but does not comment on it. Petipa did remarry and the second marriage seems to have been happier and produced six children, none of whom had the glittering dance careers Petipa desired.

This is one weakness of the book -- despite the exhaustive and scrupulous research, Meisner is often content to just describe and report. As a result there is sometimes a dry, encyclopedic quality to the work. Meisner takes great care to describe the synopsis of each of Petipa's big ballets, from his first big success (The Pharoah's Daughter in 1862) to the final failure (The Magic Mirror in 1903). However the book is surprisingly light on any analysis about Petipa's actual choreography. We learn about the stories, the dancers, the sets, the costumes, the reviews.  There is a priceless picture section which shows the original set designs and costumes of so many ballets. Yet there's no section that describes, for instance, why Petipa's choreography for the Kingdom of the Shades in La Bayadere is so hypnotic.

Mathilde Kschessinskaya
Another gap in the book is that we are given illuminating descriptions of Petipa's collaborations with many famous Imperial Ballet dancers. Ekaterina Vazem (whose sharp-tongued diaries are liberally quoted), Pierina Legnani, Pavel Gerdt, Carlotta Brianza, Mathilde Kschessinskaya, Enrico Cecchetti, Anna Pavlova.

However Meisner does not really elaborate on why Petipa choreographed the way he did for many of these dancers. Pierina Legnani was of course famous for her 32 fouettés. But the many variations in Raymonda suggest a dancer of great endurance and par terre skill. Why did Petipa choreograph the way he did for her? Meisner does not say. There are occasional nods to dancers -- for instance, it doesn't take a genius to realize that Enrico Cecchetti must have been a great jumper if he created Bluebird in Sleeping Beauty. For a more in-depth look at how many of these Imperial Ballet dancers actually danced, one has to read Akim Volynsky's Ballet's Magic Kingdom.

Similarly, we are told about the contributions of Petipa collaborators like Lev Ivanov (who choreographed most of Nutcracker and the lakeside scenes of Swan Lake) and his loyal assistant Alexander Shiryaev but again, very little actual analysis of choreography. There is also disappointingly little information about Petipa's relationship with composers like Minkus, Drigo, Tchaikovsky, or Glazunov. But perhaps there wasn't much of one -- Petipa definitely considered the Dance more important than the Music.

The 1900 production of La Bayadere
What Meisner does do is chronicle the company politics of the Imperial Ballet that were so full of intrigues, pettiness,  and backstabbing that movies like Black Swan and The Red Shoes seem warm and cuddly in comparison. Mathilde Kschessinsakaya comes across as completely ruthless -- she appealed to the Tsar if the smallest of her whims was not satisfied. When Petipa did not make a congratulatory speech for her father's fiftieth anniversary benefit in 1903 Kschessinskaya took revenge by revealing the "gifts"/bribes she had given Petipa throughout her career. Petipa in his diaries called her a "swine" for the way she monopolized roles and went over his head in matters of casting.

But the biggest challenge of Petipa's life was after the departure of Imperial Ballet director Ivan Vsevolozhsky, with whom he had a fruitful and symbiotic partnership. The new director Vladimir Teliakovsky had little use for the aging Petipa. Teliakovsky's diaries drip with contempt for Petipa. Here is one charming passage:

"The nasty old geriatric bribe-taker, imprudent Frenchman, who during the fifty years spent in Russia at Russian expense, never learnt to speak Russian and feels instinctively all the contempt I have for him. With the inflated and completely unfounded reputation of outstanding ballet master, he knows that in me he has found a director, who will not yield to his fraudulent spell he has cast around him ..."

Petipa's final effort, The Magic Mirror (1903), is chronicled with painful detail. The story: a ballet adaptation of Snow White. Petipa was old and in ill health, and convinced Teliakovsky was determined to sabotage the effort. Despite an all-star cast that included Mathilde Kschessinskaya, Sergei Legat, Marie Petipa, and Anna Pavlova, the ballet was a failure. Petipa blamed Teliakovsky for the poor designs, Teliakovsky blamed Petipa for the constant changes in choreography. Alexandre Benois took the more objective view and blamed the lack of cohesion for the failure -- "Everything seems so badly patched together, with so little thought out."

Anna Pavlova in La Bayadere
Petipa died 7 years later, at the ripe old age of 92. He continued to rehearse and revive his ballets for newer generations of dancers. He pushed for dancing careers for his children with his second wife, pinning his hopes on Vera Petipa. There was more Imperial Ballet intrigue -- a 1905 attempt to overthrow leadership that was spearheaded by some of the young "revolutionaries" of the ballet -- Mikhail Fokine, Tamara Karsavina, the Legat brothers. The coup ended with the suicide of Sergei Legat (who also happened to be the husband of Marie Petipa).

Petipa as an old man had to live on a tight budget and became bitter about the future of ballet. About Serge Diaghilev's successes in Paris he had this to say: "When I hear about the victory of Russian ballet abroad, my heart weeks ... Everything I cared for and nurtured over the years, is going through its death throes."

History has of course taken a different view. Today ballets like Sleeping Beauty are still the backbone of most ballet companies. Choreographers like Alexei Ratmansky and the late Sergei Vikharev have attempted to restore much of what has been lost, deleted, or altered throughout the years with their reconstruction of Petipa ballets like Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadere. Choreographers like George Balanchine often expressed how indebted they were to Petipa. And Nadine Meisner's comprehensive biography has finally pulled the curtain to reveal the man behind the ballets.

And if you ever doubt the greatness of Petipa, watch this:

Sorella Englund and Ulrik Birkkjaer in La Sylphide, photo @ Dave Morgan

In other news I reviewed two performances for bachtrack: a short but sweet program by the Royal Danish ballet here, and a Mark Morris premiere for the Mostly Mozart Festival.

I don't have to tell you that the Royal Danes were wonderful and the Mark Morris premiere considerably less so.


  1. thanks Ivy - i didn't know as much as i should about Petipa - certainly not that he was not a very nice character. interesting to read "Petipa definitely considered the Dance more important than the Music" - certainly he was very particular indeed about what he required of composers, such as Tchaikovsky, which doesn't mean he didn't consider the status of chore over score.

    1. The book has some correspondence. He definitely thought the dance had to fit certain rhythms and steps he wanted. He preferred working with danseuse composers like Drigo, Minkus and Pugni for that reason. He definitely wasn't like Balanchine or Ashton in drawing inspiration from a piece of music.

      In a way he's more like MacMillan, who often commissioned piecemeal scores to suit the needs of his dramatic narrative ballets.


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