Russian ballet company based at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. It dates back to court performances given by dancers trained at the Empress Anna Ivanovna's school, which evolved into a professional company, the Imperial Ballet. This was based at the Bolshoi Theatre in St Petersburg (1783–1860) and then at the Mariinsky Theatre, although the company continued to perform at the Bolshoi Theatre until 1889. It also gave smaller-scale performances at the Theatre of the Hermitage and the Theatre of Tsarskoye Selo (now the Pushkin). After the October Revolution of 1917 the theatre's name was changed to State Mariinsky Theatre, then the State Academic Theatre for Opera and Ballet (Russian abbreviation, GATOB). In 1935 it became the Leningrad Theatre for Opera and Ballet named after Kirov (the head of the Leningrad Communist Party who was assassinated in 1934), while the company itself was commonly known as the Kirov Ballet. In 1991 the theatre reverted to its original name, the Mariinsky, with the company retaining the name Kirov for foreign touring.
Originally, ballet in Russia was a foreign import. The empress's school (founded 1738) was directed by the Frenchman Landé and early choreographers and teachers such as Hilverding and Angiolini brought with them European ballets and a European technical finesse. Even so, these soon became inflected with the freer style of Russian folk dance, and some early ballets were created on Russian themes, such as Angiolini's Semira (1772), based on a tragedy by Russian writer Sumarokov, and Valbergh's Russia's Triumph; or, The Russians in Paris (1814). Didelot, who was ballet master in St Petersburg from 1801 to 1811 and again from 1816, choreographed the first ballets based on Pushkin's work and he was also responsible for widespread reforms in the school and company. Under his influence the city became one of the leading centres of ballet, producing its own star dancers. Romanticism came into vogue when Taglioni danced La Sylphide in St Petersburg in 1837 and many of the other great Romantic ballerinas performed there during the 1840s and 1850s. Russian ballerinas, however, proved able to compete with them, including Elena Andreyanova who danced Giselle in 1842, and later Marie Bogdanova. Subsequent ballet masters, Perrot (1848–59) and Saint-Léon (1859–69) added their own distinctive works to the repertory. But it was Petipa who brought the St Petersburg ballet to its peak of artistic brilliance. He joined the company in 1847 as a solo dancer and was appointed chief ballet master in 1869. In a long succession of increasingly inventive and expressive works he not only extended the technical and dramatic range of the classical vocabulary but also evolved a far more sophisticated format than that of previous ballet spectacles. The Sleeping Beauty (1890) and Swan Lake (with Ivanov, 1895) were created in quasi-symphonic form comparable to the great Tchaikovsky scores to which they were set, with individual dance numbers knitted into a coherent sweep of dance and mime. Petipa's ballets were also vehicles for the increasing virtuosity of the principal dancers, trained by gifted teachers like Christian Johansson and Enrico Cecchetti. They included Ekaterina Vazem, Evgenia Sokolova, Pavel Gerdt, and Nicolai Legat. At the beginning of the 20th century other outstanding classical dancers emerged, including Olga Preobrajenska, Mathilda Kshessinska, and Anna Pavlova but the vitality of 19th-century choreography was exhausted. The young choreographer Fokine was committed to replacing the old three-act ballets with dance of a new concentrated poetry or realism. But the Mariinsky Theatre was unsympathetic to his reforms and he chose to work for long periods with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Europe as did many of the younger dancers, notably Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina. In 1917 the October Revolution produced a period of instability in the company and more dancers left, but during the 1920s GATOB became a platform for experimental work under the direction of Lopukhov. He and Balanchine (prior to the latter's 1924 departure to the West) staged Evenings of Young Ballet and many new ballets were shown. However, the company also remained committed to preserving its 19th-century traditions. During the 1930s Soviet-style ballet theatre came to prominence with many seminal ballets in the genre created in the company, such as Vainonen's Flames of Paris (1932), Zakharov's Fountain of Bakhchisarai (1934), and the Lavrovsky production of Romeo and Juliet (1940). Galina Ulanova emerged as the company's outstanding ballerina at this time. Between 1941 and 1944 the company was evacuated to Molotov-Perm though some dancers remained in the besieged Leningrad to perform. After 1945 Moscow overtook St Petersburg as the official centre of Soviet ballet although some important works continued to be made at the Kirov, including Fenster's Taras Bulba (1955), Jacobson's Spartacus (1956), Grigorovich's The Stone Flower (1957) and Legend of Love (1961), and Belsky's The Leningrad Symphony (1961). With Konstantin Sergeyev as company director and his wife Natalia Dudinskaya as leading dancer, the classical repertory was also strictly maintained. While the Bolshoi were known for their vigorous, dramatic energy the Kirov were renowned for their purity of line, their musicality, and their adherence to classical tradition. When the company began touring to the West after 1961 dancers like Natalia Makarova, Irina Kolpakova, Rudolf Nureyev, and Yuri Soloviev impressed audiences with their refined artistry. Contact with the West, however, revealed the artistic limitations of the Kirov's repertory and many dancers chose to defect, including Nureyev, Makarova, and, later, Baryshnikov. In 1977 Oleg Vinogradov took over direction of the company. He created many new ballets but also began to add Western works by Béjart, Balanchine, and Fokine, among others. Increased touring to the West after the late 1980s brought international fame to a new generation of Kirov dancers, notably Altynai Asylmuratova, Farukh Ruzimatov, and, later, Igor Zelensky. Vinogradov ceased to be effective director of the company in 1996 due to a series of political and financial scandals and the Kirov was then run by the director of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev, and by ballet director Makharbek Vaziev (1997–2008). Reverting to its original name, the Mariinsky, the company has since attempted to sustain the traditions for which it is famous while finding a new direction for its future, enlarging its repertory with ballets by choreographers such as Balanchine, Forsythe, and Petit; with revivals of the Diaghilev repertory (including Hodson and Archer's reconstruction of Rite of Spring) and with new works by, among others, Alexei Ratmansky, including his Le Baiser de la fée (1998) and Pierrot Lunaire (2008). Vaziev was succeeded by Yuri Fateyev in 2008. The Mariinsky remains legendary for the beauty and discipline of its corps de ballet, rooted in the training which dancers receive from the company school. Based in Theatre Street (Rossi Street) the school dates back to the 1738 school founded by the Empress Anna Ivanovna. It has been successively named the Imperial Theatre School, St Petersburg, the Petrograd State Ballet School, the Leningrad Ballet School, and from 1957, the Vaganova School.