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Marius Petipa

(1819—1910) French ballet dancer and choreographer


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(b Marseilles, 11 Mar. 1818; d Gurzuf, Crimea, 14 Jul. 1910)

French-Russian dancer, choreographer, and ballet master. The creator of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, and the most important influence on Russian ballet during the 19th century, he arguably made more impact on the history of classical ballet than any other choreographer.

He studied with his father Jean Antoine Petipa and later with A. Vestris, making his debut in Brussels in 1831 with his father's company in Pierre Gardel's Dansomanie. He performed with the same company in Bordeaux (from 1834) and was a principal dancer (1838) in Nantes, where he choreographed his first ballets: Le droit du Seigneur, La Petite Bohémienne, and La Noce à Nantes. In 1839 he toured North America with his father's company (although the tour did not go well), then danced in Paris at the Comédie-Française and in Bordeaux, dancing principal roles in Giselle, La Fille mal gardée, and La Péri. In Bordeaux he made several more ballets, including La Jolie Bordelaise, La Vendange, L'Intrigue amoureuse, and Le Langage des fleurs. From 1843 to 1846 he toured Spain and studied Spanish dance in Madrid with the result that the ballets he made at this time had a Spanish flavour: Carmen et son toréro, La Perle de Séville, L'Aventure d'une fille de Madrid, and La Fleur de Grenade.

It was in 1847 that Petipa made his historic move to St Petersburg, where he changed both his own fortunes and also profoundly affected the course of Russian Ballet. He was initially employed as a dancer and enjoyed success in Giselle, Paquita, La Péri, Esmeralda, and Le Corsaire and often partnered Elssler. He created roles in Perrot's The War of the Women (1852), Gazelda (1853), Marcobomba (1854), Armida (1855), and La Débutante (1857). He was particularly admired in character roles. His early choreography in Russia included the new material he created for Act II of Giselle (he completely restaged the ballet in 1884) and that which he created as Perrot's assistant. It was not until 1855 that he created his first significant ballet: The Star of Granada (mus. various) and not until 1862 that he achieved popular success with La Fille du Pharaon (mus. Pugni). He was appointed ballet master the same year and in 1869 promoted to chief ballet master. He went on to choreograph about 50 ballets for the Imperial Theatres in both St Petersburg and Moscow, and it was through this repertory that the Russian Imperial ballet became pre-eminent in the latter part of the 19th century, far outstripping its European counterparts.

Stylistically Petipa brought with him a rich legacy. Schooled in the superior techniques of the French and Italian schools, fascinated by the colours and rhythms of Spanish dance, he grafted this European mix on to the grand traditions of Tsarist Russia. As he perfected his craft over his long career, Petipa not only expanded the expressive range and stylistic brilliance of the danse d'école but also refined and developed the form of classical ballet. His two Tchaikovsky productions, Swan Lake (created with Ivanov in 1895) and Sleeping Beauty (1890), are still considered the masterpieces of 19th-century classicism.

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Subjects: Dance.


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