Marius Petipa worked for the Russian Imperial Theatres as dancer and ballet master for sixty-three years, from 1847 until his death in 1910. He choreographed over fifty original ballets, creating works with composers who ranged from Pugni, Minkus and Drigo to Tchaikovsky and Glazunov, for some of the greatest dancers of the nineteenth century. His influence on ballet is incalculable, yet Nadine Meisner’s meticulously researched biography is the first coherent, full length, account of his life.

Meisner’s eagerly anticipated book was launched in the UK in June at the DANSOX summer school at St Hilda’s College Oxford, and it does not disappoint. Scholarly, but also highly readable, her lively narrative presents Petipa as an impulsive and romantic man, capable of eloping with an under-age Spanish noblewoman, and fighting a duel (which he won, allegedly by cheating), and who found inspiration in the ballerinas that were his muses. Nonetheless, he beat his first wife, the dancer Maria Surovshchikova-Petipa, and terrorised his pupils. Over a century after his death, Meisner has disentangled conflicting accounts with care, drawing on the work of scholars such as Lynn Garafola, Ivor Guest and Elizabeth Souritz, and consulting archives in Russia, France and the United States. She generously translates, and reproduces in Russian, the writings of contemporaneous ballet critics in endnotes that read as well as the main text, and which offer stepping stones to others for further research.

The chapters on Petipa’s ballets’ style and structure and on his working methods (a somewhat awkward but valuable interruption to the biographical line), allow Meisner to discuss the qualities of works that epitomise the art of ballet for many audiences today (just think of the popularity of Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty or The Nutcracker). Meisner also credits Petipa with preserving Saint-Léon’s Coppélia, Coralli and Perrot’s Giselle and Perrot’s Esmeralda, although she acknowledges that how much of the original choreography remains is debatable.

Working within the constraints of the imperial bureaucracy during an internationally politically volatile period, Petipa negotiated territory that seems familiar today: how to balance technical fireworks with dramatic logic and expression; the place of spectacle within the art form; the tension between foreign influences and national style, and tradition versus innovation. Petipa’s works came to represent the old imperial style against which the Ballets Russes choreographers, such as Fokine and Nijinska, rebelled. Yet paradoxically, it was Diaghilev that brought Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty (and also returned Giselle) to the West. Thanks to the Stepanov notations, these ballets, along with The Nutcracker and Coppélia, formed the cornerstone of the ‘classical’ repertoire of modern companies such as The Royal Ballet.

Repertoire schools the dancers that perform it, and Petipa’s ballets shaped generations of dancers, including the original members of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. When the Russian Revolution scattered Russian dancers all over the world, they took with them not only the ballets, but also a style that combined the grace, pliancy and expressiveness of the Russo-French school with the strength and bravura of the Italian. Meisner situates the Petipa tradition historically and culturally as the soil from which both Western and Soviet twentieth century ballet grew: she sees the abstraction of the Shades scene in La Bayadère as a forerunner of the plotless ballets of Massine and Balanchine.

Meisner brings her story to life with colourful details, whether she is describing a dead cat being thrown onto the stage during a performance of Paquita, or the overgrown cemetery in which Petipa’s father is buried. She introduces a host of barely remembered dancers such as Maria Anderson, chosen by Tchaikovsky to be the first White Cat in The Sleeping Beauty, who was tragically injured when her tunic brushed against a spirit lamp, or Marfa Muraveva, the rival of Petipa’s first wife, who left the stage after just seven years and died in childbirth.

This is an important book on many levels: drawing on an impressive array of primary and secondary research materials, it fills a narrative gap in ballet history, and is a particularly valuable source of information on some of Petipa’s lesser known or lost ballets, such as his penultimate work The Magic Mirror. Above all, it shows how Petipa’s work was key to the development of ballet in a continuous thread that runs from imperial Russia to twentieth century modernism and beyond: without Petipa, ballet as we know it today would not exist.

Maggie Watson

30 September 2019

Meisner, Nadine (2019)  Marius Petipa: the emperor’s ballet master  Oxford University Press, 2019.

You can buy this book online here