Ballet in Russia

We promised awhile ago that we would continue our history of ballet series with a trip to Russia. We all know how influential Russian ballet has been on the art form, so let’s take a look at its history!

Peter the Great
Peter the Great

At the end of the 17th century, after a prolonged period of war, Czar Peter the Great dedicated the remaining years of his reign to reforming Russia. Included amongst his efforts was the continued evolution of art within his great nation. With the riches of the Imperial throne backing the arts in Russia, a tradition of state-supported arts was begun – a tradition that would carry over into the Soviet Regime and on into present day.


A culture that was already rich with dance traditions, Russia proved to be fertile ground for the developing ballet art form from Western Europe. As part of an ongoing effort to enrich Russian culture, much European talent was imported. The eighteenth century saw a strong beginning for ballet in Eastern Europe. In the 1730’s, French ballet choreographer and instructor Jean Baptiste Lande was invited to bring his students to Russia to perform for Empress Anna. The Empress was so impressed by their performance that she invited Lande to become the director of a new ballet school: the Imperial Ballet School. Thus Russia began to cultivate its own ballet talent.

imperialacademy Imperial (Vaganova) Academy

It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Russian Ballet truly began to hit its stride. Foreign ballet superstars were being attracted to Russian (such as Marie Taglioni). Russian composers began to create music for ballet, such as Tchaikovsky, Russian trained ballet stars began to emerge from the Imperial school, and Russia brought one of the greatest ballet choreographers in history into his heyday: Marius Petipa.

Marius Petipa Arthur Saint-Leon

                           Marius Petipa                 Arthur Saint-Leon

By the last third of the nineteenth century, the Romantic era of ballet had come to a close. Ballet enthusiasts were beginning to diminish in many countries, but Russia continued to develop the art form, and bring it to new heights. Instrumental in this were two historical figures: Arthur Saint-Leon and Marius Petipa. In 1860, Saint-Leon was named the premiere ballet master of the Imperial Ballet in Saint Petersburg. Petipa was his second in command. These positions ended up becoming a driving force for Russian ballet as a healthy rivalry began soon after Saint-Leon’s appointment to his position. Ballet, after ballet, after ballet was produced as the two vied to become the top-cat of ballet choreographers. For a decade the two worked tirelessly, creating many great works (included amongst those is Petipa’s Don Quixote), and driving Russia to the forefront of the ballet world.

In 1869, due to the failure of his two most recent ballets, the Minister of the Imperial Court refused to renew Saint-Leon’s contract as ballet master. Not surprisingly, his successor was his second in command, Petipa.

In the course of his career, Petipa would create close to sixty ballets! His successful and prolific career would cause him to be dubbed one of the greatest ballet masters/choreographers in ballet history. And deservedly so! Below is a list of just a few ballets that were created by Marius Petipa, some with the aid of his second in command, Lev Ivanov. As a team, these two created ballets that would reshape the face of the art form for generations to come!


  1. GISELLE Yvonne and CrossGiselle (1884) – Giselle is widely hailed as the most important Romantic ballets, was well as the pivotal and most difficult role in any ballerina’s career. In 1884, Petipa choreographed a revival of the Romantic classic and it is this revival that has served as the basis of every version staged thereafter.
  2. Coppelia (1885)Petipa restaged Saint-Leon’s masterpiece. As  with the 1884 Giselle, it is the Petipa version that has served as the basis for nearly every version staged since!
  3. The Sleeping Beauty (1890) – This was the first ballet for which Petipa collaborated with Tchaikovsky. It would inevitable prove to be a groundbreaking pairing and Sleeping Beauty would come to be considered the quintessential classical ballet and Petipa’s masterpiece creation. NUTCRACKER DSC_0216
  4. The Nutcracker (1892) – Again Tchaikovsky was set to  collaborate with Petipa to create a new ballet. The two would work hand-in-hand to develop the libretto for the production. Unfortunately, Petipa became ill with the skin disease pemphigus, which forced him to refrain from choreographing for a full year. In his absence, Lev Ivanov stepped forward and took the reigns of The Nutcracker. With Petipa’s council, Ivanov created one of the most widely known and highly enduring ballets ever to grace the stage. Swan-Lake-1
  5. Swan Lake (1895) – while this ballet was originally staged in  1977 for the then lesser known, but up and coming Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, Petipa and Ivanov would be commissioned with a full-length restaging for the Imperial Ballet in 1895. Petipa choreographed the first and third acts, while Ivanov was tasked with setting the second and fourth acts (the swan tableaus). The original 1877 Tchaikovsky score was used, but revised by the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre’s chief composer, Riccardo Drigo. This version went on to become one of the greatest of all ballets, restaged countless times over the decades, as well as one of the ultimate tests for any corps de ballet.

Under Petipa’s guidance the Imperial Ballet of Russia became a force to be reckoned with in the ballet world. The Imperial ballet would persist, and survive the Russian Revolution in 1917. Under the Soviet Regime the company would come to be known as the Kirov Ballet, would continue to be government subsidized, and would continue to be a world leader in ballet.

Bolshoi TheatreBolshoi Theatre

We would be remiss, however, if we failed to mention the other major Russian ballet company that has helped to shape the world of ballet: the Bolshoi. Based in Moscow, the Bolshoi Ballet was originally founded in 1776 by Prince Peter Urusov and English entrepreneur Peter Maddox. Initially the company performed in private homes, until moving into the Petrovka Theatre in 1780. It wasn’t until 1824 that the company moved into the Bolshoi Theatre.

In Russian, the word Bolshoi means “great” or “grand”. The term originally referred to the theatre in which the company performed. As ballet and opera were considered to be nobler performing arts, the theatres that housed them were called “Grand Theatres.” In time, people around the world came to associate the term, almost exclusively, with the ballet company.

Alexander Gorsky Alexander Gorsky

The Bolshoi ballet was lesser-known than its Imperial counterpart, but no less influential over the long run. Swan Lake made its debut on the Bolshoi stage. Under the leadership of Alexander Gorsky, the company grew in importance as he sought greater realism in ballet, and placed more importance on acting skills over the bravura technique being used in Saint Petersburg. (Bravura is a style of ballet that focuses more own the showier tricks such as high jumps and multiple turns.)

Under Soviet rule in post-1917 Russia, Bolshoi became a state-subsidized company – just like the renamed Kirov. The Bolshoi Ballet’s true importance to Russian Ballet, however wouldn’t be recognized until the latter half of the twentieth century. The Bolshoi would be the company to bring Soviet ballet to the world. Touring companies would make their rounds, showing off the marvels of a state-subsidized art, and bringing in an amazing amount of revenue for the state. Most importantly, the Bolshoi Ballet would bring in huge amounts of cultural prestige for the U.S.S.R., and became synonymous with “Russian Ballet” in the Western World.


Next up in the history of ballet: we enter the twentieth century, and take a look at Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes!

As a side note: Due to technical difficulties, we have yet to upload video from Paul Koverman’s memorial services that took place earlier this month. We hope to have the remedied soon. In the meantime, keep your eye on the pages section of the blog, as we will be posting the speeches delivered at the memorial for you to read.


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