Russian Ballet History

Diaghilev's Ballets Russes 1909-1929

Victor Marius Alphonse Petipa (March 11, 1818 - July 14, 1910)

Marius Petipa was a French ballet dancer, teacher and choreographer who is noted for his long career as Premier Maître de Ballet of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres, a position he held from 1871 until 1903.   Marius Petipa created over fifty ballets and is considered to be the most influential ballet master and choreographer of ballet that has ever lived. 

Petipa revived a substantial number of works created by other Ballet Masters. Many of these revivals would go on to become the definitive editions from which all subsequent productions would be based. The most famous of these revivals are Le Corsaire, Giselle, La Esmeralda, Coppélia, La Fille Mal Gardée (with Lev Ivanov), The Little Humpbacked Horse and Swan Lake (with Lev Ivanov).

Marius Petipa was born in Marseilles, France on March 11,1818. His mother Victorine Grasseau was an actress and drama, teacher, while his father, Jean Antoine Petipa was a renowned Ballet Master and teacher. At the time of Marius's birth, Jean Petipa was a Premier danseur  to the the Opéra de Marseille, and in 1819 he was appointed Maître de Ballet to that theatre.

Petipa spent his early childhood travelling throughout Europe  as his parents' professional engagements took them from city to city. By the time Marius was 6 years old his family had settled in Brussels, where his father was appointed Maître de Ballet and Premier danseur to the Théâtre de la Monnaie. Petipa received his general education at the Grand College in Brussels, while also attending the Brussels Conservatory where he studied music and learned to play the violin.  Jean Petipa began giving Marius ballet lessons at the age of seven. At first the young boy resisted, caring very little for dance. But Marius soon came to love dance so much, and he excelled quickly. In 1827, at the age of 9, Marius performed for the first time in a ballet production in his father's staging of Pierre Gardel's 1800 ballet La Dansomani.

In 1834 the Petipa family relocated to Bordeaux, France.  While in Bordeaux, Marius completed his ballet training under the great Auguste Vestris. By 1838 he was appointed Premier danseur to the Ballet de Nantes in Nantes, France. During his time in Nantes the young Petipa began to try his hand at choreography by creating a number of one-act ballets and divertissements.

By 1840, Petipa had made his début as a dancer with the famous Comédie Française in Paris, and during his first performance with the troupe he partnered the legendary Ballerina Carlotta Grisi in a benefit performance.  In 1847, Petipa accepted the position of Premier danseur to the Imperial Theatres of St. Petersburg. The position was available due to the departure of the French danseur Emile Gredlu.

For Petipa's début, the director of the Imperial Theatres Alexander Gedeonov commissioned Petipa and the Ballet Master Pierre-Frédéric Malevergne to mount the first Russian production of Joseph Mazilier's ballet Paquita, first staged at the Paris Opéra in 1846. The ballet was given for the first time in St. Petersburg on October 8, 1847 with the Prima ballerina Yelena Andreyonova as Paquita and Petipa in the role of Lucien d’Hervilly.

The following season Petipa and his father staged a revival of Mazilier's 1840 ballet Le Diable amoureux which premiered as Satanella on February 22, 1848. The Prima Ballerina Andreyonova performed the title role, with Petipa as Fabio.

During his career, Petipa choreographed ballets and revivals including:

*Paquita (1847, *1881),*Le Corsaire (1858, 1863, 1868, 1885, 1899),The Pharaoh's Daughter (1862, *1885, *1898), Le Roi Candaule (1868, *1891, *1903), Don Quixote (1869, *1871), La Bayadère (1877, *1900), *Giselle (1884, 1899, 1903), *Coppélia (1884), *La fille mal gardée (1885), *La Esmeralda (1886, 1899), The Talisman (1889), The Sleeping Beauty (1890)
The Nutcracker (1892), Cinderella (1893), The Awakening of Flora (1894),*Swan Lake (1895)
*The Little Humpbacked Horse (1895), Raymonda (1898), The Seasons (1900), Harlequinade (1900).

Marius Petipa died on July 14, 1910 at the age of ninety-two, and was interred three days later in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg.

Leonide Massine (August 9, 1896-March 15,1979)

Massine studied at the Moscow Bolshoi School, graduated in 1912 and joined the Bolshoi Ballet.  When Diaghilev fired Nijinsky, a void was left both in the ballet company. While visiting in Moscow, Diaghilev saw a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet, and noticed Massine dancing in Don Quixote and Swan Lake.  Diaghilev persuaded him to leave the Bolshoi and join his company. Massine joined the Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company in 1914, and by 1915 he had choreographed his first ballet for the Ballets Russes. 


Massine became an outstanding-actor dancer. Before joining the Ballets Russes, Massine had considered giving up dance and becoming an actor.  Massine continued to choreograph for every major company including three years as lead dancer and choreographer for the Roxy Theatre in New York City. In 1945 and 1946 he formed his own company called Ballet Russe HighlightsMassine created over 50 ballets, he was a prolific choreographer.  A few of his ballets are: The Good-Humored Ladies, La Boutique Fantastique, The Three Cornered Hat, Les Presages, Jeux d'enfants, and Gaîte Parisienne.  Massine was for twenty years considered the Western world's greatest choreographer, but in later life he was overshadowed by George Balanchine.  Leonide Massine is more widely known because of his portrayal of the Ballet Master and shoemaker in the 1948 film “The Red Shoes.”

Enrico Cecchetti (June 21, 1850 - Nov. 13, 1928) 

Enrico Cecchetti was an Italian ballet dancer, and founder of the Cecchetti method of ballet.  He was the son of two dancers from Civitanova Marche.  He was born on June 21, 1850 in the dressing room of the Teatro Tordinona in Rome.  After an illustrious career as a dancer in Europe, he went to dance for the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia. Cecchetti was praised for his agility and strength in his performances as well as his technical abilities. By 1888, he was widely accepted as the greatest ballet virtuoso in the world.

Cecchetti originated such roles as both the Bluebird and Carabosse in Petipa's masterpiece, The Sleeping Beauty.  By performing in these two contrasting roles, Cecchetti showed Russian audiences that men could perform all the ballet steps that were usually reserved for women.   In 1919, Cecchetti performed at the inaugural performance of the ballet La Boutique Fantasque in London, appearing in the role of the shopkeeper.   Cecchetti restaged many ballets, including Petipa's definitive version of Coppélia in 1894, from which nearly all modern versions of the work are based.

Cecchetti turned to teaching.  He taught at the Imperial School in St. Petersburg from 1887 — 1902, and then the Warsaw State School in Poland from 1902 — 1905. Returning to St. Petersburg in 1905, he established a school there.  From 1907-1909, he coached Anna Pavlova exclusively until dancers from the Maryinsky pleaded with him to open his classes to them again. When Diaghilev's Ballets Russes was scheduled to tour, the dancers refused because they would miss their daily classes with Cecchetti.  In 1910, Diaghilev hired Cecchetti as both Ballet Master and mime.  Cecchetti performed many mime roles which were created expressly for him by choreographers of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

Cecchetti's presence in Diaghilev's Ballets Russes was very important.  He was the link between the past and the present, contributing to the birth of modern classical ballet. He also maintained the technical level of the dancers by enabling them to cope with the physical and dramatic challenges of the company's demanding choreographers.  

Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes toured through Europe, the United States, South America, and Australia. Eventually having had enough of life on the road, Cecchetti settled in London, England where he opened a dance school in 1918.   Considered the technical marvel of the ballet world, it was said that no one could become a finished ballet dancer without passing through Cecchetti's hands.  In 1923, he returned to Italy to retire but was invited by Arturo Toscanini to resume his teaching career at La Scala, his lifelong dream. While teaching a class, Cecchetti collapsed and was taken home, where he died the following day, November 13, 1928.

Mikhail Fokine (April 25, 1880- August 22,1942)

Mikhail was born in St. Petersburg April 25, 1880 and studied at the Imperial School. He graduated at the age of 18 immediately entering the Maryinsky Theatre. He was promoted to soloist in 1904. He started teaching at the Imperial School and choreographed his first ballet, for a student performance, Acia and Galatea in 1905.


Mikhail Fokine is one of, if not the, best known choreographer of the 20th century. His ballets are still performed by ballet companies worldwide.  In 1907, he choreographed The Dying Swan for Anna Pavlova, in Carnival of Animals which became her iconic solo.  He also created Firebird for Pavlova, but after hearing Stravinsky’s music she refused to dance it so Tamara Karsavina danced it.


The first ballet Fokine choreographed for the Maryinsky Theatre was Le Pavillon d'Armide. This ballet was included in the repertoire of the first season of Diaghlev's Ballets Russes, in Paris in 1909. He became Diaghlev's chief choreographer, while continuing to dance in Russia until 1918.

Fokine left the Ballets Russes in 1912 because Diaghilev was favoring Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography. He freelanced, finally settling in the United States in 1923.  He married Vera Antonova Fokina, they had often been partners in Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Fokine originally choreographed "Chopiniana", to later be renamed "Les Sylphides", for a performance outside the Maryinsky in 1907.  He restaged Les Sylphides for the then Ballet Theatre's, now ABT, inaugural performance in 1940 at New York's Center Theatre.   

Bronislava Fominitshna Nijinska (1891-1972)


In 1921 Nijinska rejoined Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. One of the first pieces she choreographed was "Three Ivans" for Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty, later renamed Sleeping Princess. While she was a dancer with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes she became the chief choreographer of the company. Her first ballets were Igor Stravinsky's "Renard" in 1922 followed by "Les Noces" in 1923.


 The following year she choreographed Les Biches, Les Fâcheux and Le Train Bleu. She also helped her brother, Nijinsky with his L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune, and danced in many of his ballets.  Nijinska later choreographed for the Paris Opéra, Opéra Russe à Paris, and her own company.


She settled in California and opened a Ballet School. She was a guest teacher at the American Ballet Theatre School. She is considered to be one of the most gifted and original choreographers of the twentieth century 


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