Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The greatest ballet in Europe

Marius Petipa, one of the most influential ballet masters and choreographers of all time, died a century ago today. Born in France, he spent most of his life in St Petersburg creating lavish ballets for the Imperial Theatres, some of which still survive. He was almost certainly a diarist of habit, according to Lynn Garafola, a dance historian and critic, though only diaries from the end of his life survive. Garafola re-found these diaries, and translated them from the original French into English for a dance magazine in the early 1990s. Her introduction to them is available online, but the diaries themselves are not. She says of them that they are the ‘scaffolding of a life that made art not with words but in the wordless medium of movement’.

Petipa was born in Marseilles in 1818 and educated at the Grand College in Brussels. Both he and his brother Lucien were drawn into the dance world by their father Jean, a ballet master. Petipa’s debut came when he was still a child in one of his father’s productions in Brussels. As a consequence of the Belgian revolution the family moved to Bordeaux and then to Nantes where Petipa became a principal dancer in 1838. A year later, Petipa and his father toured the US. Subsequently, Petipa lived and danced in Spain for four years, an experience which had a significant influence on his developing choreographic work, before moving to St Petersburg, where he joined the Imperial Theatres as a dancer in 1847.

By the 1850s, Petipa was becoming more involved in choreography. He married a fellow dancer Mariia Surovshchikova in 1854, and they had two children. She danced in many of his ballets, A Regency Marriage, for example, The Parisian Market and The Blue Dahlia. His first major success came in 1862, with The Pharaoh’s Daughter, which led him to become recognised as one of the Imperial Theatres ballet masters, and in 1871 he rose further, to become the Premier MaĆ®tre de Ballet. In the mid-1870s, he separated from his wife and married another dancer, Lyubov Savitskaya, more than 30 years his junior, who bore him six children.

Over the next three decades, Petipa produced over 60 ballets, most of them lavish spectacles that could only have been produced in the opulent atmosphere of the Imperial Russian court. He always researched his ballets exhaustively with detailed plans, including for painters and composers, that subsequently became the basis of modern classical ballet in Russia. Famously, he collaborated with Tchaikovsky on The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty. Eventually, his ballets fell out of fashion and he retired, or was retired, around 1903. Ill health obliged him to move to Gurzuf in southern Russia in 1907. He died three years later, on 14 July 1910. Further biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, Royal Opera House or Ballet Encyclopedia.

It is likely that Petipa was a habitual diarist, but only a collection of diary entries from the end of his life - between the ages of 84 and 89 - have come to light. Excerpts were first published in a Russian translation (from the French originals), which then were then translated into German in 1975. Extracts from this were translated yet again into English and appeared in Dance Magazine in 1978. However, in the early 1990s, Lynn Garafola, now Professor of Dance at Barnard, the New York liberal arts college for women, re-found the original diaries at Moscow’s Central State Archive of Literature and Art. She then translated and edited them for publication in Studies in Dance History (Vol 3.1 spring 1992) - but there appear to be no extracts of the diary entries themselves available anywhere on the internet. Moreover, printed volumes of Studies in Dance History are not easy to find.

However, Garafola’s informative introduction to the diaries IS available online, at Googlebooks, as part of a collection of her essays entitled Legacies of Twentieth-century Dance and published by Wesleyan University Press in 2005. In the introduction she says: ‘Although these are the only diaries to come to light, they are almost certainly not the only ones he wrote. On the contrary, the unvarying form of the entries, their absolute regularity . . , and the fact that they pick up in medias res leave no doubt that diary-keeping had long been part of his daily routine.’

Garafola adds that the diaries she translated cover a significant period in Petipa’s life, ‘for it witnessed the completion of his last two ballets, The Magic Mirror and The Romance of the Rosebud and the Butterfly, and his forced retirement from the Imperial Theatres’. She also explains that Petipa’s diary entries are ‘brief and matter-of-fact - the scaffolding of a life that made art not with words but in the wordless medium of movement’.

The Diary Junction has several Petipa links, and Wikipedia has one brief diary extract from his diaries. In 1907 he wrote: ‘I can state that I created a ballet company of which everyone said: St Petersburg has the greatest ballet in all Europe.’

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