SEPTEMBER 29, 2019
RUSSIA IS FAMOUS for ballet, but it was a Frenchman who shaped Russian classical dance as we know it today. Marius Petipa (1818–1910) emigrated from France to St. Petersburg in 1847 and worked in the Imperial theaters until the end of his life. During the second half of the 19th century, Petipa’s choreographic classicism replaced the dominant Romantic style and laid the groundwork for 20th-century modernism in dance. Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the great Soviet Russian ballet theaters, and George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet all stemmed from Petipa.
The lineage of Petipa to various 20th-century ballet masters and institutions frames Nadine Meisner’s Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master. Meisner shows how indebted Russian ballet (and, as a result, ballet globally) is to Petipa: “This is the style, exciting yet refined,” she writes,
that produced the outstanding generation of Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, and, a little later, Olga Spessivtseva — as well as, of course, Vaslav Nijinsky, since male dancing was also transformed. Mediated through Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, it had an enormous impact on Western audiences; in Russia it laid the foundations for Soviet ballet.
Elsewhere, Meisner writes that it was in the “Kingdom of the Shades” act of Petipa’s La Bayadère (1877) that he
anticipated the juxtaposed dance units of twentieth-century symphonism visible in the plotless ballets of Balanchine and Leonid Massine [another Ballets Russes affiliate], just as with the entrance of the bayadères he prefigured a modern minimalism.
For all of his influence on classical ballet into the present, however, there is a notable lack of biographical work about Petipa in English. The existing English-language works are translations of his memoirs or texts in which he is not the primary focus, like Roland John Wiley’s writings on Petipa’s colleagues Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and the choreographer Lev Ivanov. Meisner’s Marius Petipa does a great deal to fill this lacuna. While Petipa’s predecessors, contemporaries, and heirs are featured, Petipa is very much the central figure. Meisner has been a dance reviewer for various publications, including The Independent, The Sunday Times, and The Times, and this has given her ample preparation for the task at hand. In Marius Petipa, she gestures to the various academic works that have preceded hers and, more importantly, eloquently paints a picture of a past that often feels remote, even for those of us whose lives have long been steeped in ballet history and culture.
Marius Petipa is not organized strictly chronologically, but rather thematically. Meisner weaves biographical stories and historical context with analyses of specific ballets. Beginning with a prologue covering the general history of theater and ballet in Russia, Meisner then shifts to Petipa’s early life and arrival in Russia, illustrating a theater culture in St. Petersburg that was in constant contact with the West. Petipa followed in a long tradition of foreign artists who came to work in the Imperial theaters. This is where the other important figures enter into the text; Meisner’s supporting cast includes Petipa’s brother, Lucien, and father, Jean-Antoine, who were also ballet dancers and teachers, as well as Petipa’s ballet master predecessors and contemporaries Arthur Saint-Léon and Jules Perrot. All these ballet masters, one quickly notices, were Frenchmen, indicating the importance of French training and fashions for the establishment of Russia’s national ballet.
Meisner discusses choreography and production details with remarkable precision, especially since there has never been a standardized notation system for choreographic works, so knowing exactly what the choreography looked like is nearly impossible. “[T]he only method of conservation was person-to-person transmission, fallible, unreliable, short-term,” writes Meisner, the consequence of which is that “the large body of work by the nineteenth-century’s most eminent choreographers — among them, Charles-Louis Didelot, Jules Perrot, Marius Petipa, all Frenchmen who worked for substantial periods in Russia — is mostly lost.” Meisner looks to libretti and other archival material, such as memoirs, theater records, contemporary reviews, and photographs, to reconstruct and flesh out works that have been presumed lost and which are little discussed, such as The Beauty of Lebanon (1863), King Candaules (1868), and The Magic Mirror (1903). Translating a physical, performance-based art form into words is always a challenge, and Meisner tackles it with agility. Her biography is often as compelling as Petipa’s ballets must have been in their day.
That said, the biography’s nonlinear thematic organization can be a bit disorienting. There are, at times, strange chronological jumps in the narrative, and the whole can come to feel like a series of articles rather than a stand-alone book, and one has to reconstruct the life story by flipping back and forth. For example, chapter six, titled “Questions of Style and Structure,” covers some of the major stylistic reforms that occurred during Petipa’s tenure with the Imperial Ballet. Chapters eight and 10 outline the divergent styles of the two directors of the Imperial theaters who were in charge while Petipa was working. Meisner shows that, under Ivan Vsevolozhsky — director from 1881 to 1899 and the subject of chapter eight — Petipa flourished and ultimately created the grand choreographies for which the Russian Imperial became notable and which later influenced the Soviet ballet in its various iterations. In chapter 10, conversely, Meisner tracks Petipa’s “decline and fall,” mostly under Vladimir Teliakovsky, director from 1901 to 1917, showing how the by-then elderly ballet master was effectively pushed out in the wake of the artistic revolutions that took place at the turn of the 20th century.
There are, however, strengths to the structure. It would, for example, be easy to assign a stand-alone chapter in a university course on a specific topic without fearing that there was a lack of context for the students. And I enjoyed Meisner’s overarching argument that Petipa anticipated choreographic modernism, epitomized by 20th-century choreographers like Mikhail Fokine, Nijinsky, and Balanchine. Meisner focuses on the collaborative nature of some of Petipa’s productions: the standard narrative is that it was not until the Ballets Russes that the various components of which a ballet production consists were elevated to the same high level, the Gesamtkunstwerk. Meisner challenges this notion, arguing that the balletic “total work of art” came directly from Petipa. In so doing, she affirms and underscores the pivotal role that this Russian Frenchman played in bringing ballet into the modern artistic age.
Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master is, in many ways, a rich addition to scholarship on Russian ballet. Meisner fills in long-standing gaps in the literature by focusing on the life and works of one of the most significant, yet understudied, names in ballet history, and she does so in a style that is enjoyable as well as informative. Just as importantly, she acknowledges the gaps in her own work, indicating possible paths other researchers might pursue. The story of Russian ballet, as Meisner’s book illustrates, is a long one, with many contributors. The same holds true for the scholarly study of Russian ballet.
Megan Race is a visiting assistant professor of Russian studies at Davidson College in North Carolina. She holds a PhD in Slavic languages and literatures from Yale University, where she taught Russian language and literature. Megan was also a postdoctoral fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.