Should the man on the Clapham omnibus ever turn his mind to ballet, he is bound to envisage the work of Marius Petipa. The ballerina holding an arabesque on pointe shoes was his creation, as were The Sleeping Beauty, La Bayadère, Don Quixote, most of Swan Lake, the concept of The Nutcracker and aspects of La Sylphide, Giselle and Coppélia — this being merely the cream of a vast oeuvre dreamed up over the half century he spent based in St Petersburg.
When he died in 1910, one obituary claimed (in reference to Louis XIV’s view of l’état) that ‘with just reason, he could have said —“Russian ballet is me”’. If this wasn’t precisely true — he had several estimable predecessors — it is indisputable that this fractious and pompous Frenchman left a legacy that has continued to form the bedrock of the classical repertory worldwide.
Nadine Meisner’s meticulously researched and exhaustively detailed study will surely establish itself as the standard authority on the subject in English. The absence of any scorching drama or scandal in Petipa’s life means that it doesn’t make electrifying reading, but its poise and scholarship impress, particularly in its command of the broader cultural context.
Meisner understandably feels sympathetic towards her subject, but the rest of us will find it hard to warm to him. Nobody ever said he was nice. Something of a womaniser, he appears to have battered his first wife (though he was a fond father to some of his nine children). A martinet in the rehearsal room, he was described by one of his closest collaborators as motivated by ‘pathological self-importance’ that increased with age, and Meisner admits that his memoir, written in his dotage when he was suffering from painful erysipelas, is marked by ‘defensive egocentricity’ as well as convenient lapses of memory and shameless score-settling with his enemies.
But his dedication to his craft was unswerving and his energy phenomenal. Where did it come from? He had an itinerant childhood, following the peregrinations of his father, a moderately successful dancer and choreographer. His handsome brother Lucien became a star turn at the Paris Opéra and created the role of Albrecht in Giselle. Marius wasn’t in that league, but he got by as ‘a good partner, a gifted actor and a particularly effective character dancer’.
After touring the provinces and a spell in Madrid, he arrived in St Petersburg in 1847 with his father. Both of them were lucratively contracted to the imperial theatre’s ballet wing, part of a regular influx of French imports considered necessary to sustain the culture of elegance and bon ton that the Tsarist court wished to nurture.
Petipa fils’ dancing career dwindled steadily, but he became increasingly useful as an assistant to two senior French choreographers, Jules Perrot and Arthur de Saint-Léon. In 1862, he enjoyed his big break when he tossed off in six weeks The Pharaoh’s Daughter, an absurd farrago in which an exploring English milord opens up a pyramid and has elaborate opiated dreams of Ancient Egypt.
It was an instant success, inaugurating a formula from which, like some hack romantic novelist, he almost never deviated. Its elements included a narrative flipped between a ‘real’ and oneiric world; intricately regimented processions and ensemble pieces, known as ballabili, for the corps; a meaningless interlude containing national dances of contrasting character; and a grand pas de deux, in which slow solos would be followed by virtuosic codas.
The focus was usually divided between two ballerinas with contrasting personalities; male dancers were reduced to secondary supportive roles. No music was too banal as long as it bashed out oom-pah-pah rhythms; and no subject matter was too daft if it gave a pretext for eye-candy spectacle — a floral fantasia was one favourite stock-in trade.
Although Petipa didn’t invent this menu — Perrot had laid down much of the groundwork — he consolidated it, and in the supremely elegant The Sleeping Beauty of 1890, elevated by Tchaikovsky’s glorious score, far superior in quality to any other music he used, he forged one authentic masterpiece.
This came about because of the active participation in the production of the administrator Ivan Vsevolozhsky, who shared Petipa’s conservative sensibility but had more taste and intelligence. When Vsevolozhsky retired, Petipa’s time was up: his style looked fusty, formal, constricted. A new century required a new aesthetic, and despite stubborn protestations that his was the only right way, he was eased out, aged 86.
Shortly before his death at 92, he gave an interview lamenting that Russian ballet was in its ‘death throes’. He could not have been more wrong. Diaghilev’s revolutionary Ballets Russes had arisen only months previously, rewiring the aesthetic possibilities;and a century later his own work once again flourishes, its virtues durable and lovable.