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.