Until now when people think of traditional ballet art they always remember Russian Ballet. In fact, Russian ballet came into existence in the 18th century as a combination of local folk dancing elements and European choreography, with general ideas absorbed by Russians from the magnificent dancing masters coming from France and Italy.
Ballet is not of Russian origin nevertheless it became a national phenomenon and an integral part of Russian culture. Various ballet companies located in Russia as well as outstanding ballet dancers made major contribution to the development of Russian ballet and nowadays it is well-known all over the world. Russian ballet theatre performances remain persistent audience builders.
The earliest choreographic divertissement, or «enjoyable diversion», took place in Russia in 1675 during the reign of Tsar Alexis Romanov. It was a short miniature named “Ballet of Orpheus” performed between two parts of a long drama play. His son, Emperor Peter the Great, enjoyed dancing West European dances himself. He started to teach his courtiers with the help of foreigners.
The first dancing school was founded in St Petersburg by Empress Anna in 1748 and headed by French dancer Jean Baptiste Lande who served as gymnastics teacher at the local Cadet School. As soon as the dancing school started to produce professional dancers ballet in Russia became a constantly developing art. Moreover, instead of being a kind of entertainment ballet remained an important part of noble education as well as court etiquette.
Russian provincial landowners also stimulated the interest of ballet by establishing and supporting many ballet companies using serf dancers who had been trained at the dancing schools in the capital.
During the reign of Catherine the Great ballet passed under control of Directory of Imperial Theatres. Catherine the Great opened a ballet school for children in Moscow and invited brilliant Italian choreographer and innovator Gasparo Angiolini (director of La Scala to be) to St Petersburg. Angiolini rejected the methods of commedia dell’arte and converted a regular divertissement into a real psychological drama where all the dancers had to play their parts. He staged the first heroic ballet “Semira” based on Russian material (tragedy by playwright and librettist Sumarokov).
In 1801 the Director of Imperial Theatres Nikolay Yusupov brought to Russia Charles Louis Didelot who started the first ferment period of ballet in Russia and later was given the title “The Father of Russian ballet”. Didelot worked with the St Petersburg Bolshoi Drama Theatre ballet troupe. Later the same company was called the Mariinsky Ballet, in the USSR it was named the Kirov Ballet, and today it bears the name of Mariinsky again.
Russian dancers were given possibility to perfect their dancing skills as the heavy ballet costumes of the time were replaced with tight fitting garments such as leotards and tunics. The movements of dancers became more graceful, weightless, and expressive proving Didelo’s idea that an action can be explained by a dance. The choreographer managed to free ballet from baroque conventionalities and to increase group dance efficiency coordinating dance of corps de ballet and soloists, and making classical performance more spectacular.
In the first half of the 19th century many talented foreigners contributed to the development of ballet in Russia, performing on stage and working as dancing masters and choreographers: Louis Duport, Jules Perro (founder of Romantic ballet), Maria Taglioni, Arthur Saint-Leon, Francesca Cerrito, Francesca Libetta and many others. Their coming helped to combine Russian ballet technique with their unique styles and experience.
At the same time, large quantity of outstanding Russian dancers took the audience’s breath away in St Petersburg and Moscow. Delicate “flying ballerina” Maria Danilova promoted by Didelot danced with Lois Duport impressing the audience with her light and soaring dancing. Beautiful St Petersburg leading ballerina Avdotia Istomina was famous for her perfect technique, irreproachable pirouettes and the force of her acting admired by the poet Alexander Pushkin. One of the most successful Didelot’s productions was “The Captive of the Caucasus” illustrating Russian national literature. It was staged in 1828 from the poem by Pushkin and Istomina was given the leading role. In 1842 Elena Andreyanova, prima ballerina in Mariinsky ballet directed by Alexander Guedenov became the first Russian Giselle.
The first famous choreographer of Russian origin was Ivan Valberkh who taught in St Petersburg as well as in Moscow. He promoted many Russian dancers and attained renown due to his patriotic ballets. He studied national literature and operas making them sources for his choreography. His “Love of the Fatherland” was so exciting that after seeing the performance many people volunteered for the army to fight Napoleon.
One of the most influential foreign ballet masters of the time was Mariinsky leading dancer Christian Johanson. It was due to him that the male dancers remained significant part of Russian ballet which helped to keep it prolific. Russian classical ballet style for men as well as for women is formed on the basis of his strict and impeccable technique. His best known students were Anna Pavlova and Vatslav Nijinsky.
An anchorman in Russian ballet history whose importance can scarcely be overestimated was French choreographer and Mariinsky leading dancer Marius Petipa who came to St Petersburg at the age of 22 (1840) and stayed for good. Among the servants of the Imperial theatre he found well-trained and talented ballet dancers who never had a chance to get spoiled by the attention and luxury. Petipa reformed Russian ballet to overcome its stagnation.
Russian ballet companies were strongly in need of appropriate symphonic music which could be unified with complicated ballet movements. Petipa harmonized work of corps de ballet uniting dancers into the ensembles, fixed proportion of dance to mime and established special pas de deux order of dancing. This way he worked out basic rules of what is known as “classical ballet”.
The fantastic Egyptian story including mummies moving and horrible snakes “The Pharouh’s Daughter” put on the stage in 1862 was his first big three-act ballet produced for St Petersburg Imperial Theatre. In 1869 after being appointed chief choreographer of Imperial theatres Petipa staged “Don Quixote” for the Moscow Bolshoi theatre. One more significant production was “La Bayadère” created in St Petersburg in 1877.
However Petipa became famous first of all for his producing ballets with Tchaikovsky’s music. The first ballet score created by Tchaikovsky was the one of “Swan Lake” set in 1877 by Austrian choreographer Reisinger in Moscow and then reproduced many times abroad. In 1895 “Swan Lake” was put on the stage again in St Petersburg by Marius Petipa who made a lot of changes in choreography of the ballet. One of them was including 32 fouetté turns in the ballroom scene pas de deux coda. Petipa’s “Swan Lake” staging became the first of three greatest Russian classical ballets.
Nine years later Petipa breathed new life into “Gisell” and “Coppelia” (before set by Saint-Leon). Music for new staging of “Coppelia” was composed by Tchaikovsky. Both ballets had once been popular on the Parisian stage. For “Giselle” Petipa worked out great stage innovation, the so-called “ballet blanc” (which is now considered a classic of romantic ballet), where all the female dancers on stage, soloist and corps de ballet, wear classical white skirts.
Being chief choreographer Petipa promoted a lot of Russian ballet dancers who started to work for different theatres and acquired a reputation of being exceptional quality ballet dancers. The reputation of Russian ballet dancers around the world is of the highest standard.
Petipa’s next masterpiece was “The Sleeping Beauty” which saw light of day in 1890 (the female lead was first given to Carlitta Brianza). Close collaboration of Pitepa and Tchaikovsky who composed music especially for Pitepa as well as combination of their talent and mastery worked magic. Today it is considered number two from the greatest classical Russian ballets.
Two years later, in 1892, Pitepa created “The Nutcracker”. It was his third greatest chef d’oeuvre with music by Tchaikovsky based French version of famous Hoffman’s fairy tale. “The Nutcracker” has been re-staged many times and became known as a “Christmas Ballet”. The last successful Russian ballet was produced by Petipa in 1998. It was “Raymonda” to the score by Alexander Glazunov. Petipa managed to make Russian ballet hugely popular the world over. During his 35 year career Pitepa staged more then forty multi-act ballets, recreated over fifteen European ballet productions, and choreographed dances for many operas.
By the early 20th century Russian ballet was considered among the best in the world and a great number of Russian dancers had been accorded international recognition. New ideas and rules were brought to Russian ballet by Michael Fokine, ballet reformer, who wanted to change the costume and movement rules in Russian ballet.
Impresario Sergei Diaghilev joined his experiment moving beyond the confines of classical ballet form and story. In one of Fokine’s Greek style ballets “Eunice” the dancers wore point shoes with toes painted on them so that they looked like being on bare feet. He also rejected using dance music in favor of more serious music.
The most outstanding prima ballerina of that time was Anna Pavlova, inimitable prima of the early 20th century. Being born in Ligovo (one of the St Petersburg suburbs) she started her career in Mariinksy Theatre troupe dancing various parts in ballets staged by Pitepa. It was choreographer Michael Fokine who most influenced Pavlova’s manner of dancing. In 1907 she first danced choreographic miniature “The Dying Swan” (by Michael Fokine), making it one of the ballet symbols of the epoch. After dancing for “The Ballet Russes” in Paris she became famous world over. When the First World War broke out she left Russia and successfully performed with her own ballet company in France, England, United States and India being treated as a living legend. Matilda Kshesinskaya (Mariinsky) and Tamara Karsavina (Mariinsky, The Ballet Russes) were also much notable ballerinas of the time.
“The Ballet Russes” company was founded by talented impresario Sergei Diaghilev in 1909. Although company’s first performance named “Le Pavillon d’Armide” was heavily influenced by French theatre ideas most of their ballets followed Russian stage tradition.
One of the premiere dancers who performed in St Petersburg as well as in Paris was incomparable Vatslav Nijinsky who is recognized as one of the best jumpers in ballet history. In the same year the troupe performed “Chopiniana” with the music by Chopin. In Paris it was renamed “Les Sylphides” as it sounded familiar to Parisian audience. “Ballet Russes” company also presented “Sheherazade” (produced by Fokine to the score by Rimsky-Korsakov), “Firebird” (by Fokine with the music by Igor Stravinsky) and “Petroushka” (by Fokine with Stravinsky’s music and Design by Alexander Benua) over the next five years and all of these productions soon became world famous. The new ballet by Nijinsky “The Rite of Spring” staged in 1913 to the score by Igor Stravinsky drew a roaring response for its unusual music full of dissonance, too natural scenes, and its movements non-typical for ballet performances until that time. The last significant staging of the company in Paris saw the light of day in 1922 when Diaghilev reproduced Pitepa’s “Sleeping Beauty”.
The young dancer and choreographer Georgi Balanchivadze (his name then was Frenchified to George Balanchine) also started his career under Diaghilev’s leadership. He staged 9 ballets and a number of miniatures for Diaghilev’s company. His one-act production of the time called “Appolon Musagete” (“Appolo”) presented in 1928 has been used as model of neo-classical ballet. After the Diaghilev’s death Balanchine busied himself with directing the company “Ballet 1933”. However the company was soon ruined and Balanchine moved to America by invitation of Lincoln Kirstein, New York writer and impresario. Sponsored by Kirstein, Balanchine founded the School of American Ballet in New York City in 1934. Balanchine changed ballet even more then his older colleagues from “The Ballet Russes”. He is still reputed to be the matchless master of “plotless” ballet for using movement as a way to express the music and human emotion and endeavor.
After the revolution in Russia Soviet official Anatoly Lunacharsky, who was responsible for the Enlightenment in the new Republic, managed to save Russian ballet art. The former Imperial ballet (renamed Kirov ballet) in Leningrad (St Petersburg) in the 1930’s was headed by great prima and choreographer Agrippina Vaganova. Being an artistic director Vaganova had to follow the new state regulations and once she was forced to change the ending of classical “Swan Lake” for a happy ending. She set out her methods of teaching ballet in writing her book “Fundamentals of the Classic Dance” which was translated into English and became a dance “bible”. When she died her mane was given to the former Imperial Ballet School.
In 1961 a young dancer from Kirov ballet Rudolf Nureyev became well-known and respected as the “Next Nijinsky”. He decided to never go back to the USSR when Kirov ballet was touring Paris. After his defecting, Nureyev worked for many companies in different countries such as the National Ballet of Canada, the Australian Ballet, and others. Ballet lovers the world over knew Nureyev and his new partner Margot Fonteyn as “Rudi and Margot”. However his hope for collaboration with Balanchine unfortunately never came true.
The virtuosic ballet technique of Russian dancers as well as their ability to express dramatic effect produced great impression abroad. Nowadays Russian influence on ballet continues to exist due to Russian companies’ performances abroad and the activities of dancers who defected in Soviet times such as Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova (Kirov Ballet, left Russia in 1970, now lives in the US), Michael Barishnikov (Kirov Ballet, left Russia in 1974, lives in the US).
In spite of all the difficulties, Russian ballet companies in the USSR continued to develop their high standards. A lot of remarkable dancers stayed and worked in the Soviet Union. One of them was Galina Ulanova (Kirov Ballet and Moscow Bolshoi Theatre Ballet). After her performance in London in 1956 she was regarded as the “Next Pavlova”. Moris Liepa (Moscow Bolshoi Ballet) – one more inimitable dancer of USSR epoch who won international fame. Maya Plisetskaya (Moscow Bolshoi Ballet) remained the unsurpassed prima in Russia for more then thirty years.
Nowadays Russian ballet is still enjoyed by people coming to Russia from all over the world. A number of ballet companies in Russia are still in operation: Mariinsky Ballet (former Kirov) in St Petersburg, Michailovsky Ballet in St Petersburg, Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, Perm Ballet Academy and others. Today ballet is multi-faceted: classics, tradition, and choreographic innovations interweave to produce the character of modern ballet. Masters continue to create various styles of dance and people who come to the theatre are given a wide range of experiences.
In addition to the modern productions, classical ballets are still performed in Russia. Even today you can see Pitepa’s version of “Swan Lake”, “Giselle” or “Sleeping Beauty” and enjoy the feeling of 19th century Russian ballet where everything is in harmony: the music, the staging, the scenery, costumes, and choreography itself. Or you can choose a ballet performance combining classical approaches and new vision such as the new version of “Nutcracker” corresponding to Pitepa’s libretto and a new design recently created by modern artist Michael Shemyakin.
Most of leading dancers nowadays performing on the stage of Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg were trained at Vaganova Ballet Academy (former Imperial Ballet School now directed by the brilliant leading dancer from Bolshoi Theatre troupe Nikolay Tsitskaridze).
Among them such world known dancers as Diana Vishneva, Ulyana Lopatkina, Ekaterina Kondaurova, Julia Mahalina, Denis Matvienko, Timur Askerov, Eugeniy Ivanchenko, Vladimir Shklyarov and others. Your Russian experience is no doubt incomplete until you have visited one of the foremost Russian ballet theatres. You will see amazing dancing (may be even some world famous dancers), very decorative costumes, the beautiful grand theatre itself, and hear wonderful music. Moreover, you can enjoy ballet even without understanding. Russian ballet holds the beauty and soul of the Russian people.