Mariinsky Ballet

The Mariinsky ballet company is indelibly linked to the history of Russian choreographic art. This history embraces more than two and a half centuries and begins in 1738, when Empress Anna Ioannovna opened a theatrical school in St Petersburg. Six years later, Empress Elizabeth Petrovna founded the first Russian ballet company, which soon numbered over thirty dancers. From 1783 to 1885, the ballet company danced at the Bolshoi (Stone) Theatre, before performances were transferred to the Mariinsky Theatre.

Foreign balletmasters made an important contribution to the early history of Russian ballet. Franz Hilverding, Gasparo Angiolini, Giuseppe Canziani and Charles le Picq all worked in St Petersburg at the end of the eighteenth century. The first Russian choreographer and pedagogue appeared in the 1790s in the person of Ivan Walberch, who aspired to create ballets with plots and lifelike images. His main area of creativity was grand pantomime ballet and the divertissement ballets that were his own specific response to the events of 1812. French choreographer Charles Louis Didelot also worked in St Petersburg at this time.

The 1830s were the great decade of Romantic ballet. One of the most important events in Russian ballet life was the arrival of Marie Taglioni, whose floating leaps and balanced poses typified the Romantic style. Between 1848 and 1859, Jules Perrot breathed new life into Russian dramatic ballet, creating works based on the Romantic themes of opposition, contrast, passion and fate.

The Romantic ballets gave way in the late 1850s to the vivid pageantry of divertissements. Viewers were enthralled by the inventive effects, vivid scenes and outstanding mastery of the dancers. This period coincided with the career of Arthur Saint-Léon at the Mariinsky Theatre. Choreographic fragments from The Little Humpbacked Horse and variations from Saint-Léon’s other creations enriched Russian ballet and are still performed to this day.

In 1869, Arthur Saint-Léon was succeeded by Marius Petipa as imperial balletmaster. Petipa took the Mariinsky ballet to unprecedented heights, creating more than sixty ballets and establishing the academic ballet code. His greatest creations were the ballets that he wrote in collaboration with composers Peter Tchaikovsky and Alexander GlazunovThe Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and Raymonda. Marius Petipa’s works still constitute the foundations of the Mariinsky repertoire; many generations of prima donnas have shone and continue to shine in his ballets at the Mariinsky Theatre.

The world-famous Anna Pavlova, Mathilde Kschessinska, Tamara Karsavina, Olga Preobrajenska, Yulia Sedova, Lyubov Yegorova, Olga Spessivtzeva, Maria Petipa, Vaslav Nijinsky, Nikolai Legat and Sergei Legat all danced on the Mariinsky stage at the turn of the century. Many of them travelled to Paris to perform in Sergei Diaghilev’s legendary Saisons Russes. On the eve of the revolution, the Mariinsky repertoire consisted of classics of Russian and Western ballet, as well as the ground-breaking creations of Mikhail Fokine, appointed head choreographer in 1910.

The post-revolutionary period was a difficult time for the Mariinsky Theatre. Almost all the leading artists emigrated, though the classical repertoire was nevertheless preserved. In 1922, Fyodor Lopukhov was appointed head of the ballet company. A daring experimentalist, Lopukhov added new ballets to the repertoire, many of them based on modern themes. Galina Ulanova, Alexei Yermolaev, Marina Semyonova and Vakhtang Chabukiani all danced at the theatre in those years.

The ballet art of the 1930s was greatly influenced by dramatic theatre, reflected in such productions as Rostislav Zakharov’s The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, Vakhtang Chabukiani’s The Heart of the Mountains and Leonid Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. The classical heritage – Swan Lake, La Esmeralda, The Nutcracker and Raymonda – was reconstructed in line with Soviet aesthetics. The quest for realism inevitably impoverished choreographic expression, however, and by the early 1950s dramatic ballet had clearly outlived its usefulness.

Fyodor Lopukhov’s reforms paved the way for the experimental productions of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Leonid Jacobson staged Spartacus and Choreographic Miniatures, Yury Grigorovich contributed The Stone Flower and The Legend of Love, Igor Belsky created The Coast of Hope and The Leningrad Symphony. The new ballets revived the traditions of symphonic dance and were performed by such stars as Irina Kolpakova, Natalia Makarova, Alla Osipenko, Irina Gensler, Alla Sizova, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Valery Panov, Yury Solovyov and Anatoly Sapogov.

Following Oleg Vinogradov’s appointment as ballet director in 1977, the repertoire was embellished by a series of new productions (The Fairy of the Ronde Mountains, The Government Inspector, The Battleship Potemkin), works by foreign choreographers (August Bournonville’s La Sylphide and Napoli) and parts of the traditional choreography of Jules Perrot, Arthur Saint-Léon and Jean Coralli. Roland Petit and Maurice Béjart collaborated with the company. The Antony Tudor Ballet Trust authorised productions of Jardin aux Lilas and The Leaves are Fading. Jerome Robbins staged In the Night at the theatre.

The ballet repertoire at the start of the twenty-first century included both the classical heritage of Marius Petipa – Swan Lake, Le Corsaire, La Bayadère and The Sleeping Beauty (reconstruction of the original 1890 version) – and the modern ballets of George Balanchine (The Scotch Symphony, Serenade, Apollo, Symphony in C and Jewels) and Roland Petit (Carmen and Le Jeune homme et la mort). Today, the Mariinsky ballet is a star-studded company, boasting such world-class names as Ulyana Lopatkina, Diana Vishneva, Yulia Makhalina, Igor Zelensky, Igor Kolb and Yevgeny Ivanchenko.

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