Christian Johansson:
Petipa's Great Associate


     In the 1840's, within a few years, two young men of about the same age appeared in Russia's capital St. Petersburg. One was Swede, the other was from Marseilles. Both had enjoyed the title of premier danseur with great European theatres. Both entered the service of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatre and remained there for nearly sixty years, until their deaths. During these long decades spent away from home, both foreigners accepted Russia as their adopted country and became Russian subjects. Rather, they became subjects of Russian ballet, and perhaps the most important figures in its historical development during the latter half of the 19th century. Friends and colleagues, these foreign young men were both fated to create the Russian Classical Ballet.
     The tall, unruffled Scandinavian was Christian Johansson. The hot-tempered, animated Frenchmen was Marius Petipa. Reviewers of the two new soloists often mentioned them together: «Petipa has found an equally strong and able «rival» in Johansson, wrote one critic. Ultimately, however, the two protagonists divided their spheres of influence and each one was awarded his own crown - Petipa's as choreographer, and Johansson's as teacher.
     Born in Stockholm in 1817, Johansson made his debut on the stage of the Royal Opera House. Naturally endowed to be a fine dancer, he was noticed by the great Danish choreographer Auguste Bournonville. After studying with Bournonville in Copenhagen for two years, Johansson earned the right to be called his pupil and was trained in the French classical style «la belle dance». Beautiful, flexible and graceful in the best tradition of the French school, Johansson attracted the attention of critics. Even more, living legend Marie Taglioni suddenly made as a condition of her engagement in Stockholm that Johansson be her partner. Johansson went on to partner other great ballerinas in St. Petersburg, including Fanny Elssler, Carlotta Grisi, Elena Andreyanova, Tatyana Smirnova, Marfa Muravyeva, Nadezhda Bogdanova and Fanny Cerrito.
     Coming to Russia at the beginning of the 1840's saved Johansson's career as a dancer. At that time in Europe, male dancing was receding in importance in comparison to female dancing in the context of a ballet production. Only in St. Petersburg's Bolshoi Theatre could a male dancer achieve great success. More importantly, only there could he perform his own solos, rather than appearing only as ballerina's partner. This perhaps explains the appearance of Petipa, Perrot, Saint-Leon and Johansson himself in «The Northern Venice» (as St. Petersburg was known). Johansson was long remembered there as exemplifying the artistic beauty of the male dancer.
     His stage career spanned four decades and included hundreds of ballets. When it ended in 1883, the premier danceur did not have to worry about his future. He had already been teaching at the Ballet Academy on Theatre Street for more than ten years.
     By the end of the 19th century, there was not a single female dancer appearing on the stage of the Maryinsky Theatre who had not been taught by Johansson, either at the Imperial Ballet Academy or at the Theatre's «classes of perfection». Long, thin and straight as a pole, the aging Johansson would appear at ballet class with a small violin and thick stick. He used this in order to keep the musical beat underneath his mumbled «one, two...» Sometimes the stick was set aside and, instead of his melancholic voice, his violin would sing and enliven the class with simple melodies from the ballets of his youth. This was an unusual approach, especially when compared to the more severe, rarely-kind atmosphere of the school. Nothing made Johansson lose his temper; no one could ruffle his peace. He set an example of graciousness, capturing the hearts of his students with his unfailingly refined treatment and politeness.
     Johansson's pupil - future artists - were not the only ones who learned from him. Often Petipa would observe his classes, watching and remembering. After those visits, Johansson would say laughingly: «Once again the old man is stealing something from me...» In truth, Petipa's seemingly inexhaustible imagination fed on the imagination of his friend. Dancers would occasionally recognize their teacher's classroom combinations in Petipa's ballets, though they had been substantially transformed.
     The entire company participated in a triumphant celebration of the 50th anniversary of Johansson's artistic career. A large silver garland on a blue satin cushion was presented to him by Petipa in the name of the ballet company, followed by laurel wreaths. Yet even beyond this jubilee Christian Johansson continued faithfully to teach and inspire during his daily class.
     On December 12, 1903, Petipa made this laconic entry in his diary: «My old colleague Johansson died today at 7:00». Petipa himself passed away in 1910, seven years later - the same number of years that had separated their arrival in St. Petersburg. In their artistic efforts, Johansson and Petipa coincided like two halves of a whole, constituting an inseparable cooperation of two artistic souls.
by Natalia Zozulina, Ph.D.
This article was published in Sovietsky Ballet, issue No. 1, 1988

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