Petipa's Choreographic Style

     The choreographic style in Petipa's ballet seems to be devoid of personal features. It seems rather purely academic, with no clear stamp of individuality (as in Perrot's case). In Petipa's ballets the overall structure as well as the composition of various dances is subjugated to an established impersonal pattern. We might call it ballet abstracted to a brilliant ideal. Yet, this statement is only partly true, for Petipa's academic style is multi-faceted and internally fluid. His classical choreo-
graphic style absorbed his own artistic experience and the changing aspirations of at least three generations of St. Petersburg ballet artists. Petipa's greatest role was the one of Conrad in "Corsaire". He performed it at the St. Petersburg premiere in 1858, and ten years later he chose it for his last appearance on the stage. What sort of role it was and what type of artist Petipa was can be inferred from the concise but eloquent memoirs of E. Vazem, who was partnered by him in that farewell performance. She recalls his masterfully expressive gestures and his exploding passion in the love scene. This bespeaks of a first-rate master of pantomime who casts a hypnotic power over the audience. This was characteristic of the legendary actors of the Romantic Era. Not a word about his dance technique was mentioned. This is understandable, since by the age of 50, Petipa, who had begun his career very early, must have lost by then most of his bravura technique.      Besides, the role of Conrad did not demand bravura. As the leader of the Corsairs in the style of those times, Petipa was not expected to dance. His character was to be portrayed by means of expressive gestures. The ballet was first choreographed by Mazilier in Paris. This was one of the last vestiges of the waning Byronic mood which was short-lived in Europe and then disappeared without a trace. In Russia, though, the Byronic influence lingered longer, and Byronic characters remained on stage until Chekhov's time. In Chekhov's "Three Sisters", Captain Solyony is an example of this type. For this reason, the Paris original of "Corsaire" ran for only 10 years, while its St. Petersburg restaging (by Perrot, and then Petipa) lasted for 75 years. The original version of the ballet ended in a scene of shipwreck, sketched by the famous Gustave Dore. This came easily to him, since the scene had been designed in the manner of his engravings for Dante's "Inferno". Such infernal shades colored the entire production and matched its main character, Conrad. In the ballet, Conrad is a demonic loner with a "hell-tormented soul", to use the expression from Lermontov's "Masquerade".
     There was not a single dance rhythm which would suit that character, who spurns all of life's joys. Romantic misanthropy was his essence, and
romantic pantomime the way it was expressed on the stage. That misanthropic and stormy Byronic stance was one of the masks much used by Petipa in his productions. Traces of the character of Conrad and Petipa's own acting manner can be found in several of Petipa's ballets. Examples of
this are the Great Brahmin in "La Bayadere", Abderakhman in "Raymonda" and other similar somber and lonely characters with dark passions in laconic imperious gestures. That kind of pantomime constituted one of the early basic elements of Petipa's style.
     In 1868, Petipa staged his new version of "Corsaire". This coincided with the recent revival of this ballet in Paris. Petipa's new version emphasized dance rather than pantomime. It lost its Byronic infernal element. The adventure of corsaires were upstaged by dances of pretty captive maidens.
     The plot was interrupted by a "dream" scene and by an effective composition of a "Jardin Anime" in which brilliant dancers for the female group of the corps de ballet stole the laurels from the picturesque male scenes.
     Dancers in classical tutus with green garlands in their hands crossed the stage in waves of decorative mis-en-scenes and vanished, carried away by the heady rhythms. Petipa's "Jardin" was a breath of harmony amidst storms and disasters, a choreographic vision of paradise. That wealth of lines, colors and dance was an early example of Petipa's symphonic structure. The whole scene was crowned by the variation of the ballerina, whose divine dancing conveyed the highest delights that life can bring. All this placed the ballet (by Mazilier-Perrot-Petipa) into a system of antitheses.      To put it in modern structural terms, this a system of artistic and philosophical oppositions: Byronism-Hedonism. Then there is the metaphoric opposition: hell-heaven, and finally there is the professional opposition: strenuous gesture-relaxed lyrical quality.
     The clash of those elements gendered the dramatic impact of the new version of Corsaire".Their counterpoint gave rise to a new artistic system. This system ceased to the Byronic and predominantly mimetic, but failed to become purely hedonistic or completely submerged by dance. The new version was promptly accused of this ambivalence and the accusations were still heard in the mid-20th century. Stern criticism was voiced by Nekrasov in his poem "Ballet". This poem was dedicated to the charming Maria Surovshchikova, Petipa's first wife, who danced Medora in the 1863 revival of "Le Corsaire". The poem ironically applied to her and to all the ballet dancers of the Imperial stage, the epithet of "Houri of Paradise". Pushkin in his time had called them "divine" in sincere admiration. Consequently, does this mean that ballet had changed so much since Didelot's period? No, what had changed was the perception the intellectuals had the art of ballet.      Nekrasov's poem (written in 1865) obviously registered the fact that the reform-minded liberal intellectuals viewed the Imperial ballet with disfavor. That situation could become fatal to the future of the art. However, Nekrasov was not quite right. The image Petipa was building in his ballets was not of an "houri", but of "the Ballerina".
     We take the word not as the name of a profession or of a certain rank in that profession. We take it to represent a myth - the greatest myth in Petipa's theatre, with all of its dryads, nereids and houries. In fact, it was a well-developed aesthetic myth, based on the conception of immortal
art and beauty. All the heroines in the repertoire may be mortal, but the Ballerina is immortal.
Nikiya, the heroine of "La Bayadere", dies. However, the Ballerina is reborn from her suffering, as verse is born of the poet's agony. By the same logic, the radiant Ballerina of "Le Jardin Anime" arises out of Medora's troubles and fears. Fate pursues the choreographer's characters, but it has no power over the Ballerina. Her dance - the classical dance of Petipa's ballets - has a power of its own to oppose fate and to influence people. This power replaces the pantomime of the old-school ballets. The Ballerina has a fairy-tale destiny, therefore fairy-tale subjects are very welcome. However, that destiny is not conferred on her by the fairy's magic wand - she builds it herself. Here is the ethical basis underlying the essentially aesthetic style of Petipa. Here is the imperative which determines the structure of his art. The Ballerina asserts her artistic personality - at least within the limits of her short variation. She is obliged to perform her dance; she cannot stop, it has once begun. That unswerving aim rules all the fantastic ramifications of the plot, all those inserted "dream" scenes, all those visions so contrary to mundane logic.
     That aim also determines the nature of the dance, both of the corps de ballet and of the Ballerina. Petipa's corps de ballet is not a harem but a spiritual order, and his Ballerina embodies the knightly notions of service and duty. No slavish traits (implied in the "houri" epithet) are admissible for her. This is not only because Petipa (particularly in his late creations) restored to her the external aristocracy rejected in the 1830's and 1840's, but also because artistic will became the inner essence of dance.
     This artistic will is what distinguishes Petipa from other choreographers of the Romantic Era which had nurtured him. In the Romantic Era, the caprices of dance were subjugated to music, as if to the force of external powers and elements. However, in Petipa's choreography, the dance (whether in the shape of a circle or of a great diagonal across the stage) is like a gust of wind, subjugated by the ballerina. She dominates the whole sequence of assured movements until the movement stops suddenly at the end. If the Romantic Ballerina had been a butterfly, the Petipa Ballerina is now a masterful artist.
     Thus, the ballerina is the main character of Petipa's theatre. She is not the temple dancer Nikiya (in "La Bayadere") nor the ballet dancer Camargo (in "Camargo"). She is a woman who is an artist in the broad sense of the word. All his life Marius Petipa was an incomparable and untiring poet of
feminine charm. He found a thousand new facets in thousand new variations so that his ballerinas could convey "eternal feminine appeal". Petipa's choreography for his ballerinas intertwined feminine wiles of seduction and attraction with artistic daring and inspiration.
     Let us note, however, that Petipa valued the touches of womanly fascination no less than he valued a woman's spirituality or tenderness. All those details and impulses went to create Petipa's Ballerina Myth, at once graceful and grandiose. Petipa applied that combination of grace and grandeur to his choreography, to his dancers and to ballet in general. This was the standard of beauty which is the foundation of his choreographic style. He combines subtle touches with grand style, stylistic finesse with sense of space, nuances with expansive movements. Marina Semyonova, the last great representative of Petipa's style, is a perfect example of how those contrasting qualities could be combined in one dancer. The mysterious play of those opposite qualities is encoded in Petipa's choreography.
     The best illustration of this is found in Aurora's dancing in the First Act of "The Sleeping Beauty". Her dance is composed of a graceful entree and of a grandiose adagio, followed by a graceful variation and crowned finally by a majestic coda. The adagio with four cavaliers produces the same mysterious effect. The graceful movements repeated four times in succession give a feeling of grandeur, while the waves of graceful emotions heighten the depth of feeling. That repetition, which echoes the movements of the sea, is further developed in the coda of the dance of the nereids in Act Two. That contrasting and combined spatial and emotional content found in Petipa's best ballets, like "The Sleeping Beauty", is supplemented by a vast historical content. Petipa's choreography of the 1880's and 1890's represents the continuos flow of choreographic evelopment going back to the early periods of classical ballet. That use of great historical eras in his ballets is a most important feature of Petipa's choreographic style, which partially explains its largely inexplicable power of survival.
by Vadim Gayevsky
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