Jean-Philippe Van Aelbrouck

Marius Petipa’s Brussels childhood


In 1994 I published, in my Dictionary of Dancers in Brussels from 1600 to 1830, five notices on the members of the Petipa family: the first one on Jean-Antoine, the others on Lucien, Marius, Jean-Claude-Tonnerre and Victorine. Some have reproached me for not having quoted my sources precisely enough. It is the proper of a dictionary of this kind to align the sources at the bottom of the record, without further precision. I will therefore give more details on the information I was able to gather about the long stay of the Petipa family in Brussels, and supplement them with new documents discovered since then.

Maternal origins

A mystery persists on the origins of Marius’ mother, who was born in Lyon according to some sources, and in Santo Domingo (today Haiti) according to others. No birth certificate has been found in Lyon. On the other hand, several “Morel” or “Maurel” have been identified in Santo Domingo. On the birth certificate of Jean-Claude-Tonnerre, we read: “[…] son of Jean Antoine Petipa, dramatic artist, and Victorine Maurel, spouses, the father native of Paris, the mother of Santo Domingo in America”.

On the declaration of Lucien Petipa, the death certificate of Victorine Morel in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, October 8, 1860, says “aged seventy years, rentière, native of Lyon (Rhone), widow of Mr Jean Petipa, daughter of Mr Morel and Dame Grassot, both dead; their first names could not be indicated”. His sister Lucile dies five years later.

In an almanac of 1816, Lucile Grassau appears as an actress of the Theatre de la Porte-Saint- Martin. She lives in 14 boulevard Saint-Martin. Petipa is indicated as the first dancer of the same theater and lives at 8 rue du Faubourg-Saint-Martin. In 1820, she appears under the name of Lami-Grassau, actress at the Second Théâtre-Français (Théâtre de l’Odéon) and lives at 17 rue Dauphine. Note that these same almanacs report a “Morel of Santo Domingo, landscape painter, 4 rue de Seine”.

One wonders who had access to the marriage certificate of Jean-Antoine Petipa with Victorine Maurel: Parisian civil status registers were, for the most part, gone up in smoke during the fires perpetrated by the Commune in May 1871. Only one-third of the eight million registered acts are left over, restored. What does this marriage certificate contain? Have we found the data on the origins and filiations of the couple? The names of the witnesses? The petitioners? We will probably never know, but the question is worth asking, given the assertions contained in the biography of Marius Petipa published in Russian in 1971 and in his German translation of 1980. The only document available to us, though discreet and incomplete, is a handwritten record kept in the Andriveau Genealogical Archives. It contains the following information:

Name: Petipa
First names: Jean Antoine
Home: 8 fg st Martin
Born in: –
the: –
Son of: François
and of: Anne Pussano (?)
on: April 20, 1815
with: Victoire Maurel
Witnesses: Maurice Mejan, Antoine Valedau.

Before his marriage and his stay in Marseilles, Jean-Antoine was part of a French troupe that spent three years in Cassel: arrived in 1810, the ballet, led by Filippo Taglioni, is composed for the 1811-1812 season of MM. Petipa, Rosier, Liger, Ledet and Gourie [sic], as well as Ms Coustou, Adele Louis, Durant, Lavancourt, Rosier and Romain. Julie Aumer, Ms. Rosier’s younger sister, joined the troupe in 1812-1813. Marie-Thérèse Lavancour and Denis-François Gouriet will be called to Brussels by Petipa in 1821. Sophie-Julie Aumer, younger daughter of choreographer Jean-Pierre Aumer, will come to Brussels in 1827, while her older sister, Ms. Rosier, born Théodore Aumer, will join her the following year. As we can see, Petipa has not forgotten his former comrades and he often finds them a stable job in Brussels.

After Cassel, Petipa still works in Lyon and Hamburg, then in Paris, at the Théâtre de la Porte- Saint-Martin, and in Marseille.

Arrival in Brussels

The family leaves Marseille in April 1819 and Mrs. Petipa begins in Brussels on May 18, 1819 in the job of “jeune première”, in Roger’s Le Secret du ménage (role of Mrs. Dormeuil) and in L’Épreuve nouvelle of Marivaux (role of Angelica).

Petipa and the ballet newly formed by Eugene Hus begin May 20, 1819 by “Almaviva et Rosine, ou Bartholo dupé, great ballet-pantomime in three acts and big show, the composition of Mr. Blache father, directed by M Petipa, ballet master and first dancer”. The distribution consists of MM. Petipa, Hus, Desplaces, Calais, Bourgeois, Dubus, Dantan and Brems, and Lesueur, Adeline and Feltman. Five days later, the new hall of the Théâtre de la Monnaie is inaugurated.

Eugene Hus had already worked with Jean-Antoine Petipa: in the state of the troupe Bordeaux led by Mrs. Dorfeuille in 1803, Hus is a ballet master while Petipa is one of the first two dancers. He is about 17 years old.

Where Lucien excels, Marius gets his ears pulled by his father: he does not like dancing, he wrote in his Memoirs, preferring the violin: “I learned the music theory and the violin at the Fétis conservatory that I frequented my friend Vieuxtemps […]”. The two friends met again in St. Petersburg, where Vieuxtemps lived from 1846 to 1851.

The conservatory of which Petipa speaks is not yet that of Fétis, who will take the direction in June 1833. It is then a royal school of music founded in 1823, succeeding a school of song created ten years ago. The young Belgian government, recognizing the insufficiency of this establishment, created in 1832 the new Conservatoire and appealed to François-Joseph Fétis, then professor and librarian at the Conservatoire de Paris. Shortly after assuming office, Fétis writes a report on the state of music education. He notes: “When, when I arrived in Brussels in June 1833, I wanted to try the Conservatoire forces for the composition of an orchestra, and when I had collected the elements, I found five first violins, including the teacher, four second violins, three cellos, no double basses, one flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns (the first part for these wind instruments being held by the teacher), no trumpets or trombone. The performance was so feeble, in a small symphony of Haydn taken for trial, that I immediately became convinced of the inability of most students to read music, and that I was obliged to demand that they return in the solfege classes, the number of which was immediately necessary”.

This gives an idea of the level of education that Marius Petipa had followed during the few years he attended the Royal Music School in Brussels.

When the family returned to Brussels in 1832, after traveling to Antwerp and Lyon, Marius attended the violin lessons of François Schubert as early as December 1832, and soon joined the new Conservatoire. In the register of examinations of June 1835, one reads the following mention: “Petitpas Marius, born in Marseilles, 15 1⁄2 years old, entered in Xbre 1832. No disposition, preserved by particular reasons”.

This is a strong blow to the reputation of the genius at the beginning: little provision for the dance and none for the violin…

Lucien and Marius on the stage of the Théâtre de la Monnaie

The first appearance of Lucien Petipa on the stage of the Théâtre de la Monnaie dates from March 25, 1821, where he plays the role of Castagnet, a five-year-old, in La Dansomanie by Pierre Gardel, directed by Jean-Antoine Petipa. He continues to perform regularly in his father’s ballets: La Naissance de Vénus et de l’Amour (June 17, 1821, role of Love), Psyché et l’Amour (March 19, 1823, role of Cupid), Cendrillon (August 29, 1823, role of a page), Les Amours de Vénus ou le Siège de Cythère (February 23, 1824, role of Love), Le Volage fixé (August 3, 1824, role of Love), Télémaque dans l’île de Calypso (November 21, 1824, role of Love), Le Tonnelier (October 23, 1825, role of Octavin, a young fife), Zémire et Azor (April 3, 1826, role of a good genius) , Le Carnaval de Venise (April 29, 1827, with Marius in the roles of two small Harlequins), Aline, reine de Golconde (December 22, 1828, role of a shepherd), La Fille mal gardée (July 4, 1829, role of Alain, while Marius plays Colas), La Belle au bois dormant (August 31, 1829, role of a page, with Marius in the role of a dwarf and Victorine in that of a four-year-old village girl). He made his last appearance at the Théâtre de la Monnaie on April 14, 1831 in Cendrillon.

As for Marius, he begins on stage on March 19, 1823, a few days after his fifth birthday, for the first performance of Psyché et l’Amour of Pierre Gardel. He plays the role of a little love.

In his Memoirs, he claims to perform on stage at the age of nine, in La Dansomanie (translated by La Manie de la danse), a ballet composed by his father. This episode takes exactly place on August 25, 1826, when he is eight and a half years old.

Further on, Marius Petipa writes: “For my first public appearance, I wore a Savoyard costume and a monkey in my arms. The show showed the celebration of the birthday of a great lord [Fernandez] whose role I played [Ferdinand]”. The ballet refers to as Jocko, ou le Singe du Brésil. Petipa dances in it for the first time on July 11, 1827.

On September 12, 1830, at the height of the Belgian Revolution, the French tenor Lafeuillade intoned the air “Sacred love of the fatherland” of La Muette de Portici and the new Brabançonne composed by Jenneval and Van Campenhout. It is the signal of the insurrection that the young Marius, aged twelve and a half, lives live and that he will retranscribe in his Memoirs. The Théâtre de la Monnaie closes its doors and the troupe disperses.

The family then travels to Antwerp and Lyon, where the choreographer has his Petites Danaïdes represented and published, then the family performs in Marseille and Bordeaux for two seasons. They return to Brussels in December 1832: Jean-Antoine made his return April 21, 1833 in Le Déserteur of Dauberval. While Lucien continues to dance with his father, Marius takes violin lessons at the Brussels Conservatory. At the close of the 1834-1835 season, the family leaves Brussels for Bordeaux.

As for Élisabeth, she will marry in Paris, on July 9, 1842, the doctor Henri-Eugène Zagolini, known as Groslambert.

Jean-Claude-Tonnerre will become an actor and will play notably in Paris, Verviers, Amsterdam and Antwerp. He then joins his family in St. Petersburg, where he dies on July 1, 1873.

Victorine will become a singer in Paris. This is at least what appears from the birth certificate of her daughter Eugenie in Tournai, March 10, 1861. She will then live with a certain Joseph Mendes de Leon and will die in Paris on January 25, 1905.

Lastly, we know nothing about Adélaïde-Antoinette, born in Laeken (suburb of Brussels) on January 18, 1826.

During his long stay in Brussels, the Petipa family played a decisive role in the renewal of the repertoire of the Théâtre de la Monnaie and in the development of the romantic ballet. Jean- Antoine has put on stage the great Parisian works of Gardel, Vestris, Dauberval, Blache, Aumer and Coindé. By ten years of presence on stage, Lucien has lastingly marked the memory of the spectators. As for Marius, if he has excelled neither in dance nor in music, he has bathed in an environment totally dedicated to the arts and has subsequently benefited from his experience in Brussels.

November 2015
Translated in December 2019