An amazing marathon of works of the brilliant choreographer Marius Petipa has been on display for nearly two centuries, circling on its path the entire planet. There is no country in the world that would not be exposed to the art of classical ballet, to which Petipa is credited as its famous founder.

Marius Petipa was born in Marseilles in 1818, grew up in Brussels, and in 1835 began his dancing career in France and Spain. However, his name and fame is mostly associated with St. Petersburg, where he arrived in May 1847 to become an essential part of the Russian Imperial Ballet and its school. There, in next 60 years he created or adopted over 70 ballets and numerous dances for the opera. 

Petipa’s choreography is a breathtaking artistic synergy, taking its roots in variety of distinguished ballet schools. One of those being the French ballet school —through Marius’ father Jean-Antoine Petipaand his teachers Auguste Vestris, Charles Didelot, Arthur Saint-Leon, and Jules Perrot. Then, an Italian ballet school – through the constellation of invited virtuoso dancers and teachings of maestro Enrico Cecchetti. The Danish ballet school —through Petipa’s close friend Christian Johansson,student of August Bournonville who himself became an outstanding teacher at Imperial Ballet School.  Finally, there was the Russian ballet school —through the teachers and dancers of St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet School. Those who have mastered the techniques and abilities which enabled the most beautiful and complex dances to be created for them. As well as through Petipa fellow assistants and followers including Lev Ivanov, Alexander Gorsky, Fyodor Lopukhov and others. 

Thanks to Marius Petipa the classical ballet entered the global cultural niche almost as a separate form of art. His surviving ballets are choreographic marvels – The Sleeping Beauty, The Swan Lake, La Bayadere, Raymonde, and co-authored by him The Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. It is also important that Petipa carried through time and distance the legacy of other great ballet masters, appending with touch of his own talent the masterpieces like Giselle, Coppélia, Le Corsaire, Paquita. 

“This great marathon that started in Europe and continued in Russia made its triumphant comeback to its place of origin in 1920s, starting a new great wave of the popularity of ballet, that is now considered classical. It all started at the end of 1921, when after a decade of limited performances of classical programs by Russian dancers in Europe, Sergei Diaghilev launched an ambitious project – to stage in London’s Alhambra Theatre the first-ever outside of Russia full-scale ballet created by Petipa. It was a perfect choice. Re-christened as The Sleeping Princess, even though with minor modifications, a very close replica of The Sleeping Beauty was re-created by a magnificent team of dancers, either raised within the school of Russian ballet, or trained by the trainers associated with this school. 

The authenticity of this unique production was astounding. Most of the lead dancers performed in this ballet back in Russia. Those who were new to it, had the opportunity to learn directly from the veterans and from Enrico Checchetti, who conducted the training. Stage production was managed by former Mariinsky Theater regisseur Nikolai Sergeev, who not only lead productions of this ballet in St. Petersburg for more than a dozen years, but also had it notated during the rehearsals lead by Petipa himself.  

The impact of this event is hard to overestimate. Even though the audience was not yet prepared to fully grasp the brilliance of the art form that was largely new to wide circles, Petipa’s The Sleeping Beauty planted in London the seeds of revival of classical ballet in Europe. What for the longest time had been considered a light form of entertainment – given as a relaxing pause, or as a dessert after the main course – the opera, suddenly became measured against a new, much expanded level of professionalism and artistic perfection. Programs, presented to this time by Anna Pavlova and Diaghilev companies, introduced classical ballet dances, albeit shorter and often adapted for smaller stages. However, those programs predominantly followed the existing taste and preferences of the audience. Lavishly decorated The Sleeping Beauty, presented on a grandiose scale that could properly display the wonders of Petipa choreography, has suddenly attained the whole new character, depth, and dimension. This ballet required the public to be more educated, offering in exchange a much refined perception of the stage dancing. It would not be an exaggeration to say, that this first Petipa’s ballet has become the source of education for the audience and for the dancers alike. The whole new generation of ballet dancers and critics, not to mention ballet-goers, with reverie would go back in their recollections to the advent of The Sleeping Princes seen in 1921 in London. Its shortened version went to Paris the next year, and for a long time stayed on the repertoire of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

The next point of passing the baton of the Petipa marathon was Giselle, revived in the end of 1924 in Paris. Can we associate this ballet created by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot with Maruis Petipa? Most certainly! In 1884 Petipa staged in St. Petersburg his own version, making revisions to previous productions in Russia by Antuan Titus and  Perrot. Later, he probably modified it even further, knowing his habit to refine the lead roles for the current stars of the time, to best emphasize their abilities. Giselle that we know today is based on notations created by Nikolai Sergeev in 1903, when Petipa was rehearsing this ballet for Anna Pavlova. 

London and Paris already saw Giselle, adopted in 1910 for Ballet Russes by Mikhail Fokine, but for whatever reason it did not produce a sensation, probably overshadowed by a tour de force of novelty of Fokine original ballets. Now, in 1924 it was a different story. It is very possible, that the Paris Opéra director Jacques_Rouché was under the influence of artistic success of the Petipa ballet in London, when he made his sudden offer to Olga Spessivtseva to dance Giselle. Spessivtseva then invited Nikolai Sergeev with his invaluable notations, and in less than two months, the ballet was produced from scratch. It was a triumphant return of the great French ballet back to its home, and the name of Marius Petipa received its proper recognition in the press. Part of this success was due the fact that Giselle was presented in Paris by the national ballet company. Yet, the very significant component of this acclaim was the spirit infused by Petipa into the old romantic story conducted through the filigree of the pas and mime scenes. Another factor was Olga Spessivtseva herself – one of the best examples of the classical branch of the Russian Imperial ballet school, to which the name of Maruis Petipa was, and forever is, a synonym. Giselle became a permanent feature at the Opéra, and it is probably not a coincidence that ballet schools started to mushroom in Paris, managed by prominent Russian dancers trained under Petipa’s tutelage – Olga Preobrajenska, Lubov Egorova, Vera Trefilova, Mathilde Kschessinska, and Nikolai Legat. 

The popularity of ballet kept growing, and more and more new companies were established every year, inspired by the success of Pavlova’s and Diagilev’s companies. In the 1930s, the era of jazz and tango, had its preferences in stage performance, but the taste for classical ballet, once incepted, also grew steadily. 

In the summer of 1932, the same tandem of Olga Spessivtseva and Nikolai Sergeev was invited to London to bring Giselle and the second act of The Swan Lake into the program sponsored by a group of ballet enthusiasts, operating under the name Camargo Society.  By that time, demand in London for ballet, classical ballet in particular, was sufficient enough for first ballet companies to be self-sustained. Sergeev was invited as guest ballet master into the Saddler Wells Ballet, where he produced a number of works from the repertoire of the Russian Imperial Ballet. This, in time, led to the foundation of Royal Ballet in London, which declared its existence with The Sleeping Beauty by Marius Petipa. The rest is history – the history of the great marathon that continues today as a wonderful relay that carries the beauty of classical dance and knowledge about its history around the world.”* 

It is utmost important to share this beauty and knowledge with the young ballet generation, theglobal ballet community – all those who dance Petipa’s ballets and variations everywhere in world. 

Global geopolitical changes at the beginning of the XXth century led to a total reorganization of the political, business, social and cultural life. It had a huge impact on the art of ballet, affecting the legacy of Marius Petipa and bringing making his name be more visible worldwide. These changes contributed to the ramification of the genealogy of his legacy. His choreography was passed through the prism of local schools, adapted into the traditions of theatres. From a single corpus several different branches were formed. These are essentially equal and represent the performing tradition of Marius Petipa’s legacy today.

The year 2021 has is of tremendous importance for the entire ballet world. Exactly 100 years ago, the great marathon of the masterpieces of the legendary choreographer Marius Petipa began expanding worldwide. This great marathon starting point was in 1921 when the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev, decided to stage an opulent production of “The Sleeping Beauty” which he titled “The Sleeping Princess” using the choreographic structure of Marius Petipa in London.

The year of 2021 can rightfully be considered the 100th anniversary of the Petipa Marathon.

*Sergey Belenky, Dance historian