The History of Russian Ballet
Ballet in Russia was created by foreigners and yet it is most
definitely "Russian". In the 17th century ballet was introduced into
Russia by the second Romanov ruler Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich (1629-1676,
reigned from 1645) for his wedding festivities.
Peter the Great (1672-1725, reigned from 1682) took a personal interest
in dancing at his court by bringing in Western dances and taking part
in them himself. With the help of his prisoners from the Swedish wars
-- the Swedish officers -- he taught his courtiers.
The dissemination of ballet in Russia and its deep rooted appeal to all
Russians can be traced back to those nobles who, often living so far
away from the capital, commanded their own entertainment, setting up
ballet troupes often composed of serfs who had been trained at the
The formal beginning of Russian ballet can be traced back to a letter
written in 1737 to the Empress Anne (1693-1740, reigned from 1730) by
the teacher of gymnastics at the Imperial Cadet School. The letter
states: "I humbly ask Your Majesty that I shall be given twelve
children -- six males and six females -- to create ballets and theater
dances using twelve persons of comic and serious character. These
pupils, by the end of the first year ,will dance with cadets; in two
years they will execute different dances; in three years they will not
be less than the best of foreign dancers."
The request by Frenchman Jean Batiste Lande (died
1748 in St Petersburg) was granted on May 15, 1738 and the first
Russian school of dancing was given two rooms in the Old Winter Palace.
Later this school became the St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet School.
Imperial patronage always ensured that ballet in Russia remained a
vigorous art form. Successive tsars invited foreign ballet masters to
develop the art. The history of the Russian ballet consists of the
gradual absorption of this foreign knowledge by the Russians themselves
until the art became indigenous.
Catherine the Great, a great patron of the arts,
established the Directorate of the Imperial theaters, giving it control
over ballet. At a Moscow Orphanage in 1774 she started a ballet school
under the direction of Filippo Beccari (?). In 1765 she brought the
Italian dancer-composer-choreographer Domenico Angiolini (1731-1803) to
St Petersburg. Angiolini composed the first heroic Russian ballet
Semira in 1772. He was one of the first choreographers to move away
from ballet as a divertissement, a mere history in costume, to a
In 1801 Charles-Louis Didelot (1767-1837) sparked the first great
period of ballet. He is considered to be the "father of the Russian
ballet." His productions were seen at the St. Petersburg Bolshoi
Theatre, latter called the Maryinsky, and later still the Kirov. He was
invited to St Petersburg by Paul I. Didelot said that "ballet is an
action explained by a dance" and from this premise created a plasticity
of movement free from the conventionalities of baroque ballet, using
effective changes of scenery, and combining the dance of soloists and
the corps de ballet which prompted the developments of ensemble dance
in the Romantic period.
In 1828 Didelot created the Prisoner of the Caucasus from the poem by
Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) thereby laying one of the first
foundations of Russian ballet; the choreographic illustration of
national literature. Throughout the 19th century, however, Russian
posters advertising ballet performances, still gave star billing to
foreign dancers. Moreover, the music for ballets was also composed by
foreigners. Similarly, there was foreign rule in the classroom right up
to the beginning of the 20th century.
The Russian ballet remained a mystery to the West, but as the European
dancers returned from their Russian tours with stories of the beautiful
theaters and the tremendous salaries paid guest artists, caused many of
the great dancers and teachers to flood the Russian market:
Jean-Batiste Lande, Louis Duport, Jules Perrot, Arthur Saint-Leon,
Marie Taglioni, Lucile Grahm, Fanny Cerrito, Fanny Elssler, and
Carlotta Grisi all danced in Russia.
Maria Danilova (1793-1810) entered the St. Petersburg school at the age
of eight. Her talent soon attracted Charles-Louis Didelot's attention
and she made her first appearance a year later; by the time she was 15
she was dancing with Louis Duport. She graduated from the academy in
1809. Her dancing was so light and elusive that it took the audience's
breath away. Danilova was very fragile and the emotional pressures of
performance and a short, unhappy, love affair with Duport undermined
her health: She died of consumption at the age of 17.
Avdotia Ilyinitshna Istomina, (1799-1848)
graduated from the academy in 1815 and within 5 years held the rank of
primiere danseuse mime. She was a great beauty with jet-black hair and
a beautiful figure. Her technique was flawless, and her elevation and
pirouettes set her aside from the other dancers. Also, her acting
abilities inspired Pushkin to write the ballet "Prisoner of the
Caucasus" in 1836 for her. Because of a injury to her foot she danced
less and less, finally retiring in 1836. She died of cholera 12 years
When Marie Taglioni took St. Petersburg by storm,
Elena Andreianova (1819-1857), a ballerina who graduated from the
Imperial Theater school, had to watch jealously from the wings. In time
Andreianova became more powerful, because she was the lover of
Alexander Guedenov, the director of the Imperial Theater. Elena was the
first Russian Giselle, in 1842. Guedenov arranged a successful tour for
her in Paris, but at La Scala she was less impressive.
In 1848, when Fanny Elssler arrived in St.
Petersburg, the Russian dancers were again forced into the background.
To keep peace, Guedenov sent Andreianova to Moscow. The Moscovites
resented the invasion of the dancer from St. Petersburg, and on her
opening night, instead of flowers, the audience threw a dead cat on
stage. Elena fainted, and then she got a standing ovation. She did
another successful foreign tour, but on her return she found that
Guedenov had found a new "protegee." At 34 Andreianova was forced to
retire. Not being able to handle the politics of the dance world, she
moved to France, where she died at the age of 48.
In 1840s three foreign dancers (Christian Johansson, Jules Perrot - the
founder of Romantic ballet - and Marius Petipa) came to St Petersburg.
Both as dancers and ballet masters, they each of them had their own
style which would be absorbed into the Russian classical technique.
Marie Taglioni was respondsible for bringing her new partner, Christian
Johanson (1817-1903), a Dane, to St. Petersburg. After Taglioni's
contract expired, Johanson stayed and became a leading dancer and one
of the most influential teachers of ballet. Johanson was responsible
for keeping the male dancers a major part of ballet--a situation that
did much to keep ballet viable in Russia, while it declined in the rest
of Europe. He inculcated a strict pure technique that formed the basis
of the Russian classical style for both men and women (he was the
teacher of Anna Pavlova and Vatslav Nijinsky).
Ivan Valberkh (1766-1819) was the first famous native ballet master to
be trained at the St Petersburg academy. He had studied with Gaspero
Angiolini (1731-1803) and Canziani (?) in 1786. Literature, operas and
plays were the sources of his choreography. He wanted to promote the
Russian dancers and his patriotic ballets were the most popular. "Love
for the Fatherland" was so inflammatory that many in the audience left
the theater and enlisted in the war against Napoleon. He succeeded
Canziani as ballet inspector of the St. Petersburg Bolshoi Theater and
director of the school in 1794. Later he reorganized the school in
But by the late 19th century ballet in Russia was a stagnant form where
the virtuoso demonstration of classical technique had become an end in
itself while the narrative was enlivened only by character dances. It
was Frenchman, Marius Petipa (1818-1910), who decisively refashioned
this failing art form, structuring the haphazard tradition he had
inherited, making a virtue of what would later be seen as its weakness
- the deliberate lack of dramatic unity. It was the lack of quality
symphonic music that had hitherto prevented a complete unification with
the increasing complexities of ballet movement. It was Petipa who
introduced the strict proportions between mime and dance, and
established the ensembles of the corps de ballet and the precise rules
for the order of dancing in a pas de deux.
Marius Petipa was still a leading dancer with the St. Petersburg ballet
in 1862 when he created his first multi-act ballet for the tsar's
imperial theatre, The Pharoh's Daughter, an incredible fantasy that
included such Egyptian happenings as mummies awakening and poisonous
snakes, much like an Indiana Jones movie. This ballet led to other
ballets and eventually to what the world considers Classical Ballet.
In 1869 Petipa took over the position of Ballet
Master in Chief to the Imperial Tsar. In his role of leadership Petipa
created many multi- and single-act ballets for presentation on the
imperial stages of Russia. In 1869 he went to Moscow and created Don
Quixote for the ballet of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Then in 1877
he created La Bayadère for the Bolshoi Theatre in St.
Petersburg, (There was a Bolshoi in both Moscow and in St. Petersburg -
the word Bolshoi meaning "big").
In earlier years Petipa had choreographed the
dances of les wilis in the second act of Giselle while acting as an
assistant to Perrot and this form of female corps dancing representing
shadows or spirits became known as ballet blanc and is common to
Giselle, La Bayadère, and many other ballets.
Also in 1877 a ballet so popular its name and
image represents classical ballet premiered in Moscow. Swan Lake, set
to Tchaikovsky's first ballet score was the first of the "Big Three" of
Russian Ballet. Originally set by Austrian Wenzel Reisinger,
(1827-1892), Swan Lake has been reworked by many people including
Joseph Hansen, (1842-1907), and then again by Petipa in 1895.
During the 1880s Petipa restaged in Russia two
ballets that had been very successful in Paris. The first was Giselle
which he had been involved in the first time, and the second was
Saint-Léon's Coppelia, (originally presented in 1870).
Interestingly enough, it was the music to Coppelia which inspired
Tchaikovsky to write music for the ballet. With Petipa as the chief
ballet master, many more Russian born and trained ballerinas danced on
the imperial stages at this time than did at the beginning of Russian
ballet. Now the Russians are known the world over as ballet dancers of
In 1890 the Italian ballerina Carlotta Brianza,
(1867-1930), was chosen by Petipa to dance the title role in a new
ballet called Spyashchaya Krasavitsa in Russian, La belle au Bois
Dormant by the Francophile Russian Court, and The Sleeping Beauty in
English. With music by Tchaikovsky composed "to spec" for Petipa, this
ballet is the second of the Russian "Big Three" and is one of the great
classical ballet masterpieces.
Then, continuing on their roll of success, in
1892 Petipa, Tchaikovsky, designer Ivan Vsevolozhsky, and assistant
ballet master Lev Ivanov, (1834-1901), created The Nutcracker. This
third of the Russian "Big Three" was based on a sweetened French
retelling of the story by E.T.A. Hoffman. The Nutcracker has enjoyed
huge popularity in hundreds of different versions as a "Christmas
In 1895 Petipa restaged Swan Lake including major
choreographic additions. One of these was as the thirty two
fouetté turns in the coda of the pas de deux from the ballroom
scene. In 1898 Petipa choreographed his last ballet with any staying
power. Raymonda is a three-act ballet with music by Alexander Glazunov.
Similar in style to the three Tchaikovsky ballets Raymonda is very
difficult to follow because it showcases an impressive variety of
dancing more than it portrays its plot line.
As the new century began, people started to get tired of Petipa's ideas
and principles of ballet and looked for fresh ideas. By now the Russian
ballet had surpassed the French ballet and many Russian dancers had
become international stars. Probably the most notable ballerina of this
time was Anna Pavlova, (1881-1931), who is known for dancing The Dying
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In 1907 Mikhail Folkine, (1880-1942), started to push the rules of
costume in the imperial theatre. He felt that the "open parasol" look
that all of the ladies wore was getting boring and pornographic, so
with his Greek style ballet, Eunice, he made it look like the dancers
were in bare feet, (to have bare feet or legs was against the rules of
the imperial theatre), by having toes painted on the dancers' shoes. He
also chose to use serious music, rather than dance music.
Sergei Diaghilev and Ballets Russes
In 1909 Sergei, (or Serge), Diaghilev, (1872-1929), created the Ballets
Russes. This dance company started with strong Russian Character works.
However, Le Pavillon d'Armide was the first ballet to be shown and it
had a strong French influence. One of the dancers who performed in Le
Pavillon d'Armide in both St. Petersburg and Paris was Vaslav Nijinsky,
(1889-1950), who is known as one of the better jumpers of all time.
Also presented in Paris by the Ballets Russes was a ballet formerly
known as Chopiniana, because all of its music was by Chopin, but
rechristened Les Sylphides, (different from La Sylphide but given a
similar name because the Paris audience had recently seen La Sylphide),
for the French public. Over the next several years, the Ballets Russes
performed many ballets that have since become famous including
Scheherazade, (1910), Firebird, (1910), and Petroucha, (1911). 4
One of the performers in Petroucha, playing a pantomime part because he
was far past his dancing prime, was Enrico Checchetti, (1850-1928).
Checchetti had also been known for dancing the roles of the wicked
fairy Carbosse and of the Bluebird in Petipa's 1890 The Sleeping Beauty
and later became famous as the creator of the Cecchetti method of
teaching ballet. In 1913, Nijinsky created a new ballet called Le Sacre
du Printemps, or The Rite of Spring. This ballet, set to Stravinsky's
score of the same name actually had the audience fighting it was so
dark in its mood.
The last major production of the Ballets Russes
in Paris was in 1921 and 1922, when Diaghilev restaged Petipa's 1890
version of The Sleeping Beauty. The four month run of the show did not
recoup the financial outlay of the show, and as a result it was dubbed
a failure. However, The Sleeping Beauty rekindled the European
audience's interest in the evening-length ballet. One young dancer and
choreographer with the Ballets Russes was Georgi Melitonovitch
Balanchivadze, (1904-1983), whose name was later Frenchified to George
Balanchine. He choreographed several works for the Ballets Russes, the
most famous of which being Apollon Musagète in 1928, which has
become a classic of the neo-classical ballets. Apollon Musagète,
which later became Apollo, is a one-act ballet with a Greek look to it.
After Diaghilev died Balanchine left the Ballets Russes and set out on
his own for a while before ending up directing the dance company
Ballets 1933. When that company folded he was invited to come to
America by Lincoln Kirstein, (1907-1995). Kirstein knew almost nothing
about ballet, and Balanchine know almost nothing about America, (except
that it produced women like Ginger Rogers), and decided to take the
offer and establish ballet in America. At this time Kirstein started
his wish list of ballets he wanted to see in America; leading the list
In 1934 Balanchine established the School of
American Ballet, which gave its first performance, a new piece called
Serenade that same year.
20 - 50's
After the Russian Revolution ballet was saved by Anatoli Lunacharsky,
the first ever People's Commissar for Enlightenment when he stated that
art "creates human types and situations, which we live on from century
to century and which are real to millions of people." After
Lunacharsky, the Commissars allowed ballet as long as it was light and
During the 1930s in Leningrad a ballerina made artistic director of the
former Imperial Ballet, Agrippina Vaganova, (1879-1951), started to
make her mark. It was in 1935 that the ballet became the Kirov Ballet.
During her time as artistic director Vaganova had to deal with state
regulations and do such things as change the ending of Swan Lake from
tragic to uplifting. By the time the Kirov Ballet began to tour the
west, Vaganova had died, however, we know her methods through her book,
Fundementals of the Classic Dance, and once it was translated into
English it became a "bible" of dance. In 1951, five years after her
death, the Soviet government named the Leningrad Choreographic
Institute after her.
In 1961 the world spotlight moved to Rudolf Nureyev, (1938-1993). After
Nureyev graduated from the Kirov academy he danced with the Kirov
ballet, and made news around the world as the "next Nijinsky." However,
when the Kirov began to organize a Paris and London tour, his offstage
disregard for Soviet ideals almost kept him from going on the tour.
Then, when he was the government recalled him to the Soviet Union in
the middle of the tour, he instead sought political asylum in France.
After defecting, Nureyev danced with Margot Fonteyn as a partner with
many companies around the world, including the National Ballet of
Canada and the Australian Ballet, becoming known with Fonteyn as "Rudi
and Margot." Unfortunately for Nureyev, his hoped for association with
Balanchine never materialized.
Beginning in 1956, Russian ballet companies such as Bolshoi and Kirv
(now the Saint Petersburg Ballet)performend in the West for the first
time after the Russian revlutin. The intense dramatic feeling and
technical virtuosity of the Russians made a great impact. Russian
influence on ballet continues today, both through visits frm Russian
companies and the activities of defecting Soviet dancers such as Rudlf
Nureyev, Natalia Makarova, Mikhail Barishnikov.
Source: the Catholic University of America Website
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