Marius Petipa is known as the father of modern Classical Ballet and had a career, mostly spent in the Russian Imperial Ballet, that lasted nearly sixty years. Marius Petipa was both a dancer and later a choreographer and is best remembered for masterpieces which are still mainstays of ballet such as The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, and Don Quixote. His contributions to modern classical ballet have been vast and this is in part due not only to his long career but to his experience with all elements of production. From dancing to designing as well as researching, Marius Petipa was able to revolutionize ballet, especially in Russia where he served as ballet master for the Imperial Ballet.
Although the career of Marius Petipa ended without a great deal of fanfare after an unsuccessful production, his legacy remains. While no one will remember that last failed ballet, history will remember his enormous contribution to choreography and dance through the many other pieces he worked. In total, Marius Petipa produced over 50 ballets, reworked over 20 old pieces, and arranged the dancing in over 35 operas. This was a stunning career and it is worth looking at how he began before examining him closer.
Marius Petipa was born in Marseilles, France in 1822 to an actress mother and a father who was a well-known choreographer and dancer. The Petipas encouraged both of their sons to take on theatre or dance professionally and Marius’ younger brother, Lucien, succeeded in dance at an early age while Marius scorned it in favor of other pursuits. Even though it was not immediately his passion, Marius did begin dancing at the age of 7, mostly because of his parent’s desire to see him enter the field. Shortly after this, while still a child, he starred in one of his father’s productions and thus began his career as a dancer and later, a choreographer. Although the family might have enjoyed a great deal of success in France, the Belgian Revolution forced the family out to move to Nantes, where they stayed for a few years. It was during this time (around 1838) that Marius became a principal dancer at the ballet.
A year after becoming a principal dancer in Nantes, Marius and his father went on a tour through America during 1839. They returned to France less than a year later and Marius began more intensive training with the famous dancer, Auguste Vestris. After this point, his career as a dancer began to truly blossom and he partnered with some of the greatest ballerinas of the period such as Carlotta Grisi. It was also during this period that he began to dabble in choreography although he was not entirely successful. He moved to Spain where he was employed at the King’s Theatre and his abilities as a choreographer and dancer were recognized fully. Unfortunately, his stay in Spain was cut short after he engaged in an illicit affair with a Marquis. Unsure of what to do next, he asked friends and was advised to go to the Imperial Ballet in Russia. He left promptly, not knowing that he would go on to forever change the face of classical ballet in Russia as well as the rest of the world.
His beginnings in the Russian Imperial Ballet were modest. He was initially signed on for a one-year contract as a principal dancer because one of the others was leaving the country. Instead of being pushed aside for other dancers, however, Marius Petipa and his father took the creative reigns and stunned Russia with their first productions of Paquita and Leda. Amazingly, this was in 1849 while Marius was still quite a young man. His youthful creativity garnered him a great deal of favor and he was allowed to continue with the full support of the Imperial Ballet as well as given lavish praise for revitalizing classical ballet. While he continued to be a vital part of the Russian ballet, he did not seem to stagnate in terms of creativity or willingness to experiment with design and choreography.
Around 1850 Marius’ career stabilized and he was firmly in charge of a great deal of the Imperial Ballet from many angles. He still danced despite his aging body and was always choreographing new works. During this “middle period" in his career he produced popular works such as The Blue Dahlia and A Regency Marriage. It was also during this time that he met his future wife, Maria Sergeyevna Surovshcikova, whom he often gave leading roles to. They were married in 1854 and had three children, one of whom would grow up to be the famous dancer, Marie Petipa. After his marriage, it was becoming clear that his body required him to concentrate more on choreography rather than dancing. One of the landmark pieces showcasing his choreography was The Pharaoh’s Daughter in 1862. This catapulted him to fame and after the great success he was named ballet master.