Nearly everything in life has a definitive beginning and end, and while the ballet was created in the courts of the Italian Renaissance as it traveled throughout Europe and eventually the world the art of ballet matured into many different styles. The three distinct styles in ballet today are classical, neo-classical, and contemporary. For the sake of this blog, we will be focusing on the classical style of the dance.
Of course, it always takes a strong and creative individual or group to get a movement going in the first place. In the case of classical ballet, that person would be French native Marius Petipa. Through his life and career, Petipa gained the training and experience in dance and choreography that would earn him the title of “Father of Classical Ballet.”
We would like to point out five reasons why Marius Petipa deserves the credit for the creation of this type of ballet, which is distinctive by its graceful moves and ethereal production.
PS: Watch one of Petipa most famous ballet choreographies – and most famous ballet pieces of all time – over here! (Hint: score was by written Tchaikovsky.)
1. Marius Petipa came from a dancing family.
Born in Marseilles, France in the year 1818 Marius’ father was Jean Petipa, who was performing in ballet at the age of eight. The elder Petipa studied under Filippo Taglioni, father and instructor of the renowned ballerina Marie Taglioni. After Marius’ father trained he served as the head of several prestigious ballet companies including the Théâtre-Français in Hamburg, the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels, and the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin in Paris.
In addition to having a successful ballet father, Marius also had an older brother, Lucien, who reached admirable heights in the ballet world himself. Lucien created several iconic roles in the dance just like his brother, the most notable being Albert or count Albrecht, in Giselle, which he performed in 1841. Besides originating memorable dance characters, Marius’ brother also served as Ballet Master for the Paris Opera for eight years.
It wouldn’t be right if we forgot Marius’ mother, Victorine Grasseau, who was not a dancer but a dramatic actress and teacher. It is said that they would train and perform together and tour throughout Europe.
Historians claim that Marius did not even care for dancing early in his life but family pressure and an innate talent for the ballet pushed him to become the legend in the dance that he is.
2. Marius Petipa started dancing at an early age.
As previously stated, the young Petipa was subjected to the life of a dancer and performer early on in his life being put in shows to perform, most likely, as soon as he could walk. His training began not long after that. Young Marius began his quest for education at the age of seven and his first lead role came shortly afterward in La Dansomanie by Pierre Gardel. The younger Petipa performed a lead role in a production staged by his father while he served as Ballet Master for the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels.
After years of training with his father and brother who was ahead of Marius by three years, the Father of Classical Ballet went on to continue his studies at the Grand College in Brussels. He also studied music at the Conservatoire, which was believed to have given him more insight into the musical aspect of the timeless ballets he would soon create.
Following a performance staged by the elder Petipa of the opera La muette de Portici, by Daniel Auber, a riot started and this was one of the first uprisings to mark the start of the Belgian Revolution for Independence. The results of this were the closing of the Theatre which employed Marius’ father and prompted the family to move from Brussels where the Petipa family was successful.
They relocated to Bordeaux, France, in 1834, and Jean was appointed the Ballet Master of their theater and young Marius continued with his ballet education. At the young age of sixteen Marius was given the role of premier danseur at the theater in Nantes, a city in the Pays de la Loire region of France. While there he dabbled in choreography by producing a few short ballets. This was the first marking of his desire to create ballets and his fate was sealed.
3. Marius Petipa’s experience was extensive
After spending time dancing in Nantes, while recovering from a broken leg, Marius left Europe with his father to tour the United States in 1839. It was during this tour where Marius and the rest of the dance company performed one of the first ballets American soil had ever seen. It wasn’t a hit, in fact, the American audience, who had never seen such a performance hated it.
From there Marius decided to head to Paris opposed to returning to Nantes. The promoter of the disastrous New York performance ran off with the money earned and Marius is said to have only secured travel to Nantes. Rumor has it he wooed a woman with a cabin and made his way to Paris. There he danced with the Comedie Francaise.
While dancing in Paris Marius danced a remarkable performance with Carlotta Grisi, a ballerina of legendary status. This dance was to benefit Rachel, a scandalous actress of that time. Marius also danced with the Paris Opera alongside his brother who was a premier danseur with the company.
It wasn’t long before Marius headed back to Bordeaux, some say because he felt overshadowed by his brother. While there he trained under Auguste Vestris and took on the role of premier danseur at the Grand Theatre there.
Not long after that Marius left France and took a position as the premier danseur in Madrid at the King’s Theatre. While there he studied Spanish dancing which set him apart from other ballet dancers at the time. Still, his penchant for seducing the wives of prominent men forced Marius to leave Madrid in shame. He ran back to Paris but got into more trouble and made what would be his final move, to St. Petersburg, Russia.
4. Marius Petipa was unique and ahead of his time.
As soon as he made it to Russia it was evident that Marius was bringing a fresh approach to the traditional dances St. Petersburg audiences were used to seeing. While dancing with the Imperial Theatre Marius was continually paired with Fanny Elssler and their performances in Paquita, Giselle, Armida, and others.
Two years later Marius began to choreograph in Russia, his first attempt in Moscow was Alessandro Stradella by Friedrich von Flotow. For some reason, the next ballet he would choreograph wouldn’t be until 1858 when he created a dance titled Un mariage sous régence specifically for his wife Marie, whom he married a few years earlier. This was the first of many works Petipa would choreograph and put his stamp on.
Marius’ staging of La Fille du Pharaon was such a success that he was appointed Choreographer-in-Chief of the Imperial Theatre. Then he was made Premier Ballet Master at the same theater. It was while here that Marius was paired with Tchaikovsky to create some of the world’s most loved and long lasting ballets.
First Swan Lake, which was debuted in 1877 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. This ballet, which is arguably the most famous of all, was a flop. Yet the proof is in the en pointe we suppose because the Petipa version is still performed today.
The same goes for two other Petipa/Tchaikovsky productions. The Sleeping Beauty debuting in 1890, and The Nutcracker, which premiered in 1892, both were not successes in the immediate but have lived on in classical ballet legend. They are considered to show this style of ballet at its prime, which is why Marius Petipa is the undisputed Father of Classical Ballet.