First brought to Russia under Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich in the 17th century, ballet in Russia evolved as an offshoot of French dance combined with Russian folk and peasant dance techniques. It stunned Western Europeans when it was first taken on tour during the 19th century.
The ‘official’ beginnings of Russian ballet date to 1738 and the establishment by French dance master Jean Baptiste Lande of a school of dance in the Winter Palace, the precursor to the famed Vaganova School of Choreography. Catherine the Great created the Bolshoy Theatre to develop opera and ballet in 1765, and imported foreign composers and teachers.
Marius Petipa (1819-1910) is considered to be the father of Russian ballet. The French dancer and choreographer acted first as principal dancer, then Premier Ballet Master of the Imperial Theatre. All told he produced more than 60 full ballets (including Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake).
At the turn of the 20th century, the heyday of Russian ballet, St Petersburg’s Imperial School of Ballet rose to world prominence, producing superstar after superstar. Names such as Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, Mathilda Kshesinskaya, George Balanchine, Michel Fokine and Olga Spessivtzeva turned the Mariinsky Theatre into the world’s most dynamic display of the art of dance. Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes took Europe by storm.
The stage decor was unlike anything seen before. Painted by artists (like Alexander Benois) and not stagehands, it suspended disbelief and shattered the audience’s sense of illusion.
Under the Soviets ballet was treated as a natural resource. It enjoyed highly privileged status, which allowed schools like the Vaganova and companies like the Kirov to maintain a level of lavish production and no-expense-spared star-searches. Still, the story of 20th-century Russian ballet is connected with the West, to where so many of its brightest stars emigrated or defected.
Pavlova, Nijinsky, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Balanchine, Kshesinskaya, Natalia Makarova, to name a few, all found fame in Western Europe or America.
The Kirov, whose home is the Mariinsky Theatre (the company is sometimes referred to as the Mariinsky Opera and Ballet), has been rejuvenated under the fervent directorship of Valery Gergiev, a charismatic Ossetian who has made the Mariinsky once again one of the top companies in the world.
Not afraid to take chances, he has revived with great success some lesser-known operas by his personal favourite Prokofiev, such as War and Peace (the premiere of which was attended by Putin and guest Tony Blair). In 1998 he also opened the Academy of Young Singers at the Mariinsky, now one of the only major theatres in the world to cast young, fresh talent in some of opera’s juiciest roles. While the Mariinsky’s calling card has always been its flawless classical ballet, recent names to have worked on St Petersburg’s premier stage have included William Forsythe and John Neumeier, bringing modern ballet choreography to an establishment not traditionally associated with innovation.
The Mariinsky’s credibility on the world stage is set to soar further in 2008 on completion of its controversial new theatre being built adjacent to the old one on the Kryukov Canal.
Valery Mikhailovsky’s fantastic St Petersburg Male Ballet company (www.maleballet.spb.ru), formed in 1992, has also made an international name for itself, dressing world-class male dancers in tutus and staging innovative, emotional productions of classical and modern ballets.