The city of St. Petersburg has long been recognized as the cultural center of Russia. Although it is no longer the capitol, for over 200 years St. Petersburg was the seat of the Tsar’s government as well as epitomizing the best of art, architecture, literature, music and theatre that was to be had in Russia. Although the city contains many important cultural and historical sites, one site whose unmistakable significance is still felt today is the Mariinsky Theatre. Home of the Russian Opera and Ballet, the theatre is famous for the notable singers, composers and dancers that have graced its stage. The theatre’s connections to, and impact on, the ballet are especially significant. Called the art form of the Tsars, ballet enjoyed a resurgence in St. Petersburg and more specifically in the Mariinsky Theatre when its influence and popularity were wanting elsewhere. The Mariinsky Theatre has impacted the cultural history of St. Petersburg and of Russia mainly through its ‘legends’ – the famous creators, composers and dancers that blossomed on its stage.
#Marius Petipa At this time, the golden period of Russian opera flourished at the Mariinsky Theatre. Many Western works, translated into Russian quickly found their way onto the stage, and at the same time occurred the premieres of national Russian masterpieces like Boris Gudunov, Prince Igor, and The Queen of Spades. There were two main figures connected to the Mariinsky Theatre at this time. One, Eduard Napravnik, became chief conductor in 1869 and held this position for 47 years. Under his hand he raised the Mariinsky to a position as one of the world’s leading opera houses. The other man was Marius Petipa. Petipa was the first ballet-master to the Tsar from 1869 to 1903. Marius, a Frenchman, came to Petersburg as a dancer in 1847. While there he trained under the former ballet-masters Perrot and St. Leon. Finally he became ballet-master in 1869. Petipa gave St. Petersburg ballet the structure it lacked, and he almost single-handedly created the corps de ballet. Petipa created forty-six original ballets and revived seventeen ballets. Some of his most famous ballets were products of his collaboration with composer Tchaikovsky, for instance Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake. Other ballets of his included Le Corsaire, La Bayadere, Don Quixote, and Raymonda. Petipa was well known for creating entire ballets and characters for certain dancers, and during his reign as dancing master he made famous such celebrated dancers as Pavel Gerdt, Mathilde Kschessinka, and Anna Pavlova. #Back
At the end of the century ballet was in a decline everywhere but Russia.
In Europe, the art of choreography had become debased and ballet was considered
a trivial accessory to opera or a mindless display of female dancers.
Male dancers were relegated to carrying the females around, and by the
end of the 19th century they had virtually disappeared from ballet.
However, in Russia ballet held a position of great artistic importance.
The performances lasted for several hours and competition for seats was
extraordinary. At the turn of the century there were 180 dancers
in the Mariinsky Theatre, all strictly graded by rank. First came
the corps de ballet, then corphee, sujet, prima ballerina and prima ballerina
assoluta, or for a man, soloist to the Tsar. The term of service
was for twenty years, after which the dancers received a pension for life.
The dancers were specially picked from a young age for their stamina, body
shape, and musical knowledge. Acceptance at the school was so rigorous
that only six to ten of every hundred applicants were admitted. The
regime at the dance school was strictly regulated, which paid off with
the extremely large number of exceptionally talented dancers that come
out of the school. This has been attributed to the Mariinsky tradition
of keeping their best dancers on as master teachers during and after their
careers. More than any other performing art, dancing succeeds the
best when the techniques and practices are handed down from master to student.
The Mariinsky Theatre was the possessor of a very prestigious succession
of teachers and pupils who perpetrated a cycle of ever-increasing talent.
From the first year pupils were used in productions at the Mariinsky Theatre. After graduation they were guaranteed a place in the Mariinsky Theatre's permanent corps. The dancers were treated very well by the Imperial family and by the other Russian nobles. Favored ballerinas would have their dressing rooms filled with flowers before performances, and when they went out, men would throw their coats and flowers down in front of their carriages. Devoted crowds would follow dancers from St. Petersburg to Moscow and back so that no performance would be missed. Ballerinas performed at court and then sat down to eat supper with the Imperial family, and they often received jewels. The dancer Mathilde Kschessinka was famous for being the mistress of the Tsarevich Nicholas II and later of several Grand Dukes. #Back
#The Next Generation (Fokine, Pavlova,Nijinsky)In 1891 Anna Pavlova, the illegitimate daughter of a laundress, entered the Academy. Her talent was so great that she skipped the first rank of dancers and had a meteoric rise to the top. Also at the school were Tamara Karsavina and a young Vaslav Nijinsky. Nijinsky especially was fated to have a great impact on the Russian ballet of the Mariinsky, and he became famous (or notorious, depending on one's view) at a young age for his daring costumes and choreography. However, while these young dancers were becoming stars, an important even took place in the Mariinsky Theatre organization. Michel Fokine, a young dancer who taught at the school before becoming ballet master, filled Petipa's vacant place. At this time, although ballet was popular, it was accused of becoming conventionalized. The sets were extremely heavy, and the music was often trite and unimaginative. In a single decade, Fokine liberated the dance. He relaxed the corps, stressed strong male dancing and liberated the girls from their stiff, unwieldy costumes. Fokine also danced, and he was the frequent partner of Pavlova, for whom he created the famous Les Sylphides, Pavillon d'Armide, and the Dying Swan. All of these works carried the imprint of his new ideas. Fokine dreamed not only of liberating ballet from its formality but also of truly revolutionizing it and allying it with original music and decor. These desires led to an extraordinary partnership with a group of men who would together change the ballet for ever, in Russia and abroad. #Back
Diaghilev and the Russian SeasonsSergei
Diaghilev was the leader of this group, a man who, though he painted no
pictures and created no productions, ballets and operas, was to be perhaps
the single defining character associated with Russian ballet in the twentieth
century. From an old family of country gentry, Diaghilev came to
St. Petersburg as a young man and became involved in an intellectual, artistic
gathering of men who included Alexander Benois and Lev Bakst. The
group took on the name of " The World of Art, " and their purpose was to
present 'pure' art to the world. Increasingly, Diaghilev became the
leader, organizing and mounting exhibitions, and finally creating a journal
bearing the same name as the group. The new journal attempted to
put forward new Russian artists and present them to Russia and the world.
This desire to reveal Russia to Russia and to reveal Russia to the world
became Diaghilev's mission statement, and was to shape the rest of his
Diaghilev made himself the unofficial ambassador of Russian art, and in 1906 he brought an exhibition of Russian painting to Europe. Around this time, the Mariinsky and other Petersburg theatres began hiring painters to design their scenery and costumes. The Mariinsky made use of some of the best painters of the day, including Korovin, Golovin, Bakst, Benois, and Vasnetsov. In the following year in Paris Diaghilev organized concerts, introducing the French to the music of Glinka, Mussorgsky and Borodin. Mussorgsky's music especially made a big impression with the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin singing. In 1908 Diaghilev decided to present the entire opera of Boris Gudunov with Chaliapin in the title role. Buoyed by its success, the next season he planned more operas, and, urged on by Benois, ballet. Diaghilev was hesitant about the ballet because its tradition in the West was so withered, but finally he agreed. Two factors that led to his decision were the new, innovative choreography of Fokine and the young crop of very talented dancers who were performing at the Mariinsky.
Despite financial strains, Diaghilev and his group managed to get funding and approval for the first Russian season abroad. Included in the approved program were Le Pavillon d'Armide, Les Sylphides, and Cleopatra. Wrote Diaghilev's friend Grigoriev, "The first season of the Diaghilev Ballet must be commemorated in letters of gold in the annals of Russian Ballet. To say that it was successful is to say nothing. It was a revelation, a major event in the artistic life of Paris" (Online). When the dancers left the Mariinsky Theatre on May 1, 1909 for Paris, it was all part of the grand myth and character of Petersburg. Long accused of being 'too European' a city, Petersburgers took pride in their cultural and artistic advancement. Now finally, the best of the Mariinsky Theatre were being exported back to the West, after having been altered and perfected in Russia. This was Petersburg displaying its cultural ingenuity and brilliance to those who had once been its teachers. The Russian Seasons in Paris became a triumph of St. Petersburg that added to its mystique and character.
The tradition of
the Russian ballet going abroad all stems from the first Diaghilev season
in Paris in 1909. He, along with fifty-five dancers, Bakst, Benois,
Fokine, Chaliapin, the conductor Tcherepnin, choirs and orchestra all descended
on Paris. The Parisians thought so poorly of ballet that they were
not allowed to use the normal opera house. Instead, in the span of
two weeks they overhauled an old theatre and practiced in its attic.
When the curtain rose on opening night, they knew it was a success. The
audiences and critics went wild over the ballet, and especially idolized
Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, and Tamara Karsavina. Benois wrote afterwards,
"Every participant in the Russian season...felt that he was bringing to
the entire world all that is Russian, all that comprises his greatest pride;
Russian spiritual culture, Russian art..." (Massie 435). The ballet
played on alternate nights with the opera, and both were received with
tremendous enthusiasm night after night. Nijinsky, Pavlova, and Karsavina
were hailed as prodigies, angels, geniuses, and poets, and were feted by
the best families in Paris.
In the next five years that he performed abroad (before going insane) Vaslav Nijinsky became an immortal of dance. Only four feet, five inches tall, he was known for his wonderful interpretations of his roles and for his breathtaking leaps. In one production he leaped out of a window so high that the audience could not believe it and came back again and again to watch him. Three of his most memorable roles were in Petrushka, called the most Russian of ballets, (and a masterpiece of the then unknown composer Igor Stravinsky) , L'Apres-midi d'un Faune, and Le Spectre de la Rose. Sadly, at age twenty-nine he became paranoid and then lost his memory completely, ending his dancing career forever but not his legend.
The Diaghilev seasons lasted for twenty years, but with the loss of Nijinsky, Fokine, and Pavlova (she left and created her own company) the company never fully recovered the magic of the first five seasons. However, in this time he and the company managed to revive ballet in the West, introduce Russian culture, and create legendary ballets and ballerinas. #Back
of the Mariinsky The
Mariinsky Theatre was always the proving ground of Russian male dancers.
While they and their part in the ballet declined in the West, it flourished
in Russia. In St. Petersburg could be found men who have contributed
the most to male dancing, among them are Vaslav Nijinsky, Rudolph Nureyev,
and Mikhail Baryshnikov. However, it is interesting to note that
their fame and influence came from their absence from the Mariinsky Theatre.
Nijinsky became famous abroad from Diaghilev's Saisons Russes, but his
dancing career in Russia was over before he reached the age of twenty-two.
Rudolph Nureyev's 1961 "leap to freedom" in Paris was truly what brought
him international focus and acclaim. And then there is Baryshnikov,
who, although he danced several seasons at the Kirov (Mariinsky), eventually
defected as well and became famous for his dance innovation abroad.
Although all of these men were creations of the Mariinsky Theatre, their
fame sprung from their absence from it.#Back.
Theatre Post-Revolution to Today After
the Russian Revolution of1917, ballet went through a difficult time.
The Mariinsky Theatre lost all of its imperial backers, and many of the
dancers left due to the hardships. In the flurry of name changing
when the Bolsheviks took power the theatre was renamed the Academic Theatre
(as the tsarist name was no longer acceptable). The theatre was not
renamed again until 1935, when it became the Kirov Theatre. Although
it faced many challenges during these times, the theatre and its traditions
always managed to persevere. In the 1920's came the great dance teacher
Agrippina Vaganova, for whom the dance school is now named. New stars
rose out of the Soviet ballet, including the dancers Galina Ulanova and
Vakhtang Chabukiani. The Theatre was badly damaged during the siege
of Leningrad in WWII, and most of the ballet work, including dancers, sets,
and costumes were evacuated to Perm. However, after the war things
quickly returned to normal and the company and theatre regained their significant
place in the culture of St. Petersburg.
The Mariinsky Theatre has been labeled a 'mausoleum' because of its resistance to change. Its supporters would call it a shrine to classical ballet, but for frustrated dancers and choreographers it has often been seen as a prison. Fokine rebelled against making ballet 'popular' (he saw it as a pure art form) while Nureyev refused to do some old-style moves on stage. Nijinsky was thrown out of the theatre for wearing an 'indecent' costume, and Baryshnikov's battles to stage contemporary works are well known. With the fall of the Soviet Union came change to the Mariinsky Theatre, and along with its old name it regained a sense of purpose and mission. Costumes now are freer and more revealing, athleticism is emphasized in both sexes, and there are many more sexual overtones to the dances. Although some despair that there have been " ...two steps forward in technique and one step backward in interpretation," (Noble 64), most Russians are very optimistic about the continuing tradition of the Ballet.
Since 1977 Oleg Vinogradov has been the director of the Ballet, and Valery Gergiev has been the director of the Kirov Opera since 1988. The Opera and the Ballet now tour worldwide, as well as having seasons at home in the Mariinsky Theatre. The Theatre is now the centerpiece of the St. Petersburg White Nights Festival, held every year in the last ten days of June. At this festival classical ballets and operas as well as new compositions are showcased. In this way the theatre maintains its heritage while at the same time pressing on into the future.
The Mariinsky Theatre, though by itself is neither architecturally nor historically distinguished, has become one of the cultural treasures of St. Petersburg and of all of Russia. A theatre's character is, by definition, defined by the people who have worked in it and have impacted history from its stage. The Mariinsky Theatre, standing solidly from the time of Catherine the Great, has raised and made famous countless dancers, choreographers, singers, composers, and planners. Even if the theater itself were to disappear tomorrow, it would be immortalized by the dancing of Pavlova and Baryshnikov; by the lingering strains of Stravinsky, Mussorgsky, and Tchaikovsky.#Back.
Bibliography and Sources
About the Author
Return to St. Petersburg Projects page