Watch video:“La Fille du Pharaon” (Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow)
“Diana’s breast, the cheeks of Flora,
Are charming, my dear friends,
For me but a leg of Terpsihore,
Is more attractive, I need confess.
It is caressing my eye, imagination,
The divine award of my desire,
To promise by beauty the temptation,
To be satisfied with passion fire.”
(translated by V.F.P.)
Such words start the Nikolay Nekrasov’s poem “Ballet” (1865) which he dedicated to Maria Surovshchikova, Petipa’s first wife who danced Medora in the 1863 revival of “Le Corsaire”. Pushkin called her and the corps de ballet “divine” in sincere admiration.
Nekrasov, the inherently contradictory personality that he was, in this subject was not quite right.
Look to yourselves. This is the extract from his poem “Ballet”:
…I was strange before,
Used to curse the ballet,
When but I put a binocle,
To eyes similar lornet,
I held it watching for an hour,
Forgot how the time flew,
My neighbor-general in a sour,
Voice noted: “You’re a true,
Astronomer”. I was confused.
How fool I was!
“But I was drawn to Muse,
of Terpsihore and her tors”.
I uttered to him in whisper,
And he laughed at me smiling,
So I did. Standing on knees, now declaring:
“I am ready to be a poet,
Of lovely ballet dancers,
To adore their magic feet…”
The image the choreographer Petipa was building in his ballets was not of “houri’, but of the “Balllerina”.
The greatest myth in Petipa’s theatre, with all of its dryads, nereids and houris, was a well-developed aesthetic myth, based on the conception of immortal art and beauty. All the heroines in the repertoire may be mortal, but the Ballerina is immortal. Nikiya, the heroine of “La Bayadere”, dies. However, the Ballerina is reborn from her suffering, as verse is born of the poet’s agony. By the same logic, the radiant Ballerina of “Le Jardin Anime” arises out of Medora’s troubles and fears. Fate pursues the choreographer’s characters, but it has no power over the ballerina. Her dance – the classical dance of Petipa’s ballets – has a power of its own to oppose the fate and to influence people. This power replaces the pantomime of the old-school ballets. The Ballerina has a fairy-tale destiny, therefore the fairy-tale subjects are very welcome. However, that destiny is not conferred on her by the fairy’s magic wand – she builds it herself. here is the ethical basis underlying the essentially aesthetic style of Petipa. Here is the imperative which determines the structure of his art. The Ballerina asserts her artistic personality-at least within the limits of her short variation. She is obliged to perform her dance; she cannot stop, it has once begun. That unswerving aim rules all the fantastic ramifications of the plot, all those inserted “dream” scenes, all those visions so contrary to mundane logic.
That aim also determines the nature of the dance, both of the corps de ballet and of the Ballerina. Petipa’s corps de ballet is not a harem but a spiritual order, and his Ballerina embodies the knightly notions of service and duty. No slavish traits (implied in the “houri” epithet) are admissible to her. This is not only because Petipa (particularly in his late creations of total 50 for the whole life) restored to her the external aristocracy rejected in the 1830’s and 1840’s, but also because artistic will became the inner essence of dance.
This artistic will is what distinguishes Petipa from other choreographers of the Romantic Era which had nurtured him. In the Romantic Era, the caprices of dance were subjugated to music, as if to the force of external powers and elements. However, in Petipa’s choreography, the dance (whether in the shape of a circle or of a great diagonal across the stage) is like a gust of wind, subjugated by the ballerina. She dominates the whole sequence of assured movements until the movement stops suddenly at the end. If the Romantic ballerina had been a butterfly, the Petipa Ballerina is now a masterful artist. All his life Maestro Marius Petipa was an incomparable and untiring poet of feminine charm.
The use of great historical eras in his ballets is a most important feature of Petipa’s choreographic style, which partially explains its largely inexplicable power of survival.
To the left and to the right are the photos of Marius Petipa, his wife Maria Surovshchikova-Petipa and below of their daughter Marie Petipa. For comparison is above the photo of Natali, Pushkin’s wife, who was never a professional ballerina but danced well during the balls according to the descriptions of the contemporaries.
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