Charlotte Kanser dips into a new biography of the grand choreographer of Russian ballet by Nadine Meisner
Many reference books dedicate at least a chapter to Marius Petipa, one of the most important ballet choreographers of all time and creator of most of the ‘classics’ including Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. Surprisingly, there has not been a comprehensive biography in English, until now. Meisner’s eminently readable Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master is long overdue.
The depth of research is impressive. Through ten chapters, Meisner explores the choreographer’s life and legacy, placing all within the social and political context of the time, although some may find her frequent diversions into details of other lives from a broadly chronological narrative somewhat frustrating. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to work out where she is in the timeline. There is also some repetition, especially towards the end.
The long descriptions of ballets lost in the mists of time (and there are a lot of them) are welcome but struggle to convey a vibrant idea of how they would have been perceived by audiences of the time. It is easy to forget that not all his ballets, indeed not all the first productions of his ‘classics’ were initially well-received. Petipa’s workload was ludicrous and continued unrelentingly when he was ill and old. Perhaps this, and changing tastes, make it just as well that we may after all have preserved and altered only those that fit modern tastes.
The book naturally opens a window on the development of ballet in the 19th-century, the evolution of dance and theatre techniques and technology. That on Petipa the man, rather than Petipa the balletmaster is only slightly ajar, however. One might wonder about his illegitimate first son Marius, who is incorporated into the two later families but about whose mother we are told little. Meisner also seems perhaps a little too ready to forgive Petipa’s foibles (and publicly exhibited domestic violence) within or without the context of the intrigues that plagued the Imperial theatres as much as they do today’s companies. Ivanov is passed off as an indolent, eccentric glutton, Kchessinskaya as merely malevolent and scheming.
Meisner is more forgiving of staff composers Minkus and Drigo, who seen as plodding and pallid in comparison to Tchaikovsky with the benefit of hindsight, nevertheless wrote vast quantitates of serviceable music under great pressure of time.
Although only a small fraction of Petipa’s oeuvre has survived and much of that by chance, much altered, he is still rightly regarded as a titan of classical choreography to whom a great debt is owed. Meisner does attempt to explain how he progressed from Romantic ballets to incorporate danced storylines, interestingly seen by some at the time as being inferior to mime.
Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master is a valuable pulling together of research into one volume. In trying to write a book that appealed to all, Meisner was faced with a difficult balancing act. The result is something that one can imagine being too nit-pickingly detailed for many general readers but not scholarly enough for academics. Whether it really presents a true picture how Petipa made such a monumental and lasting contribution to ballet is also questionable. Despite the doubts, it is a good read, though, and not as long as it appears (almost half the book is notes and appendices, and it has one of the best and longest indexes seen in years). The series of archive photographs are superb (and in many ways say as much as the text), as is the exhaustive listing of all Petipa’s Russian works.
Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master
Oxford University Press
Published: 25 July 2019
List price: £22.99