Choreographer Biographies

Marius Petipa (1818-1910)

Born in Marseilles, France, Marius Petipa began dance training at the age of seven with his father Jean Petipa, a French dancer and teacher. He was educated at the Grand College in Brussels and also studied music at the College’s conservatory. In 1831 he made his debut in his father’s production of Gardel’s La Dansomanie.

Jean Petipa became the Maitre de Ballet at the theater in Bordeaux, and it was here that Marius completed his education. At 16 he became premier danseur at the theatre in Nantes, where he also produced several short ballets. He toured North America with his father and in 1840 he made his debut partnering the famous ballerina Carlotta Grisi. He spent a few years dancing in Spain and Paris and then in 1847 left for Russia. He had signed a one-year contract at the Mariinsky Theatre, but he would remain there for the rest of his life. Considered an excellent dancer and partner, his acting, stage manners, and pantomime were held up as examples for many generations.

In 1854, while still dancing, he became an instructor in the Imperial Theatre school, and began to restage ballets from the French repertoire. Sources differ on the first original work he staged for the Imperial Theatre, but all agree that his first great success was The Daughter of the Pharaoh. This work resulted in his 1862 appointment as Choreographer-in-Chief—a position he held for nearly fifty years—and in 1869 he was given the added title of Premier Ballet Master of the Imperial Theatre. The value of his accomplishments is inestimable, as he produced more than 60 full-length ballets, including Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, La Bayadère, and Don Quixote, as well as many other works. Petipa is credited with defining the aesthetic of not only Russian ballet, but of classical ballet itself.

Lev Ivanov (1834-1901)

Lev Ivanov was born in Russia in 1834. He is said to have been placed in an orphanage by his mother when he was 11 months old, but in his memoirs he mentions being brought up by a merchant’s family until age eight, being sent to a boarding school for two years, and then enrolling in the Imperial School of Ballet in St. Petersburg.

In 1852 he became a member of the corps de ballet of the Mariinsky Theatre. Ballet master Jules Perrot (one of the choreographers of the ballet Giselle) gave him minor roles and appointed him to the position of dance teacher. When Marius Petipa succeeded Perrot, Ivanov became premier danseur and mime. He was known for his roles in the ballets Esmeralda and La Bayadère, among others.

Ivanov staged many ballets—both new ones and revivals—for the Imperial Theatre, including The Nutcracker (1892) and Acts II and IV of Swan Lake (1895), with Petipa. He was considered unlike any of the previous ballet masters in that he had a deep love and aptitude for music. (Though he had no formal musical training he was known to be able to play an entire ballet score after only one hearing.) He had an exceptional ability to “feel” the music and bring its emotional intensity to his choreography. His scenes in Swan Lake are lyrical and introspective in style, compared to Petipa’s virtuosic and flamboyant court scenes, and offer some of the most moving moments in the ballet.

August Bournonville (1805-1879)

Born in Copenhagen, Denmark, August Bournonville was a ballet master and choreographer. He initiated a unique style in ballet known as the Bournonville School.

Following studies in Paris as a young man, Bournonville became a solo dancer at the Royal Ballet in Copenhagen. From 1830 to 1848 he was choreographer for the Royal Danish Ballet, for which he created more than 50 ballets, admired for their exuberance, lightness and beauty. He created a style which, although influenced by the Paris ballet, is entirely his own. As a choreographer, he created a number of ballets with varied settings that range from Denmark to Italy, Russia to South America. A limited number of these works have survived.

Bournonville’s work remains an important link with earlier traditions. He is noted for his egalitarian choreography, which gave equal emphasis to both male and female roles, at a time when European ballet emphasized the ballerina. Many of his contemporaries explored the extremes of human emotion, while Bournonville, using enthusiastic footwork and fluid phrases in his work, portrayed a more balanced human nature. Among Bournonville’s best-known ballets are La Sylphide (1836), Napoli (1842), Le Conservatoire (1849), and The Flower Festival in Genzano pas de deux (1858).

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