Ballet in the Classical Period

Classical ballet is the most formal of ballet styles. It is a style that uses techniques of Russians, Italians, and most importantly the French. Terms are still given in the French language, making it easy for dancers and choreographers to dance around the world while still having effective communication. The turnout of the leg was highlighted in this era. Although classical ballet leaves little room for creative expression, this form of ballet continues to be popular today, seen being taught worldwide at dance companies and centers everywhere.

Russian Imperialism

After the Romantic ballet era, the next major development in ballet occurred in Russia. Russia had a long folk-dance tradition and in the 18th century, landowners had maintained serf dance companies. Dancing was also regularly taught in the military academies. As the result of Russia’s political view, Russian ballet, in terms of its form, appears to be grand. From stage decoration to costume designs, every little detail exaggerates the attitude of Russia as a superpower in all directions. 

The students at the Imperial Russian Ballet schools in St Petersburg and Moscow and the dancers of the Maryinsky (Kirov) Ballet and Bolshoi Ballet were highly privileged and regarded as members of the royal household. The ballet school and companies in St Petersburg and Moscow were part of the Royal Household and under the direct patronage of the Czar. Training lasted seven to eight years. The students were boarders and received a full academic education as well as dance training. A dance career was regarded as a vocation rather than a job, and the students lived in convent-like austerity. Girls and boys only met in class and were not allowed to speak to each other. The girls’ uniform was a blue ankle-length serge dress, old-fashioned even in 1902, with a white fichu crossed around the bust and a black apron on weekdays, white on Sundays.

Marius Petipa

Classical ballet developed in the late 19th century when Marius Petipa was ballet master in St Petersburg. Classical ballet is a mixture of the French style of Romantic ballet, the techniques developed in Italy in the late 19th century, and Russian teaching. When most people talk about ballet they think of Petipa’s ballets.

Petipa, arguably the most influential choreographer in the history of ballet, is famous for taking Russian folklore tales and turning them into ballet productions. Some of the most recognizable are The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, The Swan Lake, and so many more. According to American Ballet Theatre, “imageimagePetipa elevated the Russian ballet to international fame and laid the cornerstone for 20th Century ballet. His imageclassicism integrated the purity of the French school with Italian virtuosity.” He is also credited with inventing the format of the classical ballet. Marius Petipa collaborated with Tchaikovsky on many occasions, and they both rose to success because of their outstanding work.

Like most theatre in the 1890s, classical ballets were spectacular, realistic and performances lasted a full evening. The story was an excuse for exciting dancing, with the corps de ballet used as a decorative background, and the narrative told in formal mime gestures. The ballerina always danced on pointe, whether she was an Indian temple dancer, Egyptian slave, Spanish gypsy, or swan princess. The other dancers appeared in national dances, like the Czardas from Hungary or Spanish flamenco.

Petipa’s ballets were meticulously planned and he gave detailed descriptions to both dancers and composers. He worked closely with Tchaikovsky to create the music for Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. Petipa would specify exactly how many bars of music he needed for each section of the dance. Much ballet music was tuneful, simple, and often repetitive.

Today, Swan Lake is one of the most famous and popular of all ballets, yet the first version in Moscow in 1877 flopped. Choreographer Wenzel Reisinger, used to making dances to simple rhythms and easy tunes, simply could not cope with Tchaikovsky’s elaborate, symphonic-style score.

Now, Tchaikovsky’s familiar music is one reason for the ballet’s enduring popularity. Most versions today are based on the St Petersburg 1894 production, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, which is regarded as one of the greatest ballets of all time. Almost every ballet company in the world has the ballet in its repertory, but almost the only thing in common is the score, and the story of the doomed love of Odette, the swan princess, and Prince Siegfried.

Swan Lake

ladimir Begichev commissioned Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovksy to write Swan Lake. He was inspired by the German fairy tale “Der geraubte Schleier” [The Stolen Veil] as satirized by Johann Karl August Musäus in Volksmärchen der Deutschen [German Folk Tales] and the Russian folk tale “Белая уточка” [The White Duck] as recorded by Alexander Afanasyev in Народные Русские Сказки [Russian Folk Tales], and possibly Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. It premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Russia, on 4 March 1877, choreographed by Julius Reisinger. However, it did not become a standard in the world of ballet until choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov revived it, with revised music by chief conductor and composer Riccardo Drigo. The new and improved Swan Lake debuted at the Mariinksy Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, on 15 January 1895.

Swan Lake was first performed at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Russia, on 4 March 1877. The libretto and music were composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the dance was choreographed by Julius Reisinger, and it was performed by the Bolshoi Ballet. It was based on the German fairy tale “Der geraubte Schleier” [The Stolen Veil] as satirized by Johann Karl August Musäus in Volksmärchen der Deutschen [German Folk Tales] (published in Germany, 1782-6) and the Russian folk tale “Белая уточка” [The White Duck] as recorded by Alexander Afanasyev in Народные Русские Сказки [Russian Folk Tales] (published in Russia 1855-63).

Swan Lake was made famous by choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with music revised by chief conductor and composer Riccardo Drigo for the Imperial Ballet at the Mariinksy Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, on 15 January 1895.

This reproduction was directed by Makhar Vasiev and Konstanin Sergeyev of the Mariinsky Ballet, but used the original music and libretto from Tchaikovsky; the choreography, sets, and costumes based on Petipa and Ivanov’s rendition; and was performed in the original Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2002.

Light from the East: Russian Worlds of Art:

The Making of Swan Lake

The following year, the same team that created the hit Sleeping Beauty – Ivan Vsevolozhsky, Marius Petipa, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – began work on another ballet-faerie, based this time on a story by E. T. A. Hoffmann: The Nutcracker. Designed as an entertain­ing afterpiece to Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, it was to be a short, two-act af­fair. The Nutcracker was set in France during the Directory – the conservative reaction to the French Revolution with its notorious sar­torial excesses and dandified aristocrats – but it was also a fond depic­tion, as one observer later recalled, of Christmas a la Russe drawn straight from “Russian children’s memories.” It sketched familiar drawing-room rituals and featured a sparkling decorated tree, delicious German candies, brave toy soldiers, and, as the scenario put it, a scrumptious “enchanted palace from the land of confectionary sweets.” There was a frosty, St. Petersburg-like snow scene spectacularly lit with electric light and a waltz of gilt sweetmeats (today’s flowers). In keeping with the precedent set by The Sleeping Beauty, the lead role of the Sugar Plum Fairy was danced by an Italian ballerina, Antonietta dell’Era, and the cast numbered over two hundred, including a platoon of students from the School of the Regiment of Finnish Guards (they Played the mice).

Soon after the ballet went into rehearsal, however, Petipa fell ill and was forced to turn over his duties to his second-in-command, the bal­let master Lev Ivanov. The end result was a patchwork of dances prob­ably mostly by Ivanov with additional contributions from the dancer Alexander Shiryaev. When the ballet premiered in 1892, prominent critics dismissed it as just another feerie, calling it “an insult” to the Imperial Theaters and “death for the company.” And indeed – ironically, in view of its iconic status today – the ballet had only limited public appeal and soon fell from the repertory.

The snow scene, however, was highly praised, and Ivanov’s extant sketches for this windblown dance open a small window onto his often forgotten talent. Dancers were flung together in complicated forma­tions that then fractured and dissolved into new and equally intricate designs: stars and Russian round dances, zigzags, and a large rotating Orthodox cross with a smaller circle, like a bejeweled ornament, around its center and  rotating in the opposite direction. This dance was not like Petipa at all: the symmetries were there, but the forma­tions were more tenuous and airy, less formal and ceremonial. They had an impressionistic urgency and spontaneity that never would have flowed from the French ballet master’s more controlled palette, even as a description of snow.

Lev Ivanov was different: he was the first significant Russian choreographer to emerge from the Imperial Theaters. Like so many dancers in Russia, he had modest social origins and had passed through a foundling home before his mother (who was probably Georgian) re­claimed him, and although the family circumstances improved,  he was sent at age eleven to board at the Imperial Theater School. He graduated into the ballet company in 1852 and immediately fell under the influence, and shadow, of Marius Petipa. After Petipa was promoted to the rank of ballet master, Ivanov took over his position as first dancer of mime and character dance and performed original roles in many of Petipa’s ballets, including the lead male in La Bayadere. Some twenty years later, Ivanov was promoted to regisseur and then second ballet master (still under Petipa), where he remained until his death in 1901.

A servant of the state and pure product of the Imperial Theaters and their school, Ivanov had been brought up to treat his foreign and aris­tocratic superiors with obedience and respect. He lacked Petipa’s con­fidence and highly placed connections and thought of himself as “a good soldier”: he liked to wear a staff uniform, and in his short auto­biography he railed indignantly against dancers who would “sin against the service, against art and even against your self-worth.” Yet Ivanov was also dreamy and introspective and could seem “undisciplined and moody,” as the dancer Tamara Karsavina later recalled. Exceptionally musical, he could often be found in a studio at the key­ board improvising, so engrossed that he sometimes failed to notice the dancers expectantly awaiting his instruction. He was entirely self­ taught: the authorities had designated him to dance, and he never re­ceived formal musical training. He could not even read music, although he had the kind of memory that enabled him to reproduce whole compositions upon a single hearing.

Ivanov’s fellow Russian dancers had a special sympathy for him­ he was more like them than Petipa ever had been; he spoke their language and had none of the aloof and arrogant  manners typical of the elite. And if Petipa always had one foot in Paris, it is significant that Ivanov never left his native Russia and was often dispatched to mount dances in Moscow or for the military encampments at Krasnoe Sela -­ where the royal box, in keeping with the tsar’s Russianizing tastes, was shaped like a peasant cottage. All of this gave him a uniquely Russian perspective, and although Ivanov was fully versed in the tech­nique and style of west European ballet, his dances also had, as one observer memorably put it, “periodic undercurrents of Slavic melancholy and introspection.”

By century’s end, however, the Russian moment in ballet was over. Petipa and Ivanov’s generation passed  abruptly from the scene. In 1899, Vsevolozhsky  left the Imperial Theaters to take up a position at the Hermitage Theater, and Petipa went with him. Petipa was thus withdrawn deeper into the court, his ballets performed in ever-smaller venues for a restricted and elite audience. The Imperial Theaters, by contrast, turned increasingly toward Moscow: Vsevolozhsky was re­placed briefly by the  thoughtful  but politically inept Prince Volkon­sky (grandson of the Decembrist), whose efforts to discipline the extravagant behavior of the tsar’s former lover, the ballerina Matilda Kschessinska, cost him his job; and then by V. A. Teliakovsky, a Muscovite and military man who cared little for Petipa and worked  in­ stead to promote a new generation of self-consciously Russian artists. Petipa lasted at the  Hermitage for a few years but was finally forced into retirement in 1903. His ballets continued to be mounted at the Maryinsky, but he himself was rudely sidelined and those in charge treated him with thinly veiled contempt.

Distraught and frustrated, Petipa retired to the Crimea and wrote his autobiography, an exercise that served him poorly. He was too dis­ enchanted to reflect on his life, and  instead  documented  his rage­ rage at the fraying of the social order and the decline of proper manners, rage at the new generation’s rampant and careless disregard for the past (‘I’m not quite yet dead, M. Teliakovsky!”), and at the mangled state of his own dances. He dedicated the book to Vsevolozh­sky. It was translated from the  French and  published  in St.  Petersburg in 1906, but by then Petipa’s closest colleagues were gone: Ivanov had died in 1901 and Johansson in 1903, Vsevolozhsky would go in 1909, and the ballerinas Legnani and Brianza had long since shifted their sights back to western Europe. Petipa himself died in 1910, and an of­ficial at the Imperial Theaters stiffly recorded the event: “The maitre de haflet Petipa died on July 1st/13th, 1910, in the town of Gurzuf, and have therefore removed his name from the list of directors.” Petipa’s legacy, however, was enormous. His early ballets were largely forgotten, but the later years of his reign at the Imperial Theaters saw the creation of nearly all of the ballets that would form the base of the classical tradition for the century to come. Not just La Bayadere and The Sleeping  Beauty and – with Ivanov – The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, but also Giselle, which was rechoreographed by Petipa in the 1880s (in the version from which most modern productions de­rive), Paquita and Le Corsaire (both from earlier French ballets), Don Quixote, and perhaps most significantly Raymonda (1898) to gor­geously Russian-inflected music by Glazunov, which contained a wealth of jewel-like dances that choreographers would  mine well into the twentieth century.  Elevated to mythic status, these  ballets – and none more than Beauty – would become the root and source of classi­cal ballet not just in Russia but also in France, Italy, and especially­ America and Britain.

Under Petipa’s stewardship, the entire axis of classical ballet had shifted. For two centuries, the art form had been quintessentially French. No more: from this point forth, classical ballet would be Russian. It is often said, rather flatly, that Russian ballet was a mix of French, Scandinavian (through the teacher Johansson), and Italian sources-that Russia, through Petipa, absorbed all of these and made them her own. This is certainly true; but what really changed ballet was the way it became entwined with Imperial Russia herself. Serf­dom and autocracy, St. Petersburg and the prestige of foreign culture, hierarchy, order, aristocratic ideals and their ongoing tension with more eastern folk forms: all of these things ran into ballet and made it a quintessentially Russian art. Moreover, because classical ballet sat at the intersection of Russia and the West, it took on an unprecedented symbolic importance: to this day, ballet matters more in Russia than it ever has elsewhere, before or since.

Marius Petipa was Russia’s last foreign ballet master, Lev Ivanov its first native voice. In their wake came a new – and newly confident­ – generation of Russian dancers and ballet masters, including Alexander Gorsky and Agrippina Vaganova; Mikhail Fokine, Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, and Vaslav Nijinsky, all of whom graduated from the Imperial Theater School at or near the turn of the century. These dancers did not shy from authority: Gorsky took charge of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and Fokine would eventually assume the mantle of the St. Petersburg company. Henceforth ballet’s greatest stars would be Russian.

But this new Russian generation faced a daunting challenge: classi­cal ballet was in Russian hands, but Russia itself was on the brink of collapse. Everything that had made ballet important since Peter the Great was about to come to a violent end. These dancers had been trained under the old order: Imperial Russia was all they knew. Many had worked with Petipa and Ivanov, performed at the Maryinsky and been given chocolates by the  tsar. But in the coming years, building on Petipa and Ivanov’s legacy would prove difficult and contentious. Their ballets -indeed, ballet itself – stood for the past and a dying aristocratic principle, for a way of life that was rotting from within and under attack from without. Ballet would have to change. A new and defiantly Russian century in dance was about to begin.

Tsars of Dance: Imperial Russian Classicism:

The Plot of Swan Lake

Nowhere was this more apparent than in Swan Lake, perhaps the most imperfect but powerful of all Russian ballets. The version we know today derives from the production choreographed by Petipa and Ivanov to Tchaikovsky’s music and premiered in St. Petersburg in 1895. But Swan Lake also had another, earlier history. Tchaikovsky had originally been commissioned to compose the score in Moscow in the mid-1870s by one Vladimir Begichev, who was in charge of reper­tory at the city’s Bolshoi Theater. Begichev’s wife ran an influential Moscow literary salon frequented by Tchaikovsky, who also tutored the couple’s son in music. Discussions at their home and at Ostrov sky’s Artists’ Circle, another literary and artistic club founded in the 1860s, had already inspired a new, self-consciously Russian ballet entitled The Fern based on a folktale recorded by Gogol: Moscow’s back-to-the-people version of Saint-Leon’s Humpbacked Horse, but ap­parently undistinguished.

We don’t know who wrote the libretto for Swan Lake, although it may have been Begichev and it was probably drawn from German folk and fairy-tale sources and perhaps influenced  by Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. But the ballet also had roots in Tchaikovsky’s family life: some years earlier he had composed  music for a children’s  ballet about “The Lake of Swans,” which he and his extended family  liked to perform in “house performances” later warmly remembered by his niece  and nephew and featuring large wooden rocking swans. It was a fitting backdrop for a new Russian ballet recalling, however faintly, the do­mestic and estate settings of old serf ballets. The Moscow  production had choreography by Julius Reisinger, a second-rate ballet master im­ported from Europe, but the lead role was not performed (as was now customary in St. Petersburg) by a foreign star: Odette was first danced by the ballerina Pelagia Karpakova and then by Anna Sobeshchan­skaya.

This Moscow Swan Lake, moreover, bore only a passing resemblance to Petipa and Ivanov’s later St. Petersburg production. The outline of the ballet is familiar, but the Moscow original was more complicated: dark, violent, and tragic. Steeped in Romanticism, the ballet tells the story of a beautiful girl, Odette, trapped in the form of a swan. Tor­mented and pursued by an evil stepmother in the guise of an owl and demon sorcerer, she lives with a flock of similarly bewitched young maidens in a lake of tears. By day they are swans but by night they are set free to dance in the nearby ruins. Only marriage can break the spell that binds Odette to her watery fate, but  when Prince Siegfried falls in love with her, the stepmother tricks him: an imposter in black se­ duces the prince, who swears his undying devotion to this glamorous fake, thus betraying the real Odette and dooming her to eternal cap­tivity.

Realizing his mistake, Siegfried begs her forgiveness but-and this is the crux of the difference from later productions-it is too late. A crashing storm and terrible flood signal doom, with great undulating (canvas) waves and “an unimaginable din and uproar” that resembled “the explosion of a powder magazine” (and here a strong whiff of gun­ powder filled the theater). In desperation the prince tears off Odette’s crown, which is her only protection from the evil owl, and, consumed in guilt and grief, the erstwhile lovers are swept into the waters and drowned. There is no redemptive apotheosis, as there later would be, but instead a vision of a cruel and indifferent fate: the lovers perish and the moon shines  through  the clouds “and on the calm  lake appears a band of white swans.”

This ballet had its premiere in 1877 at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater. The music was well received (although some grumbled it was too lush and operatic and thus ill-suited for ballet), but the choreography was roundly panned and went through several versions and many  hands before the ballet was finally retired from the  repertory  in  1883, a vic­tim of drastic cutbacks in  the  theater’s  budget.  It  disappeared  for nearly ten years. Indeed, Tchaikovsky never saw it again: he and Vsevolozhsky had discussed a revival, but in 1893, before it could be produced, the composer died unexpectedly. The following year Lev Ivanov fashioned brand-new choreography for the second lakeside act for a memorial concert in St. Petersburg produced by Vsevolozhsky in honor of Tchaikovsky. Plans for a new production of the entire work proceeded, and Vsevolozhsky wrote to Modest asking him to work on a new libretto: “I hope you will succeed in avoiding the flood of the last act. It is trite and would go badly on our stage.”

Thus began a series of far-reaching revisions. Modest kept the flood but modified the ending, introducing a melodramatic double suicide: Odette throws herself into the lake and Siegfried stabs himself. In subsequent revisions things got softer and sweeter. Vsevolozhsky and Petipa excised the storm and flood and – building on Modest’s end­ing – had the lovers jump into the lake together and capped the bal­let with the now-familiar heavenly apotheosis: “in the clouds, seated on huge swans, appear Siegfried and Odette.” The music was re­worked by the Italian composer Riccardo Drigo (he had conducted the premiere of The Sleeping Beauty), who was asked to alter and shorten the score: as the scholar Roland John Wiley has shown, he lightened the orchestration, cut certain passages and added others, and (perhaps inadvertently) dismantled the tonal structure of Tchaikovsky’s origi­nal, giving the ballet an easier and less discordant feel. The music for the storm scene was simply deleted.• The choreography was no less cobbled: Petipa, whose poor health had been exacerbated by the death of his daughter and other family difficulties, took  responsibility for the court scenes but delegated the more lyrical and introspective lake­ side dances to his Russian colleague Ivanov. This division of labor, however, turned out to be fortuitous: the enduring success of the bal­let owes much to the tension between Petipa and Ivanov’s contrasting choreographic styles.

Consider Ivanov’s dances for the moonlit lakeside scene when the swans first appear as women, freed by the night and led by Odette, whose position is marked by her bejeweled crown. Siegfried and Odette meet; she tells her story and they confront the threatening sor­cerer von Rothbart. The floor then clears for the entrance of the swans. Recalling Petipa’s shades in La Bayadere, they come one by one, single file, from the upstage corner in a series of simple repetitive steps and weave a serpentine pattern until they are ranked across the stage in straight, symmetrical lines. From this moment, however, a different mood takes hold: Ivanov sends the swans into a series of sculptural patterns that carve  through  the space, break apart, and recombine. The vocabulary is simple and dear-no more than a few plain-verse steps – with none of the wit or decorative embellishments that might draw the eye to a particular dancer.

This scene is often held  up  as the  greatest  possible achievement  for a corps de ballet: properly performed, the dancers seem to move as one, and audiences today still marvel at how “together” they are. It is often assumed, moreover, that they are so together because each dancer has been trained meticulously to calibrate her movements to those of her neighbor. But this is not really how it works. Ivanov’s swans are not an assembly line or human machine, nor even a closely integrated community: they are an ensemble created by music. His  steps do not so much fit the music as allow a dancer  to  find the  phrase and sustain it in movement, making her way into the sound rather than moving smoothly across its surface. The unity is not “out” to one’s neighbors, but paradoxically a  turning  “in” and away; it is a togetherness based on musical and physical introspection, the polar opposite of show or ceremony. This is why the dance has such a silent, self-reflective feel.

It is not that the stage is quiet or the choreography sparse: Ivan’s initial twenty-four swans are soon joined by twelve cygnets (children are usually left out of today’s productions) and by soloists until as many forty dancers fill the stage. Yet no matter the crowds and the choreogra­phy’s increasing demands and complexity, the dancers never break order or rank; nor do they lose their discipline and  inner focus. Moreover, they never lose their spatial and physical – or musical – relationship to Odette, their queen. They are her likeness, and their movements and patterns mirror and reflect her own: as they shadow her, they become an outward manifestation of her inner life.

This is even true in the pas de deux. Today we often think of this dance as a love story, but in 1895 it was more of a first-person solilo­quy: Odette’s story. At the beginning of the scene, as we have seen, Odette relates her sad tale in mime; she then repeats it here, ab­stracted in movement, in her dance with Prince Siegfried. This pas de deux was not an impassioned Romeo-and-Juliet-style duet-in fact, it was not a pas de deux at all, but instead a menage a trios: Siegfried was originally performed by Pavel Gerdt, who was apparently too old to manage the partnering alone, so Benno (Siegfried’s friend) danced with Odette too. Any love interest was thus diluted: Siegfried and Benno were there to lift and support Odette and to allow her feelings to fully emerge. This was a kind of love, to be sure, but more courtly than romantic, an idealization of woman rather than of feelings.

The dance begins as Odette descends gracefully to the ground in an arpeggio of movement (to a delicate harp cadenza), her body folded over on itself and her face hidden beneath her long, wing-like arms. As the first notes of the violin solo begin, her partner lifts her arm and literally unfolds her body as she rises up to full pointe. As she moves, he seems to disappear: it is just her and the long legato phrases of the violin. If audiences experience this dance as love, it is the harmony be­tween Odette and the music, not her relationship with Siegfried, that inspires the feeling. Fittingly, the dance ends not in embrace but in­ stead with Odette plunged into a deep supported arabesque or fallen with arms folded over on herself, head down, and the corps de ballet arrayed behind her, similarly draped.

Even as the dance opens out again – with solos, the  arm-plaited “four little swans,” and a rushing coda – Odette’s self-absorption intensifies. No matter how bravura the demands (and there are some very difficult passages), the steps are designed as a kind of inverse bowing off: small, quick movements requiring steely discipline and restraint – steps that force a ballerina to pull into herself and the music, rather than flashing out to the audience. The ballerina role was danced by the Italian Pierina Legnani, whose thick legs and fluid, strong technique – not to mention the ropes of pearls she liked to wear over her costume – made her an unlikely interpreter for Ivanov’s pure and lucid choreography. But in fact her impressive range and flexibility and (as many observers put it) the “plastique” of her dancing were crucial to the ballet’s success. As one critic noted: “It was as if Legnani were actually experiencing these moments, filled with poetic melancholy.”

The contrast between Ivanov’s “white” lakeside scenes and Petipa’s own architectonic and fiercely difficult dances for the court scenes could not have been sharper (it is Petipa’s black swan who executes the famous thirty-two fouettes another Italian trick). It was a difference of style but also of ideas. In Petipa’s lexicon the individual is ennobled through fine taste and eloquence, grace and manners; the flamboyant, black Odile appears evil because she corrupts classical technique with her stylishly exaggerated bravura and false eloquence. Her movements are too skilled and alluring, lacking discernment and bordering on crass. Petipa’s choreography enshrined hierarchy and order, refine­ment and elegance – not as a set of repressive or stifling rules but as a necessary condition for beauty and art. Ivanov submitted to this aes­thetic but also undercut it: there was a solvent in his dances, a yearn­ing to break patterns and discard ornament in favor of a simpler grammar that might, in its most concentrated and lyrical forms, cap­ture something more intimate and interior. He was interested in the inner sanctuaries-the private Russian chambers – of Petipa’s grand and marble-faced aesthetic.

Swan Lake had no successor: it stood alone in the repertory, not only for what it was but for where it came from. It was a product of Moscow and St. Petersburg, of the 1870s and the 1890s. Its fractured history and truncated, rearranged text, choreographed in fits and starts  by Ivanov and Petipa after Tchaikovsky’s death, captures something of the competing forces and extraordinary invention shaping ballet at the time. Swan Lake, moreover, was no feerie but instead a full-blown Romantic tragedy, even in its gentler St. Petersburg form.  It was not Petipa’s greatest work; that distinction rests firmly with The Sleeping Beauty. But if Beauty summoned forth an idealized classical and courtly past and was itself an exemplary monument to Imperial style, Ivanov’s lakeside dances in Swan Lake conjured the possibility of a perfect future in which love exists out of time and dancers are joined in a pure, plas­tic, and musical art. Together these two ballets stand as pillars mark­ing ballet’s place as an Imperial Russian art.


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