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Russian history of ballet can date back to as early as the 17th century during the reign of Peter the Great (Lee, 1999). It was well known throughout Europe of Louis XIV’s court ballets and it was during this time that Peter the Great decided to westernize Russia and end the barrier that was placed between Russia and other countries (Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Kraus & Chapman, 1981; Scholl, 1994).

Russia had a similar culture to France with regards to the courtiers and royalty needing something to amuse them. Ballet quickly became the interest of the courts and the founding of ballet companies soon followed (Lee, 1999). St. Petersburg and Moscow soon became the most well known places for ballet companies and performances (Anderson, 1986; Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Kraus & Chapman, 1981).

Although ballet became popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, Russian influence of ballet did not take effect until the 19th century (Lifar, 1938). Under the direction of the choreographer, Marius Petipa, the Imperial Ballet of Russia became highly influential of surrounding countries (Clarke & Crisp, 1973). Petipa was originally a French dancer and ballet master, but arrived in Russia in 1847 (Kraus & Chapman, 1981). During his involvement at the Imperial Ballet (also referred to as the Kirov Ballet and the Maryinsky Ballet), ballet continued to go through stages including classicism and romantic style ballet (Kraus & Chapman, 1981; Scholl, 1994).

 

Monument to Peter the Great

Throughout Russian history of ballet it was evident that they welcomed foreign dancers and choreographers (Scholl, 1994). The foreigners who visited were treated well by the companies, more often better than the native dancers. This placed a position of resentment with the native dancers and pushed them to prove themselves against the foreigners (Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Kant, 2007; Lifar, 1938).

It is difficult not to mention Petipa in Russian ballet because of the influence he placed on classical and romantic styles (Clarke & Crisp, 1973). It was during the time of Petipa, which was the romantic era that female dancers began to emerge as stars (Kant, 2007). But, Petipa was also known for being an excellent teacher for male dancers and making even the starring role of the ballet more of a supporting role (Scholl, 1994). He also is best known for incorporating difficult technique into Russian ballet (Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Kant, 2007).

It was in the 19th century, with Petipa’s guidance, that Russia became known for their technical skills. Petipa focused on using technique, particularly using the pointe shoe. He choreographed the dancers to be on pointe performing multiple turns, as well as jumping, running and many other movements (Kant, 2007). Petipa also challenged the typical romantic style ballet by the way ballerinas were dressed (Kant, 2007). The ballerina began to wear more provocative costumes with shorter tutus and more skin showing throughout the costume (Anderson, 1986; Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Kant, 2007).

What also changed with Petipa’s ballets was the length of the performances. His ballets were typically longer than others, often being 3 or 4 acts versus the standard 2 acts (Kant, 2007). The focus on the performances, however, was less on narration and more on the elaborate settings and the dancer’s techniques (Scholl, 1994). With his influence, the Imperial Theatre School, which trained students in the arts, made ballet a highly professional and specialized training, expecting the students, with Petipa’s influence, to develop technical perfection (Anderson, 1986; Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Greskovic, 1998).

 

The 20th century of Russian ballet began to change into what is known as the ballet avante-garde, a more modern style of ballet (Kant, 2007). Petipa was still a strong influence in Russian ballet. But, by the 20th century, choreography and performances began to be re-evaluated. New choreographers emerged and new styles were presented. For example, the choreographer, Aleksandr Gorsky attempted to revise Petipa’s style of performance by changing the scenery and costumes (Scholl, 1994). Russian ballet performances were always known to be extravagant. Gorsky went a step further by changing the background scenery to look more realistic. Costumes were also changed to fit towards individual dancers rather than having uniformed costumes. Gorsky also challenged the traditional performances by focusing on the dancer’s character abilities rather than technical (Anderson, 1986; Kant, 2007).

But by 1917, the October or Russian Revolution had changed the way some ballet companies were run. There was now a new Soviet leader who did not feel that the performing arts were of important significance, which dramatically influenced how state run ballet companies were taught (Clarke & Crisp, 1976; Kant, 2007; Lee, 1999). The state run ballet companies were now more restrictive, focusing on classical styles of ballet and staying within a traditional routine (Anderson, 1986; Greskovic, 1998;). This forced choreographers who wanted the freedom to be more modern to seek other sources of employment (Anderson, 1986; Greskovic, 1998; Kant, 2007).

Choreographers like Goleizovsky, sought to teach more modern forms of ballet, resisting tradition by modifying the costumes even further (Anderson, 1986). Goleizovsky favored nudity in order to see the dancer’s body in true form. He did not use nudity in his performances, however, but did seek to use as little costume as possible in order to further appreciate the dancer’s movements (Kant, 2007).

Choreographers like Goleizovsky were not favored with the Soviet Union (Kant, 2007; Lee, 1999). Russia’s slow progression in modernization affected how ballet was taught. The modernization of ballet was nearly diminished after the 1930s because of the government’s rule. The state had eventually taken control of the performing arts by the 1930s, which made a large impact on the ballet performances (Kant, 2007). Russia, throughout history, has been known to be slow to progress and highly conservative. As such, ballet in Russia has had little reform and is best known for the technical skills of the dancers and the classical ballet style (Anderson, 1986; Greskovic, 1998; Kant, 2007).

Famous and Important People in Russian Ballet

Marius Ivanovich Petipa (1818-1910)
Choreographer for the Imperial Ballet of Russia, now called the Maryinsky Ballet (Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Marius Petipa, 2009). He was highly influential in Russian ballet, placing importance on technical skill during the romantic style of ballet versus character or narrative dancing. Known for using pointe work in new ways such as jumping, running and multiple turns, his technical skills in performances were expected to be of perfection (Lee, 1999; Marius Petipa, 2009; Scholl, 1994).

Mikhail Baryshnikov (born 1948)
Known for being an American ballet dancer and choreographer, his training as a dancer originated in Russia in the Kirov Ballet. He is known for being a modern ballet dancer and felt his talents could not be used in Russia. So, in 1974, he sought political asylum, working as a freelance artist internationally and in the United States as a principal dancer. Baryshnikov is known for having highly skilled technique and grace (Gruen, 1975; Mikhail Baryshnikov, 2009).

Michel Fokine (1880-1942)
Russian ballet dancer who later became a choreographer. He found ballet to be an expressive art, but also had difficulties in Russia being able to implement his progressive influence. Strong Russian tradition often obligated him to stay within classical style. But, as a reformer, he sought to make ballet more expressive. The marker for his success was during his work in France in the years 1909-1914, in which his expressivity could be used in displaying new movements (Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Michel Fokine, 2009; Scholl, 1994).

Jean-Baptiste Landé (birth unknown-1748)
Founder of the Maryinsky Ballet (the Imperial Ballet) under decree of Empress Anne in 1738. He became ballet master and sought for the school to allow the dancers to perform in the courts. Landé was the first to teach the Russian dancers (Clarke & Vaughan, 1977; Jean-Baptiste Landé, 2009).

Anna Pavlova (1881-1931)
Famous Russian ballet dancer who trained at the Imperial Ballet School and later became a dancer for Marius Petipa in the Imperial Ballet and the Ballet Russes. Pavlova was known for being frail and weak. She had extremely high arched feet, weak ankles and frail limbs, finding it difficult to do technical moves (Anna Pavlova, 2009; Lee, 1999). Her style was unique and in the romantic style. Petipa favored Pavlova and often altered his choreographer to fit her known weakness. She was often criticized for her unusual style, but teachers encouraged her not to stray from her unique abilities and to stay away from the technically difficult moves that required great strength. Pavlova was one of the first ballerinas to form her own company and travel around the world (Anna Pavlova, 2009; Clarke & Crisp, 1973; Lee, 1999). She had eventually gained the title of prima ballerina. But, at the age of 50, while touring in the Netherlands, the now famously quoted, “If I can't dance then I'd rather be dead” was said after she was told she had pleurisy, an inflammation of the cavity that surrounds the lungs, which causes pain when taking deep breaths. The cure for pleurisy was a surgery, which would have cost her the inability to dance. Pavlova died three weeks later (Anna Pavlova, 2009).