Victor Marius Alphonse Petipa was born in Marseille, France on the 11th March 1818 to Jean Antoine Petipa (1787-1855), a renowned Ballet Master and teacher, and Victorine Grasseau, a tragic actress and drama teacher. He was the third of six children – Joseph Lucien (1815-1898), Elisabeth Marianne (1816), who died in infancy, Jean Claude Tonnerre (1820-1873), Adelaide Antoniette and Amata Victorine Anna (1824-1905).
When the infant Marius Petipa was just 3 months old, his parents were invited to Brussels, where the family settled. Petipa received a general education at the Grand College, but he also attended the Fétis Conservatory where he studied music and learned to play the violin. Petipa began dancing at the age of 7, studying under his father. At first, the young Petipa resisted as he cared little about the art form, but with convincing from his mother, he accepted that it was his duty to obey and follow his father’s will. He eventually fell in love with the art form of ballet and made his first appearance on stage at the age of 9 in Jean Petipa’s staging the Pierre Gardel ballet La Dansomanie.
In 1830, the Belgian Revolution broke out during a performance of the opera Fenella, or La Musette de Portici, which put a huge strain on the Brussels theatres. The theatre activities were discontinued for fifteen months and Jean Petipa was suddenly without a position.
In 1834, after a twelve year stay in Brussels, the Petipa family relocated to Bordeaux after Jean Petipa was invited as Ballet Master of the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux. The family spent four years in Bordeaux where the 16 year old Marius Petipa completed his ballet training under the great French Ballet Master, Auguste Vestris. In 1838, at the age of 20, he was appointed Premier Danseur at the Ballet de Nantes. It was during his time in Nantes that he first began to show his abilities as a choreographer when he choreographed dances for the opera, one-act ballets of his own creation and devised ballet numbers for divertissements. In 1839, Petipa accompanied his father on a tour to the United States with a small ballet company of French dancers, where they opened at the National Theatre in New York City in Jean Coralli’s ballet La Tarentule, the first ballet ever to be performed in America. The tour, however, was both a financial and cultural disaster, since many Americans had never seen ballet before and an American impresario stole many of the dancers’ receipts and disappeared, leaving them without any payment.
After returning to France, Petipa made his début in Paris, where his brother Lucien was Premier Danseur of the Paris Opéra. The 21 year old Marius Petipa made his Paris début at the Comédie Française, where he partnered the great Italian Prima Ballerina, Carlotta Grisi. In 1841, he returned to Bordeaux where he was appointed Premier Danseur at the Grand Théâtre. He studied further under Vestris and made his début in the lead male roles of La Fille mal gardée, Giselle and La Péri, in which he once again partnered Mme. Grisi. Petipa later showed his skills as a potential ballet master in Bordeaux when he staged his own stagings of four ballets, all which were successful – La Jolie Bordelaise, Les Vendanges, L’Intrigue Amoureuse and Le Langage des Fleurs.
After his successful season in Bordeaux, Petipa was invited to Madrid in 1844 where he was appointed Premier Danseur at the Royal Theatre. As he had done in France, he created and staged new ballets for his new Spanish company – Carmen and her Toreador, The Pearl of Seville, The Adventure of the Daughter of Madrid, The Flower of Granada and The Departure for the Bullfight. However, in 1847, Petipa’s time in Spain came to an end after he attempted to elope with the daughter of a Spanish Marquis, with whom he had fallen in love. However, her family were opposed to the match and the couple were forced to part ways. Petipa briefly returned to France, never to return to Spain again.
Shortly after his return to France, Petipa received an invitation from Alexander Gedeonov, the Director of the Imperial Theatres in Saint Petersburg, Russia to join the Imperial Ballet as Premier Danseur. Petipa was quick to accept the invitation and arrived in Saint Petersburg on the 5th June [O.S. 24th May] 1847. Although Petipa lived in Russia for nearly seventy years, he never mastered the Russian language, but he did officially go by a more Russian name – Marius Ivanovich Petipa. However, it can be argued that it was not entirely necessary for him to master Russian since, at the time, many Russians spoke French as a second language, including the Imperial family and many of Petipa’s Russian colleagues and dancers. In 1848, his father followed his son to Saint Petersburg, where he taught the classe de perfection at the Imperial Ballet School until his death in 1855.
For his Saint Petersburg début, Gedeonov commissioned Petipa and fellow Frenchman, Pierre Frédéric Malevergne to stage Paquita for the Imperial Ballet, in which Petipa also danced the role of Lucien d’Hervilly. This was just the beginning of Petipa’s great contributions to the Imperial Ballet repertoire. In 1848, Petipa and his father staged Joseph Mazilier’s 1840 ballet Le Diable amoureux under the title Satanella. This was followed by revivals of many other Parisian ballets, especially after the arrival of the great French Ballet Master Jules Perrot in Saint Petersburg in 1849. Petipa collaborated with Perrot on the Saint Petersburg stagings of ballets such as Giselle and Le Corsaire. Throughout his first eight years in Saint Petersburg, Petipa staged many dances for opera and revived dances for Perrot’s revivals of older works.
In 1850, Petipa became a father for the first time when his son, Marius Mariusovich Petipa (1850-1919) was born following a brief liaison with a woman named Marie Thérèse Bourdin, who died in 1855. In 1854, Petipa married the Russian ballerina, Maria Sergeyevna Surovshchikova (1836-1882), with whom he had two children – the celebrated danseuse, Marie Mariusovna Petipa (1857-1930) and Jean Mariusovich Petipa (1859-1871), who died at the age of 12. In 1855, Petipa choreographed and staged the first of his own ballets for the first time in eight years – a ballet divertissement entitled L’Étoile de Granade. The creation of this ballet was also his first collaboration with Cesare Pugni. L’Étoile de Granade was premièred at the Palace of the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, who was a fanatic balletomane and patron of the performing arts. The success of L’Étoile de Granade was followed by many other one and two act ballets of Petipa’s creation, all of which were choreographed especially for his wife, including La Rose, la Violette et le Papillon (1857), A Marriage Under the Regency (1858), The Parisian Market (1859), The Blue Dahlia (1860) and Terpsichore (1861). Mme. Surovshchikova-Petipa was soon named Prima Ballerina of the Imperial Theatres.
Although Petipa was a very gifted and skilled choreographer, he had yet to gain the rank of Ballet Master. When Jules Perrot left Russia in 1858, Petipa anticipated succeeding him as Premier Maître de Ballet of the Imperial Theatres, but his hopes were in vain. Instead, the rank went to his fellow Frenchman, Arthur Saint-Léon, who would become Petipa’s rival.
Petipa remained Premieur Danseur of the Imperial Ballet for another four years, still making choreographic contributions to the repertoire. Finally, it was in 1862 that Petipa’s breakthrough as a choreographer came when he staged one of his most successful and colossal ballets of all time – The Pharaoh’s Daughter, a four-act ballet that told the story of a young English Lord who falls in love with an Ancient Egyptian princess in an opium-induced dream. It was in this ballet that Petipa danced his final role as a dancer, for the ballet’s colossal success won him the rank of second ballet master under Saint-Léon, who answered Petipa’s success of The Pharaoh’s Daughter with his 1864 ballet The Little Humpbacked Horse. Petipa’s years as second ballet master saw the stagings of his first and second lavish revivals of Le Corsaire in 1863 and 1868 respectively and the creations of his grand ballets Le Roi Candaule in 1868 and Don Quxiote in 1869, which was his first collaboration with Ludwig Minkus. Saint-Léon eventually left Russia for good in 1870, following the expiration of his contract.
Marius Petipa became Premier Maître de Ballet of the Imperial Theatres on the 12th March [O.S. 29th February] 1871. From then on, Petipa’s ingenious imagination and creative abilities gave way to the golden age of 19th century ballet – the Classical Era.
The Classical Era has been labelled as one of ballet’s most powerful eras as it was here that the most famous classical ballets known today were born from Petipa’s creation. From 1871 to the early 1900’s, the stage of the Saint Petersburg Imperial Theatre was flooded with many of his best works. With Minkus as Ballet Composer to the Imperial Theatres, the Imperial Ballet repertoire further expanded with new works such as La Camargo (1872) and The Daughter of the Snows (1879) and revivals of Jacques Offenbach’s Le Papillon (1874) and Adolphe Adam’s La Fille du Danube (1880). But the greatest masterpiece ever created by Petipa and Minkus’ collaboration was premièred in 1877 – La Bayadère, the exotic ballet most famous for its celebrated scene The Kingdom of the Shades.
In 1875, Petipa and his wife separated and Mme. Surovshchikova-Petipa died of smallpox on the 16th March 1882. In 1876, Petipa married the ballerina Lyubov Leonidovna Savitskaya (1854-1919), who was thirty-six years his junior and had already given birth to their first child two years earlier. The couple had six children together – Nadezhda Mariusovna Petipa (1874-1945), Evgenia Mariusovna Petipa (1877-1892), who died at the age of 15, Victor Mariusovich Petipa (1879-1939), Lyubov Mariusovna Petipa (1880-1917), Marius Mariusovich Petipa II (1884-1922) and Vera Mariusovna Petipa (1885-1961).
In 1881, Ivan Vzevolozhosky was appointed Director of the Imperial Theatres, who transferred the Imperial Ballet from the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre to the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in 1885. The era of Vzevolozhosky’s rule of the Imperial Theatres was perhaps the best era in Petipa’s career. The early to mid 1880s saw Petipa staging lavish, grand revivals of many older works, including his 1881 revival of Paquita, for which Minkus composed the Grand Pas Classique, Pas de trois and Mazurka des enfants, and his first revivals of Giselle and Coppélia in 1884 and La Esmeralda in 1886. In 1885, Petipa collaborated with Lev Ivanov for the first time on a revival of Paul Taglioni’s version of La Fille mal gardée. With the arrival of the Italian ballerinas and danseurs in the late 1880s came new grand creations from Petipa, including The Vestal in 1888 and The Talisman in 1889, both created for the Italian Prima Ballerina, Elena Cornalba.
The late 1880s and the 1890s is a time period that is considered by many as “the Golden Age of Russian Ballet”. Not only did Petipa flood the Imperial Ballet repertoire with some of his greatest works; the Saint Petersburg stage was dominated by some of the greatest dancers the world had ever seen. Among these great names were Pierina Legnani, Pavel Gerdt, Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Nikolai and Sergei Legat, Matilda Kschessinskaya and Enrico Cecchetti. The 1890s made way for some of the greatest classical ballets ever created, including The Sleeping Beauty (1890), The Nutcracker, choreographed by Lev Ivanov (1892), The Awakening of Flora (1894), Petipa and Ivanov’s restaging of Swan Lake (1895) and Raymonda (1898). This time period also saw Petipa’s final revivals of older works and some of his own, including his final revivals of Coppélia (1894), The Little Humpbacked Horse (1895), The Pharaoh’s Daughter (1898), Le Corsaire (1899), La Esmeralda (1899) and La Bayadère (1900).
After a successful career spanning six decades, Petipa’s final years with the Imperial Ballet were difficult. The turn of the 20th century saw new innovations imposed onto classical ballet, but it was Petipa’s bitterest enemy, Colonel Vladimir Telyakovsky who made things unbearable for the old Maestro. Despite having little knowledge of the performing arts, Telyakovsky was appointed Director of the Imperial Theatres in 1902 and one of his main objectives was to de-throne Petipa. His first attempt was when he invited Alexander Gorsky to stage his revival of Don Quixote at the Imperial Theatres. Indeed, Petipa was furious, but still showed no signs of slowing down, even at his elderly age of 83. Telyakovsky’s next attempt was when he apparently sabotaged Petipa’s 1903 ballet The Magic Mirror by allowing it to have the most appalling of stagings, which resulted in the ballet being deemed as a failure. In spite of this, Petipa continued to attend rehearsals and make changes to variations and other passages for dancers taking on new roles.
In 1903, he revived Giselle for Anna Pavlova and coached her for her début as Paquita in 1904. The year 1903 also saw Petipa creating what was meant to be his final ballet, The Romance of the Rosebud and the Butterfly to music by Riccardo Drigo and a libretto by Vzevolozhosky. For this ballet, Petipa cast the 14 year old Vaslav Nijinsky in his first stage role. The Romance of the Rosebud and the Butterfly was meant to have its première on the 5th February [O.S. 23rd January] 1904 at the Hermitage Theatre, but just two weeks before the scheduled première, Telyakovsky abruptly cancelled the ballet. His official reason for the cancellation was the Russo-Japanese War, but he neglected to inform Vsevolozhosky first. Petipa was left distraught by the cancellation; for him, it was the last straw and in his diaries, he writes in relation to the cancellation of the ballet: “My work is wasted.” In the aftermath, Petipa was rarely seen in the theatres, having become depressed and withdrawn. His sixty year-long career at the Imperial Theatres had come to an abrupt end.
Petipa remained in Saint Petersburg until 1907 and by then, his health was badly failing. On the advice of his physician, he and his family relocated to the resort in Gurzuf in the Crimea, where he spent his final years.
Marius Petipa died on the 14th July 1910, aged 92. His body was brought back to Saint Petersburg and his funeral was held on the 17th July 1910 and among those who attended were Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Anna Pavlova, Pavel Gerdt, Riccardo Drigo and Alexander Glazunov. According to one eye witness, however, no one from the Imperial Theatre administration attended. Petipa is buried in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in Saint Petersburg. He left behind him a great legacy and his ballets still continue to dominate every classical ballet company repertoire to this day.