Pavel Andreyevich Gerdt was one of the greatest male dancers in ballet history and was the Imperial Theatre’s Premier Danseur Noble for fifty-six years; this charismatic artist and beloved teacher had an uncommonly long stage life. He was born on the 22nd November 1844 in Saint Petersburg and, upon birth, he was given the surname and patronym of his godfather, Pavel Andreyevich Shuvalov. It is asserted that the latter suggested to place the young Gerdt at the Imperial Ballet School.
Gerdt studied with Petipa and his father Jean, Alexander Pimenov, a student of Charles Didelot, and Christian Johanson. He made his début with the Imperial Ballet in 1860 and from there, his legacy began. Gerdt was the originator of many of the most famous lead male roles in the Imperial Ballet repertoire and was among the original cast of many of Petipa’s revivals. His repertoire included Colas in La Fille mal gardée, Ta-Hor in The Pharaoh’s Daughter, Phoebus de Châteaupers in Esmeralda, Noureddin in The Talisman, Prince Désiré in The Sleeping Beauty, Prince Colqueluche in The Nutcracker and Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake. He also became a favourite partner among many of the Imperial Ballet’s Prima Ballerinas, including Ekaterina Vazem, Eugenia Sokolova, Pierina Legnani, Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Matilda Kschessinskaya, Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina. Throughout the 1870s, he acted as an additional cavalier for the ageing Lev Ivanov, most notably in the roles of Solor and Basilio, for which he created the original variations.
By the 1890s, Gerdt’s dancing had come to an end, not because he was over 40 years old at the time, but due to a knee injury. However, this did not stop him from continuing to perform. Due to his immense popularity with the Saint Petersburg balletomanes and critics, Gerdt continued to perform well into his 60s in a variety of lead roles that should’ve been given to younger dancers, many of whom were his students. What would happen is that Gerdt would perform all the dramatic aspects of a particular character and a younger dancer, such as Nikolai Legat, would perform all the dancing in the Grand Pas, variations, etc. This performance practice dated back to Gerdt’s youth, but in the 1890s, the practice gradually ceased when emerging talents like the Legat brothers began to do principal roles. It was during this era that Gerdt gradually shifted from jeune premier roles to character parts, settling well into them when Mikhail Fokine came to the fore during the turn of the 20th century. Such roles that he created were Apollo in The Awakening of Flora, the title role in Bluebeard and Abderakhman in Raymonda. He later played major character roles like the High Brahmin in La Bayadère and Hilarion in Giselle.
As well as a legendary dancer, Pavel Gerdt was also a beloved and much respected teacher at the Imperial Ballet School. Among his students were Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Nikolai and Sergei Legat, Matilda Kschessinskaya, Mikhail Fokine, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, Agrippina Vaganova and Vassily Tikhomirov. He staged several ballets for the Imperial Ballet School and finished Lev Ivanov’s ill-fated production of Sylvia in 1901 for the Imperial Ballet. Allegedly more successful, he choreographed the full-length ballet Javotte to the 1896 score of the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. After a lifelong career spanning over fifty years, Gerdt retired from the stage in 1916; for his final performance, he performed the role of Gamache in Don Quixote.
Pavel Gerdt was married to the ballerina Alexandra Saposhnikova, who is remembered for having created a variation in the Paquita Grand Pas Classique, which is still danced today. The couple had three daughters, one of which was Elizaveta Pavlovna Gerdt, who went onto become a great pedagogue of the Bolshoi Ballet. A pupil of Fokine, Elizaveta Gerdt became the first Armida in his ‘Animated Gobelin,’ which was a first draft of his 1909 ballet Le Pavillon d’Armide. She became a ballerina during the later stage of Russia’s Silver Age and after the revolution, she was among those who stayed in Russia and was the teacher of some of the greatest Soviet ballet dancers. Her students included Alla Shelest, Maya Plisetskaya, Raisa Struchkova and Ekaterina Maximova.
Pavel Gerdt died on the 12th August 1917, aged 72, in Vamaloki, Finland, leaving behind a great legacy that his daughter and his students ensured would live on.
Pavel Gerdt’s Imperial Ballet repertoire
- Colin in La Fille mal gardée (**1865)
- Lieutenant Diavolino in La Fille du Bandit (*1870)
- Apollo in The Two Stars (1871)
- Patimate in Le Papillon (*1874)
- Peleus in Les Aventures de Pélée (1876)
- A Butterfly in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1876)
- Rudolf in La Fille du Danube (*1880)
- Lucien d’Hervilly in Paquita (*1881)
- François in Pâquerette (*1882)
- The Fly in Night and Day (1883)
- Count Albrecht in Giselle
- Count Polinski in The Wilful Wife (*1885)
- Colas in La Fille mal gardée (*1885)
- Lord Wilson/Ta-Hor in The Pharaoh’s Daughter (*1885)
- Spanish Lace in The Magic Pills (1886)
- Marquino in The King’s Command (1886)
- Pierre Gringoire in Esmeralda (*1886)
- Marquino in The King’s Command (*1887)
- Count Fiedrich in Fiametta (1887)
- Lucio in The Vestal (1888)
- Noureddin in The Talisman (1889)
- The Phoenix Butterfly in The Whims of the Butterfly (1889)
- Prince Désiré in The Sleeping Beauty (1890)
- King Candaules in Le Roi Candaule (*1891)
- Kalkabrino in Kalkabrino (1891)
- James in La Sylphide (*1892)
- Prince Colqueluche in The Nutcracker (1892)
- Prince Charming in Cinderella (1893)
- Helios/Apollo, the God of the Sun in The Awakening of Flora (1894)
- Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake (*1895)
- Noureddin in The Talisman (*1895)
- Pierre in The Cavalry Halt (1896)
- The Genie of the Earth in The Pearl (1896)
- Iaromir/Prince Arkonskii in Mlada (*1896)
- Bluebeard in Bluebeard (1896)
- Abderakhman in Raymonda (1898)
- Lord Wilson/Ta-Hor in The Pharaoh’s Daughter (*1898)
- Conrad in Le Corsaire (*1899)
- Pierre Gringoire in Esmeralda (*1899)
- Damis in Les Ruses d’Amour (1900)
- Bacchus in The Seasons (1900)
- Solor in La Bayadère (*1900)
- Vestris in La Camargo (*1901)
- Gamache in Don Quixote (*1902)
- The King in The Magic Mirror (1903)
- King Candaules in Le Roi Candaule (*1903)
- Hilarion in Giselle (*1903)
- King Akdar in The Talisman (*1909)
(* – original cast member of revival)
(** – year of début performance)
Photos and images: © Dansmuseet, Stockholm © Большой театр России © Victoria and Albert Museum, London © Государственный академический Мариинский театр © CNCS/Pascal François © Bibliothèque nationale de France © Musée l’Opéra © Colette Masson/Roger-Viollet © АРБ имени А. Я. Вагановой © Михаил Логвинов © Михайловский театр, фотограф Стас Левшин. Партнёры проекта: СПбГБУК «Санкт-Петербургская государственная Театральная библиотека». ФГБОУВО «Академия русского балета имени А. Я. Вагановой» СПбГБУК «Михайловский театр». Михаил Логвинов, фотограф. Martine Kahane.