Ballet fantastique in two acts
Music by Cesare Pugni
Libretto by Marius Petipa
24th April [O.S. 12th April] 1860
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre, Saint Petersburg
Original 1860 Cast
The Blue Dahlia
By the mysterious will of fate, a blue dahlia has grown in the flowerbed of the fortunate gardener Gauthier and it is being guarded by a fantastic spirit, the Spirit of the Bloom in the form of a beautiful woman, on account of whom the gardener forgets everything, even his betrothed, the pretty Cecilia. When a flower competition is announced, Gauthier enters with his rare plant and is awarded first prize, but Count Harold insists on having the flower in exchange for the purse of gold. The gardener objects and as he tries to defend his dahlia, he breaks the stem in two. The dahlia has perished and together with it, the beautiful embodiment of the Spirit of the Bloom dies in Gauthier’s arms.
The Blue Dahlia was the fifth ballet that Petipa created for his wife and muse Maria Surovshchikova-Petipa. Unlike its four predecessors, The Blue Dahlia brought a subject and plot that was far from a light-hearted comedy. A variant of the Greco-Roman myth of Pygmalion, which would serve as the source for another of Petipa’s ballets, the young gardener Gautier produces his greatest botanical achievement, a blue dahlia (blue being an impossible colour for that type of flower) and hopes it will win him an upcoming competition. However, he becomes obsessed with the flower, reaching the point of neglecting reality. He falls so in love with the flower that he neglects his fiancée Cecile. In one scene, Cecile is so incensed that she runs into the garden to pluck the blue dahlia, but is prevented by Gautier. Even Gautier’s mother Susanna cannot make him see sense.
In a subplot, the barber, Beausoleil, played to great effect by Timofei Stukolkin, who is hopelessly in love with Cecilе. She flirts with him, in an attempt to arouse Gautier’s jealousy, but, when she ultimately rejects him, he tries to hang himself from a tree. The branch breaks and Beausoleil survives, but the episode reportedly brought the audience to tears. The final act, in which the competition takes place, featured a big divertissement. It includes a pas de deux entitled The Garland of Flowers for Lev Ivanov and Vera Liadova, a variation for Mme. Petipa entitled The Magical Dahlia and a concluding Pas de caractère hongrois.
By personifying flowers, Petipa was tapping into a fashion that was linked to the enthusiasm for fresh flowers, a decorative element of the romantic movement. In Russia, however, this enthusiasm did not arrive until the 1840s, before which it was not custom to give bouquets to the performers during the curtain calls. This all changed after a performance of an entertainment called The Love of Roses, or The May Beetle and the Butterfly that was held at the Mikhailkovsky in November 1848. This entertainment depicted the successions of different kingdoms of nature; first was the Kingdom of Flowers, in which “floral performers” danced and sang, followed by the Kingdom of Butterflies and finally, the Kingdom of Vegetables.
The significance of The Blue Dahlia in relation to Petipa’s works is that it started the attention of flowers and insects, which would run through his oeuvre right until the end. Bouquets, flower baskets, garlands and single blooms became important props that were used to adorn Petipa’s choreography in various pieces. Some of the most famous examples include “Le Jardin Animé” in Le Corsaire, the Garland Waltz and the Rose Adagio in The Sleeping Beauty, the Waltz of the Flowers in The Nutcracker (choreographed by Lev Ivanov), the Valse provençale from the Pas d’ensemble of the first scene in Raymonda and Petipa’s final, but unperformed ballet The Romance of the Rosebud and the Butterfly. The Blue Dahlia also marks a pivotal point in ballet history; the Romantic Era was ending, though Petipa still used its tropes to create a poetic dimension. He would continue to use sylphs, nymphs and dryads as the inhabitants of visions, dreams and fantasy worlds, but, as in The Blue Dahlia, he was beginning to replace them with other fantasy creatures and/or objects that were unattainable and idealised. The Blue Dahlia was the Sylph of the old Romantic Ballet and indeed, the critics noted the ballet’s echoes of Filippo Taglioni’s La Sylphide, especially with the death of the titular heroine because of a mortal man’s love.
The Blue Dahlia premièred on the 24th April [O.S. 12th April] 1860 at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre. Reception to the ballet was warm, with Rappaport writing that Petipa’s newest work contained not only “creativity and an abundance of invention”, but also observed that it “prevails a poetic content”. The Severnaia pchela noted the aforementioned echoes of Taglioni’s La Sylphide, but praised “both the creative talent and the imagination of the young choreographer” and:
… a composition in which ‘dances and groupings stand out with a freshness of invention, a gracefulness, and diversity. The flowers, and in particular, the animated dahlia, play a major role in the ballet. For her, the ballet master has devised new pas, attitudes, and poses, which beg for an artist’s pencil. – Severnaia pchela, 19 April 1860, p. 346
On the 12th January 1875, Petipa revived and staged the first act of The Blue Dahlia as part of a mixed bill for the benefit performance of Pavel Gerdt, in which his daughter Marie made her official stage début. The evening also marked the stage début of Platon Karsavin, father of Tamara Karsavina. Thirty years later in 1905, Gerdt revived The Blue Dahlia, which infuriated Petipa, who wrote in his diaries on the 3rd March [O.S. 18th February] 1905:
At 1 went to the Maryinsky to see the rehearsal of “The Blue Dahlia”, dreadfully mounted by that swine Gerdt. I wrote a letter to the Director to have my name removed from the program. – The Diaries of Marius Petipa, p. 66
Gerdt’s revival of The Blue Dahlia premièred on the 18th [O.S. 5th March] 1905 at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, with Liubov Egorova in the titular role, whose performance Petipa called “bad” in his diaries.
- Petipa, Marius, The Diaries of Marius Petipa. Translated ed. and introduction by Lynn Garafola. Published in Studies in Dance History 3.1. (Spring 1992)
- Meisner, Nadine (2019) Marius Petipa, The Emperor’s Ballet Master. New York City, US: Oxford University Press
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.