The Daughter of the Snows

Ballet fantastique in three acts and five scenes
Music by Ludwig Minkus
Libretto by Marius Petipa
Décor by Matvei Shishkov (Act 1), Heinrich Wagner (Act 2) and Mikhail Bocharov (Act 3)
Costumes by Adolph Charlemagne

World Première
19th January [O.S. 7th January] 1879
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre, Saint Petersburg

Original 1879 Cast
The Daughter of the Snows
Ekaterina Vazem

The Captain
Pavel Gerdt

The Spirit of the Cold
Nikolai Goltz

The Goddess of Summer
Maria Gorshenkova

Evgenia Voronova

The Rich Norwegian
Alexander Pisho

The Captain’s fiancée
Lyubov Savitskaya

The Old Sailor
Timofei Stukokin

The Old Sailor’s Son
Marie Petipa


The Daughter of the Snows was created by Petipa and Ludwig Minkus for the benefit performance of Ekaterina Vazem. A fantasy story set in Norway and the North Pole that took inspiration from Scandinavian folklore and legends and carried typical touches of romanticism along with typical Petipa motifs. In true Petipa style, the ballet contained a divertissement of character dances that were not related to the story, but instead of taking place in the final act as was normally the case, they dominated the first act.

Origins of the ballet

There has been some confusion in regard to the origins of The Daughter of the Snows and there are two legends surrounding how the ballet came to be created, the second of which has turned out to be false. The first legend says that it was triggered by the enthusiasm that greeted the Swedish-Finnish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskjöld’s Arctic expedition of 1878-80, the Vega Expedition, which opened the Northeast Passage and was a major development for Russia, both politically and economically. Although it has not been confirmed for definite, the idea that the Vega Expedition was connected to the creation of The Daughter of the Snows is plausible. The enthusiasm that met the expedition could have given Petipa, Minkus and the Imperial Theatre directorate the idea of creating a new ballet that centred on an expedition to the North Pole, but one that would turn into a magical adventure that ended in tragedy, a plot typical of the Romantic stories of mortals crossing into the world of the supernatural.

The second legend began during the Soviet Union when a story was created saying that The Daughter of the Snows was inspired by the classic Russian fairy tale The Snow Maiden. A popular tale and character, the Snow Maiden, also known as Snegurochka, first appeared in Russian folklore in the 19th century. A famous version of the story was published in ethnographer Alexander Afanasyev’s The Poetic Outlook of Nature by the Slavs in 1869. In this version, a childless couple, who long for a child, build one out of snow and she comes to life. They adopt her as their daughter and she quickly grows up into a beautiful girl, winning the hearts of all the villagers. One day, she goes with other girls from the village into the woods. They light a small fire and take turns in leaping over it, but when the Snow Maiden leaps over it, she evaporates into a cloud and ascends into Heaven. In a second famous version, the Snow Maiden is the daughter of Father Frost and Mother Spring and becomes attached to a young shepherd named Lel, but is unable to know love. Taking pity on her daughter, Mother Spring gives Snegurochka this ability and she falls in love with Lel, but her new ability causes her heart to warm and she melts.

Snow Maiden by Victor Vasnetsov (1899)
Snow Maiden (Snegurochka) by Victor Vasnetsov (1899)

The story of Snegurochka has since been adapted multiple times; the second version of the story was famously adapted by Alexander Ostrovsky for his 1873 play The Snow Maiden, for which Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed incidental music. The story was also adapted by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov into his 1880-81 opera The Snow Maiden: A Spring Fairy Tale, the libretto of which is also based on Ostrovsky’s play. However, despite her popularity in Russia, Snegurochka had nothing to do with its creation because it is highly more likely that the ballet was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. While this has not been confirmed, the similarities between Petipa and Minkus’s ballet and Andersen’s most highly acclaimed fairy tale cannot be ignored. For example, the ballet is set in Scandinavia and the North Pole, not Russia and the eponymous Daughter of the Snows bears more similarity to the ice-hearted Snow Queen than to sweet, innocent Snegurochka.

The Snow Queen illustration by Elena Ringo
The Snow Queen, illustration by Elena Ringo

However, rather than telling a story about two children and the values of friendship, Petipa stayed true to the Romantic Ballet tradition of when the world of mortals meets the world of the supernatural, complete with the storyline of a mortal man falling in love with a magical maiden. In comparison to the other supernatural ballerina roles to whom the danseur role is drawn, however, the Daughter of the Snows is more sinister than the likes of the Sylph, Fleur des Champs and Ondine. The aforementioned maidens of the air, the river and the sea fall in love with mortal men and two of them lure them away from their respective fiancées, but for the Daughter of the Snows, love is not a possibility. Just like the Snow Queen, she is an embodiment of snow, ice and cold inside and out; coldness is all she feels. In the libretto, it says “her heart is inaccessible to desires of passion”, so she can never enjoy the warmth and joys of love: not even the love of a mortal man or the powers of the Goddess of Summer can warm her heart.

What Petipa and Minkus presented was a darker Romantic maiden, very similar to the wilis from Giselle and the ghosts of the nuns from Robert le Diable. The Daughter of the Snows’ motive is that she seemingly sets out to destroy any mortal who encounters her, but not through her own initiative, but through that of the ruler of the icy kingdom where she lives, the Spirit of the Cold, who is clearly a parallel to Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, Hydrola, Queen of the Naiads and the Queen of the Elves from Trilby and the full extend of his power is clearly shown. While Giselle, Ondine and Trilby rebel against their respective queens in the name of love, the Daughter of the Snows remains faithful to her king and does not deviate from her ice-cold nature, not even after the Goddess of Summer turns her into a snowdrop, thereby showing the full context of the dangers of this fairyland of ice and snow.

Lithograph of Act 1, "The Sailors' Dance" (1879)
Lithograph of Act 1, “The Sailors’ Dance” (1879)


The first act, set in a Norwegian port town, sees the Captain and his crew setting sail for the North Pole and before boarding the vessel, a festivity to wave them off on their departure is held and contained various Scandinavian-style character dances – Celtringers, a Northern Gypsy dance (performed by Lyubov Radina and Felix Kschessinsky) and a Norwegian wedding dance (performed by Alexandra Kremer and Lev Ivanov). When it is time to depart, the sailors bid farewell to their wives and children, while the Captain bids farewell to his fiancée, who gives him her portrait. The second act is the introduction of the other world that lay within the North Pole – the Land of the Snows, an enchanted kingdom ruled by the Spirit of the Cold. When the ship is marooned on ice, the Captain embarks ashore with some of his crew and encounters a beautiful apparition – the Daughter of the Snows – and the Captain falls madly in love with her, forgetting his fiancée. A number known as The Snow Cloud begins, in which dancing snowflakes appear and joyfully dance. The Daughter of the Snows, however, cannot reciprocate the Captain’s love for it is not in her nature to love and realising this, the Captain decides to leave, but as he and the crew return to the ship, the Spirit of the Cold appears, who threatens revenge on the mortals for disrupting the quiet of his kingdom.

Lithograph of Act 2, the Kingdom of the Spirit of the Cold (1879)
Lithograph of Act 2, the Kingdom of the Spirit of the Cold (1879)

The third and final act contained perhaps the ballet’s most spectacular scene, which was devoted to Love and Rebirth. The Captain, driven by love, leaves the ship once more and meets the Daughter of the Snows again on a deserted island. He is so captivated by her beauty that he offers to sacrifice his life for just one glimmer of love in her eyes. At this moment, the Goddess of Summer appears, surrounded by cupids, but the Captain is silently reminded of his betrayal of his fiancée when her image appears on a block of ice floating by. This is a warning; he remember his oath to his fiancée and has a premonition that a punishment awaits him for his betrayal. The touch of the Goddess of Summer fills his body with revitalising warmth and nature itself transforms around him – winter becomes summer and the Daughter of the Snows turns into a magnificent snowdrop. Dancing flowers appear and the Captain is exulted with joy, but his happiness is short-lived with the reappearance of the Spirit of the Cold. Ice covers everything, the daylight gets darker and the Goddess of Summer and the flowers disappear. Snow begins to fall; the Captain sees his ship afar and tries to signal for help, but he cannot fight the cold and he falls to the ground; he is soon completed covered in snow, perished because of his love for the Daughter of the Snows.

Lithograph of Act 3, scene 2 - "The Rebirth of Nature" (1879)
Lithograph of Act 3, scene 2 – The Rebirth of Nature (1879)

World Première
The Daughter of the Snows 
was premièred on the 19th January [O.S. 7th January] 1879 at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre. The ballet was met with a muted reception and was, as remembered by Ekaterina Vazem, not one of Petipa’s most successful works. Vazem’s performance in the titular role was a success in its own right, but she herself did not think highly of The Daughter of the Snows, as shown in her memoirs:

The next ballet Petipa produced for me was first performed at my benefit at the beginning of 1879. It was called The Daughter of the Snows and as I have indicated it must be counted among Petipa’s unsuccessful works. With the public, at least, it had success. I appeared on stage only in the second and third acts, which were devoted to classical dances; the first was filled with character dances of the northern peoples. Now I positively cannot remember the ballerina’s dances – they probably did not amount to much. At the end of the ballet, [Pavel] Gerdt, as the captain of the icebound vessel, and I and others played out a scene of ‘love and rebirth’, but of what it consisted I cannot now say. The Daughter of the Snows did not hold the stage for long, and was taken out of the repertoire.”

  • From Memoirs of a Ballerina of the St Petersburg Bolshoy Theatre, 1867-1884, Ekaterina Ottovna Vazem, Chapter 11 (quoted in A Century of Russian Ballet, 1810-1910 by Roland John Wiley, 2007)

Despite the ballet’s muted reception at the première, it was staged again on the 28th January when Petipa selected it for his benefit performance, where he was presented with a silver tankard and tray. Clearly, not everyone shared Vazem’s criticisms, as proven by the following eye witness account:

Ballet is set in Nordic countries, and that why from it [on us] blows some cold, especially in its first two acts, remarkable for the hollowness of the context. Although in the plot of the third act some poetry can be seen. It ends, however, very impressively.

Finale is very effective and not devoid of poetry, but the transformation of winter into summer was not quite successful. Machines and flights, in all honesty, also did not function to perfection.

In the last acts Mlle Vazem ruled as a dancer for whom technical difficulty does not exist, and who had the opportunity to show off the full scale of her grace, airiness, and amazing strength of her pointes.

Music written by Mr. Minkus for this new ballet is light, playful and elegant.”

  • Quoted in Всемирная иллюстрация / Global Illustration for 1879

Nevertheless, as Vazem stated, The Daughter of the Snows did not last long in the repertoire and fell into obscurity following its removal. Despite its short-lived time in the repertoire, The Daughter of the Snows continued the way for snow scenes in Petipa’s ballets, which had been previously seen in La Camargo with the winter divertissement and would be seen again in The Nutcracker with the Waltz of the Snowflakes, choreographed by Lev Ivanov.

Lithograph of Act 3, scene 3 (1879)
Lithograph of Act 3, scene 3 (1879)


  • Всемирная иллюстрация / Global Illustration for 1879
  • Nadine Meisner (2019) Marius Petipa, The Emperor’s Ballet Master. New York City, US: Oxford University Press
  • Roland John Wiley (2007) A Century of Russian Ballet. Alton, Hampshire, UK: Dance Books Ltd

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.