Ballet in one act
Music by Cesare Pugni
Libretto by Marius Petipa
16th November [O.S. 4th November] 1865
Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre, Saint Petersburg
Original 1865 Cast
Set in Spain, bandits hold up a post chaise carrying Alma, a famous dancer, and her female companion. They rob them, but she disarms them with her grace and softens their rough hearts. They return to her what they have taken, after which, an officer appears and rescues the captives. The bandits are caught up with shooting, wounding and more.
The Travelling Dancer was among those ballets that Petipa created especially for Maria Surovshchikova-Petipa and was based on an earlier ballet by Paul Taglioni entitled La Prima Ballerina, ou l’embuscade. When Jules Perrot left London in 1846, his successor at Her Majesty’s Theatre was Taglioni, who was a very gifted choreographer in his own right, and arrived in London when the Romantic Era had come to an end. In his first season, Taglioni created and staged two very successful ballets Coralia, a faithful retelling of La Motte-Fouqué’s novella Undine, and Théa, both of which premiered in 1847 and introduced London to Carolina Rosati and his daughter the younger Marie Taglioni (named after her famous aunt).
At the time of Taglioni’s appointment at Her Majesty’s Theatre, public opinion and tastes were changing, especially towards ballet pantomime, to which a public distaste was now growing. Taglioni kept in touch with public tastes in his ballets, which were devoid of great dramatic roles and his choreography brought forward the qualities of the ballerina more than pantomime did. After the creations of Coralia and Théa, however, Taglioni would go on to create minor works in which the plots were drastically reduced. One such ballet was La Prima Ballerina, which was created to a music score by Cesare Pugni and was based on an alleged adventure of Taglioni’s famous sister Marie in which she was kidnapped by a group of bandits and was only allowed to go on her way after paying the ransom demanded of a few dances. La Prima Ballerina was not exactly a plot ballet, but a divertissement built on an anecdote and it premièred on the 14th June 1849.
Years later, Petipa created his own version of La Prima Ballerina, possibly using Pugni’s score for Taglioni’s original ballet. The theme and anecdotal plot were retained, it was given a new title and was staged as a one-act episode. The Travelling Dancer made its world première on the 16th November [O.S. 4th November] 1865 at the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre as part of the benefit performance of Nikolai Golts. The titular role of Alma was one that suited Maria Surovshchikova-Petipa’s abilities and the ballet was created at a turning point in surrounding events. Maria’s two-year rivalry with Marfa Muravieva had come to an end after the latter was forced to retire due to ill health, but Maria’s own career was also beginning to suffer. By now, her technique was in terminal decline and in a letter to Perrin, Arthur Saint-Léon wrote: “Mme Petipa is losing her strength from day to day…” and this was leaving the Imperial Theatre “… without a première danseuse”.
Nevertheless, Petipa would go on to create two more ballets for his wife and muse, but they, too, would prove fruitless in saving Maria’s career. On the 18th February [O.S. 6th February] 1866, Maria would dance in The Travelling Dancer again in a mixed bill performance and two years later, the ballet was transferred to Moscow, where it made its première at the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre in the 9th December [O.S. 27th November] 1868.
In 1904, The Travelling Dancer was to be included in the programme for the world première for The Romance of the Rosebud and the Butterfly, but the performance was abruptly cancelled. The following year, the ballet was among those chosen by Olga Preobrazhenskaya for her benefit performance and it was for this performance that Petipa choreographed his very last piece of choreography. He added a new variation for Preobrazhenskaya and wrote in his diary: “It’s my last variation. It’s finished!!!”
- Guest, Ivor (1954) The Romantic Ballet in England. Hampshire, UK: 2014 ed. Dance Books Ltd
- 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.