The Beginnings of Russian Ballet

Ballet was introduced to Russia much later than to Western Europe. In 1698 Peter the Great returned to Russia after a extended tour in the West and decided to modernize his country. He introduced the western dress and encouraged change in the arts, politics, and economics. He invited artists from other countries to help elevate the spirit of the arts.

Starting with Jean-Baptiste Lande (1734-48). Empress Anna was so impressed by a recital of Jean-Baptiste Lande's students that she started a school in 1738. Later this school became the St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet School.

Catherine the Great, a great patron of the arts, established the Directorate of the Imperial theaters, giving it control over ballet. At a Moscow Orphanage in 1774 she started a ballet school under the direction of Filippo Beccari (?).

In 1801 Charles Didelot sparked the first great period of ballet. His productions were seen at the St. Petersburg Bolshoi Theatre, latter called the Maryinsky, and later still the Kirov.

The Russian ballet remained a mystery to the West, but as the European dancers returned from their Russian tours with stories of the beautiful theaters and the tremendous salaries paid guest artists, caused many of the great dancers and teachers to flood the Russian market: Jean-Batiste Lande, Louis Duport, Jules Perrot, Arthur Saint-Leon, Marie Taglioni, Lucile Grahm, Fanny Cerrito, Fanny Elssler, and Carlotta Grisi all danced in Russia.

Marie Taglioni was respondsible for bringing her new partner, Christian Johanson to St. Petersburg. After Taglioni's contract expired, Johanson stayed and became a leading dancer and one of the most influential teachers of ballet. Johanson was responsible for keeping the male dancers a major part of ballet--a situation that did much to keep ballet viable in Russia, while it declined in the rest of Europe. Maybe we can learn something from this. Because of Rudolph Nureyev ballet has its present popularity.

Ivan Valberkh (1766-1819) was the first famous Russian ballet master to be trained at the St Petersburg academy. He had studied with Gaspero Angiolini (1731-1803) and Canziani (?) in 1786.

Literature, operas and plays were the sources of his choreography. He wanted to promote the Russian dancers and his patriotic ballets were the most popular. Love for the Fatherland was so inflammatory that many in the audience left the theater and enlisted in the war against Napoleon.

He succeeded Canziani as ballet inspector of the St. Petersburg Bolshoi Theatre and director of the school in 1794. Later he reorganized the school in Moscow.

Maria Danilova (1793-1810) entered the St. Petersburg school at the age of eight. Her talent soon attracted Charles-Louis Didelot's attention and she made her first appearance a year later; by the time she was 15 she was dancing with Louis Duport. She graduated from the academy in 1809. Her dancing was so light and elusive that it took the audience's breath away. Danilova was very fragile and the emotional pressures of performance and a short, unhappy, love affair with Duport undermined her health: She died of consumption at the age of 17.

Avdotia Ilyinitshna Istomina, (1799-1848) graduated from the academy in 1815 and within 5 years held the rank of primiere danseuse mime. She was a great beauty with jet-black hair and a beautiful figure. Her technique was flawless, and her elevation and pirouettes set her aside from the other dancers. Also, her acting abilities inspired Pushkin to write the ballet "Prisoner of the Caucasus" in 1836 for her. Because of a injury to her foot she danced less and less, finally retiring in 1836. She died of cholera 12 years later.

When Marie Taglioni took St. Petersburg by storm, Elena Andreianova (1819-1857), a ballerina who graduated from the Imperial Theatre school, had to watch jealously from the wings. In time Andreianova became more powerful, because she was the lover of Alexander Guedenov, the director of the Imperial Theatre.

Elena was the first Russian Giselle, in 1842. Guedenov arranged a successful tour for her in Paris, but at La Scala she was less impressive.

In 1848, when Fanny Elssler arrived in St. Petersburg, the Russian dancers were again forced into the background. To keep peace, Guedenov sent Andreianova to Moscow. The Moscovites resented the invasion of the dancer from St. Petersburg, and on her opening night, instead of flowers, the audience threw a dead cat on stage. Elena fainted, and then she got a standing ovation.

She did another successful foreign tour, but on her return she found that Guedenov had found a new "protegee." At 34 Andreianova was forced to retire. Not being able to handle the politics of the dance world, she moved to France, where she died at the age of 48.

Marius Petipa, while Arthur Saint-Leon's assistant, choreographed a ballet for Martha Nicolyevna Mouravieva (1838-1879), co-starring his wife, Marie Petipa. Martha was a striking beauty with a slim figure who soon became a popular attraction both in St. Petersburg and Moscow. She was a favorite of Saint-Leon who choreographed Diavolina for her. Her last performance was in his Little Humpbacked Horse. She resigned from the ballet at the age of 27. I could not find any additional records of her life or death.

In 1864 Paul Andreyevich Gerdt (1844-1917) graduated from the Imperial School, and in 1866 was made premier danseur. He held the rank for 50 years. Gerdt was the most famous Russian dancer of his time. He was tall, blond and very good looking. and every ballerina wanted to be partnered by him. He was a student of Christian Johansson and Marius Petipa, and created the leading roles in many of Petipa's and Ivanov's ballets, including Sleeping Beauty, Kalkabrino, The Nutcracker, Cinderella, Halte de Cavalerie, Raymonda, and Swan Lake.

His greatest role was considered to be in La Fille du Danube. Because of his talent for mime he continued to dance long after his prime. At the age of 72 he gave his farewell performance, playing Gamache in Don Quixote. He also taught classes in "pas de deux" and mime. Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Mikhail Fokine, Sergei and Nicolai Legat were some of his most fanous students.

Gerdt's daughter Elizaveta (1891-1975) also became a popular dancer at the Maryinsky, and was appointed ballerina in 1919. Her pure, clean, classical technique was admired by those who saw her perform. After the Revolution she stayed in Russia, and in 1934 moved to Moscow, where she became a teacher at the Bolshoi Ballet. Maya Plisetkaya and Ekaterina Maximova were among her most famous students. The goverment awarded her the title Merited Artist R.S.F.S.R. in 1925, and again in 1951.

(First published December 1993)

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