Although it was in St. Petersburg that Marius Petipa made his career, founding the Russian school of ballet and choreographing some of his best works, it was in Marseille that his story began in 1818. Born into a family of dancers, young Marius couldn't resist the siren call of the dance. He quickly realized that despite the incredible success of Romantic ballets like Giselle, the genre was stagnating. He wanted to revitalize it, putting the emphasis on storytelling through dance. By 1841 his career had taken him to Paris and Bordeaux (where he was named a principal dancer) and he presented his first narrative ballet: La Jolie Bordelaise (The Beauty of Bordeaux).
After three years in Madrid, Petipa received an invitation to work in St. Petersburg and what was meant to be a one-year stint turned into virtually a lifelong stay. At the Imperial Theater, he graduated from principal dancer to official choreographer in 1862, with his first success, The Pharaoh's Daughter, that same year.
After earning the admiration of the Tsar himself, Petipa began to work in all the theaters of the Imperial Ballet and directed the Imperial Ballet School from 1855–1887. His works from this period include some of his most beloved, Don Quixote (1869) and La Bayadère (1877).
It is said that Petipa’s first meeting with Tchaikovsky took place at the Mariinsky Theater at a performance of La Bayadère. When Petipa took the stage for his bow, he turned to the box where Tchaikovsky sat and exclaimed, "If only the most important Russian composer could write for our theater!" Sleeping Beauty (1890), The Nutcracker (1892), and Swan Lake(1895) would all result from the incredibly productive artistic collaboration that would follow.
Petipa’s ballet is narrative, often inspired by legends and tales, and replete with both dramatic passages and virtuosic sequences. He was influenced not only by the grace and reverie of the Romantic ballet, but also by Slavic fatalism. His ballet is a complete spectacle that relies on the entirety of the cast, with some characters dancing very little or even not at all.
Author of over sixty works, Petipa bid adieu to the stage in 1904. He spent his final years on the banks of the Black Sea, leaving behind him an incredible legacy through both those who trained under him and his inspiring body of work. Often dubbed “the father of classical ballet,” many of the most influential figures of the twentieth century can be traced back to him, including Serge de Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, who took over Parisian stages just after his death, like Rudolf Nureyev would as well decades later.