Russia's 5 Best-Known Ballets
Anna Galayda, special to RBTH
Performed across the centuries, these timeless productions are known and loved throughout the world. RBTH looks back at the history of Russia's enduringly popular ballets.
The Sleeping Beauty

It is often described as "an encyclopedia of classical dance". This three-act ballet with its prologue and apotheosis comprises everything created by the genre of classical ballet over the three hundred years it has existed.
Marius Petipa (pictured, right), the god and hero of the 19th century St. Petersburg ballet, mastered all these aspects. By the time The Sleeping Beauty premiered in 1890, he had been the chief choreographer of the Mariinsky Theatre for 30 years. Every year, he created several new productions, which were received by the audience with the fatigue of gourmets who are doomed to eat restaurant meals every day.
But in The Sleeping Beauty, the 72-year-old choreographer showed that he was capable of radical innovations. His co-author was the composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who was at the height of his career, world famous and widely admired. The unfortunate fate of Swan Lake had put the composer off ballet productions. However, the director of the Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, was taken by the idea of creating a lavish extravaganza, and his energy and enthusiasm were enough to bring together the two geniuses to work jointly on it. It was not an easy collaboration: Petipa had meticulously drawn up a plan for a four-hour-long ballet, presenting the composer with an assignment that set the nature of the music, its tempo, and even the number of bars in each number. Yet, Tchaikovsky managed to find inspiration even within these constraints – the music for The Sleeping Beauty is one of his best works. For his part, Petipa turned out to be capable of flights of broad imagination that he had not known with other composers he worked with.
The Sleeping Beauty also holds a special place in the history of Russian culture because legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova and artist Alexandre Benois decided to devote their life to ballet after they first saw its production as children.
The Sleeping Beauty
The Bolshoi Theatre
Swan Lake

For many, Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky's first foray into the genre, composed 140 years ago, has become synonymous with the idea of ballet. And yet, its fate was far from smooth. Swan Lake is one of the few Russian classical ballets to have premiered not in imperial St. Petersburg, but in the more "democratic" Moscow.
The Bolshoi Ballet was headed by a Czech, Václav Reisinger (pictured, right), in 1877. His name has gone down in history for the sole reason that he was the first to stage Swan Lake, interpreting it as an ordinary ballet fairy tale set in the days of medieval chivalry.

The production was a success, to the extent that a production of a provincial theater - which is what Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre was at the time - could be. It was performed 27 times, and two years later disappeared from the repertoire, seemingly forever.
Design by F. Gaanen for the décor of Act II of Swan Lake, Moscow, 1877
However, in 1894, the Mariinsky Theater, at a memorial evening commemorating the composer, showed the swan scene from the ballet, with new choreography by Lev Ivanov.

The circle dance, with its beautiful patterns of ballerinas representing swans, on the one hand, looked the epitome of the Russian national character, and on the other, was a perfect reflection of the music. That success brought Swan Lake back to the Imperial stage, for the one and only time joining two geniuses of choreography, Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa, in one production.
After them, Swan Lake underwent numerous alterations as every historical period sought to express something of its essence in yet another version of the ballet. And Swan Lake responded to those changes, albeit sometimes reluctantly. In 1910, Alexander Gorsky presented it as the last spark of Russia's Silver Age and era of modernism; in a 1930s production in Leningrad, Agrippina Vaganova used it to condemn bourgeois morality; in the 1960s, Yury Grigorovich interpreted it as a struggle between light and dark forces in the soul of one man; while in the 1970s, John Neumeier saw it as reflecting the fatal hopelessness of beautiful illusions.
Swan Lake
The Bolshoi Theatre
This readiness to accept and express new ideas is perhaps what has turned Swan Lake into an exceptional ballet that audiences are still eager to see whether in Moscow, New York, London or New Delhi.
La Bayadere

A quarter of a century ago, it was impossible to imagine La Bayadere being performed outside of the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. The Bolshoi performed just one scene from it, "Shades". Shortly before his death, Rudolf Nureyev staged a full-length production of La Bayadere at Opera National de Paris, and a little earlier prima ballerina and choreographer Natalia Makarova produced her version for the American Ballet Theatre and the Royal Ballet.
Petipa's masterpiece was simply overwhelming in its scale: the "Shades" scene alone requires 32 well-trained dancers, three virtuoso female and two male soloist dancers. Even to get to the third act with its "Shades" scene, audiences first have to go through the scene of the temple festival of fire worship, with temple maidens, fakirs, dervishes, followed by a no less crowded scene of the betrothal of the Raja's daughter.

And in act two, there is a lavish wedding scene, with 12 couples in the dance with fans, 12 more dancers with parrots, eight little moors, 11 Indians, four temple dancers, and six dancers in pairs, not counting several soloists.
Petipa, a genius of classical ballet who for nearly 60 years served at the Russian Imperial Court, was not in the habit of exercising restraint when it came to spending – his contemporaries joked sarcastically that even his little one-act ballets staged "for the occasion" could cripple a small country's budget. La Bayadere was never a routine production: Petipa first created it in 1877 and spent the next 30 years honing it to what he saw as perfection.

During the Soviet era, La Bayadere was improved further still – by cutting the fourth act, in which the gods respond to the passionate plea of the deceived and deceased temple maiden and punish her unfaithful lover and his bride by bringing the palace crashing down on them during their wedding.
However, unlike Swan Lake, whose numerous choreographers hide under the pseudonym Petipa, La Bayadere has retained its integrity. And although today few people know that the word bayadere denotes a Hindu dancing girl, particularly those that perform in temples, people still flock to see the ballet. The waves of emotion created by the jealous rivalry between a beautiful priestess and an imperious princess over a noble warrior, who is courageous when it comes to fighting tigers, but a weakling in love, strikes a chord even with those that have never been to India.
La Bayadere
The Bolshoi Theatre
The Nutcracker

It is a sure sign that Christmas is coming when tickets for The Nutcracker go on sale in Russia. The clear voices of the children's choir accompanying the circle dance of snowflakes in white tutus perfectly embody the belief in miracles that is so strongly associated with this holiday.
And yet, The Nutcracker has only recently been connected with Christmas: In the mid-20th century, when the choreographer George Balanchine staged his version of the ballet for the New York City Ballet. A sophisticated connoisseur of music, he did not struggle with the problem of how to reconcile a rites-of-passage fairy tale with music that seemed to have absorbed all the tragedy of the world.
George Balanchine (pictured, right), born Giorgi Balanchivadze, turned his production into a recollection of his youth, of his work at the Leningrad Theatre of Opera and Ballet, and his virtuoso solo of the Clown in the famous version of The Nutcracker choreographed by Lev Ivanov. Always a second choreographer under Petipa, Ivanov only twice came out of the great master's shadow - in the swan scene of Swan Lake and in The Nutcracker.
The idea of the ballet belonged to Petipa: He wanted to repeat his collaboration with Tchaikovsky. It was he who came up with the story, using a fairy tale by German romantic author Hoffmann in the version written by his fellow Frenchman Alexandre Dumas. He developed the libretto and issued instructions for the composer. However, at the last minute - for reasons that remain unclear – he gave up the production, delegating the three-act ballet to his assistant.
Not only did Ivanov save the New Year Eve premiere in 1892, he created a production whose version of the dance of the snowflakes is still considered to be unrivaled.
The Nutcracker
Mariinsky Theatre
Russian theaters on foreign tours are always expected to perform Spartacus, even when the degree of press enthusiasm for this ballet is practically zero. Nevertheless, in its finale the audience – without fail - jump to their feet, as if it were not a ballet but the conclusion of a fiercely fought soccer match.
Few people remember that prior to the great production by Yury Grigorovich, Aram Khachaturian's ballet already had a long and happy fate. Almost simultaneously, it was staged at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre and the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Theatre in Leningrad. These productions were created by Igor Moiseyev, a genius of mass scenes and multiple-figure dances, and Leonid Yakobson (pictured, right), one of the most radical innovators in 20th century choreography. Based on frescos and vases in the Hermitage collection, he created the dance language of the Romans in the ballet.
Yet, the legendary glory of a gladiator who took on the might of power came back to life in another production, the one staged in 1968 in Moscow by the then 41-year-old Grigorovich. In collaboration with stage designer Simon Virsaladze, he created a ballet combining the onslaught of phalanxes of rebellious slaves, who seemed to march right into the audience, with the intimate intonation of confessional monologues. In them, a suffering and doubting Spartacus, as he assumed responsibility for hundreds of people, opposed a cruel and sophisticated Roman general, Crassus. For the two of them, Grigorovich created choreography whose virtuosity had been previously unseen in modern ballet. Thanks to this, the opposition between the two characters and the two dancers, both professional and historical, stirs and captures the imagination of audiences worldwide to this day.
The Bolshoi Theatre
Texts by Anna Galayda
Edited by Oleg Krasnov, Vsevolod Pulya
Images credits: Getty Images, AP, Reuters, AFP/East News, Damir Yusupov/Bolshoi, Archive Photo,
Alexandr Kryazhev; Igor Russak; Lesov/ RIA Novosti,
Vasily Smirnov; Yuri Belinskiy / TASS
Design and layout by Slava Petrakina
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