The renowned Mariinsky Ballet of St. Petersburg is traditionally held in the highest esteem as a cradle of the classical ballet. The Company's invaluable contributions to the world dance scene are especially significant. The Mariinsky Ballet flourished at the time when this art form's influence and popularity were wanting elsewhere. It has forever impacted the global ballet history through the legendary choreographers, composers and dancers that blossomed on the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre.
Originally known as the Imperial Russian Ballet, the Company beginnings date back to 1740's, following the establishment of the first Russian dance school (now the Vaganova Ballet Academy) in 1738. The renaissance of Russian ballet, by and large, is owed to the creative mastermind of a Frenchman Marius Petipa and the Mariinsky troupe coming together during the later pa rt of 19th century. It seems improbable whether the choreographic masterpieces comprising the classical ballet legacy could have been born of any other union. The results of this collaboration: "La Bayadere", "The Sleeping Beauty", "Swan Lake" (with Lev Ivanov), "Raymonda" not only epitomize Petipa's genius, but also reveal the inimitable aura of the Mariinsky Ballet. Through his tenure as the chief ballet master, Petipa redefined the corps de ballet to reflect his vision of ideal unity. His ballerinas soared to glory in roles the master devised for their individual talents: the names of Yekaterina Vyazem, Mathilde Kschessinska, Anna Pavlova and Olga Preobrazhenskaya are justly celebrated as part of the Mariinsky past. In the early 20th century, Michele Fokine had reigned over the Mariinsky for a single decade and his innovative works, "Chopiniana" ("Les Sylphides") and "Le Pavillon d'Armide" among them, brought to the fore a male dancer prototype for the future. Vaslav Nijinsky was destined to have an extraordinary impact on the development of male ballet technique in Russia and abroad.
The years after the revolution were challenging for the ballet. The Mariinsky Theatre had lost all of its imperial benefactors, and many of the best artists, including budding young choreographer Georgy Balanchivadze, fled the country due to hardships. Yet the Company maintained its classical heritage through the next 20 years, under the vigilant eye of the brilliant ballet master Fyodor Lopukhov and the famed dance teacher Agrippina Vaganova. New star dancers Marina Semenova, Galina Ulanova, Natalia Dudinskaya, Vakhtang Chabukiani and Konstantin Sergeyev revitalized the traditional repertoire. Aside from classics, the Company's current focus tied to the burgeoning genre of drama-ballet. The new movement shifted away from dance as the primary interpretive element in ballet, and relied mainly on naturalistic staging and realistic acting. Leonid Lavrovsky's "Romeo and Juliet", premiered in 1940 and the best of the lot, survives largely due to Prokofiev's superlative score and Shakespeare's ageless love story.
The Mariinsky's devotion to tradition was well kept through the 50's, 60's and 70's, though the company remained immune to the forward movement in Western choreographic art. No matter, Petipa's shades, Ivanov's swans and Fokine's sylphides conquered the audiences and critics the world over. The dancers of that generation thrived even within the limits of repertoire; among the best were Irina Kolpakova, Alla Osipenko, Natalia Makarova, Rudolph Nureyev, Yuri Soloviev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. There were capable homegrown choreographers fulfilling the need for innovation. Yuri Grigorovich created perhaps his most interesting ballet "The Legend of Love" in 1961, and once again realigned the art form with principals of symphonic dance manifested in Petipa-Tchaikovsky masterpieces. A few original works of that period withstood the test of time, though Grigorovich's best choreography endures to this day.
At last Roland Petit was invited to stage "Le Notre-Dame de Paris" in 19 78, marking the introduction of contemporary foreign choreography to St. Petersburg artists. One of the most controversial European masters Maurice Béjart soon followed and set a selection of his dances for the troupe. A monumental event transpired in 1989, as two ballets by George Balanchine received its first performances by the Mariinsky authorized by The Balanchine Trust. The Company, eager to expand its repertoire, acquired works by Jerome Robbins and Anthony Tudor, added to its Balanchine collection and revived Fokine's signature creations for Ballets Russes. The artists were challenged and invigorated with the riches of the 20th century neo-classicism and modern dance. The abundant talents of Galina Mezentseva, Tatiana Terekhova, Altynai Asylmuratova, Farukh Ruzimatov and Igor Zelensky shone with new luster. The year leading to the turn of the millennium at the Mariinsky proved to be a vintage one. The reconstruction of Marius Petipa's greatest masterpiece "The Sleeping Beauty" in the 1890 original version was realized, and then George Balanchine's full length opus "Jewels" had its premiere; both becoming the instant hallmarks of the company's repertoire. These productions also affirmed the exceptional gifts of three young ballerinas: Uliana Lopatkina, Diana Vishneva and Svetlana Zakharova broadened the resources of classical expression at the onset of 21st century.
In the next decade, The Mariinsky Ballet continues the forays into recent and distant past, while its playbill is augmented by a number of original creations. Encouraged by the favorable reception of the new-old "The Sleeping Beauty", the Company restored another Petipa's jewel "La Bayadere", in the last version overseen by the choreographer himself in 1900. An ardent scholar of the ballet theatre's romantic era Pierre Lacotte was invited to re-stage Jules Perrot's "Ondine", not seen for well over a century. Lacotte's new production was consistent to the original atmosphere and style of the period, and the dancers brilliantly mastered the complex choreography rooted in French academic traditions. The Mariinsky was honored with The Golden Mask Award in 2008 for its revival of "Le Reveil de Flore", another Petipa & Ivanov trifle unearthed from the Ballet's Imperial coffers. The 20th century segment of repertoire was enriched with Sir Kenneth MacMillan's lavish dramatic vehicle "Manon", intended to showcase the company's best dancing actors. John Neumeier's staging of three one-act ballets, including a w orld premiere of "Sounds of Empty Pages", was fervently performed by the Mariinsky. William Forsythe produced a blockbuster program highlighted by the iconic "In the middle, somewhat elevated"; his edgy improvisational style, with almost mathematically calculated movement, is often beyond the reach of most, yet the St. Petersburg dancers triumphed in Forsythe's works. The company's quest for original choreography resulted in commissions from Russia's Kirill Simonov and Alexei Miroshnichenko, Britain's David Dawson, U.S.A.'s Noah D. Gelber and Canada's Peter Quanz. The Mariinsky's long-established association with the much thought after choreographer of our day Alexei Ratmansky produced the finest new additions to the repertoire, especially his modern un-fairy tale take on the "Cinderella" and the ingenious treatment of an Old Russian folk fable "The Little Humpbacked Horse".
Today the Mariinsky Ballet carefully guards its legacy: the Company's renditions of "Swan Lake", "Giselle" a nd "Paquita" remain unrivalled, Balanchine's treasures "Symphony in C" and "Serenade" are deemed as spiritual birthright, and Forsythe's prodigious choreography holds no obstacles for its artists. Ballerinas Uliana Lopatkina and Diana Vishneva are now undisputed leaders of the troupe, as are Andrian Fadeyev, Leonid Sarafanov and Denis Matvienko among the men. A number of talented young dancers rose through the ranks recently: Victoria Tereshkina, Alina Somova, Ekaterina Kondaurova, Evgenia Obraztsova, Vladimir Shklyarov and Michail Lobukhin zealously carry on the Mariinsky Ballet's traditions.