Imperial Russian Ballet
Ballet is arguably the most beautiful of all the arts, one that brings music to life as movement, but which could also be referred to as “silent music” in its own right.
Started in France by the Sun King Louis XIV in the 17th century, it always had a reputation as being entertainment, often very politicised, for Royalty and the aristocracy. It brought to life many archetypal myths and stories as allegorical entertainment. The five positions of the legs and feet established at the French court are still the ones used as the core of the discipline to this day. The most obvious technical change in the last two centuries has been that women have been able to dance “en pointe”, or right on the tips of their toes following the example of Marie Taglioni, who began the practice in 1830. She did this originally when playing the part of a fairy – and did it to suggest the weightlessness of the character. But it looked so beautiful that “pointe work” soon became central to ballet – and it remains so to this day.
The French passed their ballet tradition to Russia in 1738, when the Imperial Theatre School was founded at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, it's first director being Jean-Baptiste Lande .
The Imperial ballet theatre in Saint Petersburg was founded in 1783 by Catherine the Great, although an Italian ballet troupe had performed at the Russian court since the early 18th century. To begin with, the ballet and opera performances were given in the wooden Karl Knipper Theatre on Tsaritsa Meadow, near the present-day Tripartite Bridge (this theatre is also known as the Little or Maly Theatre). The Hermitage Theatre next door to the Winter Palace was used to host performances for an elite audience of aristocratic guests invited by the Empress.
A more permanent home was designed by Antonio Rinaldi and opened in 1783. Known as the Imperial Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre the building was sited on Carousel Square, later renamed Theatre Square in honour of the building. Both these names - "Kamenny" (Russian word for "stone") and "Bolshoi" (Russian word for "big") - were used to distinguish it from the wooden Little Theatre. In 1836, the Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre was renovated to a design by Albert Cavos and served as the principal theatre of the Imperial Ballet and opera.
On 29 January 1849, the Equestrian circus (Конный цирк) opened on Theatre Square. This was also the work of Cavos. The building was designed to double as theatre and circus. It was a wooden structure in the then-fashionable neo-Byzantine style. Ten years later, when this circus burnt down, the architect rebuilt it as an opera and ballet house with the largest stage in the world. With a seating capacity of 1,625 and a U-shaped Italian-style auditorium the theatre opened on 2 October 1860 with a performance of Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar. The new theatre was named Maryinsky after its imperial patroness and wife of Tsar Alexander II, Empress Maria Alexandrovna.
From the reign of Alexander II onwards the Maryinsky saw the premieres of many wonderful and ground-breaking works, including Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in 1875, Sleeping Beauty in 1890 and Nutcracker in 1892.
The Imperial Ballet, as it had always been, was the haunt of the elite of Russian society. Many aristocratic Russian men had ballerinas as mistresses. Indeed, having a ballerina mistress was almost expected of a young Russian prince. So it will come as no surprise that prior to his betrothment to Alexandra of Hesse, the young Tsarievitch Nicholas, soon to be Nicholas II, had the leading ballerina of the day, Mathilde Kcheshinska as his mistress. Even after his marriage, Nicholas and his daughters loved going to the ballet. Their mother, understandably, probably took a different view.
It should also be noted that the Imperial Ballet, through the Ballets Russes and the work of Stravinsky and Balanchine, to name just two, one a famous composer, the other a famous choreographer, went on to be the cornerstone of virtually everything important in the Arts in the decades after 1917. The Silver Age of Nicholas II was a time of great freedom of expression and experiment, all of which brought great riches to the world, without which we would all be the poorer. The hope is that in the 21st century we can recapture some of the beautiful spirit of those times and regenerate the arts – and the soul of our world.
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