In the last years of Petipa’s life, 24 of his ballets were notated for posterity by Vladimir Stepanov and Alexander Gorsky. They were taken out of Russia after the Revolution by Nicholas Sergeyev. He spent the rest of his life mounting these ballets for various companies, notably England’s Vic-Wells Ballet. Sergeyev died in 1951 and his ‘scores’ are preserved at the Houghton library, Harvard University.
In the early 1990’s when the ‘scores’ were found, interest in deciphering the notation surged and since the turn of the Millennium, Petipa ballets in the ‘original style’ have been mounted by ballet companies across the world.
The Stepanov Visionaries
Sergei Vikharev in 1999 started the trend for Stepanov reconstructions. Alexei Ratmansky and Doug Fullington took up the baton and the reconstructions continue. Vikharev met with constant opposition from his dancers who refused to dance in the ‘original style’ but Ratmansky and Fullington have been arguably, more successful.
The Stepanov Notation
At the time of writing ( 2015, revised 2020) there are still two major figures in the reconstruction of the Petipa ballets using the Stepanov notation: Alexei Ratmansky, Artist in residence with American Ballet Theatre, and Doug Fullington, Audience Education Manager and Assistant to the Director of Pacific Northwest Ballet. Doug Fullington’s Works and Process lecture demonstrations can be viewed on the Petipa Society’s website:
The Sleeping Beauty
Alexei Ratmansky’s production of The Sleeping Beauty’ for American Ballet Theatre, premiered in Orange County, Los Angeles in spring 2015, and is almost completely based on the Stepanov notation. Much has been written of this production, whose merits seem to bitterly divide dance practitioners. For the audiences and critics, it has been almost unanimously well received for its commitment to style, period detail and the restitution of that important 19th century story telling device in ballet: the mime. I was very fortunate in being able to attend a performance of this production in Paris at the Opera Bastille in September 2015. Shortly afterwards I went to Rome in October 2015 to participate in a lecture demonstration of variations from the Stepanov notated version of The Sleeping Beauty, given by Mr Fullington for students of the National Academy of Dance at the National Museum of Modern Art.
At First Glance
At first glance you notice a good deal more demi-pointe work for the ballerinas than would be used in any pointe ballet today and the virtuosity emerges in the batterie and bravura roles such as the Bluebird’s variation. The Stepanov notated step combinations are step-rich and intricate, typical of the French school. Interestingly, the women’s variations appear to have altered less over time than the men’s. (NB. Legat’s memoirs state that Petipa did not always bother with the men’s variations, leaving them to other ballet masters.)
Several variations contain what Karsavina called ‘Lost Steps’. These steps use the stage in unexpected ways, reversing or travelling upstage, spiralling out from a point to make a double manège, arc-ing in zig-zags or using sharply differentiated spatial planes and dynamics, even within a single 4-bar phrase’s constraints.
Such intriguing choreography when danced with respect for the style of the time, and respecting the original tempi, precludes a predisposition towards sensationalism by turning every move into the splits or a trick jump.
Where does Cecchetti fit into all of this?
Cecchetti danced Bluebird at the age of 40 (in addition to the mime role of Carabosse) at the original premiere of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ in St. Petersburg in 1890.
His development as a teacher of “classical theatrical dancing” was informed by an entire lifetime devoted to the stage, and during his engagement as dancer and teacher at the Imperial Theatre St. Petersburg from 1887 – 1903.
Cecchetti was teaching precisely at the time Stepanov notation was being developed and after setting up a school in London in 1918, his Method quickly found a following around the English – speaking world throughout the first half of the 20th century.
Cecchetti with Varvara Nikitina in the Bluebird Pas de Deux, original production The Sleeping Beauty, St Petersburg,1890
The Ballet Class of the Past
The lessons given by great teachers of the past have in the main, with the exception of August Bournonville’s, been lost. Fortunately the main body of Cecchetti’s Method – most of them devised by 1894 – has been carefully notated by more than one hand and handed down through four generations. This means we still have a clear grasp of what Cecchetti actually taught in his Class of Perfection at the Imperial Theatre during Petipa’s lifetime. And since the Class of Perfection was attended only by the highest-level professionals of his day, we can ourselves study more-or-less exactly what those artists would have taken with them into rehearsals with Petipa and his assistants.
The Heritage of the French School
Cecchetti was one artistic generation removed from the schooldays of August Bournonville and Marius Petipa. He had carefully studied Johansson’s class notes of Bournonville. As Jean-Guillaume Bart, former Etoile and now ballet master of the Paris Opéra Ballet says:
‘What we see today with the reconstructions from Stepanov notation, is that ‘old’ French school in action’.
The ‘old’ French classical ballet school of the early 19th Century was codified by Jean-Georges Noverre in 1760 and Carlo Blasis in 1820. It is preserved in the ballets of Bournonville, whose teacher was Auguste Vestris, The Italians added virtuoso elements we take for granted in ballet class today, such as fouettés ronds de jambe en tournant. For the ballerina, that included taking advantage of a major shift in pointe – shoe manufacture in Italy, with the much-stiffer block.
Although Petipa and others at the Imperial Theatre at the time thought the Italian ballet tricks vulgar, the best elements of this virtuosic technique were absorbed into the Russian training. Petipa incorporated 32 fouettés into Swan Lake, for example, not merely a trick but deemed appropriate to the storyline.
Observations on aesthetic differences
Ratmansky insisted that the dancers at ABT try to stay true to the spirit of Petipa by not ‘showing their pants’ . Vikharev attempted to do this with the dancers of the Bolshoi in his reconstructions and Doug Fullington teaches the steps as they are written in the notation as shown in his Works and Progress lecture demonstrations.
As a Cecchetti teacher working with dancers who are not Cecchetti trained and therefore unfamiliar with learning this style, I appreciate their difficulties in accepting another way of dancing ‘classical ballet’. It requires an open heart and curious mind. Generally, those dancers who do not fully engage with the style of the original choreography struggle with it. This is not because it is difficult for them but because they insist on staying within their own technical ‘comfort zones’, flaunting their fashionably high extensions and dancing for affect. It looks anachronistic and vulgar in a 19th century ballet where there are heavy costumes and wigs and dainty, intricate step choreography, not to mention also hindering épaulement and terre à terre technique.
Dancing Petipa in a ‘true to original’ style
The fundamentals in the training of technique in the Cecchetti Method, which make sound bio-mechanical practice, are also aesthetically apropos in the execution of Petipa’s choreography in a more ‘true to original’ style. For example, holding the arms in the strict classical positions in ellipse (l’arrondi), while never crossing the central body line, or relaxing rather than-hard-pointing the foot in certain instances.
Every movement and direction, however large or small, is initiated from the body, not from the legs and feet. Use and control of épaulement – or how opposition in the torso creates dynamics, power and control – enables a dancer to move quite differently than is the norm today, where the legs and feet push the body around and where the notion of Least Action Principle (using the least possible energy to create the most possible effect, or, making the dance look effortless) is unknown.
Anatomically efficient: more considerations
There are Cecchetti exercises, typical of the reconstructed Petipa style, which appear more beautiful, in my opinion, with the gesture leg held at the prescribed height whether 45 or 90 degrees – this is because they are anatomically efficient AND aesthetically pleasing. For example in effacé devant, where a 90 degree extension can be used to breath-taking effect. It resembles an arabesque in reverse, where high legs would only distract from the heroic shape painted by the torso, tapering off elegantly along the limbs.
Many Cecchetti adages and allegros are quite uncomfortable to execute well with high leg extensions and in struggling to do this a dancer may resort to undue force and strain. The effect is one of discomfort and ugliness. For example, in the famous Pas de la Mascotte adage, one finds a tour plané en attitude derrière that continues through into the second revolution with a powerful renversé, still holding the attitude derrière. However, if one raise that attitude derrière above 60 degrees, the torso cannot be strongly held enough to dip securely into the renversé.
Dancing like this does not mean that dancer may not ‘show off’ their facility of extension in a Cecchetti class, or a Petipa ballet, far from it. The question arises, does it work within and for the ballet? And does it remain at all times, within the bounds of Good Taste and non ego – driven artistic expression?
A Different Choice for the dancer: NOT kicking the legs up
For today’s dancer, holding the leg at these ‘lower’ heights means acquiring great, hidden strength in the postural muscles, since the leg will have to be held farther from the torso than when pressed up against the ear or shoulder! In turn, this acquired strength is precisely what will allow the dancer to pull off what now strike us as ‘unachievable’ pirouettes or tours de force.
In fact, one could devote entire lessons to the renversé en dedans, sometimes nicknamed ‘tir-bouchon’, a thrilling movement whereby the dancer begins by standing in 1st arabesque croisée en l’air then dips the torso almost horizontally whilst whipping the gesture leg into retiré passé to make a pirouette en dedans, gradually raising the body to the vertical and the arms into high 5th and finishing on balance, with the gesture leg in upstage écarté. This introduces a wonderful picaresque element, when executed correctly.
Another observation: Tutto Tondo
In the Stepanov notation, although Petipa’s choreography appears relatively simple, the devil is in the details, and the real issue is of course HOW. This is choreography whose lines have been designed to look equally majestic from any vantage point. In Doug Fullington’s words, the lines are more ‘sculptural’ (tutto tondo).
Whilst in Florence in summer 2015, filming Part 2 of the documentary Ballet’s Secret Code, the team visited the Capella dei Pazzi, a Brunelleschi masterpiece which also happens to be a perfect study in the “singing” quality of “empty” space. It brought to my mind parallels between the architect’s understanding of mathematics, natural law and sacred geometry, and what the art of classical theatrical dancing could aspire to, but these days, in my opinion, does not.
Bournonville put it this way: ‘I recommend to my pupils…to regard their art as a link in the chain of beauty…and to respect the theatre as one of the most glorious manifestations of the intellectual life of nations’.
The Author’s Point of View
From my point of view as a Cecchetti Teacher, there is another more exciting potential development that I can see arising as a result of interest in the reconstructions of the Petipa ballets using Stepanov notation and that is, of course an increasing interest in the Cecchetti Method itself. The long established organisations which promote the Cecchetti Method of teaching through cohesive syllabi and teacher training programmes strive also to preserve its historical legacy and validity for future generations, around the world.
Looking to the Past to Move Forwards
Debate rages on in New York and elsewhere about the Ratmansky Sleeping Beauty being merely an expensive exercise in nostalgia and that it is pointless revisiting the past when ballet is moving bravely forwards in the new millennium. As a teacher of the Cecchetti Method, which continues a traditional ballet training full of ‘Lost Steps’, and adheres to universal physical and theoretical principles, it is quite obvious that I would disagree! I posit this: As dancers become more familiar with this style that is surely closer to Petipa’s original, in the Stepanov notation, in addition to appreciating anew the richness and beauty of the Petipa ballets will they not also be enriching their own experience as dancers and artists?
Furthermore, in telling the story through Petipa’s actual steps, patterns, mime, costumes, sets and even the tempi of the music, the hidden depths behind Petipa’s choreography, his desire for order and beauty, his erudition, philosophy, in-jokes even, are revealed. What a gift for dancers, teachers, choreographers and dance historians!
Balanchine said that The Sleeping Beauty was his favourite Petipa Ballet. Watching the Ratmansky reconstruction you might also agree with him.
A visionary research
It is my opinion that this enthusiasm for deciphering the Stepanov notation and the reconstructions based upon it, is visionary. Petipa’s ballets deserve to be looked at again and mounting any version closer to the original offers a glimpse into the work of a genius. In comparison, constantly tweaking these ballets, and brazenly calling the choreography ‘after Petipa’ as has been done for decades, invariably diminishes many important aspects of the ballets, whether by removing the mime, altering the story or changing the tempi to accommodate a more modern, athletic style of dancing. Balanchine’s ballets are protected by the Balanchine Trust. Is there is no way of protecting Petipa choreography from the vagaries of modern tastes?
Ballet’s Wake – Up Call
For all of us working in classical ballet, teachers, dancers, choreographers, these reconstructed Petipa ballets are a Wake – Up call. Time to realise that classical theatrical dancing is something quite different from the Search for Excess with its cortège of pain. Let’s take it out of the sporting arena with unnecessary contortion and mindless, sensational party tricks and lift it back up to the level of Art, where it surely belongs.
‘Ballet Steps Back into the Past’, Laura Cappelle, The Guardian Newspaper, May 15, 2015
George Balanchine, Ballet Master, Richard Buckle and John Taras, Random House, 1988
The Legat Legacy, Edited by Mindy Aloff, University Press of Florida, 2020