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Petipa and Ivanov: The dance partnership that saved Swan Lake

Behind the delicate pas de deux, Swan Lake is a battleground for ballet history buffs – which choreographer should get the credit for this classical masterpiece?

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

10 February 2015 at 11.49am | 4 Comments

Marius Petipa has gone down in history as the father of 19th-century Russian ballet. He was an ambitious man who quickly rose to the forefront of his profession. His thoughts on all aspects of ballet – the dance technique and style, the music, the structure, even the props used – became prevailing practices. Under his aegis Russian classical ballet reached its apex, and the end of his career coincided with the decline in popularity of the genre he had perfected.

And who was Lev Ivanov? Good question. While Petipa’s legacy is undisputed, Ivanov’s is decidedly more problematic. For some he is Petipa’s dependable assistant. For others he is ballet’s unsung genius, unjustly ignored in his time, whose instinctively musical choreography anticipated the developments of early 20th-century ballet and without whom Swan Lake would be a very different ballet.

Ivanov is not a completely obscure figure. We know that he was born in 1834, and that he studied at the Imperial Theatre School with Marius Petipa’s father Jean. He entered the Bolshoi in 1852 and was appointed premier danseur in 1858. He danced mainly as a stand-in for the Bolshoi’s great dancers, enabled by his excellent memory to step in at short notice to roles across all genres.

His career as a dancer drew to a close in the 1870s, and in 1882 Petipa had him appointed régisseur. Ivanov was unsuited to this disciplinary role – in his own words, ‘I never counted on being either a régisseur or a ballet master, knowing how very placid and weak my character was’. In 1885 he was demoted to Second Ballet Master, assisting Petipa and stepping in as choreographer when the premier ballet master was ill.

Here accounts diverge. The Ivanov champions describe a profoundly musical man who, unlike Petipa, in his dance celebrated music above all else. They cite his choreography for the Polovtsian Dances in Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, acclaimed at the opera’s 1890 premiere but later eclipsed by Fokine’s 1909 version (which some claim was closely based on Ivanov’s original). They point to the work Ivanov did to Petipa’s libretto for The Nutcracker, and its most inspired manifestation in the Waltz of the Snowflakes. They talk of the novelty of his choreography and its emotional, dramatic and structural response to the music.

Now to Swan Lake. In the music for his first ballet, Tchaikovsky produced a symphonic work that was structurally unlike ballet music of the time. Such innovation demanded similar inspiration in the choreography; it was not there in the first production in 1877, nor in others that followed in the 1880s. Tchaikovsky died in 1893 and the following year Ivanov choreographed Act II for a commemorative programme at the Mariinsky Theatre. Its success led to the decision to stage the entire ballet. The hugely influential 1895 Petipa/Ivanov version was born.

So is it Petipa or Ivanov that should take the credit for rescuing Swan Lake? The jury is out, unsurprisingly. Tradition has it that Ivanov choreographed the lakeside ‘white’ acts, acts II and IV, while Petipa took the party acts, acts I and III. Roland John Wiley claims that ‘Petipa intruded on a project that Ivanov had begun’, and some argue that Petipa’s illness will have meant Ivanov was involved in all acts. Others propose that the white acts have enough similarity to Petipa’s works that he must have had a hand in them.

Who’s right? It’s up to you: whether you like the idea of a retiring underdog having the last laugh, or classical ballet’s acknowledged master producing his swan song – or a mixture of the two. Either way, we have both men to thank for making Swan Lake one of the most popular ballets that has ever been.

The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Celia Blakey, John and Susan Burns, Doug and Ceri King, Peter Lloyd and Gail Ronson. Original Production (1987) and revival (2000) supported by The Linbury Trust.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

10 February 2015 at 11.49am

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged by anthony dowell, by Liam Scarlett, choreography, Lev Ivanov, Marius Petipa, Production, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker

This article has 4 comments

  1. Sarita Chan responded on 12 February 2015 at 1:37am Reply

    Very good, concise and interesting article. Should consider a "share" button so more of the world can know the great educational work of the ROH!

    • Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media) responded on 12 February 2015 at 2:28pm

      Hi Sarita,

      Glad you enjoyed the article, Sarita. Social sharing buttons are something we're looking to add, so do check back soon on future articles!


      ROH Content Producer

  2. Alyssa Grady responded on 13 February 2015 at 2:27am Reply

    Hi. Am I wrong or is the Dowell production of Swan Lake going to be dropped after this run? I thought I saw it on the website somewhere... If so, are there any ideas floating around as to what new production the company might take on? (I think they'd look good in Peter Wright's version for Birmingham Royal Ballet.)

    - Alyssa

  3. Anne Grikitis responded on 19 February 2015 at 10:33pm Reply

    Swan Lake seems a magnet for wonderful stories. I vaguely recollect a story that when the Royal Ballet were performing it during one of the bitterly cold winters of WW2, senior management took pity on the corps de ballet and told them they could wear a suitable top over their tutus. Angora was in fashion so the swans suddenly became fluffy cygnets!

This article has 1 mention elsewhere

  1. Swan Lake/Don Quixote review – Xander Parish earns his Mariinsky wings - Comedy Feed - Comedy News:  […] that is a compelling mixture of the old-fashioned and the divine. The original choreography by Petipa and Ivanov was revised in 1950. It has a happy ending that involves the onstage destruction of the evil […]

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