Marius Petipa: a new look at the grandfather of Russian ballet

Director living in France Denis Snegirev – about his film

“A look at the life and work of Petipa through the social and political context in which he worked … Opens the door to questions about how and why these creations resonate in the modern audience” – comments on the film “Marius Petipa. French Master of Russian Ballet “(Marius Petipa: The French Master of Russian Ballet) American online resource Art Intercepts.
The film by the Russian director Denis Snegirev, who lives in France, is available for streaming and in DVD format on the website of the American film distributor Icarus Films, as well as on popular platforms iTunes, Vimeo, OVID and others..

Marius Petipa: a new look at the grandfather of Russian ballet

“Marius Petipa was an extraordinary revolutionary in the field of dance art,” says the synopsis of the film..
Born in Marseille in 1818 to an artistic family, Marius Petipa toured with his father as a dancer in his youth, performing in France, the United States and Spain. In 1847 Petipa came to St. Petersburg. On the stage of the St. Petersburg Bolshoi (Stone) Theater he performed first as a ballet soloist and teacher, and from 1862 he worked as a choreographer. His first production was the epic ballet The Pharaoh’s Daughter. From 1869 to 1903 he served as chief ballet master. Among his creative achievements are two recognized ballet masterpieces to the music of Tchaikovsky “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Swan Lake”. In his declining years he received Russian citizenship. Died in Gurzuf in 1910.
The film traces Petipa’s career using recordings of performances and rehearsals, archival chronicles, historical documents and photographs. Choreographers, dancers, historians and analysts of ballet art talk about the outstanding choreographer, “the grandfather of Russian ballet”. Among them are Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky and his Spanish counterpart Nacho Duato. We see rehearsals of modern interpretations of Petipa’s choreography with the participation of such famous performers as Tyler Peck, Alban Lendorf, Polina Semionova and Cassandra Trenari.

&# 171; Marius Petipa. French master of Russian ballet&# 187 ;. Courtesy photo

Denis Snegirev was born in Nizhny Novgorod in 1976. Graduated from the Nizhny Novgorod Linguistic University. Since 1998 he has been living in France, where he completed his directing courses at the Sorbonne. For the last 15 years he has been engaged in documentary filmmaking, collaborating with European and Russian channels (Kultura, Arte, ZDF, France Television). Most of his films were shot in Russia and are dedicated to art and ecology. He lives 40 km from Paris in a small village.
The correspondent of the Russian service “Voice of America” ​​spoke with Denis Snegirev on Skype.
Oleg Sulkin: The figure of Marius Petipa is so canonical that it seems that nothing new can be said about him. But you seem to have succeeded. If we talk about your motivation as a documentary filmmaker, then what was it – an impulse of the soul, professional curiosity or an order?
Denis Snegirev: The easiest option is to order (laughs). But this order from the ARTE channel had its own, so to speak, background. It so happened that I studied Russian ballet for quite a long time and made quite a few films for French television, in particular for ARTE. I also shot for them about the reconstruction of the Bolshoi Theater, as part of a French film company. He worked a lot on the set at the Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theater. For ARTE I also made a 90-minute film “Yuri Grigorovich. Golden age”. The project moved with difficulty: Yuri Nikolaevich’s age is respectable, his character is not easy, and the personality itself is contradictory..
O.S.: How did you react to the new ARTE order?
D.S .: When they came to me with a proposal to make a film about Petipa, I honestly grimaced. I was already a little fed up with the ballet theme, and I wanted to do something else. Before Petipa, the grandfather of Russian ballet, it is customary to prostrate and bow. The first thing I did was read his diaries, which added to the frustration. In them there is no flight of thought of a genius, these are rather notes of an ordinary clerk. This observation became a starting point for me..
I contacted Anna Galaida. Anna is an absolutely wonderful person, she works in the literary department of the Bolshoi Theater. I told her about my doubts. She said: I will introduce you to several people, they know the material thoroughly and do not think well. This is how Yulia Yakovleva and Sergey Konayev appeared. The basic structure of the film followed Yakovleva’s book about Petipa, the manuscript of which she sent me. Yakovleva is a wonderful journalist and writer. She is from St. Petersburg and now lives in Norway. It was thanks to her book that I was able to put together the life of Petipa from many scattered episodes, so to speak. If I did it on my own, I would drown in it. Sergey Konayev is our consultant who shoveled through a huge amount of historical material and helped me to understand it. When I began to immerse myself in the topic, I saw that behind the bronzed figure of Petipa was a very interesting fate..

Marius Petipa: a new look at the grandfather of Russian ballet

O.S.: In short, why is it interesting??
D.S .: This is not the fate of a genius of the Mozart type. This is the fate of a good professional who, through titanic work, in the struggle with himself and with circumstances, manages to make several ballet masterpieces..
O.S.: The Petipa movie has an interesting set of commentators. How did you choose them, on what basis?

&# 171; Marius Petipa. French master of Russian ballet&# 187 ;. Courtesy photo

Marius Petipa: a new look at the grandfather of Russian ballet

D.S .: The whole background of my connections with Soviet and Russian ballet helped me a lot. I knew someone personally. For example, I made a film with Pierre Lacotte ten years ago. He was the first to restore Pharaoh’s Daughter, one of Petipa’s first ballets. Alexey Ratmansky takes a fairly large place in the film. I am very sympathetic to this choreographer, we are about the same generation, he is a little older. We often crossed paths with him, I was aware of what he was doing.
O.S.: You and Ratmansky agreed in advance to travel to Harvard together to present the Petipa archive stored there to the audience of your film.?
D.S .: Yes, it was a specially planned trip, like the entire American chapter. All the black-and-white inserts, where we see rehearsals and variations of Petipa’s ballets, all were staged by Ratmansky in one of the studios in Brooklyn. We then came to the United States for ten days, of which we spent two days together at Harvard, in the beautiful university library. I knew that Aleksey had been working on Petipa’s legacy for a long time, and he spoke about it in a very exciting way..
O.S.: It is interesting to compare the ballet hierarchy with the imperial hierarchy and the influence of ballet aesthetics on the rituals of the Russian monarchy. The latter is clearly demonstrated by the filmed coronation of Nicholas II, surprisingly reminiscent of the composition of mise-en-scenes from La Bayadere staged by Petipa. Which confirms the idea that ballet in Russia is more than ballet, and that ballet has been the trump card of Russian culture for many years.
D.S .: Absolutely agree. The evidence for this is overwhelming. I began to realize the fusion of ballet with power even earlier, when I read excellent books and articles by ballet critics and historians Vadim Gaevsky and Pavel Gershenzon. They have an excellent book of dialogues, where the idea sounds that it was under Petipa that the imperial concept of Russian ballet was formed. It became even more firmly established in Soviet times, when both Lunacharsky and Stalin treated ballet as a bridge that still connects Russian culture with the world..
Socialism with a human face, which is not ashamed to be shown in the West, is, of course, ballet, the Mariinsky, and then the Bolshoi Theater. When you show Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, these cultural codes are easy to read in both Paris and New York..
O.S.: At a roundtable in the Art of Cinema magazine, which took place ten years ago, you said that “as a documentary filmmaker, I first of all see myself as an observer of various processes, I try to distance myself from them as much as possible, not to empathize with the heroes”. This credo applies only to the author’s projects (the discussion in “The Art of Cinema” referred to the documentary film “Between the Bear and the Wolf” by Denis Snegirev. – OS) or to custom projects, such as the film about Petipa?

MARIUS PETIPA: THE FRENCH MASTER OF RUSSIAN BALLET Clip

&# 171; Marius Petipa. French master of Russian ballet&# 187 ;. Courtesy photo

D.S .: The principles remain the same. I do not like engaged cinema. I do not like to walk on paths trodden by someone else. It’s boring for me to do this. In the case of Petipa, I tried to abstract as much as possible from the burden of accumulated stereotypes, tried to get to the bottom of him, like a living person.
O.S.: What are you doing now?
D.S .: I have just returned from Siberia and am sitting down to edit a rather complex author’s project, which took me three years. This is the story of two scientists, Sergei Afanasyevich Zimov and his son Nikita, who, in the wilderness, on the border of Chukotka and Yakutia, are conducting an unusual scientific experiment. They recreate the Pleistocene Park – by analogy with the Jurassic Park. In the reserve, an experiment is being carried out to recreate the ancient ecosystem, for which various animals that once lived here are brought here. I hope we will finish the film “Zimov’s Hypothesis” by January-March. So the postulate about staying away from heroes has gone through a lot of testing. Any dogmas can be pushed into the far corner if they do not correspond to the current goal.
O.S.: Your optics are affected by the fact that you live in France?
D.S .: I do not know what nationality I would classify myself as a documentary filmmaker. I was born in Russia and have lived there most of my life. But I lived the other half of my life in France. I have never been in the professional community of Russian documentary filmmakers. And, although I have worked a lot in Russia with Russian themes and subjects, my view can be called detached. He’s not really French. And I am not tracing the French reality into the Russian one. So I am perhaps the most impartial person to shoot a Petipa movie..
O.S.: The film has already been shown in various countries. How viewers react?
D.S .: Films destined for television tend to have a much lower response rate than regular films. Television films are drowning in the mass of programs. But the film about Petipa was lucky in this sense. We have a “feedback”, by the way, very curious. In particular, it was shown at the Vaganova Academy (the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet in St. Petersburg – OS). I was not there, but I was told that a scandal broke out at the show. People who regard Petipa as a monument were annoyed and even angry. Undercover wars do not stop among professionals and ballet amateurs. Some do not like others, others are friends with the fourth against the first, someone does not sympathize with those who in my film act as experts. Russia is probably the only country where the history of ballet can still excite heads and stir up passions today. There were, of course, positive reviews as well. People thanked for a fresh look at Petipa, for the fact that he appeared in a new light.
O.S.: I am surprised that during our conversation the word “coronavirus” has never been heard. Has the pandemic not affected you? How do you make movies in a virtual para-war setting??
D.S .: If we are talking about a Siberian project, then there are practically no people where we filmed. I spent five weeks at a scientific station near the village of Chersky in Kolyma, where five people work. It’s hard for them, usually many scientists from all over the world are visiting there, now – no one, only our film crew. It was difficult in March. I managed to jump out of the French lockdown, move the whole family to England – my wife is English. And at his own peril and risk, he went to Siberia, managed not to get into any quarantine, not in Moscow, or in Yakutsk. As a result, everything worked out, and I returned to my family and children..

  • Oleg Sulkin

    Journalist, film critic, correspondent for the Russian Service «Voices of America» in New York.

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