The Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet is not just a company. It’s a saga about a dynasty whose bloodline is that of ballet itself. Think of it as a sweeping Russian epic following the fortunes of an artistic, aristocratic family that is always, always aware of its breeding.
The Mariinsky’s roots are tsarist. The company dates from 1738 when a French ballet-master founded a school of dancing in St Petersburg for Empress Anna Ivanovna. Initially dominated by French and Italians, the Imperial Ballet and its school changed dramatically in the late 19th century under Marius Petipa, another Frenchman. He upped the standard of dancing and choreography, and together with his right-hand man Lev Ivanov produced the pieces that are now forever identified as “classical ballet”, including the three all-time biggies: Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. If you think of Russia when you think of ballet, it’s because of Petipa.
Following the 1917 revolution, the school consolidated its world-famous training system under Agrippina Vaganova, but the company went into decline. Yet it continued to influence the ballet world through its offshoot the Ballets Russes. Based in Paris, this company took Europe by storm and was the launchpad for über-choreographer George Balanchine.
Back in Soviet Russia, by the 1950s the Kirov Ballet (as it came to be called) was eclipsed by its bolshier Moscow cousin, the Bolshoi. But from the 1960s it was in the ascendant again, its reputation boosted by foreign tours and the glamorous scandals of the defections to the west of its biggest stars – Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
More recently, the company – now named after its home theatre, the Mariinsky – has been reclaiming its “extended family”, performing period reconstructions of 19th-century classics and Ballets Russes works as well as later pieces by Balanchine and even “post-classical” works by American William Forsythe. At the same time, there have been dark rumblings about the current directorship of Valery Gergiev, and once again, the Bolshoi has recently been shining brighter.
But remember: this is the Mariinsky Ballet. You can be sure the saga will continue.
Watching the Kirov
The Mariinsky is not just old-school, it’s one-school: almost all the dancers are from the Vaganova Academy. The corps de ballet is much praised for its unity. The Mariinsky style is graceful and aristocratic, emphasising carriage of the arms and head as well as the steps. And remember that Russian ballet began as imperial entertainment – they go in for a lot of ballet “bling” (glitter, tiaras and suchlike) and underline the beginnings and endings of phrases with preparations and flourishes. Cue applause!
Almost every ballet dancer famous enough to become a household name has come from the Mariinsky: Pavlova, Nijinsky, Nureyev, Makarova, Baryshnikov. Recent top dancers include Uliana Lopatkina, Diana Vishneva, Igor Zelensky and Leonid Sarafanov. Charismatic maestro conductor Gergiev is currently artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre (which includes the opera and orchestra as well as the ballet).
Earlier this year, after 19 years performing in Don Quixote, Monika the donkey finally retired from the Mariinsky stage. She is succeeded by Alina (also a donkey).
In their own words
Makhar Vaziev (former director of the Kirov Ballet): “As long as we first maintain our classical heritage, we will find the best way to make new productions in the future.”
Gergiev: “We are like two arms of Russian culture, the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky.”
Dancer Diana Vishneva: “For purity of style, you can keep it only when you follow traditions.”
In other words
Judith Mackrell, the Guardian, 2005: “At the Kirov the symmetrical graces of classical ballet are bred deeper in the dancers’ bones than anywhere in the world.”
Judith Mackrell, the Guardian, 2008: “… collective classical grandeur … is the Kirov’s calling card.”
Alastair Macaulay, the New York Times, 2008: “… the Kirov refracts ballet history like a hall of mirrors.”
Something about the company’s breeding, the continuity of its balletic bloodline. It’s the one thing that you cannot ignore, ever.
“PreDYdushiy osyOL YAvilsya LUCHshim.”*
Even if they understood your Russian accent, people might mistake who you’re talking about and then they’d get cross.
* “The old donkey was better.”
Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes
Now watch this
Anna Pavlova (early 20th century)
Baryshnikov at Kirov with Lyudmila Semenyaka (1960s)
Diana Vishneva (21st century)
The Mariinsky also has its own YouTube channel
Where to see them next
See the Mariinsky Ballet website for performance website.