A Russian invasion
Russian National Ballet performing Swan Lake

The magic words "Russian ballet" conjure up images of tutus and tiaras - the sparkle and spectacle of the great late 19th-century Russian ballets.

With two Russian ballet companies going almost head-to-head on our shores this November, both with the costumes for Sleeping Beauty in their luggage, it seems that the appeal of Russian ballet has not diminished.

The Imperial Russian Ballet Company is touring Sleeping Beauty while the Russian National Ballet Theatre will alternate the classic fairytale ballet with Swan Lake. Putting aside the question of whether Perth can support two Russian ballet companies in one month, there is no doubt that the word "Russian" draws the crowds.

At the invitation of the Russian National Ballet Theatre, I travelled to Sydney recently to see Swan Lake and, sure enough, the theatre was packed with punters of all ages. Behind me, a child sat with her grandparents and sang along with Tchaikovsky's famous overture to Act II. Why is it that Russia and ballet are perceived to go together like . . . France and croissants? Speaking of France, isn't ballet French anyway? How did it come to be so inextricably linked to Russia? And how come the great ballets of the Imperial Russian repertoire became, and remain, so popular that a tiny child at a 21st century performance sings along with the music?

Although ballet originated in Italy, it developed into a codified, theatrical art form in the 17th century court of King Louis XIV. There was no pointe-work, nor long, gauzy tutus - all that came with the rise of the Romantic ballet of the 1800s. In reaction to an increasingly urbanised world, Romantic ballets like La Sylphide and Giselle were set in rural, pre-industrial settings populated by sylphs and fairies. Startling pirouettes and eye-catching jumps were not a part of the ballet experience at this point. In the main, it was a floaty, poetic affair. And Russia was yet to be considered of great significance to the art form.

Enter Marius Petipa, a French dancer and choreographer who moved to Russia in 1847. Petipa's relocation to Russia was a crucial factor in ensuring that the next big development in ballet would take place there. Petipa created many of the great classical ballets of the era - Swan Lake (with Lev Ivanov), Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker (with Ivanov) to name the best known.

More importantly, though, Petipa's ballets were distinct in several ways from the Romantic ballets. While elsewhere in Europe ballet was on the artistic decline, in Russia, Petipa's innovations saw the birth of a new era.

Like the producers of Cirque du Soleil, Petipa understood that audiences love spectacle and he made sure his ballets contained plenty of "tricks" to wow the crowd. Unlike ballets of the Romantic era, Petipa's were designed to give dancers a chance to really strut their stuff. A Petipa pas de deux begins with slow, controlled movements to show off line and balance, in which the female is lifted and supported by her male partner. The dancers then take turns showing off their technical skills; the females perform feats like the traditional 32 fouettes, while males show off their exciting jumps such as tours en l'air and entrechat huit. The pair then join in a final, bravura finish. It's a formula that still works today. In the Sydney performance of Swan Lake, both Odile's fouettes and Siegfried's series of grand jetes en tournant were met with applause before the stunts had even been completed.

Now, as then, audiences thrill to see a seemingly endless series of pirouettes or gravity-defying chain of leaps.

Petipa also introduced more colour and movement for the corps de ballet. He borrowed from Russian folk dances the energetic style, cheerful costuming and spatial patterns to make ensemble work more eye-catching.

And then there was music. Even those who haven't seen the ballets would recognise such melodies as Swan Lake's Dance of the Cygnets and The Nutcracker's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Of course, it was the composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky who created the scores for Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty. What was ground-breaking, though, was Petipa's choice to work with a symphonic composer rather than one who specialised in composing ballet music.

Petipa and Tchaikovsky worked closely to ensure that the music and dance would coalesce perfectly. Again, it's a formula that continues to succeed, with melodies from these scores hummed by excited five-year-olds in theatres around the world.

Other factors that contributed to the rise of Russian ballet included the ongoing backing of the Imperial and Soviet powers, setting the stage for dancers and companies to excel.

Of course, the development of ballet did not remain the sole preserve of Russia. The emergence of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and the companies that it spawned saw the action return to France and then explode around the globe. It is fair to say that no one country can be considered "the" place for ballet anymore. There are awe-inspiring companies in England, France, America, China - and yes, right here in Australia.

The West Australian

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