A scene in the Kingdom of the Shades from La Bayadère, 1900

St. Petersburg Museum of Theater and Music

A scene in the Kingdom of the Shades from La Bayadère, 1900; from Marius Petipa: La Dansomanie, a two-volume album in three languages published last year by the St. Petersburg Museum of Theater and Music to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of Petipa’s birth

It will surprise many people, but not many dance historians, that the most productive and influential ballet choreographer of the late nineteenth century, the Franco-Russian Marius Petipa (1818–1910), was accorded no biography for more than a century after his death. Dance was central to the religious and patriotic festivals of ancient Greece and Rome, but with the transfer of power to the Christian church, it was pretty much kicked out of the arts. It was too closely associated with bodily pleasure. Social dance probably never died out among common folk. As for the better-placed folk, the processions in which the servants of the French and Italian courts of the Renaissance brought dinner to their guests involved, if not exactly dancing, then a great deal of synchronized gown-swishing and foot-pointing. But dance did not officially reenter the lists of the high arts in the West until the seventeenth century, under Louis XIV. Louis imported music masters and dance masters, mostly from Italy, to create elaborate allegorical ballets, in which he himself appeared. In 1661, he founded Europe’s first proper dance school, the Académie Royale de la Danse.

In those days, dance people, like most other theater people, tended to come in families, including actors and musicians as well, because not all of them had a royal academy to teach them their arts. They learned from their mothers and fathers. Also, there was still a stigma attached to making one’s living on the stage (Molière, famously, was denied a Christian burial), so theatrical professionals often married within their own ranks and thereby created clans.

One was the Petipas of France and Belgium. Their name starts appearing in the annals of the Continental theater at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Marius Petipa was the son of a ballet master (that is, a teacher/choreographer) and an actress; most of his siblings too were theater people. In the beginning, he was not the star of the family. That was his older brother, Lucien, a handsomer man and a far better technician. Lucien was the premier classicist of the Paris Opera Ballet, the oldest and most respected company in Europe. (It was the descendant of Louis XIV’s academy.) He was in demand all the way to Russia, but when Russia called, it is said, Lucien, already in possession of a good job, declined, and recommended his younger brother. Thus, in 1847, Marius Petipa, age twenty-nine, presented himself at St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet and was given a one-year, let’s-see contract. As it turned out, he stayed for sixty-three years and was the company’s artistic director—or first ballet master, as they called it—for nearly thirty-five years. In Russia he created more than fifty original ballets, mounted versions of nineteen other ballets, and fashioned dances for thirty-seven operas. Today, the name of Lucien is known only to specialists, whereas Marius is acknowledged as the prime creator of late-nineteenth-century ballet and, one could say, the foremost source of twentieth-century ballet as well.

Still, this did not earn him a proper biography—in any language, not just English—until last spring, with the publication of Marius Petipa: The Emperor’s Ballet Master by Nadine Meisner, a longtime dance critic in London.1 The book is low on analysis, but at last someone has collected the facts—the successes, the flops, everybody’s patronymic—and put them down in graceful English prose.

Marius spent his youth in the French cities where his parents were performing—mainly Nantes, Marseilles, and Bordeaux—and in Brussels, where his father built a ballet company at the royal theater, the Monnaie. Unlike Lucien, who was a danseur noble—that is, a master of the pure danse d’école (glissade, assemblé, pas de bourrée, etc.)—Marius excelled in character roles and in national dances, feet stomping, ribbons flying. In addition, he is said to have been wonderfully accomplished in mime, the elaborate hand-dance (e.g., finger circling face = “you are beautiful”; index and middle fingers pointing to heaven = “I vow to love you forever”) that was once so much a part of ballet.

In his early years as a dancer in the St. Petersburg company—known today as the Maryinsky Ballet2—Marius was now and then given featured roles and also minor choreographic jobs. Then, in 1862, there occurred in his life a version of that drama so dear to theater historians, the last-minute rescue. Carolina Rosati, an Italian ballerina, had spent three years with the Imperial Ballet and had been promised that, before she went home, a big new ballet, called The Pharaoh’s Daughter, would be mounted for her. But as the date of her departure drew near, little seemed to have been done. Finally, Rosati persuaded Petipa, who was slated to design the dances, to go with her to see the director of the Imperial Theaters. When they met with him, the director gave every indication of wishing to cancel the project. Turning to Petipa, he asked, “Can you stage this ballet in six weeks?” He clearly expected to be told that it could not be done, and the heck with it. But Petipa was known, throughout his career, for his speed and practicality, for making do with what he had, and by the end of this meeting he had committed himself to producing a ballet in three acts, plus prologue and epilogue, in the space of six weeks—a near-impossible task, especially with the story that he and another librettist had already worked up for the project.


The Pharaoh’s Daughter is set in Egypt, where an English explorer, Lord Wilson (played by Petipa at the premiere), and his servant, John Bull, are investigating pharaonic mysteries. A violent sandstorm arises, and the two men take refuge in a nearby pyramid, where they find a statue of a pharaoh, together with the mummies of his beautiful daughter Aspicia and her attendants. Resting from the storm, Lord Wilson smokes some opium, and a dream ballet takes over, in which Aspicia and her ladies come to life in what is reported to have been a pleasingly butch huntress ballet. Then Aspicia is chased by a lion and is rescued by Lord Wilson, who has been transformed into an ancient Egyptian hero, Tahor, “fearless, honorable, passionate,” as Meisner puts it. (Petipa also played Tahor.)

Marius Petipa as Lord Wilson in The Pharaoh’s Daughter, 1860s

Oxford University Press

Marius Petipa as Lord Wilson in The Pharaoh’s Daughter, 1860s

Soon the king of Nubia arrives, and he wants to marry Aspicia, but she is now in love with Tahor. The lovers flee, arriving, at last, at the home of a kind fisherman. He and Tahor go fishing on the Nile, leaving Aspicia behind—an unwise action, because in the night, the Nubian king invades the cottage. To escape his proffered embraces, Aspicia jumps out the window of the cottage and sinks to the bottom of the Nile, where the audience now witnesses a “grand pas of rivers, streams, and sources,” in which each of the great rivers of the world performs a national dance: the soloist representing the Tiber does a tarantella, the Rhine does an Austrian ländler, and so on. But Aspicia is worried about Tahor, and rightly so, because when she returns to dry land, she finds that her beloved, now captive in the pharaoh’s palace, is about to be handed over to a venomous snake. She saves him, and the pharaoh, chastened, marries them. The skies open, revealing Isis, Osiris, and the rest of the Egyptian pantheon hovering in congratulation. Then the mummies all return to their mummy cases, Lord Wilson and his servant wake up and rub their eyes, and the ballet ends.

The production, with intermissions, lasted five hours, a long stretch of time on which to hang a rather piddling plot. But as we know from the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies of the 1930s, a show whose point is dance is not necessarily handicapped by having a fatuous story. The Pharaoh’s Daughter was a huge hit. Ballerinas fought one another for the lead role, because the ballet always got a full house. This put Petipa, an energetic careerist, in line for a promotion, and he soon wrote the directorate to that effect. They responded by promising him a raise. For a change in rank, he would have to wait.

Russian ballet, like most other Russian arts by the nineteenth century, was heavily Westernized. One by one, the Petersburg troupe’s top ballet masters came from France. Soon after Petipa arrived, Jules Perrot (1810–1892), another Frenchman, was brought in to lead the company. Today, when most of these artists’ ballets are lost, it is difficult to determine how much each learned from his predecessors, but the general consensus is that if Petipa was the great master of late-nineteenth-century ballet, Perrot had that role in the early nineteenth century. For evidence we have, above all, Giselle, the paradigmatic Romantic ballet, of which Perrot seems to have choreographed about half. In the words of his biographer Ivor Guest, “Perrot was essentially a dramatic author working in movement,” and this is what Petipa is said to have learned from him: how to infuse the classroom steps with dramatic force.

In 1859 Perrot was succeeded in the Russian capital by yet another French ballet master, Arthur Saint-Léon (1821–1870). Of his work there survives even less than of Perrot’s, but he was known as a specialist in elegant female solos, and that is what Meisner points to as Petipa’s inheritance from him. In 1870 Saint-Léon dropped dead of a heart attack in a café, and Petipa became the chief ballet master of the Russian Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg. He was fifty-two.


Petipa, as Meisner introduces him, “was a gifted raconteur, a dapper dresser, and an indefatigable worker who hated holidays.” In other words, she likes him, and that’s a good start, because she soon gives us reason to feel otherwise. In the ranks of the Imperial Ballet, he found his first wife, Maria Surovshchikova, who had just graduated from the company’s school. They married in 1854, when he was thirty-six and she was eighteen. Maria, we are told, was not much of a dancer. Petipa coached her for hours, accompanying her on the violin. She didn’t get appreciably stronger, but according to at least one reviewer, her gifts lay elsewhere: “Her slightly upturned nose, her white teeth between pink lips give her face something strange, wild, tartar, added to which is hair of reddish brown with waves that refract, here and there, flashes of fire.” That is, she was sexy. According to Meisner, she had “numerous admirers.” They would send her flowers backstage; Petipa would seize the bouquets and rip them apart in front of her face.

Things got worse until, after twelve years of marriage and two children, Surovshchikova wrote to the procurator of the St. Petersburg district court that Petipa beat her up regularly. A criminal case was opened, but eventually Maria dropped her complaint and simply moved to an apartment of her own. Soon afterward, she retired from dancing. Eventually she relocated to a spa in the Caucasus, where, according to Meisner, she continued to have many admirers, including the crown prince of Montenegro.

Five years after his separation from Surovshchikova, Petipa set up house with another dancer, Liubov Savitskaya. If Surovshchikova was younger than he, Savitskaya was more so. When they met, Petipa was fifty-five and Savitskaya was nineteen. But unlike her predecessor, Savitskaya reportedly stood in no danger of being pushed around by Petipa. A friend of the family said that Savitskaya, if she got stuck on a crowded sidewalk behind someone who she felt was moving too slowly, did not mind hitting the dawdler with her umbrella. At home, too, she had her way, and Petipa stayed out of her path, but according to their youngest daughter, Vera, the two loved each other very much, and they had six children. After Surovshchikova’s death in 1882, they probably even got married, though Meisner was apparently unable to find a record of this.

Petipa expected his daughters to have careers in dance. To that end, he installed in the family’s apartment a studio with a raked floor, where, every morning, he awaited the girls for lessons. One after another, they disappointed him, by giving up or by marrying some unsuitable person or, indeed, by dying. The only one of his children who became a dancer of note was Marie (1857–1930), his oldest daughter. Like her mother, Surovshchikova, Marie wasn’t an accomplished technician, but she was spirited, fun. And, as Petipa protested, “Elle est si belle.” He wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Again like her mother, Marie had many admirers, and when she appeared on stage, her bodice was covered with the jewelry they had given her.

Compared with his output, Petipa’s extant ballets are few—La Bayadère (1877), The Sleeping Beauty (1890), The Nutcracker (1892), Swan Lake (1895), Raymonda (1898)—and of these, only parts of the choreography can be confidently assigned to him. Even those parts turn out to be full of revisions and interpolations by others, and this is not to mention the small daily adjustments that Petipa’s choreography underwent—that all choreography undergoes, beginning with the second performance—as a result of forgetfulness or changes in taste and skill. When The Sleeping Beauty had its premiere, the heroine, Aurora, never extended her leg higher than the hip. To have raised it further would have been considered improper, and this rule held through the mid-twentieth century. (Go to YouTube and see Margot Fonteyn’s mid-century performances.) Today, even third-cast Auroras try to get their foot up at least to the height of the clavicle, because that is the way the training has drifted: to high extensions, among other feats.

In 2015 the Russo-American choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre, made an extraordinary effort—decoding early-twentieth-century notation, examining photographs, and so on—to restore Petipa’s original choreography for The Sleeping Beauty, and when his production premiered, many spectators felt let down by what seemed to them its unglamorous restraint. Some of them must have said to themselves, Can’t those women get their legs up? A nineteenth-century ballet is less an artwork than it is a tradition.

In the past, many ballet scholars were undiscouraged by these epistemological problems. A lot of the time, they just went to the library with their dual-language dictionaries, installed the microfiche, copied down what the early reviewers wrote, and assumed that that was the ballet. Meisner is sensitive to gaps in the evidence, and she tells us about them, but she too likes to keep things moving, and with an artist as little discussed as Petipa, relative to his achievement, that is a virtue. She generalizes. Petipa’s specialty, she tells us, was the ballet à grand spectacle, “colossal, magnificent, and leisurely.” The ballet had a story, though less time was spent on overt drama than on dances suggestive, at their best, of a mood or spiritual state. Such dances came in two forms, big ensemble numbers and smaller numbers (solos, duets, trios), the latter often nestling in the former.

In the big ensemble dances, Petipa has perhaps never been bettered or even equaled except, perhaps, by his heir George Balanchine. When, in the “Shades” scene in La Bayadère, sixty-four3 women, dressed all in white, descended a ramp gravely, single file, in a small, repeating phrase (arabesque on bent knee, backbend, step, step, and repeat), the spectators must have felt that they had died and gone to heaven, which was more or less the case. Solor, the hero of the ballet, has lost his beloved. To see her again, he has gone to the Kingdom of the Shades. This business of a mortal journeying to the next world to visit a dead loved one is an old trope. Petipa said he got the idea of the souls descending, single file, down the pathways of heaven from one of Gustave Doré’s illustrations for Dante’s Paradiso.

Among the smaller numbers that play out against the ensemble dances, Petipa is most acclaimed for his female solos, of the kind, it is said, that he learned from Saint-Léon—that is, beautiful creations in which one step, one shape, one tone was joined to another in such a way as to make a small, exquisite itinerary. The trick here, for Petipa, was to fashion a dance that, though it might be clearly related to the next one and the preceding one, was nevertheless a wholly individual creation. So he gave the audience a dual pleasure: recognition and discovery. It’s as if Mother Nature came on stage and made the lily, the tulip, and the rose. They are all flowers, but each is a different idea of what a flower might be.

Petipa took immense pains with these solos. He complained of how hard it was to come up with a different combination each time, but he tried. More than that, he attempted, with each solo, to call upon the best qualities of the dancer scheduled to perform it. One woman might have better turns; another, a higher jump. Petipa would create a dance that would show off the performer’s virtues and hide her faults, thus making it seem as if she did everything wonderfully. That is a considerable act of choreographic tact. Even more courteous was his habit of redesigning the solo when a new dancer, with different specialties, was cast in it.

If Petipa labored over the ballerina solos, that was nothing compared with what he did for the ensemble numbers. He had a set of little papier-mâché figures, like a chess set, to represent the men and women of the corps. Sitting in his study, he would move these pieces around on a table as he was creating the big ensemble dances. I have never seen a photo of the papier-mâché figures, but Petipa’s papers contain drawings of the decisions that, using them, he made for the ensemble dancers: X’s for men’s movements, O’s for women’s, other symbols for other men and other women, and arrows indicating who is going where.

Those two forms, the great ensemble and the female solo, were the two poles of Petipa’s choreographic imagination. In between, there were other standard features. Frequently, there was a procession.(At the beginning of the second act of The Nutcracker, for example, the audience got a lineup of all the treats—coffee, tea, ginger—that were going to have dance numbers in that act.) Often, there was a vision scene, the most famous being the Shades scene in La Bayadère. Other staples were national dances, such as the tarantella and the ländler in The Pharaoh’s Daughter; the finale, in which everyone, their difficulties overcome, joined in a group dance; and then the apotheosis, in which, like Isis and Osiris in The Pharaoh’s Daughter, the gods smiled down on them. Essentially, each of these eight or ten structural maneuvers was a way of telling the audience what had happened, or was going to happen, in the ballet. They were eight or ten angles—psychological, national, eschatological, etc.—on what the show was about. If you missed one, you were given another.

An aspect of Petipa’s ballets that sometimes goes undiscussed—because we still have modernism peering over our shoulders, telling us not to be vulgar—is the grand spectacle. Petipa was working in Russia, the land of bolshoi, or big. His ballets had waterfalls, shipwrecks, earthquakes. Even just the regular events were awe-inspiring. The Pharaoh’s Daughter had a “dance of the caryatids,” with an ensemble of thirty-six caryatids, each carrying a basket from which, at the end of the number, a small child popped out, with the result that, if you count supernumeraries, there were close to eighty people onstage. No wonder that, in the ensuing hubbub, Aspicia and Tahor were able to escape undetected.

Another thing that made Petipa’s ballets spectacular was their exoticism. They had maharajahs, Incas, Iroquois. The makers of these ballets—Petipa and the librettists and the set and costume designers—had no scruples about making use of the “other.” On the contrary, they were proud of such excursions, as were the creators of the world’s fairs of the late nineteenth century, with their Indonesian temples and Malagasy huts. They were showing their audiences the world’s far-away splendors. In doing so, they epitomized what are still today two opposing sides of ballet: on the one hand, decoration, frivolity, naiveté, with everything beaded and ruffled and too-much; on the other hand, vision, wonder, the knife through the heart.

Petipa did not go on doing the same thing for a half-century, however. There were gradual changes and then, in the 1880s, some very big changes, making him the rare artist to enter his great period in his old age. Until shortly before that time, he rarely had, in the director of Russia’s Imperial Theaters, a person whom he could truly regard as a friend of the ballet. The last one he had been required to work under, Baron Karl Kister, was a retired cavalry officer who knew little about the art and, according to Meisner, delighted in forcing the company to buy cheaper fabrics for the costumes, hire cheaper technicians for the set department, and so on.

Then, in 1881, Petipa got a new boss, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, who was an altogether different sort of person. Vsevolozhsky was young (forty-six), immensely refined, and, in those days of contention between the Slavophile and Westernizing camps of Russian art, an ardent Westernizer. He was devoted to theater. He wrote plays, devised libretti, designed costumes. The most highly regarded of Petipa’s ballets, The Sleeping Beauty, was Vsevolozhsky’s idea. He wrote the libretto, which was derived from Perrault’s well-known fairy tale, and it was probably owing to him that Beauty followed what was, at that time, the Western fashion for the féerie, a kind of dance show featuring hyper-elaborate sets and spectacular ensemble numbers. (Meisner compares the féeries to Busby Berkeley movies.)

The Sleeping Beauty was Western also in its movement style. Ever since the 1830s and 1840s, the Russian Imperial Theaters had periodically extended invitations to Western dancers, some of whom, whether or not they were more interesting artists than the Russians, were stronger. They could just do more things, nameable things: more pirouettes, longer balances. In the last decades of the century, this difference became quite marked. Russian dancing, however advanced, favored lyricism. Western dancing—above all, the style inculcated at the celebrated La Scala school in Milan—favored virtuosity. “Points of steel,” the Italian women were said to brandish. Vsevolozhsky wanted for Russia what the Westerners had. Petipa was not in favor of this. He was a lyricism man, but he did not always have his way. The first Aurora of The Sleeping Beauty was Carlotta Brianza, from La Scala. The first Swan Queen in the St. Petersburg Swan Lake was Pierina Legnani, another La Scala graduate. Legnani was the woman who introduced into Russian ballet the famous thirty-two fouettés (successive whipped turns, in place)—first in Petipa’s Cinderella, then, more famously, in Swan Lake—a power-drill maneuver that defeated many later ballerinas. Misty Copeland, so lauded upon her New York debut in Swan Lake in 2015, could manage only twenty-three, by my count. Indeed, a number of Swan Queens have simply substituted a different step. Alexandra Danilova, the star of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the 1930s and 1940s, did chaîné turns, which are far less taxing, and nobody thought the worse of her for it.

But the most important change that Vsevolozhsky made in Russian ballet was in its music. Before him, the people who wrote the scores for ballet in St. Petersburg were minor composers, notably Cesare Pugni, Ludwig Minkus, and Riccardo Drigo. These men are often called the “specialist” ballet composers. What they specialized in was melody and a regular beat—in other words, something you could dance to. We are told that it was Vsevolozhsky who persuaded Petipa to set his musical sights higher. According to Meisner, Petipa didn’t want to. Not only were the specialists’ compositions easier for the dancers to work with, but, because these men’s professional standing was lower, Petipa had no trouble getting them to take instructions and make changes, something he was less eager to attempt with Tchaikovsky, who, in the early 1890s, was arguably the most celebrated living composer in Russia. In the end, Tchaikovsky wrote the scores for Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and Nutcracker, which are not just the choreographer’s three most famous ballets but perhaps the three most famous ballets in the world.

In the case of The Nutcracker, it is said that Petipa did not actually compose the dances. In 1892, the year of that ballet’s creation, his teenaged daughter Evgenia died, and he was present when the doctor, trying to save her, amputated her leg. He probably was never the same afterward. He retired from teaching that year, and his youngest child, Vera, said that this was when he was stricken with the skin disease (probably pemphigoid) that he suffered from so terribly in his old age. Ordered by his doctor to go take the waters at a spa in the Tyrol, he reportedly turned over the job of making the dances for The Nutcracker to his assistant, Lev Ivanov.4 But the libretto, adapted from a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, was apparently his. Most important, it was he who wrote the “Instructions to Tchaikovsky” and the “Ballet Master’s Plan” that together specified what the dances would be—so many bars of such-and-such kind of dance, in such-and-such a rhythm—and that’s at least half the job.

I cannot say that at the end of Meisner’s book I felt I knew the person who is her subject, but this, in large part, is surely the fault of the records. Petipa kept a diary, but the fragment that survives begins in 1903, when he was already eighty-five. So while we are longing to hear his views on ballet and art and life, he tells us instead how much he spent on a lottery ticket and how badly he is being treated by people who treated him better before. (Which is not to say that, had he been younger, he would have shared deep thoughts with us. He was a choreographer, not a writer or even, one might say, a thinker.) After his 1903 Magic Mirror, a Snow White ballet, the company never again used him. He made a ballet for the 1904 season, but the directorate cancelled it. Again and again, in the diary’s late entries, we find the note, “They did not send the carriage”—that is, the carriage to take him to the theater. His salary had been guaranteed for his lifetime, but his job hadn’t been. For the last decade of his life, he was left scratching his skin as his wife and daughters went shopping. “They do not visit me,” he wrote.5

Meisner cushions this sad material by looking back at what Petipa was like when he was young. In general, he was good to his ballerinas. Indeed, he spent all his working hours with them. (He didn’t care much about the men. In large measure, Meisner says, he let them devise their own steps.) Like many ballet teachers—actually, teachers of all subjects—in the old days, he could be cruel in the classroom. Meisner records that if a dancer whom he had corrected did not mend the fault on the second or third try, Petipa didn’t mind getting up, taking the woman’s hand, escorting her to the back row, and then filling her place, in front, with someone else. When, however, a serious talent was involved, notably, Meisner says, Tamara Karsavina and Anna Pavlova, he recognized it and accommodated its idiosyncrasies. What he wanted, always, was expressiveness: feeling, not precision; arms, not legs.

Anna Pavlova as Aspicia in The Pharaoh’s Daughter, 1906

St. Petersburg Museum of Theater and Music

Anna Pavlova as Aspicia in The Pharaoh’s Daughter, 1906

Meisner also tells us a lot about the circumstances in which Petipa worked. We find out how much everybody was paid, something that historians of Western ballet seldom tell us. We learn about the claques, the soccer fan–like rooting squads for competing ballerinas. (In 1848 the partisans of a local favorite, Ekaterina Sankovskaya, threw a dead cat onstage while her rival, Elena Andreianova, was performing. It hit Andreianova’s partner on the head.) We also hear about the generation of superb dancers who joined the St. Petersburg company during and soon after Petipa’s final years: Michel Fokine, Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky, Bronislava Nijinska, the people who would go on to staff the early seasons of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. They thought Petipa was old- fashioned. They lived to regret having said this. In 1905 they petitioned the directorate to bring him back to work. That effort did not succeed, but after Petipa’s death, Diaghilev paid him a more effective tribute. In 1921, the Ballets Russes mounted a lavish production of The Sleeping Beauty in London. It lost money—Diaghilev, to escape his creditors, had to borrow funds from the mother of one of his dancers and skip town—but it won a number of influential friends for Russian classicism and was thereby the seed of twentieth-century British ballet.

As for the fate of Petipa’s ballets in Russia after the revolution, here Meisner takes a strange turn. In her final pages, she implies that under the protection of various brave souls—notably Anatoly Lunacharsky, the USSR’s commissar for education in the 1920s; Fyodor Lopukhov, the director, on and off, of various Soviet state ballet theaters from the 1920s onward; and Agrippina Vaganova, the celebrated teacher at the St. Petersburg school (now named after her)—the Petipa tradition survived in the shadows, waiting for its hour to return. That would be easier to say if Russia had preserved even one complete example of the fifty-plus ballets Petipa created there; if Lunacharsky had not been fired as soon as Stalin consolidated his power; if Lopukhov had not been dismissed again and again from his positions of leadership, and so on. Meisner’s argument also forces her to move briskly past the official call for ballets about Soviet subjects (in 1964 the director of the St. Petersburg company made a ballet inspired by the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin) and ballets with wholesome conclusions. In 1950 the St. Petersburg Swan Lake was given a happy ending. It still has it.

Meisner does not deny that Petipa’s legacy came up against some obstacles in the Stalinist years. But everything changed, she believes, in 1956, when the St. Petersburg troupe’s sister company, Moscow’s Bolshoi, made its first Western tour, to London. The featured item of this tour was Leonid Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, framed as a battle between idealism and tyranny (i.e., the revolution vs. the tsars). The star of the ballet—indeed, of the tour—was Galina Ulanova, Soviet ballet’s queen of sincerity. “Western audiences had not seen such technical mastery since the days of Nijinsky and Pavlova, such artistry, such whole-hearted commitment,” Meisner writes.

The idea seems to be that the Petipa tradition was thereby born again. In fact, it didn’t have to be reborn. It was still alive, just not in Russia. Faced with Soviet aesthetics, many of Petipa’s students and his students’ students fled the USSR and carried the Russian tradition to Paris and London and New York. In the 1940s the most famous, and probably the best, interpreter of The Sleeping Beauty’s lead role was an Englishwoman, Margot Fonteyn. Russia basically lost Petipa, or, you could say, threw him away.

Now, ambivalently, they are trying to get him back, via reconstructions of his ballets and imports of the works of his heirs, above all George Balanchine. It’s hard, though. If you’ve grown up on Socialist Realism—tractor ballets, as the Russians called them—and then on the crotch-grabbing psychodramas that emerged after perestroika, how are you supposed to learn overnight to value ballet as an art of musical steps, which, despite their stories, is what Petipa’s works really were?

But if Meisner applied a little Vaseline to the lens, it is hard to blame her. As I read her last chapter, entitled “Apotheosis,” I thought that, after her long study of Russia’s glorious contributions to ballet, she simply couldn’t bear to have a sad ending, with so many twentieth-century Russian dancers, often the best ones, ruining themselves with drink or shooting themselves or being sent to the provinces, or, if they had the opportunity, defecting. Don’t read the last chapter. It’s very short anyway, as if Meisner knew there was a problem with it. The rest of the book is admirable.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly named the spacecraft Yuri Gagarin manned.