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Camels, monkeys and lions at the ballet: Marius Petipa was just getting started

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Decades before Cecil B. DeMille sent horse-drawn chariots thundering through the desert, the world’s most famous ballet choreographer created an epic version of Egypt for the stage, and paraded live camels, monkeys and lions through a glitzy Russian opera house.

With that ballet — titled “The Pharoah’s Daughter” — Marius Petipa was just getting started.

Today Petipa is revered as the father of classical ballet. Later in his career he created such enduring paragons as “The Sleeping Beauty,” “Swan Lake” and “La Bayadere.” But early on, the transplanted Frenchman was more showman than sophisticate. An entertaining and insightful new documentary, “Marius Petipa: The French Master of Russian Ballet” (streaming May 12 on Amazon Prime and available on iTunes and DVD), explores not only his masterworks, but also the gaudy extravaganzas that rocked Imperial Russia.

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As the hourlong film swings through Paris, New York, Milan, Moscow and even Cambridge, Mass., it offers a good deal of fresh material, and the choices in storytelling widen its potential audience beyond die-hard ballet fans. Directed by Denis Sneguirev, who made a 2011 documentary about Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, this film is as much about the intersection of art and geopolitics, and the value of perseverance, as it is about 19th-century ballet.

After all, Petipa didn’t spring onto the scene as an artistic genius. Far from it. He arrived in St. Petersburg in 1847 as a washed-up dancer unable to find work anywhere else. He molded himself into a diligent civil servant, found ways to stroke the czar and funnel current events into his work, and only late in life attained greatness.

Petipa was in his 50s when he landed the top choreographic position at St. Peterburg’s Imperial Ballet, and he produced his crowning achievement — “The Sleeping Beauty” — in 1890 at age 72. With it, Petipa choreographed his way into dance history. But he didn’t do it alone.

The film rightfully gives equal credit to Tchaikovsky, the composer who took Petipa’s endless instructions and turned them into musical gold, and to the grandiose ambition of a man named Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the director of Russia’s Imperial Theatres.

Vsevolozhsky “was one of the few ballet directors who didn’t choose this career to sleep with ballerinas,” one historian dryly observes. It was Vsevolozhsky who brought in Tchaikovsky; he also poured money and design resources into what became an immense, politically astute tribute to the French monarchy, at a time when Russia sought France’s help to curb the expansion of the Germans.

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The documentary skillfully blends such history with gorgeous contemporary performances. Among its many pleasures is watching New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck and American Ballet Theatre’s Alban Lendorf grapple with the technical challenges of Petipa’s steps, and beautifully succeed.

Yet how those steps have come into the bodies of 21st-century dancers is no simple matter, and the film does a good job untangling ballet’s authenticity problems. A recently discovered film fragment from 1909 shows a bit of “La Bayadere,” performed some 30 years after its 1877 premiere. As the documentary demonstrates, it’s remarkably similar to the same section in Rudolf Nureyev’s production for the Paris Opera Ballet in the 1990s. This is a minor miracle, considering that Nureyev was drawing solely on his memories of “La Bayadere” from his St. Petersburg youth.

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Nureyev tapped into ballet’s “collective memory” — the way choreography is passed hands-on from one generation to the next. But this method is not foolproof.

“In the Soviet period, the ideals of beauty changed completely,” Alexei Ratmansky, ABT's Russian-born resident choreographer, tells us. “Gracefulness was out, replaced by a willful, more athletic style full of gestural effects, and that thoroughly changed the way Petipa's ballets were performed.”

Yet in a Harvard library, Ratmansky discovered a treasure trove: detailed notes made by Petipa's assistant of many Petipa ballets. The music in Petipa's time, it turns out, was much faster paced; the steps simpler and executed more quickly.

The documentary delicately contrasts Ratmansky's painstakingly historical approach to staging Petipa ballets, such as “The Sleeping Beauty,” with that of Nacho Duato, another contemporary choreographer. In his version of “Sleeping Beauty,” Duato speeds up and excises some of the conventional Petipa steps. The filmmakers don’t offer opinions on either way; both are presented as part of the evolution of the art. An evolution Petipa himself ignited, by blowing it up to operatic proportions, not only with occasional live animals, but also with extended sequences for the corps de ballet and soloists as well as the stars.

Petipa died in 1910, years before his name was celebrated in theaters around the world. This happened after the Russian Revolution in 1917, when prominent Russian dancers defected and began to spread what the film calls, infelicitously, “the Petipa virus.” Audiences all over became “infected.” It means this in the best possible way.

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