Drawing on mainly Russian-language sources, including diaries, memoirs, letters, newspaper interviews, notes (many by Petipa himself) and contemporary reviews, Meisner illuminates Petipa’s career and steers us through the most crucial period in the Imperial Ballet’s history. She catalogues the ins and outs of his first big hit — The Pharaoh’s Daughter (1862), an exotic, five-hour spectacle set in Egypt, in which an English lord smokes opium and dreams of mummies coming to life (I still remember fondly Pierre Lacotte’s reconstruction of it for the Bolshoi Ballet).
Nadine Meisner’s meticulously researched and exhaustively detailed study will surely establish itself as the standard authority on the subject in English. The absence of any scorching drama or scandal in Petipa’s life means that it doesn’t make electrifying reading, but its poise and scholarship impress, particularly in its command of the broader cultural context.
Meisner weaves this biographical material into a much broader picture of ballet under the tsars; she is excellent on the contrasting skills and styles of the ballerinas with whom Petipa worked, and who forged his style just as much as any ethereal notions of dance did. She doesn’t always see the wood for the trees, or separate the glistening solos from the work of the corps de ballet, but there is an amplitude in her creation of Petipa’s world that is worthy of so expansive a creator.