Time Has Told Me: Reconstructing Ballet

Maria Alexandrova as Medora and Nikolai Tsiskaridze as Conrad in Le Corsaire. Photo: Damir Yusupov / Bolshoi Theatre ©

Last month I attended the opening night of Laurencia by the Mikhailovsky Ballet. This Chabukiani ballet, very popular with audiences in the Soviet era and a vehicle for Russian virtuoso performers, had been dropped out of repertory somewhere around the seventies. For a while all that was left of it were selected extracts performed in galas. If the ballet had not stood the test of time why bring it back now? Would this reconstruction spark the interest of modern audiences?

Artists of the Mikhailovsky Ballet in a rehearsal of Chabukiani’s Laurencia,
with Irina Perren as Laurencia

A few days later the Bolshoi Ballet brought to London four historical reconstructions: Coppélia, Petroushka, the Paquita Grand Pas and Le Corsaire. These productions were a success with critics and audiences and it was easy to see why. They are grand, with lush costumes and elaborate designs. Despite the fact that works like Coppélia and Le Corsaire are over one hundred years old these stagings felt fresh. I thought again of the restaged Laurencia – which had not been as heavily publicised over here – and its place in ballet history; the way it bridges the classical tradition of Petipa and the strong dramatic vein of works such as Grigorovich’s Spartacus. I am now hoping it won’t disappear from repertory again.

Unlike a piece of music or a painting, choreographic works are not set in stone; performers, coaches and modern choreographers, all contribute to their evolution as You Dance Funny’s Steve Ha recently discussed. With so many reconstructed works being toured around, I wanted to better understand what goes into them and, in particular, the intricacies of recreating Petipa’s originals:

Artists of the Bolshoi Ballet in the Ratmansky/Burlaka reconstruction of Le Corsaire. Photo: Damir Yusupov / Bolshoi Theatre ©

What is a reconstructed ballet?

The term refers to a work that is restaged after having virtually disappeared (dropped from repertory) or restored to its original form post substantive alterations.

Ballet Notation & Nicholas Sergeyev

Ballet notation was adopted in Russia in the late 19th century to preserve choreographic text. Before then, ballets were passed down from teacher to student “word of mouth”. The Imperial Ballet was the first company to document  repertory using notation with the assistance of young anatomist Vladimir Stepanov. In 1893 Stepanov experimented notating Lev Ivanov’s one-act ballet La Flûte Magique and Jules Perrot‘s Le Rêve du Peintre. The project was approved by a committee led by Petipa and funded by the State and, thus, other choreographic works began to be notated.

Stepanov died in 1896 leaving Alexander Gorsky in charge of notating works. In 1900 former danseur Nicholas Sergeyev took over the job. The Russian Revolution broke in 1917 and Sergeyev left Russia, taking the notations with him. He fled to the West where he began staging Petipa works, including:

  • The Sleeping Beauty for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (1920).
  • Giselle for the Paris Opera (1924).
  • The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Coppélia and The Nutcracker for the Vic-Wells Ballet (in the Thirties).

Sergeyev died in France in 1951. He left the notations to an associate who sold them to Mona Inglesby, who at that time headed a touring company (International Ballet). She sold them for little money to Harvard University. The collections were thought to be of historical value but no practical use as they required decoding the intricate Stepanov notation.

The Rose Adagio from the Mariinsky’s reconstruction of The Sleeping Beauty
with Evgenia Obraztsova as Aurora

What goes into a reconstruction?

The notations part of the The Sergeyev Collection were conceived as Aide-mémoires rather than definite records and some are incomplete. Scholars, choreographers and ballet masters working to revive Petipa’s masterpieces need to decode the difficult Stepanov notation and fill in any gaps by creating new choreography or lifting passages from other productions of the same era. Often interpolating passages from other ballets – choreographic text common to a number of ballets – are used to that end.

“Le Jardin Animé” scene from the Bolshoi’s reconstruction of Le Corsaire
with Svetlana Zakharova as Medora and Ekaterina Krysanova as Gulnare

Reconstructions also involve researching original music, sets and designs. The Sergeyev Collection includes music (mostly for piano and/or violin) but, in general, additional sources need to be consulted for tracking back and rearranging musical passages. The process of restoring sets and designs is relatively simple by comparison: the Collection includes an extensive library of photos and additional records of Petipa stagings can be found at the St. Petersburg State Theatre Library or the St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music.

Reconstructing Petipa Ballets

The first modern use of the collections happened in 1984 when Sir Peter Wright and Roland John Wiley researched the 1892 Nutcracker to assist with their production for the Royal Ballet. But in the late nineties Sergei Vikharev, a Mariinsky dancer, became interested in preserving Petipa’s classics after observing how much work was done to safeguard Balanchine and Fokine choreography. With the support of Mariinsky director Valery Gergiev, who had an interest in uncovering Tchaikovsky’s original score, Vikharev tapped into The Sergeyev Collection to restage The Sleeping Beauty. This reconstruction premiered in 1999 to great acclaim. Other recent reconstructed works include:

  • The Pharaoh’s Daughter by Pierre Lacotte for the Bolshoi (2000). With the assistance of American scholar Doug Fullington, Lacotte used notated choreography for the Grand Pas d’action.
  • La Bayadère by Sergei Vikharev for the Mariinsky Theatre (2001)
  • Jardin Animé scene from Le Corsaire by Doug Fullington for the Pacific Northwest Ballet School (2004)
  • Le Corsaire by Doug Fullington for the Bavarian State Ballet (2006)
  • Variations from Raymonda and Le Réveil de Flore by Doug Fullington for the Pacific Northwest Ballet School (2007)
  • Le Réveil de Flore by Sergei Vikharev for the Mariinsky (2007)
  • Le Corsaire by Alexei Ratmansky and Yuri Burlaka for the Bolshoi (2007)
  • Paquita Grand Pas by Yuri Burlaka (2008)
  • Coppélia by Sergei Vikharev for the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre (2001) and for the Bolshoi (2009)
  • Esmeralda by Yuri Burlaka and Vasily Medvedev (2009)

Many other works that were dropped from repertory during the 20th century have been reconstructed from photographic, video and other records by various scholars given their historical importance:

  • Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps by Millicent Hodson, Kenneth Archer and Robert Joffrey, for The Joffrey Ballet (1987)
  • Sir Frederick Ashton’s Sylvia by Christopher Newton for The Royal Ballet (2004)
  • Messerer / Gorksy Swan Lake by Mikhail Messerer for the Mikhailovsky Theatre (2009)
  • Fokine’s Petroushka by Sergei Vikharev for the Bolshoi Theatre (2010)
  • Chabukiani’s Laurencia by Mikhail Messerer for the Mikhailovsky Theatre (2010)

Reconstructions Today

Some arguments have been made against reconstructed ballets. A number of experts claim it is virtually impossible to fully interpret the historical notations and therefore a work can never be fully restored back to original form. There are also those who feel that works built on top of past productions have already improved upon the original. Those who worry about ballet getting “stuck in the past” feel reconstructions stand in the way of creative freedom, innovation and authenticity. Yet, recent interest in undertaking reconstructions and restorations seems to point to a change in perception. As historians would say, it is important to look at the past to understand the present.

The Mariinsky Ballet in Petipa's Le Reveil de Flore (The Awakening of Flora). Photo: Natasha Razina / Mariinsky Theatre ©

In our globalised times, where every major ballet company has adopted the same type of repertory, reconstructions go beyond the curiosity factor. Modern audiences might be drawn to their serious approach and the way they present a contrast to later productions which have become either diluted or overblown. And given the revived interest for narrative ballets, stylish productions of vintage masterpieces do have their place. Besides, as Mad Men proves, Retro is “in”.

Anna Okuneva and Anna Tatarova as Swanilda's Friends in the Bolshoi Ballet's production of Coppélia. Photo: Damir Yusupov / Bolshoi Theatre ©

Sources and Further Information

  1. Reconstrucing Ballet’s Past – part I: Swan Lake, Mikhailovsky Ballet by Ismene Brown. The ArtsDesk, July 2010 [link]
  2. Reconstructing Ballet’s Past – part II: Master restorer Sergei Vikharev by Ismene Brown. The ArtsDesk, July 2010 [link]
  3. Interview with Millicent Hodson by Suzanne McCarthy. Ballet.co Magazine, September 2002 [link]
  4. The Kirov’s Reconstructed Sleeping Beauty by Doug Fullington. For Ballet Lovers Only, 1999 [link]
  5. Fateyev discusses Mariinsky’s direction in Ballet  by Kevin Ng. St Petersburg Times, May 2009 [link]
  6. Wikipedia entry: the Sergeyev Collection [link]
  7. For Ballet, Plots Thicken, or Just Stick? by Alastair Macaulay. The NY Times, August 2010 [link]

Her favourite ballets feel like good books – one can see them 1,000 times and they always feel fresh. Linda loves Giselle, all full-length MacMillan plus Song of the Earth, Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, Balanchine’s Serenade and Agon, Ashton’s Scènes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations.


  • March 16, 2013


    [...] 2009 Sergei Vikharev reconstructed Coppélia for the Bolshoi using old Mariinsky records of the 1894 Petipa/Cecchetti version, based [...]

  • [...] leia o post “Time Has Told Me: Reconstructing Ballet”, The Ballet Bag, em inglês, aqui. Compartilhe este post:Gostar disso:GosteiSeja o primeiro a gostar disso. This entry was posted [...]

  • October 22, 2011

    The Sleeping Beauty

    [...] Some reviewers thought the ballet’s libretto was simplistic and juvenile, with designs that were “too luxurious” (the ballet consumed a quarter of the theatre’s annual budget). Later however, the ballet would captivate the hearts and imagination of a younger generation of enthusiasts, the “Neva Pickwickians”. Amongst them artists like George Balanchine, Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst, Sergei Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky and Anna Pavlova would give The Sleeping Beauty a boost, helping it become the most performed ballet in the Mariinsky’s history. Incidentally, the theatre’s heritage 1890 production was revived in 1999, in a lavish reconstruction by Sergey Vikharev. [...]

  • Blast from the past: Reconstructing #Ballet -> http://t.co/oxllSXvd – ties in w/ those gorgeous Raymonda pics tweeted earlier today ;)

  • [...] over time. The tale was first staged as a ballet by Arthur Saint-Léon (who would later choreograph Coppélia), with a score by Cesare Pugni. It premiered at the Imperial Ballet on 15 December 1864, with Marfa [...]

  • [...] Paquita – Ballet reconstructions feature [...]

  • January 1, 2011


    What an interesting article¡¡¡ I loved it. the video of Svetlana in Le corsaire is wonderful. thank you¡¡¡¡ She is my favourite dancer. thank you¡¡¡

  • [...] question our own position as classical ballet audience. We have also been wondering to what extent lavish ballet reconstructions steal the thunder of new works. All these issues have given us much to reflect on (watch this space [...]

  • November 4, 2010

    Royal Ballet Sylvia Review

    [...] sixties as a one-act piece. In 2004 the complete ballet returned to the Royal Ballet repertory as reconstructed by Christopher Newton. Sylvia was the only full-length Ashton facing the threat of extinction [...]

  • August 30, 2010


    Hello Adam,

    Many thanks for these interesting additional insights – to us it’s always fascinating to hear all the different perspectives on this topic – and congratulations on yet another fab wikipedia entry!

  • August 28, 2010

    Adam Lopez

    Linda – Thank you for yet another great article on the balletbag, & thanks even more for putting my wikipedia entry on the Sergeyev Collection to good use (& my youtube vids!). I created many of the wiki entries concerning Imperial/Petipa-related subjects sort of as a hobby & I thought that no one would ever read anything on such an obscure subject. I am very happy that I have helped you spread the knowledge!

    I wanted to mke a few comments … the “reconstructions” mentioned (the word “reconstruction” is loosely thrown in the ballet world today). A production like Lacotte’s “Pharaoh’s Daughter” for the Bolshoi is certainly not a reconstruction, but a new version all together. But the Mariinsky’s “Flora” is a reconstruction, but sadly they did not restore four additional variations that Petipa added to the ballet some time after its 1894 premiere. Hopefully one day someone will mount a proper staging of “Pharaoh’s Daughter” that does not cause Maestro Petipa to turn over in his grave. According to conversations on ballettalk.com, Doug Fullington stated that the notation for this ballet – which is not complete – can still be used to restore the principal characters steps & some of the corps de ballet.

  • [...] Ballet Reconstructions [...]

  • August 27, 2010


    Twitter Trackbacks…