This year marks the bicentenary of the birth of Marius Petipa (1818–1910), the celebrated French choreographer and ballet master of the Russian Imperial Ballet. Toward the end of a remarkable half-century career that included such landmarks as Don Quixote, La Bayadère, The Sleeping Beauty and Raymonda, Petipa created—at age 82—the exuberant Harlequinade. To commemorate the occasion, American Ballet Theatre presents the premiere of its first full-length production of Petipa’s comic ballet, for the entire Company, with children from the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. ABT Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky stages Harlequinade, based on his study of the notated choreography.
Harlequinade premiered in February 1900 at the Imperial Theater of the Hermitage, Winter Palace in St. Petersburg for a private audience of the Russian court that included Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra, the Dowager Empress Marie, grand dukes and princes. The ballet’s success was immediate and the tsarina, so taken with it, commanded additional performances for the Imperial Mariinsky Theater. From the time it entered the repertory, Harlequinade was performed more than 50 times until the 1917 Revolution. By 1901, a piano score was published, an indication of its widespread appeal.
The two-act ballet, known as Les Millions d’Arlequin (Harlequin’s Millions) or in Russian Arlekinada, with a libretto by Petipa, is based on episodes drawn from commedia dell’arte, a form of Italian comedy popular throughout Europe from the 16th through 18th centuries. Distilled through a French lens, the ballet’s characters center around the wily, witty and irrepressible Harlequin, in love with Columbine, the daughter of Cassandre. Though Columbine returns Harlequin’s affections, her father intends her for Léandre, a wealthy but older suitor. Pierrot, Cassandre’s servant, guards against Harlequin and Columbine’s union, while Pierrette, solicitous of their romance, thwarts both her husband Pierrot and Cassandre’s scheme.
As with his reconstruction of The Sleeping Beauty, Ratmansky’s assiduous archival work for Harlequinade included examination of drawings, photographs, memoirs, music scores and, above all, a manuscript that outlined the particular dance notation for Petipa’s Harlequinade. This system, which adapted musical notation for recording dance movement, was devised by Vladimir Stepanov, a teacher at the Imperial Theater School, and developed further by Alexander Gorsky, a dancer and choreographer. Because Stepanov’s system was based on anatomical analysis of movement, it could specify any movement with exactitude, including ballet. It made clear aspects of Petipa’s choreography—the position of legs, lower and closer to the body, notably in turns, that became typical in the 20th century—and revealed an incisive musicality.
Most of the documentation for Harlequinade forms part of the Nikolai Sergeev collection in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Ratmansky’s work involved tireless sleuthing. He took nothing for granted and everything in his stride, including the discovery of Harlequinade notations for variations misplaced in the files of another ballet. While Stepanov’s system incorporates choreographic notations for groups, the notation is not comprehensive, nor does it specify every detail of the choreographer’s art. Ratmansky observes, “The more you look at it, the more you see.” In rehearsing the ballet, Ratmansky has been as exigent with dancers about importance of the mime as about the steps. He advises, “Gestures tell you who you are as much as they inform the audience about the story.”
Harlequinade is set to music by Riccardo Drigo, composer and conductor of the Imperial Ballet, appointed in 1886. Highly regarded by Tchaikovsky, Drigo led the premieres of The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. American Ballet Theatre conductor David LaMarche notes, “Drigo was a brilliant melodist and a skilled orchestrator.” The composer’s affecting lyricism imbues Columbine’s second-act variation, a berceuse, with special tenderness. Principal Dancer Isabella Boylston, who portrays Columbine, adds, “What I love about Harlequinade is the music, especially the sublime music for the variation in Act II. It’s a fun collaboration to discover the phrasing with Alexei.”
Designer Robert Perdziola’s production for Harlequinade evokes the opulence of the Imperial Ballet. In addition to décor, Perdziola has created nearly 100 designs—a corps de ballet of Larks and Muscadins, 34 children as petit Harlequins, Polichinelles and Pierrettes—which total more than than 250 costumes. He began work by studying the original production’s sets and costumes, preserved in the St. Petersburg State Museum of Theater and Music. Perdziola says, “There was a bulk of information to digest. And the other angle was a celebration of commedia dell’arte, which I had considered in previous work, plays, operas and ballet, throughout my career.”
Audiences will be dazzled by the design as well as the number of costumes but also by its vibrant palette of colors. Perdziola paid special attention to the pigment colors of the original costume sketches in translating them for the eyes of today’s audiences. He also made use of technology for the realization of the costumes for the character at the center of the story. Perdziola says, “I drew the decorative graphics of Harlequin’s costume, then they were finessed or sharpened on the computer, and, finally, printed digitally onto fabric. In addition, I wanted the eye to jump a bit around the costume by the addition of appliques.” The designer adds, “It bears remembering that Harlequin is traditionally a poor servant whose clothing is made of patches. He is mercurial, a prankster who outwits his master. Over time, those patches have taken on their own display of design, strength, even brazenness. And because Harlequinade is a ballet from 1900, it seems to represent a zenith of 19th-century ballet, yet in some ways, Harlequin’s costume heralds a certain modernity.”
Another challenge that appealed to Perdziola is that every character on stage wears a hat, headpiece or mask. “Child, adult, everybody. And of these characters, half of them are wigged, which is also unusual,” says the designer. Not surprisingly, of the eight shops involved in creating the production, two are devoted to millinery.
Returning to the character at the center of the ballet, Principal Dancer James Whiteside, who portrays Harlequin, says, “The role feels natural to me as do the variations. There’s a youthful exuberance to his movement, something akin to a kid on Christmas morning. He seems to be someone who is hard to put down, someone who’s defiant and resilient in the face of adversity.” Two hundred years after Petipa’s birth and more than 100 years since he created Harlequinade, there may be no better role model for today.
Mario R. Mercado writes on dance, music, art and architecture.