Marius Petipa still lord of the dance

A 19th-century choreographer dazzles audiences worldwide at the turn of

The name on ballet lovers' lips this spring is Marius Petipa, because his works are center stage at both the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and New York City Ballet.

Petipa is surely a candidate for most popular choreographer of the 20th century, an honor he also held some 100 years ago. Born in France, Petipa joined the Imperial Ballet Company in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1847, and turned out 54 ballets over his 50-year career.

Petipa's "The Sleeping Beauty," "The Nutcracker," and "Swan Lake" are mainstays of ballet company repertoires around the world, as well as their main box-office attractions.

The Petipa formula is one part fanciful story, one part spectacle, and most of all, multiple possibilities for dancers. In his era, the complicated plots were expressed in mime, enhanced by set pieces of choreography: memorable dances for the corps de ballet, variations for soloists, and a series of virtuosic pas de deux for the principal performers.

For the current New York productions, the mime has been streamlined and the ballets have been revised and tightened by modern ballet masters. But the Petipa legacy is still evident in the exquisite classical passages.

So it's no wonder that Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of ABT, turned to Petipa to show off his stellar dancers. "One reason to have 'Le Corsaire' is that I have a lot of principal dancers," he says.

To set the work, ABT brought in Anna-Marie Holmes, director of the Boston Ballet, which staged the ballet in 1997.

Based on a 1814 poem by Lord Byron, "Le Corsaire" is a complicated affair about pirates abducting maidens from the harem of the Pasha, complete with a life-size shipwreck. The leading roles of Conrad, the pirate; his slave, Ali; and the slave dealer, Lankendem, gave the male stars opportunities galore as they switched roles for various performances. Julio Bocca, Jose Manuel Carreo, Angel Corella, Vladimir Malakhov, and Ethan Stiefel shared the spotlight with soloists Joaquin De Luz and Giuseppe Picone.

The other big Petipa revival at ABT was Natalia Makarova's production of "La Bayadre," a ballet she learned before defecting from the Soviet Union to the United States in 1970. Set in India, the work is even more spectacular than "Le Corsaire." A golden idol comes to life to open the second act, and the corps de ballet as dream maidens enters in perfect symmetry down a ramp. Susan Jaffee, Julie Kent, Paloma Herrera, and Russian ballerina Nina Ananiashvili alternated as the love-struck temple dancer Nikiya.

Meanwhile, the New York City Ballet (NYCB) is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a full-length celebration of Petipa's "Swan Lake." Peter Martins, NYCB ballet master in chief, directed "Swan Lake" for the Royal Danish Ballet in 1996. His most controversial choice is set and costume designs by Danish artist Per Kirkeby, who devised a muddy-looking abstract concept for the backdrops and some seriously ugly black dresses for the women of the court.

Martins triumphs in his sensible resolution to Act IV: The Swan Queen remains wild, clearly in tune with nature, while the Prince is left alone.

NYCB continues through June 27, ending in a week of performances of Balanchine's version of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Then the Kirov Ballet of St. Petersburg performs "The Sleeping Beauty" at the Metropolitan Opera in a two-week run June 28. It's choreographed by - you guessed it - Petipa.

*ABT ends its spring season with four performances of Marius Petipa's 'Don Quixote,' June 17-19.

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