Foundation of St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet School Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet School’s founding marked the beginning of the great tradition of Russian ballet, which was instrumental in the evolution of dance technique, choreography, and narrative ballets over the next several centuries.

Summary of Event

During his tour of Europe, Peter the Great encountered a way of life and a culture very different from those of his native Russia. He was so impressed with this lifestyle and with Western artistic activity that he decided to modernize his country. When he returned to Russia in 1698, he introduced many Western methods and traditions to his countryfolk and insisted upon changes in Russia’s social, economic, and artistic life. As part of his program of Westernization, Westernization;Russia he invited many European artists and performers to Russia, including Jean Baptiste Lande, a French dancer and ballet master. Lande became the teacher of dance at the St. Petersburg Cadet Corps. [kw]Foundation of St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet School (May 15, 1738) [kw]School, Foundation of St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet (May 15, 1738) [kw]Ballet School, Foundation of St. Petersburg’s Imperial (May 15, 1738) [kw]Imperial Ballet School, Foundation of St. Petersburg’s (May 15, 1738) [kw]Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet School, Foundation of St. (May 15, 1738) [kw]St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet School, Foundation of (May 15, 1738) St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet School, Russia[Saint Petersburg Imperial Ballet School] Dance;Russia Ballet;Russia [g]Russia;May 15, 1738: Foundation of St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet School[0940] [c]Dance;May 15, 1738: Foundation of St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet School[0940] [c]Theater;May 15, 1738: Foundation of St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet School[0940] [c]Education;May 15, 1738: Foundation of St. Petersburg’s Imperial Ballet School[0940] Lande, Jean Baptiste Fusano Rinaldi, Giulia Hilverding, Franz Angiolini, Gasparo Le Picqué, Charles Canziani, Giuseppe Valberkh, Ivan Ivanovich Peter the Great Anna Catherine the Great

Although Lande was referred to as a ballet master, he did not teach ballet in the modern sense. The version of ballet that Peter the Great had enjoyed in Europe and that Lande taught was dance in combination with music, speech, and verse. It was a form of theatrical entertainment involving masks and costumes. The dancing included in this entertainment was often social dancing that happened to take place on stage: It was not a form of dance created solely for performance. The minuet, for example, was extremely popular in such “ballets.”

After Peter the Great died in 1725, dance continued to be a part of Russian culture. In September of 1737, Lande presented a letter to Empress Anna, Peter’s niece who came to the throne in 1730. In his letter, he asked her to establish a school of dance under his direction as ballet master. It is believed that in the ensuing months he presented his students from the Cadet Corps in a recital that made a very favorable impression on the empress. Thus, on May 4, 1738, Anna issued a decree acknowledging Lande as an imperial ballet master assigned to teach various kinds of theatrical dance. However, it was not until May 15, 1738, that the decree approving Lande’s salary was actually signed. Therefore, May 15, 1738, is the date usually given for the founding of the school of dance that would become the St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet School. The school’s budget was to be drawn from the revenues of the royal salt tax office, which collected taxes from the salt mines.

Lande’s school was intended to prepare young Russians to present theatrical dances at court. The school was housed in the Winter Palace and was composed of both girls and boys in their teens, chosen primarily from among the court servants and staff. The school taught only those subjects essential to developing dancers; no general education was provided. Thus, Lande’s students, although accomplished dancers, were illiterate. The school’s program comprised three years of training. At the end of the first year, students were to be ready to perform in the theater; at the end of the second year, they were to be able to execute the complete repertoire of dances; the third year was to be devoted to perfecting their talents. Upon graduation, they became members of the ballet company and were paid a salary. After ten years of service to the court, the dancers retired and received a pension.

For two years, the school thrived, but when Empress Anna died in 1740, classes were canceled for one year and Lande was sent abroad to recruit more foreign dancers. With the ascension of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna to the throne in 1741, entertainment returned to the palace. Lande was called back from Europe, and the school reopened, enjoying a period of renewed importance. The curriculum was expanded to include two different European approaches to dance. Lande taught the serious, or French, method, based on the French minuet. The comic dance, derived from the Italian commedia dell’arte, was taught by Fusano (Antonio Rinaldi) Rinaldi, Antonio and by his wife, Giulia Rinaldi. Rinaldi, Giulia This combination of serious and comedic dance techniques began to lay the foundation for what would become the Russian style of ballet, a melding of technical perfection and creativity. Lande died in 1748; Fusano served as ballet master until 1750, when he was replaced by a master known simply as Josette.

In the 1750’s and 1760’s, the school saw even greater development and perfection of both the ballet and its students. In 1758, Franz Hilverding, Hilverding, Franz a Viennese choreographer, joined the dance community of St. Petersburg. He combined pantomime and dance in such a way that his choreography could be performed only by dancers who possessed the greatest level of skill in technique, movement, and mime. In 1765, one of his pupils, Gasparo Angiolini, Angiolini, Gasparo was invited to St. Petersburg by Catherine the Great. In 1766, she established the Directorate of Imperial Theaters to administer ballet, opera, and drama, and Angiolini became ballet master at the Imperial School. In 1772, he created the first heroic Russian ballet, Semira. Semira (Angiolini) Little by little, a distinctively Russian ballet was being created as the native dancers continued to assimilate knowledge imported by foreign ballet masters.

The 1780’s were a period of great advances in ballet training at the school. During this time, Giuseppe Canziani, Canziani, Giuseppe a Venetian choreographer, and Charles le Picqué Piqué, Charles le taught at St. Petersburg. Both men were disciples of Jean-Georges Noverre, Noverre, Jean-Georges a French dancer and ballet master who wrote Lettres sur la danse et les ballets (1760; letters on dance and ballet). This work advocated development of the ballet d’action, Ballet d’action[ballet daction] a method of choreography in which the dancers’ movements were designed to reveal character and to help in creating the story line of the ballet. It was through the efforts of le Piqué that Noverre’s work was translated into Russian.

Canziani took a special interest in his students, spending five to six hours a day with them. He taught the usual classes in dance movement and technique and conducted rehearsals for approaching performances. He also spent time discussing dance theory, especially that of Noverre, and talking about the most important dancers of the time. He produced outstanding dancers who brought creativity as well as technical excellence to their performance. One of his students, Ivan Ivanovich Valberkh, Valberkh, Ivan Ivanovich became the first Russian choreographer.

In 1792, although Canziani and the school’s voice and acting masters strongly opposed the project, the Cazzai Plan was implemented at the Imperial Ballet School. The plan required the students to take classes in all the theatrical arts. Canziani was unable to implement this method effectively and resigned. Valberkh was appointed to his position. He was required to teach all of the students for two hours each day. Still adhering to Canziani’s beliefs, he devoted additional hours to students who showed exceptional talent in dance. Despite the introduction of other dramatic arts into the curriculum, the major thrust of training at the school continued to be preparing performers to fill roles in ballets. In 1801, Charles Didelot, Didelot, Charles the father of Russian ballet, arrived in St. Petersburg. His work at the school would take Russian ballet into its Romantic period.


The foundation of the St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet School ensured the continuing presence of ballet in Russia and the ongoing influence of Russia on ballet. It also provided a focal point for dancers arriving from the West. The school’s connection to the Crown set a precedent for royal patronage and government funding of ballet that has been of the greatest importance to the continuing vitality and importance of the art. From these beginnings, ballet became the great Russian art form.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Russia, with its ballet theaters and schools, provided a place for ballet dancers and choreographers such as Marius Petipa to experiment and innovate. By welcoming dancers from various countries, the Russian schools brought together different styles of dance and melded them into the classical tradition. In the twentieth century, Russian dancers, choreographers, and troupes—including Vaslav Nijinsky, Georges Balanchine, and Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes—brought Russian ballet to the West. This trend continued in the 1950’s, when both the Bolshoi Bolshoi Theatre Company, Moscow and the Kirov Kirov Theatre Company (St. Petersburg, Russia) (St. Petersburg Ballet) companies began touring in Europe and the United States. Russian ballet became an integral part of dance in the West when Russian dancers such as Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Markova, and Mikhail Baryshnikov opted not to return to Russia but to pursue their craft instead with American and European companies.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cracraft, James. The Revolution of Peter the Great. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003. Background information on Russia at the time the Imperial Ballet School was founded.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Curtis, Mina Kirstein. A Forgotten Empress: Anna Ivanovna and Her Era, 1730-1740. New York: Ungar, 1974. Discusses culture at the time of the school’s founding.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Carol. Ballet in Western Culture: A History of Its Origins and Evolution. New York: Routledge, 2002. Discusses the early origins of dance and the development of ballet in Italy, France, and Russia in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Madariaga, Isabella. Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great. Phoenix Press, 2002. Presents the cultural atmosphere in which ballet continued to develop during the century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Surits, Elisabeth, ed. The Great History of the Russian Ballet: Its Art and Choreography. Richford, Vt.: Parkstone Press, 1998. Detailed, in-depth treatment of ballet technique and performance in accordance with Russian standards.

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