Reconstruction of “Pharoah’s Daughter” – Mariinsky Theatre, March 2023

Petipa’s creations, in their essence, are unmistakable:  lines of corps de ballet in various formations, a love triangle culminating in the victory of love over evil, power or convention, layers of demi-soloist variations punctuating the leading characters’ solo dancing, elaborate set changes and exquisite costumes. Petipa’s large, three- (or originally four-) act masterpieces were intended as half-day entertainment for the nobility, and considering their length, were tall orders to fulfill. As a result, some of them included a large range of –at times arguably superfluous– additions, including storms, live animals, lovely maidens, and types of stage contraptions that ascend, descend or slide across stage. Above all though, they contain fairytales. Such is the case with the reconstruction of “The Pharoah’s Daughter”, a Petipa ballet first created 161 years ago at the Mariinsky’s historical theatre that reappeared this year on March 24 after more than 5 years of research restorative efforts.

As the Petipa Society explains, “Petipa’s final revival of The Pharaoh’s Daughter was notated in the Stepanov notation method between 1903 and 1906 and is part of the Sergeyev Collection [at Harvard].” Thus the notation is available to anyone who may have wanted to revive this old ballet over the past century or so. Regardless of who accesses the notations to try to gather a sense of what the audiences in 1861 saw on stage, this ballet was, and still is, Petipa’s work and, due to its overwhelming size and scope, one of his major life achievements.

Politics has no place in art, or in medicine. Discussion of this production should, and here will, be relegated to the artistic realm.

Act I’s libretto retains a fairly swift progression of family-level entertainment as the viewer witnesses weary Egyptian merchants in the desert reach an oasis near the pyramids to rest. As Englishman Lord Wilson joins them and Indian dancers entertain him and his assistant, the weather turns, the palm trees sway, and a frightening dust storm begins. Everyone takes shelter inside the pyramid, where the story begins. The theatrical contraptions used to move the palm trees and the horizontal sliding of the upstage “storm” are primitive to modern eyes, but how awe-inspiring it would have been to view this spectacle in the 1860s when television, internet and high technology did not yet exist, and literacy was not as widespread as it is today. It was likely revolutionary for its time.

The pyramid’s interior appears dark and dull in auburn tones until the appearance of Aspicia, the daughter of a Pharoah, awakens from her vertical sarcophagus upstage. The staging of this moment is genius: dressed in a blinding gold headdress and slim tunic, Aspicia’s skin glows nearly purple under ultra white lighting, suggestive of a real ghost come to life. Words cannot do justice to the exquisitely detailed costumes by Robert Perdziola which alone make this production worth seeing:  sparkling jewels on at least 6 different costume changes for the main heroine, Aspicia, danced by Maria Iliushkina (the March 26th cast), and Maria Shirinkina as Aspicia’s slave Ramzeya, add a twinkle of Egyptian imperialism to a life in the desert that would likely otherwise have been a dusty, sandy existence. Aspicia’s awakening leads her to inquire who the young man on the floor of the pyramid is. Lord Wilson, performed by the stately and handsome Nikita Korneev, has become Taor, the Egyptian. He stands and she pulls him into the past.

Scene 2 is set in a lush tropical forest with a rickety wooden bridge just below a shimmering waterfall upstage. Petipa demonstrates his excellence in corps de ballet choreography here first, as several sets of hunters parade onto the stage, first men with spears then women huntresses with bows-and-arrows. A multitude of emboîtés, temps de flêches and low assemblés accompany the plucking of the maidens’ bows, and superb épaulement suggests the search for prey. An onstage monkey, danced by an Academy student, and the slaying of a jungle lion crown the end of the Act.

The libretto continues in Act 2 at a slower pace. Back inside the Pyramid, Aspicia is promised in marriage to the Nubian Tsar, and their engagement is signed by the Pharoah. The Grand Pas d’Action follows, including Anastasica Suhami, Maria Chernyavskay and Evgeniy Konovalov alongside Iliushkina, Shirinkina and Korneev.  Presumably the dancing is in celebration of the pending wedding. As each of these dancers has their own variation, the section becomes lengthy. An extensive trio follows –with another set of variations and another coda– by Vlada Borodulina, Kamila Matsi and Tatiana Tkachenko danced to a delicate musical section led by the strings and horns. Their steps — a plethora of piquées en pointe and bourrés, suggest a gentler, more cultivated aesthetic although Tkachenko’s variation (set to music used for the men’s variation in another production) is full of hefty grand allegro steps such as entrechat six. At the end of the dancing interludes, the two lovers escape through a secret door, but the Nubian chases after them. They end up in a fisherman’s shanty where peasant-type jigs prevail, and Iliushkina’s Aspicia demonstrates her keen sense of humor miming an extensive “fisherman’s tale” that explains how she and Taor got caught in a storm while fishing themselves.

The aesthetics and technique that common ballet viewers are accustomed to today are missing in parts of this “old” production. “Pharaoh” was last performed in the 1920s, and a handful of old films exist showing ballerinas from that time period. Generally, finishing a variation in fourth position (no tendus, no pointed feet) was commonplace at the time, and that’s the case in this ballet as well. Chainé turns on demi pointe are also featured which, as noted in my book “Vaganova Today”, was the standard approach until Agrippina Vaganova changed it in the Academy curriculum after the 1920s based on a visiting Hungarian student’s approach to the step. Some critics expressed annoyance at the numerous chainés done in in the ballet. The style differs from that of today, but this step by no means dominated the production. Piqué turns en dedans with the torso tilted sideways, gargouillades (arguably one of the most annoying steps for many dancers), saut de basques with bent knees, and plenty of upper body stretching –épaulement that reaches down to the waist in most cases– are also plentiful in this style. In part, the limitations of technique and the mixture of styles (French, Italian, Russian, Danish, Swedish) that had not yet been codified meant that what viewers saw in the 1860s differs greatly from what we see today in a classical ballet. Part of the wonder and excitement in “Pharoah” lies in the ability to look back in time at what audiences then may have seen.

Act III has an elaborate Nile river scene, where mermaid-type maidens slowly wave their arms (perhaps alluding to seaweed underwater). Aspicia has jumped in to avoid capture by the Nubian Tsar, but after visions of her beloved and her father, she pleads with the god of the Nile (who physically resembles Neptune with his white beard and trident) to allow her back to the surface. Her method of transportation up to dry land is a large upstage mother-of-pearl oyster shell elevator that ascends as the curtain falls.

The dancing in this Act becomes cumbersome, only because it multiplies the number of variations and characters encountered by the viewer. Six female dancers depict river tributaries (from Spain, Britain, Germany, France, China, Italy and  Russia). The idea is Nutcracker-like in its presentation, each river with steps and music suggestive of their country. Briefly Aspicia comes through in a long white gown with lilies, tossing them behind her in piqué arabesques, the steps precisely reminiscent of the second act of “Giselle” which, as it debuted twenty years earlier, seems Petipa borrowed for this section.

Except for the inference to drowning and the extra long orchestral section in Act III (the latter presumably allowing time for the quick scene and costume change), the production is family friendly and enraptured the younger generation in the audience.

Former dancer Toni Candeloro took on the restoration of the “Pharoah” project just a few months ago. Candeloro studied ballet under the Imperial Russian heritage, training with Marika Besobrasova in Monte Carlo and later Nina Tikhonova, one of Olga Probrajenska’s students. He has taught master classes at the Vaganova Academy, presented at conferences in Rome, Paris and Petersburg, and owns a collection of rare recordings of parts of Petipa’s original choreography. Judging by the sheer scope of this project and his warm relationship with the dancers, he is to be commended along with the entire Mariinsky team for bringing this “Pharoah” back to life.

All photos: Mikhail Vilchuk, courtesy of the Mariinsky Theatre Press Office.