On May 4th, 1738 in St. Petersburg, the young capital of Russia, an event took place which was to have a great significance to the culture of the world. By Imperial Decree of Empress Anna, the first Russian School of Theatrical Dance was founded. Known as the Imperial Theatre School, it was established through the initiative of the French ballet master and teacher Jean-Baptiste Landé. Twelve girls and boys began to study ‘the foreign steps’ on one of the upper floors of the Winter Palace. The early teachers were from Western Europe – the French Landé, Franz Hilferding and Giovanni Canzianni, from Austria and Italy, respectively. The first Russian teacher to emerge from the School was Ivan Walberg, who produced many notable ballets for the Imperial Theatre.
In 1801, Charles Didelot came to St. Petersburg and took over the direction of the ballet company and its school. He taught at the Imperial Theatre School for over 20 years, producing many ballets and raising the level of ballet education to a very high standard. Following Didelot, other ballet masters of the French School came to St. Petersburg: Jules Perrot, whose ballets Giselle and Esmeralda are still performed today, Artur Saint Leon, who produced Coppelia and, in 1847, a teacher who was to profoundly influence the School – Marius Petipa. During his sixty-three years in St. Petersburg, the prolific Petipa created forty-six original full-length ballets as well as countless divertissements and ballets for the opera stage. In collaboration with Peter I. Tchaikovsky, Petipa created the three greatest classical masterpieces of the 19th century, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. Today, these ballets still form the repertoire cornerstone of classical ballet companies throughout the world. Many of Petipa’s works were specifically choreographed for the Imperial Theatre School students.
Other renowned ballet masters who taught at the Imperial School during the Petipa years were Enrico Cecchetti and Christian Johannson. The synthesis of Johannson’s elegant Franco-Russian style and the exhilaration of the Italian school produced a generation of dancers whose names are synonymous with the glory of Russian ballet: Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, and Vaslav Nijinsky.
Another graduate of that period was Mikhail Fokine, whose works (Chopiniana, Firebird, Petrouchka, et al.) would become harbingers of a new era in classical dance. Fokine taught at the School from 1904 till 1916, and his students were early interpreters of his choreography. George Balanchine, the internationally acclaimed choreographer and the founder of New York City Ballet, graduated from this School in 1921. Acclaimed choreographers Fedor Lopukhov, Leonid Lavrovsky, Yuri Grigorivitch and Oleg Vinogradov all graduated from the School.