Nureyev: After Petipa

Examining the influence of the work of Marius Petipa on Nureyev.


Key Staff

Primary Instructor

Key Skills

Developing Arts Literacies: Understanding Genres, Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique
Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture


This lesson launches students into a study of ways Nureyev’s early life and work were affected by changing social, political, and cultural forces in Russia, and how his artistic genius grew out of inherited traditions, particularly the influence of the work of Marius Petipa. Students will research Russian history, Pepita, and Nureyev. They will learn about Romanticism, Classicism and Modernism as they apply to choreography. The lesson culminates in a written research project.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Accumulate some background in Russian history, especially of the turbulent relationship of Russia with Mongolia.
  • Become acquainted with the elaborate style of the choreography of Marius Petipa.
  • Become acquainted with the geography of Nureyev’s birthplace, Ufa, and the location of ballet centers in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Leningrad.
  • Construct discerning hypotheses explaining the “double entendre” meaning of the reference “after Petipa.”
  • Expand their knowledge of classical ballet as an art form.
  • Explore aspects of Nureyev’s performance and choreographic design that contribute artistic power to his dance performance and choreography.
  • Gain increased understanding of the importance of ballet in the cultural life of 19th and 20th century Russia.
  • Recognize specific aspects of Nureyev’s innovations in choreography.
  • Recognize the impact of social and political change on the ballet world in Russia, particularly the impact on Nureyev’s life and work.
  • Recognize the integration of Classicism and Romanticism within the choreographies of Marius Petipa.
  • Strengthen process skills of reading, writing, listening, inferencing, oral presentation, visual literacy
  • Sharpen comparative skills of analysis.
  • Through this historical perspective gain some understanding of the implications of Nureyev’s Tatar (Tartar) and Muslim roots.

Teaching Approach

  • Thematic
  • Project-Based Learning
  • Comprehensive Arts Education

Teaching Methods

  • Discovery Learning
  • Discussion
  • Experiential Learning
  • Reflection
  • Research

Assessment Type

Alternative Assessment


What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Learner
  • 1 Computer per Small Group
  • 1 Computer per Classroom
  • VCR
  • Television
  • DVD Player
  • Projector
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers should familiarize themselves with Nureyev’s work , modern dance, and Modernism using the following sources:


  • DeMille, Agnes. Martha: The Life and Works of Martha Graham. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
  • Jowitt. Time and the Dancing Image. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988.
  • Kirstein, Lincoln. Four Centuries of Ballet. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1984.
  • Sinyavsky, Andrei. Soviet Civilization: A Cultural History. Arcadia, Greenfield, WI, 1990.
  • Solway, Diane. Nureyev: His Life. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc, 1998.
  • Stuart, Otis. Perpetual Motion. The Public and Private Lives of Rudolf Nureyev: Penguin Books, 1996. (Recomended for Teacher Use Only)


Prior Student Knowledge

Students should be familiar with the basic notions of dance and ballet. Students should have a general knowledge of Russian history.

Physical Space



Small Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with visual impairments or disabilities may need modified handouts or texts.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.



1. Distribute the Vocabulary Handout located within the Resource Carousel to the students.

2. Have a student(s) briefly recap the historical framework of Russia : for instance, the turbulence building during the Tsarists reign of the Alexanders; the impact of the defeat in the Crimean War; the growing peasant revolt; and the freeing of the serfs. (If students do not have a background in Russian history, you may want to assign them topics for brief research projects).

3. Follow with a student-led discussion on the role ballet might play in such changing times, highlighting the fact that the Imperial Ballet School, in its founding, was an entrenched part of the culture of the nobility; accepted students (children of the nobility) were carefully screened; the Academy had strict decorum; training was disciplined and rigorous; expectations of perfection were high. (You may want to give time for students to prepare their questions and responses in small groups before the discussion).

4. Have students trained in classical ballet demonstrate the "conventions" of classical ballet—how the classical ballet dancer trains: a glimpse of barre work; the five positions; floor work and how combinations are pieced together out of discreet movements that have names, emphasizing that there is an expectation of how these movements should be performed (turnout; hip, head, arm position, etc.). The idea is to bring students who have not had classical ballet training in touch with the formality of the idiom.

5. Have students research and give a presentation on the prevailing "ethos" of Marius Petipa’s choreography, giving attention to such aspects as the influence of Orientalism (clarifying term); the strong narrative drive of long Romantic ballets; use of mime; some freeing of traditional movement while still being encased in a linear framework and conventions of Classicism (Neo-classicism); the profusion of elaborate costuming, spectacles, and pageantry; the resulting "escapism" mentality for an audience of the nobility hiding its head in the sand as the industrial revolution took hold, serfs were released, and absolute monarchism was increasingly threatened.

Build Knowledge

1. Examine a map of Russia to locate Nureyev’s birthplace, Ufa, in relation to Leningrad, Moscow, and particularly St. Petersburg.

The map lesson will provide a good opportunity for introduction (or review) of Russia’s conquest of Crimea—the Asian Mogul/Tatar (Tartar) empire. A discussion of this conquest could set the stage for a discussion of Nureyev’s Tatar/Muslim roots and conjectures about ways that background might have helped to shape Nureyev’s outlook, charismatic presence, and innovative talent.

2. Present to the class biographical material on Nureyev’s life that is relative to assigned problem solving activities: the anecdotal accounts of Nureyev’s birth on a train, the nature of the geographical location where he grew up, some details of his poverty-stricken childhood caught in the turbulence of political upheaval and war, his relationship with his father, his determination to get into the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, his rebellious years as a student, KGB surveillance and the Paris drama of his defection, his tempestuous relationships with other dancers, and the West’s recognition of his magnetic qualities and genius. These events should intrigue students and help motivate them to want to know more about his artistic accomplishments and to better understand these accomplishments.

3. Re-focus on Marius Petipa, reminding students of points made in the presentation on key aspects of Petipa’s choreography. Consider giving a short quiz on key points made in the presentation to help ready students for the second part of this activity.

4. Share with students the fact that Nureyev felt deeply attached to the legacy of Marius Petipa. As a student at the Leningrad Choreographic Institute, where Nureyev had been admitted in 1955 despite some reservations about his success, he had encountered outstanding veteran teachers who had danced in the Kirov Ballet. He also had encountered, and was much fascinated by, the legendary work of Petipa, which had been preserved in the canon of the Institute.

Share with students the names of several famous ballet scores out of the sixty or more that Petipa had choreographed or helped choreograph, narrowing the discussion down to names students would find familiar: for instance, The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and Don Quixote


1. Divide the class into three-member collaborative groups. Ask each group to identify a fairy tale (other than Sleeping Beauty) that they think would lend itself to being developed into a full length ballet. Assign each group the following tasks:

  • Plotting out the structural sequence of their choreographic design, paying attention to the following: How many acts? How many scenes would be in each act? Where would they position climactic moments? How would they conclude? Would they begin the first scene with one dancer, two, or the entire ballet corps? Would their conclusion be a grand finale with principals and corps on stage or a lone dancer or two dancers on stage?
  • Making decisions on such aspects as: What music they would use? What would be the prevailing tone of the costuming and stage set?
  • Mapping the dance presentation of one scene, noting such aspects as: When the principals would enter and exit, what aspects of the narrative or moment(s) of dramatic tensions could be reinforced by the corps, the alignment of dancers on stage to help build the narrative, and the interrelationships of the characters.
  • Drawing sketches of costume design, the stage setting(s), and the cover design of the program
  • Preparing an overview presentation of their creative ideas for the class. This presentation could take the form of an oral explanation of a display board, a video of a performance of the ballet scene score, a live dance presentation of the ballet scene score.

2. After students have completed their work, initiate a class discussion based on their findings.


1. Focus on the fact that in his career as a celebrated dance artist, Nureyev recreated several of the ballets Petipa had choreographed, using patterns and styles that vigorously resonated Petipa’s work. In each case, Nureyev dedicated his re-creation by positioning, after the title of the ballet, the phrase "after Petipa".

2. Initiate the following problem solving activities:

  • Have students view a film of one of Nureyev’s "after Petipa" scores (the DVD tape of Nureyev’s Don Quixote "after Petipa" is excellent for the assignments in this activity).
  • Encourage students to construct a jot list of aspects they think project some of the points made about Petipa’s choreographic patterns and style in the earlier presentation, developing specific points of comparison. Advise them that the notes will help prepare them for an essay test.
  • If the literary text on which the ballet was built has been studied in class, initiate a study of students’ perspective on specific ways Nureyev has honored and/or departed from the text. Encourage them to compare such aspects as sequencing of the narrative, manipulation of the story line, highlighting of thematic threads and dramatic moments, shaping of characterization, projection of basic thematic tensions and what they perceive to be the central "message" of the text. Advise students to make notes of their thinking in preparation for the following essay assignment.

3. As a culminating experience, assign an essay (to be developed either in class or outside of class) in which students will develop a well-crafted paper on one of the above topics of comparison. Share points of comparison in a large group discussion. In the discussion, encourage students to pinpoint where they think Nureyev ‘s emulation of Petipa gave evidence of Classicism and aspects of Romanticism. Also raise the question (providing a "hook" for Lesson III) whether or not they think Nureyev’s version "after Petipa" introduces artistic elements that do not fit either of these two patterns. Ask them to explain their position with specific evidence.


Teacher Assessment:

  • Quality of research
  • Contribution to class discussion and collaborative projects
  • Performance in oral presentations: substantive material relative to topic; good organization; rhetorical effectiveness; poise in delivery; voice modulation, etc.
  • Performance in writing assignments: substance in analysis; logical organization; effectiveness in structural design; specific and persuasive arguments; precise diction; rhetorical effectiveness, etc.
  • Evidence of genuine investment in work of the class
  • Participation in special projects
  • Evidence of discernment in making inferences, constructing hypotheses, mounting intellectual arguments of conclusions reached

Key Vocabulary

  • Nureyev
  • Dance
  • Modernism
  • 20th century
  • Artistic shifts
  • Choreography
  • Modern dance
  • Ballet
  • Russia
  • Petipa


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Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Jen Westmoreland Bouchard

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