Mariinsky: A Brief History of a Long Journey

Mariinsky: A Brief History of a Long Journey

Just as ballet dancers change characters and outfits on stage, the Mariinsky Theater changed names and buildings, but remained faithful to its creative destiny.

Beginning: The Bolshoi Kamenny Theater (The Big Stone Theater)

On July 12, 1783, Catherine II issued the Decree on the Approval of the Theater Committee for the Management of Performances and Music. The theater building was opened on the Carousel Square in St. Petersburg a couple of months later - on October 5, 1783. Later, the square was called Teatralnaya (Theater), and the theater itself changed its name, appearance and address more than once.

The first building of the Bolshoi Stone Theater in the classical style was designed by the Italian architect Antonio Rinaldi. His idea justified the name "Bolshoi (Big)": impressive dimensions, regal architecture, modern stage equipment. The history of the St. Petersburg Bolshoi began with the opera The World of the Moon by Giovanni Paisiello.

Like a phoenix, rising from ruins and ashes to restorations and improvements

In about 20 years after the opening, appearance of the building changed. The architect Thomas de Thomon added a palace splendor to it, updated the layout and interior decoration. Alas, the theater didn’t last long after this reconstruction. On New Year’s Eve 1811, a horrible fire broke in the building. It took two days to extinguish the fire, during which time it destroyed the luxurious interiors and began to work on the facade.

Reconstruction took years: the theater was able to receive spectators again only in 1818. The premiere performance included a prologue, Apollo and Pallas in the North, and Charles Didelot's ballet Zephyr et Flore. In the following years, world-famous operas and ballets were staged here and one could see all the members of the privileged circles of St. Petersburg in the theater boxes. At this very time, Alexander Pushkin wrote his famous lines about Russian ballet.

In 1836, the architect Alberto Cavos carried out another reconstruction of the auditorium. The domed ceiling was replaced by a flat one, the columns were removed - these modifications helped improve the acoustics and increase the seating area. Now, the theater could accommodate up to 2,000 people.

The golden age of ballet at the Mariinsky

Opposite the St. Petersburg Bolshoi Theater was the building of the Circus Theater. In the middle of the 19th century, the opera company “moved” there, but the ballet troupe stayed.

And again, the elements interfered with history. In 1859, a fire destroyed the building of the Circus Theater, leaving the opera without a stage. Alberto Cavos constructed a new building on the ruins. It was called the Mariinsky Theater after Maria Alexandrovna, wife of Alexander II.

Nine years after the opening of the new building, the ballet troupe of the St. Petersburg Bolshoi was headed by Marius Petipa. The choreographer advocated the preservation of the classics in the repertoire, for example such ballets as Giselle, Esmeralda, Le Corsaire. One of the big premieres of that time was La Bayadere, long lines of theater lovers in front of the Mariinsky Theater accompanied almost every first performance.

Petipa's acquaintance with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky gave the ballet world such masterpieces as The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. By the way, Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, which was not approved by the public at first, received its well-deserved recognition on the Mariinsky stage, although the composer didn't live to see the triumph.

In 1886, the ballet troupe reunited with the opera house and moved to the Mariinsky building. Marius Petipa was replaced by choreographer Mikhail Fokine, prima ballerinas Tamara Karsavina and Anna Pavlova, as well as dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, shone on stage at that time.

In the meantime, the theater undergone several reconstructions: for example, in the mid-1880s, a three-story building was added. It housed workshops and rehearsal rooms, as well as auxiliary infrastructure - a power plant and a boiler room. Then, 10 years later, the theater's facade was renewed and spaces were added by constructing side wings and expanding spectator foyers.

The new time: from new names to origins

In 1920, the Mariinsky Theater became known as the State Academy Theatre of Opera and Ballet, and since 1935 - as the Kirov Theater.  The repertoire of that time included not only classical productions of the 19th century, but also modern performances, among which were The Red Poppy by Reinhold Gliere, The Flame of Paris and The Fountain of Bakhchisarai by Boris Asafiev, Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev.

The theater spent the years of the World War II in evacuation to Perm. The building in St. Petersburg was repeatedly attacked by the Nazis, but this time it was able to withstand, although suffered from shelling. The troupe returned home in 1944.

The second half of the 20th century at the Mariinsky Theater was profuse in high-profile premieres. Such ballets as Shurale by Farid Yarullin, Spartacus by Aram Khachaturian, The Stone Flower by Sergei Prokofiev, Symphony No. 7 “Leningrad” by Dmitri Shostakovich and other performances were first seen on this stage.

Almost 30 years ago, in January 1992, the historical name - the Mariinsky Theater - was returned. In 2013, a new stage was opened. And it is the interweaving of timeless classics and modern productions that serves as a creative guide-mark for the theater to this day. The demand for the Mariinsky's productions among ballet connoisseurs can be proved by one indicative fact: in 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic, the theater's online broadcasts gathered over 25 million viewers from different countries in one month.