Son of Antoine Petipa, dancer, choreographer and teacher, both Marius and his elder brother, Lucien, were brought up to follow the same profession. Thus, Marius Petipa, though not enthused by the art form, began his dance studies at age 7, at the same time he received a general education from the Grand College in Brussels.
Marius' performing debut came as a child in his father's production of Pierre Gardel's La Dansomanie in 1831 at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. The Belgian revolution followed soon afterwards placing the family in dire straits. Jean Petipa moved the family to Bordeaux in 1834, and then on to Nantes where Marius became a principal dancer in 1838.
Marius and his father Jean toured North America in 1839 after which Marius studied with Auguste Vestris in Bordeaux. There he appeared as principal dancer in many ballets including, Giselle, La Fille mal Gardée and La Péri, featuring along side Carlotta Grisi in the latter.
In Bordeaux Marius Petipa also choreographed his own work, La jolie Bordelaise, La Vendange, L'Intrigue amoureuse and Le Langage des fleurs. Following the failure of the impresario in Bordeaux Marius was immediately engaged at the King's Theatre, Madrid where he remained as a dancer for four years, also studying Spanish dance. This influence led him to choreograph Carmen et son Toréro, La Perle de Séville, L'Aventure d'une fille de Madrid, La Fleur de Grenade, and Départ pour la course des taureaux.
In 1847, after a fated relationship he left for St Petersburg, where he was offered a contract as principal dancer for a year.
At the end of Petipa's first season in Russia the critic Raphael Zotov wrote, "Our lovely ballet company was reborn with the production of Paquita, and the production of Satanilla [as Le Diable amoureux came to be known in Russia] and its superlative performance placed the company again at its former level of glory and universal affection." The first ballet he choreographed in Russia was The Swiss Milkmaid (1849). The ability to mount revivals and make dances was the predictable outcome of Petipa's rigorous apprenticeship, evidenced by his composing ballets as a teenager in Nantes and later in Bordeaux and Spain. The next step - allowing skill to ripen into creativity - took many years.
Following Jules Perrot's summoning to St. Petersburg in 1848 at the behest of Fanny Elssler to become resident ballet master, Petipa's career returned to his duties as a dancer. From performing the ballets of Perrot and Arthur Saint-Léon, Petipa did learn the value of intensely dramatic mimed scenes and the persuasive intervention of fantastic elements into everyday settings. He was also chosen by Perot to assist him in producing new ballets.
For Petipa, who turned 40 in 1858, composition was a logical alternative to dancing. Petipa's breakthrough as a choreographer came in 1862 with the creation of La Fille du Pharaon based on a novel by Gautier. On the strength of the success of this ballet Petipa was appointed one of the company's ballet masters. He was successful in unseating Saint-Léon, who had replaced Perrot, then promoted to take charge of the Maryinsky company in 1869, the year that also saw the premiere of his Don Quixote.
Petipa established himself with his "ballets à grand spectacle", of which Le Roi Candaules (1868) and La Bayadère (1877) stand out. Hardly a new idea - ballets set in exotic locales had been around since the French Baroque - but Petipa linked the ballets to current events or fashions. La Bayadère came in the wake of a widely reported journey of the Prince of Wales to India.
Petipa's "ballet à grand spectacle" called for massive forces, luxurious productions and predictable choreographic components. In constructing the acts of a ballet he selected from a variety of elements: massed scenes, character dances which provided a sense of local color, classical dances (which normally called for a suspension of the narrative) and dramatic encounters between the principal characters, set either as pure mime or in "pas d'action", a mixture of mime and dancing.
Petipa was meticulous in his preparations, doing exhaustive research and preparing minute plans for painters and composers. He always considered, however, that choreography should take precedence over all else. He would come to rehearsals with ideas already prepared and teach the dancers what he had devised. "Without even looking at us he merely showed us the movements and gestures with words spoken in indescribable Russian," wrote Kschessinka. Despite his many years in Russia, Petipa spoke little of the language and the dancers had to get used to his peculiar idioms. "You on me, me on you; you on mine, me on your," meant that you had to move from one corner ("you") to where he was ("me"). To make his meaning clearer he tapped his chest every time he said "me." By this means Petipa taught some of the most widely performed and enduring masterpieces ballet has yet known.