The Mariinsky Ballet Company is closely linked with the entire history of the development of Russian choreographic art which began some 250 years ago. Originally, the company performed at the stage of the St Petersburg Bolshoy (Stone) Theatre then, from 1885 onwards the ballet productions were staged at the Mariinsky Theatre.
The leading role in the establishment, and in the evolution of the Russian ballet, was traditionally played by foreign mastersamongst them, Franz Gilferding, Gasparo Angiolini, Giuseppe Canziani and Charles le Picqué. However, in the 1790s the first Russian ballet teacher, Ivan Valberkh, became prominent. The main sphere of his activities was a small mime ballet company. He sought to make his productions rich in subject matter and to create recognizable lifelike images. A special place in his work was occupied by ballet divertissements which reflected his responses to the events of the War against Napoleon. The history of the St Petersburg ballet in the 19th century was associated with the activities of Charles Didelot, Jules Perrot, and Arthur Saint-Léon. In 1869 the position of the principal ballet master was entrusted to Marius Petipa who markedly raised the professional standards of the company. The peak accomplishment of this famous master became ballets staged in the period of his collaboration with the composers Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Alexander Glazunov – The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and Raymonda. The talents of many generations of ballerinas have been revealed in them – from Yekaterina Vyazem, Marina Semenova and Galina Ulanova to younger dancers who are just fledging on the Mariinsky stage.
At the turn of the 19th and 20th century the Mariinsky Ballet Company yielded to the world of ballet such great dancers as Anna Pavlova, Mathilde Kschessinska, Tamara Karsavina, Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Olga Spesivtseva, Vaslav Nijinsky, Nikolai and Sergei Legat. Many of them glorified the Russian ballet during the legendary Saisons Russes in Paris which familiarized Europe with pioneering works by Michele Fokine. The years after the revolution were a difficult period for the Mariinsky Theatre. Almost all its leading artists abandoned the company. Nevertheless during these years the classical repertory was retained and in 1922 under the vision of Fyodor Lopukhov, a daring innovator and a brilliant connoisseur,, its repertory was enriched with new productions, in particular ballets dealing with contemporary life. It was during those years that Galina Ulanova, Alexei Yermolayev, Marina Semenova, Vakhtang Chibukiani, Alla Shelest and many other future celebrities of the St Petersburg ballet came to the company.
After the Communist revolution, the name of the Mariinsky Theatre was changed to the Academic Theatre or the Academic State Theatre. Then, in 1935, the theatre was renamed The Kirov Theatre, after the Mayor of Leningrad (communist St. Petersburg), Sergei Kirov. (In recent years, the company has transitioned from The Kirov Ballet to the original name of Mariinsky Ballet.)
The 1960s saw the staging of Spartacus and Choreographic Miniatures by Leonid Lavrovsky, the productions of The Stone Flower and The Legend of Love by Yury Grigorovich as well as The Coast of Hope and The Leningrad Symphony by Igor Belsky – the ballets which revived the traditions of symphonic dances. The success of these productions were largely to be attributed to the dancers, Irina Kolpakova, Natalia Makarova, Alla Osipenko, Irina Gensler, Alla Sizova, Rydolph Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Valery Panov, Yury Solovyev and Anatoly Sapogov.
Towards the end of the 1970s the repertory grew to include Le Sylfide and Naples by Auguste Bournonville, fragments of ancient choreography by Perrot, Saint-Léon and Coralli. It was also enriched by the presence of Roland Petit and Maurice Béjart and by the collaboration of the Tudor Foundation and Jerome Robbins.
It was in 1989 that the Mariinsky Theatre first staged ballets by outstanding choreographer George Balanchine, who began his career in Petersburg. The next decade saw the theatre's repertoire complimented with productions of the leading choreographers of the mid 20th century to the early 21st century: Kenneth MacMillan's Manon and John Neumeier's Now and Then and Spring and Fall. Neumeier staged Sounds of Empty Pages to music by Alfred Schnittke, especially for the Mariinsky.
Simultaneously there was a move to restore Marius Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadare, both highly acclaimed in the international press. Petersburg premieres also include Etudes (choreography by Harald Lander), two ballets by Stravinsky – Bronislava Nijinska's Les Noces and Vaslav Nijinsky's Le Sacre du printemps – and ballets by William Forsythe.
The number of world premieres has continued to grow with Alexei Ratmansky's staging of Cinderella and The Nutcracker and The Magic Nut (music by Sergei Slonimsky, libretto, sets, costumes and production design by Mihail Chemiakin and choreography by Donvena Pandoursky), the latter two together comprising "Chemiakin's Hoffman".