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Lev Ivanov was born in Russia in February, 1834. He is said to have been the natural son of Tia Adamova and that his mother placed him in a foundling hospital when he was 11 months old. She reclaimed him in 1837. (He is listed in the Imperial School’s records as the “illegitimate son of the spinster Tia Adamova.”) Ivanov was brought up by a merchant’s family until age eight, sent to a boarding school for two years, and then enrolled in the Imperial School of Ballet in St. Petersburg.
Ivanov studied first with Pimenov, then with Gredlu, Frederic and Jean Petipa. While a student, he danced with Muravieva in La Peri, and with Fanny Elssler in Catarina, Esmeralda and La Filleule des Fées. As a young pupil, he displayed a phenomenal musical aptitude ‑‑ it was said that if he heard a ballet once, he could play the entire score by ear. For this gift, he was reproved by his dance teachers and several times (unsuccessfully) invited to transfer to the Imperial School of Music by the director.
In 1852, Ivanov completed his training and became a member of the corps de ballet of the Maryinsky. Jules Perrot, then maitre de ballet, was not partial to Russian dancers and made little attempt to advance Ivanov. Ivanov’s first opportunity occurred in 1855 when the ballerina T. P. Smirnova suggested that Ivanov partner her in a pas de deux in La Fille Mal Gardée. His debut was so successful, that Perrot began to give him minor roles. In 1858, he was appointed dance teacher and married Vera Lyadova the following year. (He was remarried in 1875 to Varvara Ivanova.)
When Marius Petipa succeeded Perrot as maitre de ballet, Ivanov became premier danseur and mime. He was known for his roles in the following ballets: Faust, Esmeralda, Catarina, Fiammetra, Satanella, La Fille du Pahraon, and La Bayadère.
In 1885, he was appointed Petipa’s assistant. In his diary he wrote: “I was so good a soldier, that I went through every step of the ‘service.’ I have been in the corps de ballet, coryphé, first dancer, played character roles, and was a teacher of dancing and they finally made me balletmaster.”1
Ivanov’s first production was a revival of La Fille Mal Gardée. He then staged many ballets, new ones and revivals, for the Imperial Theatre which included: The Wilful Wife (1885); The Haarlem Tulip (1887); The Enchanted Forest, The Beauty of Seville, Casse‑Noisette (1892); The Magic Flute (Drigo, 1893); Flora’s Awakening (1893); The Mikado’s Daughter, Marco Bomba, Camargo, Swan Lake (Acts 2 and 4) (1894‑95); Cinderella (Act 2), Acis and Galathea, The Trials of Damis (1900); and Sylvia (unfinished).
The majority of these works were produced in collaboration with Petipa and historians are still divided, with the Petipa faction declaring that Ivanov was only a competent craftsman vs. the Ivanov faction maintaining that the latter was a choreographic genius held back constantly by the jealous Petipa. Although it is difficult to rank the importance of Lev Ivanov in the history of ballet in Russia, partly because he was a modest man (Ivanov’s last message to young dancers was “never be too self‑loving: do not regard yourself as better than the others: be modest.”2) and partly because of the above argument, he was considered unlike any of the previous ballet masters in his approach to the music. “In the dances of Ivanov there is a choreographic embodiment overheard and emotionally felt with the music. Present‑day theorists of the ballet maintain that out of Ivanov’s exciting forms and creative fantasies came Fokine’s3 most important inspiration.”
And as a teacher , there is no question that he contributed much to the excellent technical training of the Maryinsky company. Among his students were E. I. Sokolova, A. F. Vergina, Ekaterina Vazem, M. N. Gorshenkova, V. A. Nikitina, K. M. Kulichevskaya and Olga Preobrazhenskaya.
In 1891, Ivanov was awarded the Order of Stanislaus, 3rd Class; in 1893, the Order of Anne, 3rd Class; and in 1901, the Order of Stanislaus, 2nd Class.
Swan Lake marked the apex and close of Ivanov’s achievement. While working on Sylvia, he became ill and died in December, 1901. A short time before his death he wrote (perhaps as a message to the rising generation of dancers) in his diary: “May you ever be blessed with the spirit and strength not to regard your profession merely as a means of livelihood, but as an Art to which you are resolved to dedicate your very soul.”4
1. From Masters of the Ballet of the Nineteenth Century V ‑ Lev Ivanov, by Joan Lawson, in The Dancing Times, March, 1940, page 344.
2. Loc Cit.
3. From Masters of the Ballet of the Nineteenth Century I, by Joan Lawson, in The Dancing Times, November, 1939, page 60.
4. From The Ballet Called Swan Lake, by Cyril W. Beaumont, London, 1952, page 56