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The names Petipa, Pavlova, Nijinsky, and Nureyev—and countless others associated with the theater and the birth of ballet in St. Petersburg—are enough to lure ballet lovers here from around the globe. The Mariinsky is without a doubt one of the best ballet companies in the world, with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of stars.
The Imperial Ballet School was founded here on May 4, 1738, by the order of Empress Anna Ioannovna, to be run by Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Lande. French and Italian masters taught the first class of 12 boys and 12 girls. Works of another Frenchman, Marius Petipa, who arrived at the academy in 1847, still dominate the repertoire of the Mariinsky. Today the school is called the Vaganova Ballet Academy in honor of Agrippina Vaganova, who radically changed the way ballet was taught in Russia. The best students traditionally appear on the venerable Mariinsky stage around Christmas in The Nutcracker and then in May and June in graduation performances.
February and March, the company runs the impressive Mariinsky International Ballet Festival, which has at least one premiere and an array of guest performers from other renowned companies, such as London's Royal Ballet, Opera Bastille, and the American Ballet Theater.
The Mariinsky is also at the forefront of the world's opera companies, thanks largely to the achievements of the Mariinsky's artistic director, Valery Gergiev. The company's best operatic repertoire centers on Russian opera: Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, Prokofiev's Semyon Kotko, Shostakovich's The Nose, Rimsky-Korsakov's The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, and The Snow Maiden are particularly recommended.
Operas are all sung in their original language; Russian operas are all provided with English subtitles, while Russian subtitles are given for foreign operas. Verdi can be hit-or-miss, but Wagner is one of Gergiev's greatest passions, and the company now feels very much at home with the composer. The orchestra's rapport with the conductor is amazing, and the sound is nuanced and powerful.
Ballet and opera share the calendar throughout the year; the opera and ballet companies both tour, but at any given time one of the companies is performing in St. Petersburg.
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