The art of ballet originated in Italy, where it acquired its name. It migrated to France, where it acquired its vocabulary, then created stirs in Denmark, Sweden, and other European principalities. But to judge by the reactions of American audiences, it found its true home when it reached the court of the Russian czar Peter the Great. Americans have come to love ballet (take for example the enormous number of ballet schools in the U.S. — more than 30,000 of them, with several million students). It excites us, and for that we can thank the Russians, especially the dancers associated with the legendary Kirov Ballet of Leningrad, which returns to Chicago Wednesday night after an absence of 23 years.

Czar Peter loved to dance, and he made his courtiers join him. Some of the women, bound by religious prejudice, tried to evade the czar’s wishes — he had them dragged to court by his guards. And so they learned to dance and, apparently, to appreciate dance. In 1735, not many years after Peter’s death, the czarina established the Kirov’s ancestor, the Russian Imperial School, which trained the children of court servants to participate in extravagant entertainments for audiences who were soon quite mad for dance.

Ballet masters flocked from across Europe to teach the youngsters, and in time the company became accomplished. By the end of the 19th century the ballet in Saint Petersburg (now Leningrad) was outstanding. Students by then were drawn from the general public; Tchaikovsky came upon the scene with music that was a revelation of beauty; and the courtiers and wealthy businessmen who attended the ballet became quite knowledgeable — especially about the charms of the dancers. Management was for the most part a political sinecure for favorites of the czar. Fortunately, the teaching was left in the hands of gifted ballet masters, generally foreigners. Most important of these was Marius Petipa, who was born in Marseilles and had danced in France, Belgium, and the United States, before coming to the Maryinsky (as it was then known) in 1847 to begin a career of nearly 60 years with the company. He became choreographer for the company in 1862 and chief choreographer in 1869, and created dances — Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Giselle, La Bayadere — that virtually define classical ballet. Great dancers who appeared at the Maryinsky included: Michel Fokine and Anna Pavlova (who together led a strike against the company when working conditions deteriorated in the wake of the Russo-Japanese war), Nijinsky, George Balanchine, and Aleksandra Danilova, to name just a few. The Maryinsky was an extraordinarily influential company early in this century — Diaghilev, for example, drew liberally on the Maryinsky’s stars in producing his electrifying Ballets Russes productions in Paris just before the First World War. But it was the Russian Revolution that disseminated the company’s influence most decisively. Within a few years after 1917, roughly 40 percent of the company had left Russia to settle in New York, Paris, London, and other capitals of the arts, and Russian Performers and teachers began to impart their secrets and technique to a worldwide generation of audiences and students. The Kirov (which took its new name from a communist leader assassinated in 1933) survived and continued to produce remarkable dancers. Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova, and Rudolf Nureyev — dancers who more than any others have been responsible for whatever aura of glamour surrounds dance today — all were members of the Kirov before they defected to the West.

When the Soviet government moved its capital to Moscow, the Bolshoi became the official ballet of the Soviet Union. There’s no denying its stunning, flamboyant, daring dancing. But many knowledgeable fans prefer the Kirov style as more truly classical and elegant. The company never adopted the neoclassicism of its alumnus the late George Balanchine, and has stayed pretty much within the traditional choreographic patterns of the past. Yet what is so mesmerizing in a Kirov performance is the extraordinary combination of blockbuster virtuosity (a heritage, in part, of Petipa) with the purity of the classic line, and a musicality that makes every gesture and step sheer poetry.

The Kirov, like the Bolshoi, and other Soviet ballet troupes, did present political ballets, in which heroic peasants and workers overcame the evil machinations of oppressors, but for the most part the story ballets that the public liked were based on legend and literature.

The two programs the Kirov will present at the Civic Opera House will feature examples of both the poetic and virtuosic in a number of excerpts from the repertory. Highlighting both programs will be Chopiniana better known to us as Les Sylphides, Mikhail Fokine’s romantic, storyless masterpiece set to Chopin’s music. Paquita, a series of divertissements from an old 19th-century classic by Petipa, will show off the virtuosic clarity and skills of the dancers; and excerpts from The Knight in the Tiger’s Skin, a recent ballet by Oleg Vinogradov, the Kirov’s present artistic director, will give us some idea of what’s doing in the contemporary Kirov world. Otherwise, the programs will be divided among the various high-flying classic duets, pas de trois, and pas de six, that have made Russian ballet synonymous with breathstopping glitter and elegance.

The stars of the engagement will include Altynai Asylmuratova, who, according to reports, enchanted Paris when she danced there; and Olga Chenchikova, who apparently can do more complex fouettes than any other dancer, anywhere. Among the male principals, Konstantin Zaklinsky and Sergei Vikharev are reputed to be quite remarkable. The Kirov performs Wednesday, May 27, through Sunday, May 31, at the Civic Opera House, Wacker Drive at Madison. Tickets are $15-$35; call 902-1500 for tickets and more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Sarah Lane Lawson.