The Stepanov method of dance notation was utilized to document the works included in the collection. This method was devised by the former Danseur of the Imperial Ballet Vladimir Ivanovich Stepanov, who began the notation project himself in the early 1890s.
The Sergeyev Collection is named after Nicholas Sergeyev, the régisseur of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres from 1903 to 1918, who brought the collection out of Russia after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Today, the Sergeyev Collection is housed in the Harvard University Library Theatre Collection, where it has been since 1969.
The project of documenting the repertory of the Imperial Ballet (as well as dances from operas) began in 1893, with Vladimir Stepanov notating The Magic Flute, produced by Lev Ivanov and the composer Riccardo Drigo. This was done as a series of "certifications" executed for a committee of the Imperial Theatres to show the effectiveness of Stepanov's newly devised method of dance notation (this committee, which made decisions on the appointment of dancers, repertory, etc., consisted of Marius Petipa; Lev Ivanov—second Maître de Ballet of the Imperial Theatres; Ekaterina Vazem—former Prima ballerina of the Imperial Theatres and an influential teacher at the Imperial Ballet School; Pavel Gerdt—Premier danseur of the Imperial Theatres; and Christian Johansson—former Premier danseur of the Imperial Theatres and influential teacher of the male students at the Imperial Ballet School).
Later in 1893, a second demonstration was presented in which Stepanov staged a reconstruction of an 1848 revival of Jules Perrot's and Cesare Pugni's ballet Le rêve du peintre, a work which originally premiered in London at Her Majesty's Theatre in 1843 as Le Délire d'un peintre, and was later staged by Perrot in St. Petersburg in 1848. The notations were created by Stepanov hisemlf after consulting Christian Johansson, who participated in the 1848 production and many performances thereafter. The reconstructed ballet was performed by students of the Imperial Ballet School on 23 April, 1893.
Based on the success of the notation of The Magic Flute and the revival of Le rêve du peintre, the project was approved with state funding, and soon Stepanov began notating the repertory of the Imperial Ballet (the first work to be notated after The Magic Flute was the 1894 Petipa/Drigo ballet The Awakening of Flora. Following that, Petipa's choreography for the scene Le jardin animé from his revival of Joseph Mazilier's Le Corsaire was documented).
After Stepanov's death in 1896, the Danseur Alexander Gorsky took over the notation project, and during this time he perfected Stepanov's notating system further. After Gorsky departed St. Petersburg in 1900 to take up the post of Balletmaster to the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow, the former Danseur of the Imperial Theatres Nicholas Sergeyev took over the project as supervisor. By 1903 Sergeyev became ballet régisseur to the St. Petersurg Imperial Theatres. It was Sergeyev's two assistants who in fact did the majority of the notating—Alexander Chekrygin (who joined the project in 1903), and Victor Rakhmanov (who joined the project in 1904)—both of whom were former danseurs with the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Nicholas Sergeyev left Russia with nearly all of the notated choreographies. In 1920 he was invited by Sergei Diaghilev to stage The Sleeping Beauty from the notations for the Ballets Russes in Paris, but Diaghilev's insistence on altering passages of Petipa's choreography apparently caused Sergeyev to withdraw his services.
In 1921 Sergeyev took over the post of régisseur to the Latvian National Opera Ballet in Riga, and during his appointment with the company he added a substantial amount of the music belonging to the notated ballets—complete orchestral parts for Paquita by Eduard Deldevez, The Little Humpbacked Horse by Cesare Pugni, and Giselle and Le Corsaire by Adolphe Adam.
In 1924, Sergeyev mounted Petipa's definitive version of Giselle from the notations for the Paris Opera Ballet, with the great Ballerina Olga Spessivtseva in the title role, and Anton Dolin as Albrecht. This was not only the first time the Parisian ballet had danced Giselle since the 1860s, but also the first western production of Petipa's version, which is today the traditional choreographic text of the work danced by nearly every company in the world.
In the 1930s, with the aid of the notations, Sergeyev made what is perhaps his most substantial contribution to the art of ballet: at the invitaion of Dame Ninette de Valois, Sergeyev staged Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, the Ivanov/Petipa/Cecchetti Coppélia, and The Nutcracker (in a version of the original 1892 choreography) for the Vic-Wells Ballet of London, the precurssor of the Royal Ballet, who still almost religiously perform these ballets with little changes from when they were first staged. Sergeyev's revivals of these ballets in London formed the nucleus of what is now known as the Classical Ballet Repertory, and as a result these works went on to be staged all over the world.
After Sergeyev died in Nice, France on 23 June, 1951 the notations passed on for a brief time to a Russian associate of his, in whose possession they remained until Mona Inglesby, director of the International Ballet (an English company which disbanded in 1953), purchased the collection from him. In 1969 Inglesby sold the notations to Harvard University, where they remain today as part of the Harvard University Library's theatre collection. It was around the time that the notations were purchased by Harvard that they were given the name The Sergeyev Collection. For some time the notations were useless, as no one in the world had any knowledge of how to read Stepanov's notating method. It was not until Stepanov's original primer was found in the Mariinsky Theatre library that the notations were able to be deciphered.
Not all of the notations are 100% complete, with some being rather vague in sections, leading some historians and scholars who have studied the collection to theorize that they were probably made to function simply as "reminders" for the Balletmaster or régisseur already familiar with these works. Aside from the valuable notations, the collection includes photos, set and costume designs, and music for many of the ballets in their performance editions (mostly in piano and/or violin reduction), many of which include a substantial number of dances, variations, etc. interpolated from other works. In some instances during a ballet's performance history in Imperial Russia, entire scenes were interpolated from other works during the course of a revival, and as such the interpolated numbers are often all that survive from whichever work they were extracted from. One example of this is the music and notations for the ballet Le Corsaire, which contain additions from some of Marius Petipa's original works and revivals, some of which were no longer in the active repertory at the time the notations were prepared—The Vestal (1888), The Rose, the Violet, and the Butterfly (1857), Satanella (1848), The Adventures of Peleus (1897), Pygmalion (1883), Trilby (1870), and Cinderella (1893).
Aside from Sergeyev's use of the notations, few ballet companies have utilized the collection in modern times. It was not until 1984 that the collection was put to use by someone other than Sergeyev. That year the historians Peter Wright and the musicologist/professor Roland John Wiley staged an adaptation of the original 1892 choreography for The Nutcracker for the Royal Ballet.
In 1999, the Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet used the notations to stage a reconstruction of Petipa's original 1890 production of The Sleeping Beauty (while still retaining elements of the choreography as revised in Soviet times). In 2001 the company also mounted an almost totally complete reconstruction of Petipa's 1900 revival of La Bayadère.
In 2000, the Balletmaster/choreographer Pierre Lacotte created a version of Petipa's The Pharaoh's Daughter for the Bolshoi Ballet, which was last performed in 1928. Originally Lacotte had intended to reconstruct the work from the notations, though in the end he chose to choreograph nearly all of the ballet himself "in the style of the epoch". Lacotte only used the notations, along with variations shown to him by former dancers, to stage only a few numbers in the ballet's Grand Pas d'action (a.k.a Grand defilé suite). Though he also had five of the original six "River variations" reconstructed, he opted not to use any of them, and choreographed only three of the original numbers himself.
The Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet's revivals of The Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadère, along with the revived dances for Lacotte's revival of The Pharaoh's Daughter were all reconstructed by Douglas Fullington, one of only a few people in the world who can read the Stepanov method of notation. In 2004, with the assistance of Manard Stewart, Fullington mounted a reconstruction of Petipa's original choreography for the scene Le jardin animé from the ballet Le Corsaire for the Pacific Northwest Ballet School's annual recital at the Seattle Opera House. Unfortunately the reconstruction had to be edited—a recording of Delibes' original music was utilized for the reconstruction, and the notated choreography included expanded passages in the music which the recording did not include.
In 2006 Fullington reconstructed twenty-five of Petipa's from the ballet Le Corsaire for the Bayerisches Staatsballett's (Bavarian State Ballet) production. This was done from the documents of the Sergeyev Collection. The Bolshoi Ballet has also made use of the notations for Le Corsaire for their revival of the ballet, which premiered in 2007.
In 2007 the Pacific Northwest Ballet School presented another performance which made use of the notations. Douglas Fullington reconstructed various dances from the notations which were performed with subsequent examples of George Balanchine's choreography in order to show the evolution of classical ballet technique. A variation from the Petipa/Glazunov Raymonda and the Galop générale from the Petipa/Drigo The Awakening of Flora were among the pieces revived for the performance from the notations.
The Kirov/Mariinsky Ballet presented a complete reconstruction of the Petipa/Drigo The Awakening of Flora during the VII International Ballet Festival at the Mariinsky Theatre, April 12, 2007. The choreography was reconstructed by Sergei Vikharev.
Note - Except where noted, all of the documented choreography in The Sergeyev Collection is the creation of Marius Petipa (it must be noted, that the collection certainly contains pieces by others among the Petipa works).
Ballets documented in the collection by other choreographers