1903 COSTUME BALL
IN THE WINTER PALACE

Portrait of Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna

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In 2003 the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg hosted a unique exhibition marking the 100th anniversary of the now historic and famous Costume Ball in 1903. The exhibition opened in the Hermitage Theater Foyer displaying 12 of the original costumes of the ball’s participants and 34 photos from the 1903 album. The exhibition was organized by the State Hermitage Museum with the support of the St. Petersburg Tercentenary Committee, Maris Lijepa Charity and Baltic Construction Company. The party given on 11 February, 1903, in the Winter Palace was followed two days later by a grandiose fancy dress ball. Called "The 1903 Bal", it remains the most celebrated festivity arranged in St. Petersburg during the reign of Nicholas II, the last Emperor of the Romanov House.

Gathering in the Hermitage Romanov Gallery on 11 February, 1903, guests followed in pairs to the Big (Nicholas) Hall of the Winter Palace to give the hosts a "Russian bow". The party’s central event was a concert in the Hermitage Theater with scenes from Modest Musorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov (key parts were performed by Fedor Shalyapin and Nina Figner), Minkus’ ballet Bayadere and Petr Chaykovsky’s ballet Swan Lake directed by Marius Petipa (with Anna Pavlova’s participation). Performance was followed by a Russian dance in the Pavilion Hall. Dinner was given in the Spanish, Italian and Flemish Rooms of the Hermitage. Thereupon Their Majesties and the guests proceeded to the Pavilion Hall where the party culminated in dancing.

The second part of the ball took place on 13 February, 1903: guests included 65 "dancing officers" appointed by Her Majesty. Members of the Imperial Family gathered in the Malachite Room, others in the adjacent areas. When ten struck, all participants went to the Concert Room to dance, where the court orchestra wearing costumes of trumpet-players of Czar Alexey Mikhaylovich performed behind a gilt grating, while 34 round tables were arranged in the Nicholas Hall for dinner. The Concert Hall and Small Dining Room accommodated bars, the Malachite Room, tables with tea and wine.

When dinner was over, hosts and guests returned to the Concert Hall to dance till one in the morning. After three specially prepared dances were performed (Russian dance, round dance and plyasovaya), directed by chief ballet director Aistov and Kshesinsky, common waltzes, quadrilles and mazurkas started. Young officers of Guards Regiments, Horse-guardsmen, Life-guardsmen and Lancers, acted as male partners in dances. Participants had received some training: at the dress rehearsal held in the Pavilion Hall on 10 February, 1903, ladies wore sarafans and kokoshniks, while men sported dresses of streletses, falconers, etc. Empress Alexandra Fedorovna and Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fedorovna acted as "judges". After the balls of 11 and 13 February, 1903, the Empress commissioned the best photographers of St. Petersburg to make individual and collective pictures of participants. 173 of them were published in the form of an album of phototypes. Albums were sold with charitable purposes to the ball guests. Phototypes give a general idea of every participant’ fancy dress.

The 1903 festivity in the Winter Palace which already then attracted a good deal of attention appears now an event of an enduring historical significance.