In 1956, people queued in Covent Garden for three days and nights to buy the 55,000 tickets for the Bolshoi Ballet’s first visit to the West.  Of the thousands that queued for tickets for a further three performances at the Davis Theatre Croydon (capacity 3,500), only about one in four was successful.  Ballet, which had been the elite entertainment of imperial Russia’s privileged classes, had suddenly become the Soviet Union’s most distinctive cultural export.

The survival of ballet in post revolutionary Russia is remarkable in itself.  Challenged by practical problems (lack of food or heat), new proletarian audiences, and intellectual disagreements about the rôle of ballet in the Soviet cultural project, its death seemed inevitable to some.  In spite of its title, this is not a book about the dancers;  it is a book about the environment in which they worked, and the ways in which neither the Kirov or the Bolshoi buckled under the drive for “socialist realism”, which, of course, had little to do with realism.

The arts and artists are rarely completely free:  state funding or private patronage almost always has conditions or at least unwritten understandings attached, and commercially financed ventures are influenced by the market.  The situation in Soviet Russia, however, was extreme, and Ezrahi tracks the way in which managers, choreographers and their works fell in and out of favour according to the prevailing ideological climate.  The Soviet Union had particular difficulty in determining the meaning of “socialist realism” for classical dance.  There was a negative definition, that it was not “formalism”, the term used derogatively of pure classical dance, to describe “the focus on the formal element of an art form at the expense of social content”.   It was hard to see how classical dance, itself highly formalized, could represent the ideal socialist life in a realistic manner.  Classical ballet can tell a story, but without the full verbal expression possible in a play;  like music, it can also express ideas that are hard to verbalize.  However, it cannot exist without the dancer’s body, which of course did not resemble or move like a typical Soviet worker.  The closest that ballet could get to the “socialist realism” goal was the multiple-act narrative “drambalet”, and it was Leonid Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet that was to take London, and the Western world, by storm in 1956.

The repertoire that the Bolshoi brought to London is revealing: two “drambalets” (the second being Rostislav Zakharov’s The Fountain of Bakhchisarai), Giselle and Swan Lake.  In 1929, a published list had classified Giselle as “not completely ideologically sound”, and Tchaikovsky’s ballets as only “ideologically acceptable”, yet 30 years on, the USSR was proudly showing the world that it had preserved them.  In fact, ideological rhetoric had not overcome artistic practice, and although the State demanded ballets on contemporary Soviet subjects, the ballet companies and schools had continued to guard and transmit the classical heritage that had been handed down from the nineteenth century.   Ezrahi ‘s careful examination of archive documents shows how Soviet artists succeeded in pursuing their own interests and values within the confines of the State:  an account of the way in which Natalia Dudinskaya cleverly protected La Bayadère by preventing the first two (ideologically unsatisfactory) acts from being performed in Moscow makes the point.

The surprise for me in the debate between dance and content was the rôle of Yuri Grigorovich.  Now generally regarded as one of the “old guard” at the Bolshoi, Ezrahi presents him as an adventurous innovator in his youth, experimenting with developing plot through dance alone.  While he certainly did not abandon narrative content, he also drew on a tradition of symphonic choreography that went back to Fedor Lopukhov’s abstract experiments in the 1920s and 30s, through the work of Mikhail Fokine in the 1900s, to Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa.  It is interesting to note that Lavrovsky, an exponent of the “drambalet”, graduated from the Mariinsky school only one year after Balanchine, whose work took ballet in the opposite direction.

There is no doubt that while the Soviet Union supported ballet financially it also restricted and shaped it, even to the extent of influencing ballet technique.  Ezrahi quotes the 1956 Dancing Times observations on the Russians’ “facility in big and bold movements” and the lack of batterie and “tiny, rapid, brilliant steps”, which limited choreographic invention.  Even if spectacular grand allegro matched the State’s heroic vision while the complex small jumps sprang from ballet’s aristocratic origins at the French court, too much of the one and too little of the other could impoverish the dance vocabulary.  But Soviet ballet also gave the West the full length dramatically coherent ballet.  Used as we are now to Kenneth MacMillan’s work, it is easy to forget how much the West learned from that visit in 1956.

There has been extensive press coverage of the Bolshoi this year.  The tragic events that have unfolded probably could not have taken place in that form before the collapse of the USSR.  It can be seen now that the tight control of the Soviet State over the ballet companies was like the lid on a pressure cooker.  This book takes the story up to the premiere of Grigorovich’s Spartacus in 1968.  As Ezrahi writes, subsequent decades warrant a separate study.

Maggie Watson

7 April 2013

Ezrahi, Christina 2012 –  Swans of the Kremlin: ballet and power in Soviet Russia – University of Pittsburgh Press and Dance Books

Buy it from Dance Books here.

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