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Russian ballet

It is unlikely that the dancers who entertained the kings of the Renaissance epoch could foresee they were sowing the seeds of the art, which millions of people all over the world would enjoy in future.

Roots of Classical Ballet
Russian Emperors Welcome Foreign Art
Hey-day of Russian Ballet
New Ballet: Reformers and Innovators
Ballets Russes of Sergey Diaghilev
Revolutionary Ballet
Back to the World Stage

Anna Pavlova (1881 - 1931)
Vatslav Nijinsky (1889 - 1978)
Tamara Karsavina (1885 - 1978)
Mikhail Fokin (1880 - 1942)
Galina Ulanova (1910 -1998)
Maya Plisetskaya (1925)

Roots of Classical Ballet

The history of ballet dates back to Italy of the 15th century when rich princes hired professional dancers to give luxurious performances that would impress their noble guests. In the 17th century choreographers of Italy, France and England strived to find a new distinct form for the new ballet and new possibilities of dance technique. There appeared bold innovators trying to free ballet from humdrum and monotony. Ballet reformer Jean-Georges Noverre was among them. He wanted ballet to become art in its highest meaning; he stated that dance was to become active, meaningful, and emotionally expressive.

Russian Emperors Welcome Foreign Art

Russia possessing rich national dance folklore and subjected to European cultural influences during the reign of Peter the Great turned to be fertile ground for the development of ballet theatre. From the early 18th century ballet in Russia was inculcated by Italian and French teachers. Learning foreign art the Russians brought in their specific features.

Among the first ballet teachers to come to Russia was Jean Baptist Lande. His students greatly impressed Empress Anna with their performance and she got an idea to start a ballet school in Russia. The first school opened in 1738 and directed by J.B.Lande was known as the Imperial Ballet School, and later became known as the Vaganova St.-Petersburg Academy. 1773 saw the opening of another ballet school in a Moscow orphanage, which laid the beginning for the still present Moscow Choreography College. By the end of the 18th century some noble art lovers initiated private theatres with their bondservants performing. The theatres of the Counts Sheremetevs in their Moscow estates (Kuskovo and Ostankino) were outstandingly splendid and most admired by the high society. By that time court and private ballet theatres opened both in Moscow and St.-Petersburg.

Hey-day of Russian Ballet

In the 18th c. the Russian ballet was developing in the tideway of the European classicism. At the turn of the 19th century, however, the hey-day of Russian ballet started. Russian composers started writing music for ballet. Melodramatic ballet became the leading genre.

In the first third of the 19th century Russian art attained maturity and shaped as a national school. 'Flight performed by the soul' - that's how Alexander Pushkin described Russian ballet speaking of his contemporary ballerina A.I.Istomina in Eugene Onegin. Special privilege was extended to ballet among all other theatres. The authorities paid great attention to ballet development and provided it with governmental grants. The Bolshoi Theatre was opened in 1825. Both Moscow and St.-Petersburg ballet troupes performed in well equipped theatres. The Russian Ballet blended in with the romanticism born in Western Europe. The spectacles shined with splendour, eurhythmy and topnotch artistry.

New Ballet: Reformers and Innovators

It was Russian ballet that was destined to revive ballet art in a new quality. Great role in that belonged to the French ballet master Marius Petipa who was chief choreographer for the Imperial Ballet School. He started his artistic activity following the principles of the aesthetics of romanticism which was about to play out. Petipa went on the process of enriching the dance, the process which romanticism started. His ballets set to music of Puni (Tzar Kandavl) and Minkus (Bayaderka) were based on masterfully elaborated ensembles of classical dance, where the themes of the chorus and solo dance were interwoven and contrasted. Petipa became the founder of the 'big', academic ballet - a monumental spectacle built by the rules of stage and musical dramaturgy, where the outer action developed in pantomime mise en scenes and the inner action was expressed through canonic structures of classic dance.

By the early 20th century Russian ballet took the leading part on the world ballet stage. The ballet master Michael Fokin renewed the contents and the form of the ballet spectacle. He created a new type of spectacle - a one act ballet driven by a through action, where the subject matter unfolded in the unity of music, choreography and scenography (Chopeniana, Petrushka and Shekherezada). A.A. Gorsky also stood for integrity of ballet action, historic verisimilitude and natural plastique. The major co-authors of both the choreographers became not composers but artists. Fokin's spectacles were decorated by L. S. Bakst, A. N. Benua, A. Y. Golovin and N. K. Roerich; K. A. Korovin decorated Gorsky's ballets. The reformers of the ballet were much under impression of the American dancer Aisedora Dunkan, who propagated 'free' and natural dance. However, along with the obsolete things the reformers rejected what was good in the old ballet. Anyway, the ballet was entering the context of the artistic trends of that time.

Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev

In 1909 Sergei Diaghilev, a wealthy Russian patron of arts arranged the first Paris tour of the Russian ballet. The Russian Seasons or Ballets Russes at once attained recognition and popularity in Europe. They opened to the world the composer Igor Stravinsky and choreographer Fokin (Zhar-Ptitsa / Fiery-Bird, 1910; Petrushka, 1911) ballet dancer and ballet master V. F. Nijinsky (Holy Spring, 1913) and others and attracted famed musicians and artists to the ballet theatre.

Upon the start of Diaghilev's Russian Seasons abroad Russian ballet existed both in Russia and in Europe. After the revolution of 1917 a lot of artistes left the country thus causing intense development of the Russian ballet in Europe. Throughout the 1920-1940s Russian artists (Anna Pavlova with her troupe), choreographers (Fokin, Myasin, B. F. Nijinskaya, Dj. Balanchin, B. G. Romanov, S. M. Lifar) headed ballets (Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Original Ballet Russe, Russian Romantic Theatre, etc.), created schools and troupes in many countries of Europe and America thus had a great impact on the world ballet. For many years keeping to the traditional Russian repertoire, those collectives at the same time assimilated the influences of the countries they worked in.

Revolutionary Ballet

After the revolution ballet remained being in the centre of nationwide art. In spite of the emigration of a number of leading figures of ballet theatre, the school of Russian ballet survived and put forward new performers. The pathos of movement towards new life, revolutionary themes and a wide scope for creative experiment inspired ballet masters. At the same time they made use of the experience of their forerunners.

However the epoch of experiments in Russian arts was cut short in the mid 20th with the closing of some studios and campaigns in mass media calling for the return to the traditions of Russian culture of the 19th century. The 1930s saw the opening of new opera and ballet theatres in Leningrad (Maly Opera House), Moscow (Moscow Art Theatre, later Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre) and in many other Russian cities. However, despite successful expansion of ballet the monopoly of a single trend in ballet theatre resulted in cultivated sameness. Many types of spectacles were left aside, in particular one act spectacles, among them symphonic ballets and those without plot. Dance forms and dance language got much poorer as only classical dance was staged with rare use of folk motives. Any quests beyond drama ballet were announced formalistic.

All representatives of non-academic streams, such as 'free' plastique and rhythm-and-plastique dance had to stop their stage activities. The early 1950s saw the crisis of the officially supported drama ballet. However the traditions of performing artistry were alive. A number of to-be great dancers came on stage in those years, such as Maya Plisetskaya, R.S.Struchkova, V.T.Bovt and N.B. Fadeyechev.

Back to the World Stage

The turning point came in the late 1950s with the appearance of a new generation of choreographers. Among the first were Leningrad ballet masters Y.N. Grigorovich and I.D.Belski who based their ballets on musical and dance dramaturgy that conveyed the spectacle meaning through dance. Forgotten genres were revived, such as one act ballet, ballet-poster, satirical ballet, ballet symphony and choreographic miniature.

The 1980s saw a growing number of tours of big and small opera and ballet companies abroad. Some artists and ballet masters started working abroad, staging spectacles and even heading ballet troupes in Europe and America (among them Nureyev, Makarova, Baryshnikov, Grigorovich, Vinogradov, Plisetskaya, Vasilyev, etc). Russian ballet dancers work in many foreign ballet troupes these days.

First independent ballet troupes appeared in the 1970s (under the guidance of Yakobson, Kasatkina and Vasilyev, and B.Y. Eifman). In the 1980s - 1990s their appear more and more independent ballet collectives, among them studios for 'free' dance, dance modern and others. New alternative forms of choreography go on developing nowadays.


Anna Pavlova (1881 - 1931)

The legendary ballerina was born in 1881 in St.-Petersburg. After graduating from St.-Petersburg Theatre College she was enrolled to the troupe of Mariinsky Ballet. Anna danced parts in classical ballets 'Nutcracker', 'Konyok Gorbunok/The Humpbacked Horse', 'Raimonda', 'Bayaderka'and 'Jizel'. Pavlova's natural gift and thorough perfecting of artistic skills helped her to become the leading ballerina of the troupe. Pavlova's performing manner was greatly influenced by working with innovators of ballet, choreographers A. Gorsky and especially Mikhail Fokin. Anna Pavlova starred in Fokin's ballets Shopeniana, Armida's Pavilion, Egypt Nights, and others. 1907 saw the appearance of the Dying Swan miniature destined to become the poetic symbol of Russian ballet of the 20th century. The miniature was staged by Fokin specially for Anna Pavlova.

In 1909 Pavlova took part in Dyagilev's Russian Seasons in Paris that laid the beginning for her world fame. Poster with her silhouette drawn by Valentin Serov became the emblem of the Russian Seasons. In 1910 the ballerina founded her own troupe and settled in London. She toured the world with her company performing classical ballets by Tchaikovsky and A. Glazunov. Specially for Pavlova's troupe Fokin staged a number of ballets, among them 'Seven Daughters of the Mountain King'.

Anna Pavlova became a legend when alive. She died of pleurisy when on tour in Haag in January 1931.

Vatslav Nijinsky (1889 (1890?) - 1978)

Within his short scenic life Vatslav Nijinsky enriched ballet with many brilliant artistic discoveries and left deathless fame and name behind him.

He was born in Kiev to the family of Russified Polish ballet dancers. His parents Eleonora Bereda and Tomash Nijinsky danced in Warsaw Emperor Theatre.

In 1898 he entered St.-Petersburg Theater College where he revealed his outstanding gifts pretty early. As a child yet he often danced on stage of the Mariinsky Theatre. At the age of 15 he sparked a furor with his part of the Faun in the ballet Acis and Galatea.

After graduating from the College he was employed in the Mariinsky Theatre and at once became the leading dancer, in spite of his appearance not quite fit for ballet: not tall and with heavy overdeveloped leg muscles. However Nijinsky transformed on the stage - exquisite grace, legerity and finesse along with perfect feeling of style made him unforgettable. His legendary gravity-defying leaps could not but amaze the public. He possessed a wonderful gift of dramatic identification and outstanding mimic capabilities. He radiated powerful magnetism on stage, though in daily life he was quite a shy and incommunicative person.

Nijinsky danced in duets with Karsavina and Pavlova. He was the lead in Fokin's productions of Pavilion of Armida, Egypt Nights, Chopeniana, etc.

All of a sudden Nijinsky was fired from the Mariinski Theatre. The reason was his unwarranted wearing of a costume designed by Benua for Jizel ballet. That was a replica of the historic German costume, which dismayed the public and the tsar's box with its close fitting tights.

Meeting with Sergei Diaghilev, a rich patron of arts, became a turning point for Nijinsky. Nijinsky and Diaghilev became lovers, and Diaghilev turned heavily involved in guiding Nijinsky's career. The very first performance in Diaghilev's Russian Season brought immediate fame to Nijinsky. In 1909 - 1913 he was the leading soloist of the Russian Seasons in Paris. He danced first parts in Fokin's ballets, such as Carnival, Shekherezada, Petrushka, Narciss, Dafnis and Hloya, etc.

In 1912 he performed the major part in his own ballet The Afternoon of a Faun with music by Claude Debussy. In 1913 he staged two other ballets for Diaghilev's company: Games with music by Debussy and The Rite of Spring, with music by Igor Stravinsky. Groundbreaking ballets of Nijinsky, often with emphasized sexual overtones caused controversy among the public and the critics. His revolutionary choreography leaving aside flowing movements of the mainstream ballet laid the basis for the development of ballet of the mid 20th century.

In 1913 when Diaghilev's company was touring South America and Diaghilev himself stayed in Paris, Nijinsky fell in love with Romola de Pulszky, a Hungarian ballerina. They were married in Buenos Aires: when the company returned to Europe, Diaghilev fired them both.

In 1914 Nijinsky founded his own troupe in London, which did not prove a success, though. During World War I Nijinsky was interned in Hungary as a Russian citizen. Diaghilev succeeded in getting him out for a North American tour in 1916, during which he choreographed and danced the leading role in Till Eulenspiegel.

From 1917 Nijinsky was under the care of psychiatrists. After a nervous breakdown in 1919 he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and had to quit the stage. He spent the rest of his life in and out of asylums. He also wrote Nijinsky's Diary then, in which he dwelled upon his work, his disease and his relations with his wife and Diaghilev. He died in a London clinic on April 8, 1950.

Nijinsky's diaries were adapted into a film by Paul Cox.

Tamara Karsavina (1885 - 1978)

Tamara Karsavina is the founder of crucially new tendencies of ballet of the early 20th century, later called 'intellectual art'. Her splendid gift revealed itself when working on Fokin's productions.

She was born in St.-Petersburg into the family of Platon Karsavin, a dancer of the Mariinsky Theatre.

When a student of St.-Petersburg Theatre College she made her debut with the solo part of Amour at the first night of Don Quixote staged by A. Gorsky who was her teacher at the college.

She stepped into ballet art during the crises of academism and search of new ways out of it. Admirers of academic ballet found lots of flaws in Krasavina's execution of her parts. Her splendid gift revealed itself when working on Fokin's productions.

Mikhail Fokin staged for her the 7th Waltz in Chopeniana, parts of Slave in Egypt Nights, Fiery Bird in the same name ballet, Shemakhan Queen in Golden Cockerel, and others. Karsavina's best parts were those danced in duet with Vatslav Nijinsky (that of Girl in Vision of a Rose and Ballerina in Petrushka).

Tamara Karsavina made use of her styling artistry developed while working with innovative Mikhail Fokin also in her academic repertoire. She danced first parts in ballets Jizel, Swan Lake, Raimonda, Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, etc.

From 1909 she toured with Dyagilev's company, in which she danced till 1929 and performed in more ballets of L. Myasin (Songs of Nightingale, Pultchinella, etc)

In 1918 she married English diplomat G. Brus and lived in London since then.

In 1931 she quit the stage. Karsavina is the author of several articles, memoirs and manuals on classical dance. In 1930-1935 she was Vice President of the English Dance Royal Academy.

She died in London on July 26, 1978.

Mikhail Fokin (1880 - 1942)

Mikhail Fokin was a groundbreaking ballet master and dancer. His ballets made a notable phenomenon in ballet art of the 20th century; many of them are still on the repertoire of leading theatres of the world.

Born on April 26, 1880 Mikhail Fokin entered St.-Petersburg Theatre College at the age of nine. In 1898 he made his debut as a dancer in the ballet Pakhita on stage of the Mariinsky Theatre.

Inborn talent and artistry enabled him to step forward as the leading soloist of the ballet troupe. He danced first parts in academic productions, such as Don Quixote, Raimonda, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, etc. He also performed in character dances and later danced in his own productions of Shopeniana, Dafnis and Hloya, Carnival and Fiery Bird.

In 1905 he debuted as a ballet master to become a choreographer of the Mariinsky in five years.

Fokin created plotless ballet as a separate genre, making use both of the classical ballet (Shopeniana) and character dance (Aragon Hunting).

Fokin attracted many well-known artists (A. Benua, L. Bakst, M. Dobuzhinsky, N. Roerich, S. Sudeikin, N. Goncharova and A. Golovin) and composers (I. Stravinsky, S. Rachmaninov and A. Glazunov) to work with him on his ballets.

In 1901 through 1910 he taught at St.-Petersburg Theatre College. In 1909 - 1912 and 1914 he was the art director, ballet master and dancer at the Russian Seasons and Russian Ballet of Dyagilev. Fokin danced till 1933.

From 1921 he lived in the USA and headed a ballet studio in New York from 1924 to 1942. In between he managed to work in theatre 'Kolon' in Buenos Aires (1931), in Paris Opera (1934 - 1935), in Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo company (1936) and in Ballet Russe de Basil (1937 - 1939).

In addition to the above mentioned ballets Fokin created Dying Swan, Shekherezada, Polovets Dances, Golden Cockerel, Eros, Vision of a Rose, etc.

Mikhaik Fokin also wrote a book of memoirs 'Upstream' and a number of articles on ballet.

He died in New York in 1942.

Galina Ulanova (1910 -1998)

Perhaps only the world first cosmic flight of Yuri Gagarin could be comparable to the achievements of the 'winged' Ulanova who opened the cosmos of the Russian classical ballet to the world in the 1950s. After that, crowned with all possible awards and titles she became a living legend of the Russian ballet.

Her most brilliant part was the part of Juliet. The famous running of Ulanova-Juliet became the symbol of eternal love.

For the first time Galina Ulanova toured in Italy as the soloist of the Bolshoi Theatre in 1951. The European audience was conquered by her dancing once and forever.

She quit the stage at the age of 50, too early for the ballerina of her level. She performed in public for the last time in 1960. It was Shopeniana ballet, with which her life on stage started and finished. However she did not leave the Bolshoi Theatre. She taught future stars of the Russian ballet. It was not only technique she taught them, but first of all she taught them the art of living, thinking, loving and forgiving. Among her students were Yekaterina Maksimova, Vladimir Vasilyev, Nina Timofeeva, Nina Semizarova, Lyudmila Semenyakova and Malika Sabirova who became the symbols of the Bolshoi Theatre.

Maya Plisetskaya (1925)

An outstanding ballerina of the second half of the 20th century and a unique example of phenomenal creative longevity, Maya Plisetskaya was born on November 20, 1925 in Moscow. Her parents were repressed and Maya with her brother were brought up by their uncle and aunt, Asaf and Sulamif Messerer, who were notable dancers of the Bolshoi Theatre.

In 1934 Maya entered the Moscow Choreographic College. Her best teacher she considers to have been Agrippina Vaganova, who she met at the Bolshoi Theatre where she started working in 1943.

In 1947 she danced the Odetta-Odillia's part in the Swan Lake by Chaikovsky. This ballet became one of the major spectacles in her creative life.

In the 1960s Maya Plisetskaya was officially considered the Prima of the Bolshoi Theatre. Though there could not be lack of parts for her, she soon came to experience a growing feeling of creative discontent.

In 1983 she was offered to become an art director of the ballet of the Rome Opera. Visiting Rome from time to time Plisetskaya held this post for a year and a half. From 1987 to 1990 she mainly worked in Spain. For the first time she performed her famous part of the 'Dying Swan' to a vocal accompaniment - that was a recorded part by Montserrat Cabalie.

On January 4, 1990 Maya Plisetskaya danced in 'Lady with a Dog' that turned to be her last appearance on stage of the Bolshoi Theatre. Long lasting dissension with the art directorship of the ballet troupe drove her to leave the Bolshoi. By 1991 the major creative and publishing interests of her husband, composer Rodion Shedrin centered in Munich and the couple soon settled in this city, though they also live in Moscow and in their cottage in Lithuania.

A number of documentaries have been shot about Maya Plisetskay, books have been written on her art and life. The ballerina herself published an autobiographical book under the tiled 'I, Maya Plisetskaya'. First published in 1994 the book was reedited several times in Russia and translated into 11 languages. Her titles and awards are difficult to enumerate all.

To name but a few, she is Doctor at Sorbonne (1985) and Professor Emeritus at Moscow State University (1993).

To add to the immortal fame of the ballerina there is now a small planet named after Maya Plisetskaya. In 1994 Institute for Theoretical Astronomy gave Plisetskaya's name to planet No. 4626.

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