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Russian Ballet
April 3, 2006 14:35

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 (1890?) - 1978)
Tamara Karsavina (1885 - 1978)
Mikhail Fokin (1880 - 1942)
Galina Ulanova (1910 -1998)
Maya Plisetskaya (1925)
Mikhail Baryshnikov (1948)
Diana Vishneva (1976)

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.



See also: History of Russian Ballet, Part 2



Tags: Russian ballet Russian performance arts Maya Plisetskaya Bolshoi Theatre Mariinsky Theatre 


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