Ask people unfamiliar with dance history where ballet originated, and many will say, “Russia.” Although the wrong answer—ballet originated at the court of Louis XIV, based on formal dance traditions already developed in Italy and brought to France with Catherine de Médicis—the perception reflects the outsized influence of Russian ballet since the arrival of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909. So it probably comes as something of a surprise to learn that ballet in Russia itself almost did not survive the October Revolution of 1917.
The problem was simple: from its debut, ballet existed as an aristocratic art form, supported by courts and, until the early years of the twentieth century, chronicling the adventures of princes and princesses, fauns and fairies, sylphs and spirits of various sorts. Its pirates were romantic corsairs, its peasants and shepherds light-hearted flute players, its Gypsies royalty in disguise or lost at birth. Everyone bathed often, and there was not a worker in sight.
Imperial autocracy, as a system, exaggerated these problems. The imperial theaters and their school operated as government departments, intertwined with the tsars’ household in the most intimate fashion. Although the dancers came from lower on the social scale—and often subscribed to liberal politics, especially during and after the revolution of 1905—everything about their daily lives, from the moment they entered the doors of the academy on Rossi Street as children to the guaranteed pensions they received in retirement thirty years later, safeguarded them from the poverty that afflicted the vast majority of Russia’s population and linked them to the rarefied world of the aristocracy.
When the Bolsheviks completed their coup, the former imperial theaters faced numerous problems. Although the lack of state support for sets, costumes, salaries, and pensions had perhaps the most dramatic impact on the lives of individual dancers, perhaps a bigger loss for Russian ballet as a whole was the mass exodus of personnel before and after Great October. Ballet in the Western world took off at this time, precisely because the fleeing dancers brought their expertise and their training with them. But those who remained behind, for whatever reason, found themselves in dire straits.
Almost half of the dancers in the imperial theaters of St. Petersburg emigrated in the late 1910s and early 1920s, meaning that simply mounting a performance of a classic like Swan Lake, Giselle, or The Nutcracker became next to impossible. Scarce food meant that the skilled dancers who remained performed in workers’ clubs that paid in bread. Scarce fuel left dancers bundled in clothes over their skimpy costumes, stripping off the layers in the wings just before they ran on stage and rushing back to cover up as soon as their divertissement finished. Each morning students broke the ice on the water sprinkled over the wooden floors to prevent skidding.
Perhaps more devastating still was a problem unique to ballet, an art form that from its beginnings until the present day has been passed on by word of mouth from teacher to student. When so many dancers left, they took with them the living memory of steps, how roles were performed, and transferred that oral tradition westward. Those who stayed struggled to preserve what they recalled, even devising the first system of dance notation to record the old ballets.
The art itself suffered from the exodus, because the dancers and choreographers and musicians who left tended to be the ones with the best prospects abroad: stars like Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Michel Fokine. Those left behind were not always second-tier, but they had to train an entire new generation of students to replace those who fled.
Yet as we all know, ballet in the fledgling Soviet Union did not die. The first change came when Anatoly Lunacharsky, people’s commissar of education, convinced Vladimir Lenin that “gentry culture” could have its place in the new Soviet state. Trends already underway toward more modern, less narrative ballets accelerated in the new cultural climate, finding their ultimate expression in the work of George Balanchine (another émigré) and Fedor Lopukhov, who stayed.
The rechristened state theaters continued to struggle, fending off constant accusations of backward-looking tendencies with melodramatic explorations of workers and factories, followed in due course with earnest (but seldom earnest enough) portrayals of national culture. Agrippina Vaganova and Vladimir Ponomarev revitalized the teaching methods at the Choreographic Academy in Leningrad, students such as Galina Ulanova and Marina Semyonova put those methods into practice, and in time the Stalinist government and its successors realized that ballet offered a ready means to impress foreign visitors, including ambassadors.
The old ballets were restaged in new, more ideologically acceptable forms, without the archaic nineteenth-century mime. The Bolshoi and the Kirov troupes, carefully selected for political reliability, received permission to travel abroad, and Russian ballet again became the touchstone of world dance—no longer as an aristocratic art form but as an integral part of a state-sponsored attempt to create a workers’ paradise.
The democratization of Russian ballet—hastened, if not caused, by the Russian Revolution—had ripple effects on the history of ballet in Europe in the twentieth century. Rigid class structures were breaking down, and culture as a whole—poetry, drama, film—reflected these changes, but the exodus caused by the revolution acted as a significant stimulus to the modernization of the sometimes anachronistic art of ballet throughout the world.
Images: Agrippina Vaganova in Esmeralda, St. Petersburg, 1910 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons); Pablo Picasso (in the beret) and scene painters working on set design for Leonid Massine’s Parade, staged by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, 1917 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons); The Bolshoi Ballet School in the 1920s (courtesy of Russia in Photos); The finale of The Flames of Paris, one of the “revolutionary” ballets, staged in 1932 (courtesy of Russia in Photos).
An earlier version of this post appeared on “Culture Matters” on March 20, 2017.
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