Opera, ballet, and political power.
Inna Naroditskaya, Bewitching Russian Opera: The Tsarina from State to Stage. 416 pp. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. ISBN-13 978-0195340587. $74.00.
On the surface, these two books appear so far apart in subject, tone, and analytic methods as to send a reviewer on a mission across a stylistic tightrope. Bewitching Russian Opera is about Russian operas glorious but often overlooked beginnings in an 18th century dominated by four female monarchs, and about how opera fared in the patriarchal backlash of the 19th century. Naroditskaya employs a feminist lens when analyzing the monarchs, the centuries, and especially the operas. She studies 18th-century operas as theatrical projections of these empresses (especially Catherine II, who was a prolific opera author and producer). She treats later operas as brilliant meditations on Russia's troubled past, in which the forgotten empresses pop up again, Naroditskaya argues, in the guise of cruel witches, rusalkas, and one ancient card sharp countess.
Swans of the Kremlin examines ballet, an art form seemingly separate from opera, in a time even more severed from its immediate past, the Soviet 20th century. Even though ballet's very nature would seem to invite a gender-based analysis (human bodies are its raw material), Ezrahi does not focus so much on gender matters or even on the dancing itself, as on the art's till now underexamined institutional history. To situate Soviet ballet in its time, she explores the inner workings of the USSR's two key ballet institutions, Leningrad's Mariinskii/Kirov Theater and Moscow's Bolshoi, mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, with opening chapters about the 1920s and 1930s. Only in her final chapters does she attempt to foreground performance and the choreographic text.
Yet even if the two books seem far apart in subject, they share a historicist mission. Each wants to overturn certain casually persistent--and wrongheaded-myths about the Russian lyric arts in the context of political history. Naroditskaya challenges what she believes to be the gendered notion that the origins of Russian opera lie with Russian nationalism. After the death of Catherine II, she argues, the female monarchs' musical-theatrical contributions were suppressed in favor of an instant myth about Russian music springing fully formed in 1836 (the premiere of A Life for the Tsar) from the head of Mikhail Glinka. She calls this (quoting the historian Marina Ritzarev) the "Glinka-centric conceit." (1) Ezrahi, meanwhile, marshals key Soviet choreographic achievements of the supposedly choreography-less 1960s to disprove the "Cold War dictum" still widely believed in the West: that Soviet ballet was stuck in the past, or, in Ezrahi's words, was "belligerently conservative, producing superlative performers who were tragically, maybe even hopelessly, trapped in a system that precluded any further development of the choreographic imagination" (5). Choreographers and performers got some of their own back, Ezrahi argues, despite, or even because of, the ideological constraints of a rigid system.
But something else connects these books too: the shadow kinship of opera and ballet. Contemporary historians of both arts often forget that for much of their history the two arts were not as separate as is thought today but intertwined, sharing raw material, structures, and libretti. (2) Both books, moreover, repay reading by the "other" art's afficionados. Even if Ezrahi barely mentions opera, Swans of the Kremlin allows opera specialists to see how ballet's early struggle for a postrevolutionary identity paralleled opera's own (Anatolii Lunacharskii, the instigator of both struggles, plays an appropriately large role in the book). (3) Bewitching Russian Opera is even more rewarding for ballet-minded readers, since its first half treats that pre-Wagnerian time when ballet and opera were still married, and Naroditskaya's book overflows with intriguing details about opera's greater theatrical surround, which also included ballet. This ballet-critic reviewer, for instance, was fascinated to learn that Aleksandr Vsevolozhskii, father of the famous Ivan, Alexander Hi's courtier who practically invented that wr-ballet text, the 1890 Sleeping Beauty (and who also commissioned The Queen of Spades, as Naroditskaya points out), won a prize for most elegant competitor in the last Catherinesque equestrian pageant held in 1811. (4) Naroditskaya even looks at early 19th-century romantic ballet by itself in a subsection of her Rusalka chapter (204), in which she offers an explanation for romantic ballet's key narrative trope--and an opera trope too--playing out differently in Russia than in Europe. In Russia, romantizms compulsive tale of the supernatural female ensnaring the Byronic male acted as an all too insistent reminder of four strong female monarchs who'd been forcibly forgotten as soon as the last one, Catherine, died in 1796. "Like their fellow European writers," says Naroditskaya, "Russian romantic authors were infatuated with the search for the feminine and for vohhebstvo (magic); but, as discussed earlier, for Russians, unlike Europeans, the idea of female power was not an abstraction" (208).
It is this cultural gulf between the Russian 18th and 19th centuries that determines the shape of Naroditskaya's book. In its first half she evokes that resplendent female-centric 18th-century theatricality of masquerades, carousels, royal weddings, comic operas, heroic operas, opera-skazkas. She highlights the many now-forgotten theatricals and operas that Catherine herself composed and produced, in all those genres, as part of her top-down construction of a Russian nationalism for her people. A hinge chapter that Naroditskaya calls Interlude. To Patria and Nation lays out that dramatic changeover in the last decade of the 18th century, when Catherine died and the national myth switched gender. Paul I, who hated his mother, took the crown off her coffin, changed the laws of primogeniture to exclude females, and consigned to instant oblivion all the ceremonial Minervas, shepherdesses, and conquering females in heroic (and Imperial Guard) drag that had belonged especially to her reign and to her operas. Such forced forgetting, as Naroditskaya points out, is a recipe for what she calls "denial or aggressive rejection" of the past (153). In the book's second half, she studies the effects of that pathology (which she links with the Russian narrative style inoskazanie--YitcmWy "other telling" ) first on authors like Pushkin, who was fascinated by the recently suppressed world of Catherines court, then on the five operas she chooses as case studies, by composers from Glinka to Chaikovskii: Ruslan and Liudmila, Rusalka, Mlada, Sadko, and The Queen of Spades.
Naroditskayas book makes a strong case for calling Catherine, not Glinka, the "father" of Russian opera--a startling, and here persuasive, argument. But stating this argument doesn't begin to convey the pleasure of reading the book. To match her splendid material (the empresses and their theatricality) and its mesmeric persistence into the next century, Naroditskaya has crafted an exuberant narrative style that one might call the Scheherazade-thematic, because of the many stories woven into its chapters. Provocatively titled subsections of chapters ("Traversing Theatrical and Social Spaces," 75) often begin with descriptive scenes ("A Russian serf actress, crossing the stage, turned into an elegant noble princess"), as if the curtain were being raised on an exciting new thought. Dates may be hard to catch here, but readers are recompensed by abundant insights: big ones, such as how much gender and class cross-dressing actually went on in those 18th-century operas; and little descriptive ones, such as when the author describes the "rustling, running sixteenth notes sounded by the violas in the German-meets-Countess boudoir scene of Queen of Spades as "tooth-ache-provoking" (297). This mix of argument and story is further enriched by many musical examples set forth in notation. Naroditskayas conclusion--that the rusalkas, naiads, and witches who pop up in the 19th-century operas are embodiments of the earlier queens--is both stimulating and impossible to prove. But a reader happily suspends disbelief, immersed in the prodigious web of intertextual connections between the two centuries that the author has unearthed (from gardens to poems to ceremonial figures like Cleopatra), pulled along by the ever-mounting, almost goofy suspense of the subtitles: "Why Is She [Not] There, in the Second Act!?" (290) is followed eight pages on by "She Is There! Catherine in the Bedchamber" (298).
Ezrahi's book is just as smart as Naroditskayas, but with a drier narrative tone and texture. In this respect, it is not well served by being reviewed next to Naroditskayas book: reading them together exaggerates Ezrahi's academic matter-of-factness (her book is apparently an expansion of her University of London 2009 Ph.D. dissertation). Swans of the Kremlin is nevertheless an important achievement, which begins by confronting the primal question at the root of Soviet ballet: how this imperial-flavored art managed to survive the revolution. Because the Bolsheviks needed it, Ezrahi answers. She offers details of Bolshevik party platforms, quotes from dancers memoirs, and gives information about events that further connected ballet with Bolshevik institutions, such as the 1919 agreement between the Petrograd Imperial Theaters and the Red Army, which traded rations for performances. Among her many original points is a reminder that Anatolii Lunacharskii, Lenin's 1920s utopian-minded commissar for people's enlightenment, believed that the Imperial Theaters, with their masses of singers and dancers, were essential for staging his beloved revolutionary pageant-oratorios in the Civil War years. (Even Lunacharskii, it seems, with his grand theatrical visions, was invaded by the ghost of Catherine!) The monarchial ballet "toy" the Bolsheviks had inherited, the Romanovs "golden rattle," as Lunacharskii calls ballet in one of Ezrahi's aptly chosen quotes, could become "a powerful Bolshevik weapon ... if we insert into it our own content" (28-29).
Ezrahi's remaining six chapters describe the many muddled bureaucratic attempts to put that Bolshevik content into ballet, first in the 1930s with the dance-thin, acting-heavy, socialist-realist drambalety; then again in the 1950s after World War II (which Ezrahi unsettlingly skips over), and after the art had become a Soviet showcase, with such far-fetched projects as the 1953 Native Fields, about building an electric power plant in a kolkhoz. She draws on an archival source untapped till now, records of the theaters' Artistic Council meetings. A valuable chapter concerns Soviet ballet's first forays to the West, especially the Bolshoi's historic 1956 London tour, agonized over by dancers, directors, and the British authorities. Would it be canceled because a real-life Soviet female discus thrower had been arrested in London for shoplifting? Clamoring British fans got it reinstated. Should the politically tainted Maia Plisetskaia be forbidden to travel? She was, and Galina Ulanova danced so many times in Plisetskaia's place that her health suffered. Amid all the 1950s and 1960s ideological tussling, Ezrahi argues, the art did manage in the end to take back some of its professional soul, its choreographic aesthetics. She invents a term for this process, "artistic repossession," comparing the return of choreographic values in 1960s Soviet ballet to a dispossessed house owner's haunting the new inhabitants. (Here is another bridge between Naroditskaya's and Ezrahi's books: both treat a return of the repressed--the discredited 18th-century queens in Naroditskaya's case, the discredited ballet steps in Ezrahi's.) She reserves her final two chapters for the careers of the two most prominent maverick Soviet choreographers of the 1960s, Leonid Iakobson in Leningrad and Iurii Grigorovich in Moscow, whose respective 1968 ballets, The Bedbug and Spartacus, offer the proof of this "artistic repossession."
Such a thesis directly challenges the West's lingering Cold War scorn for the choreographic aesthetics of Soviet ballet. In the West, goes "our" myth, the great choreographer George Balanchine moved the art into modern times; in Russia, the state, plus the great conservative pedagogue Agrippina Vaganova, held it back. (5) But anyone who has spent time inside the hermetic Russian ballet world knows that Ezrahi is right: the truth is much more complex. The Soviet ballet of mid-century managed to conserve and recalibrate all kinds of "outdated" tsarist values: performative ones, of course, but also social and feminist values (Soviet ballerinas wielded great social and sometimes even political power, a topic that deserves a study of its own). Some of ballets aesthetic--choreographic values were indeed compromised by the need to insert something of state-sponsored ideology into ballet steps. (6) But one of this book's feats is to rehabilitate that embattled choreographic pioneer Fedor Lopukhov, consigned to semi-oblivion after his 1920s experiments. Brought back in 1955 to briefly head the Mariinskii/Kirov, he championed rebel choreographers such as the young Grigorovich (who was later moved to Moscow) and the older Iakobson.
Iakobson, Ezrahi's first 1960s Leningrad "hero," is as fascinating and gifted as she claims. (7) Stymied at every turn by the system, he was still able, through sheer stubbornness, to put at least two significant evening-length works on the Kirov stage, as well as creating (in lesser theaters) countless balletic portraits and sketches, inventing in the end his own modernist genre, the ballet miniature. Ezrahi's sixth chapter describes Iakobson's hot-tempered yet ultimately successful attempts to mount his 1960s ballet on the unlikely subject of Maiakovskii composing the satiric 1929 play, The Bedbug (a play within a ballet), even if the ballet was soon dropped from the Kirov's repertoire. Iakobson, Ezrahi concludes, was a victim not so much of censorship as of what she calls the "total absence of cultural pluralism" within Soviet ballet (200): that is, the monopoly of the Soviet Union's two massive principal theaters on government funds.
Ezrahi's final, seventh chapter is about a supposedly even more dramatic reclaiming of balletic values in Grigorovich's Spartacus, but here her argument becomes thinner than in earlier chapters. Grigorovich, born in 1927, was 13 years younger than his rebellious colleague Iakobson: he had grown up inside the Soviet system and learned from a young age how to manipulate it. When he was moved from his native Leningrad to Moscow in 1964 to head the Bolshoi, he had already choreographed two full-length ballet parables, the 1959 The Stone Flower and the 1961 Legend of Love. His recipe for success was to stay within ideological bounds yet fill the stage with the flamboyant ballet steps earlier considered too formalist to be shown. Under pressure from the 50th anniversary of the revolution, Grigorovich created in 1968 a fourth version of the tale of a Roman slave revolt, Spartacus, set like previous versions to Aram Khatchaturian's agitated score. This fourth Spartacus, claims Ezrahi, was what balletomanes and bureaucrats alike had been waiting for. By 1980, it had run at the Bolshoi 130 times and had triumphed even in the West (in July 1969, when it was first shown on a Western tour), by "the sheer power of its theatrical performance" (228).
Grigorovich's lusty Spartacus has always divided the ballet community: some consider it thrilling; others see bombastic kitsch. The problem here is not Ezrahi's choice of Spartacus as final proof that Russian ballet had wrested back professional values from the ideologues--a claim this reviewer, for one, is willing to entertain. But the climactic Spartacus chapter reveals a mild confusion of purpose in Ezrahi's overall enterprise. Is the ballet itself meant to serve as evidence of Grigorovich's "repossession" of his art, or of a more open-minded process by which he created the ballet? Ezrahi concentrates on the latter, offering rehearsal memories from two of the ballets first-cast stars, Maris Liepa and Ekaterina Maksimova, to indicate that Grigorovich's creative process "apparently transcended any considerations of the works political significance (220). But rehearsals, no matter how harmonious, do not determine the value of a finished product. Ezrahi never describes what gets danced onstage in Spartacus, beyond one statement that its hero's impalement on the lances of Crassus's troops [Crassus was the Roman enemy general] creates a Christ-like vision of heroic martyrdom" (224) and sparse assertions two pages later that the choreography for Crassus "includes goose steps" and "a physically grueling cascade of jumps" (226).
Ezrahi's silence on the subject of the choreographic "text" cannot, however, be considered entirely her fault, since problems of close reading are built into the very practice of dance history. An ethnomusicologist like Naroditskaya can include printed musical notation in a written text whenever she needs to explain musical "meaning." But inserting a quote from a ballet into the pages of a book is impossible. Several dance notation systems exist; two especially, Labanotation and Benesh Movement Notation, are used in the West for staging some ballets. Yet the three-dimensional nature of dance means that even a short sequence of choreography "written down" results (in the case of Labanotation) in a lengthy document of multiple musical staffs, with human movements charted on some and musical notes on others, the whole unreadable even to most dancers, choreographers, and dance historians. (8) Ezrahi has included interesting photos of stage action, perhaps intending these to stand in for the missing ballet quotes (though the photos are offered without commentary). For a deeper analysis, a dance historians only recourse is to try to describe the choreography in words, choosing key movements to stand in for the whole, matching the descriptive prose to the always quicker tempi of steps and gestures, but directly addressing the nature of the dancing.
To this reviewer, Grigorovich's Spartacus looks like a ballet in which squads of males, Roman and slave, step heavily on the first count of each measure and offer frequent inflated gestures to the skies. In the interstices appear the women--female slaves as sympathetic comrades, draping themselves on the bodies of their menfolk or being lifted poignantly on high; female Romans as courtesans, engaging in sexy seduction moves, snaking their hips or shooting sideways looks at legionnaires. (9) All this can be exciting: past and present Bolshoi performers, reacting to Khatchaturian's whipped-up rhythms, have made it so. But for present-day readers to be convinced of the ballet's excellence, choreographic examples must be offered, the way quotes from a text are offered by literary or music historians or reproductions of artworks by art historians. The lopsided effect of building an argument without textual proof may be what gives Ezrahi's prose a strained tone as she prepares to rest her case. "If different dancers were able to develop different interpretations of the ballet's leading parts," she writes, arguing that Spartacus offered a break from forced ideologies, "each member of the audience could interpret the action on stage, in their own way" (227-28). Such a statement is more speculative than persuasive.
Another problem with Ezrahi's conclusions is that the gender angle is entirely absent from her reading of Spartacus. It is true that she has focused throughout her book on bureaucratic records, which, it can be argued, have little to do with matters of gender. Yet a gender lens, in this reviewer's opinion, is one of the quintessential tools for revisionist readings of any Soviet-era hit in any medium, and especially in ballet. Many elements combine in a ballet performance to communicate something to an audience: the way its dancers move or react to the music, the way they wear their costumes and wield their props; the way they choose to express in gesture and attitude the maleness or femaleness of the characters they play onstage. Is there anything in Spartacus's supposedly pioneering choreography that challenges the old worn-out Homo sovieticus and his predictably softer (often seductively so) female comrade or consort? Not in Ezrahi's analysis. For Ezrahi to convince this reviewer that Spartacus points to the arts renewal, she would have to sift through the gender signals emanating from the Spartacus performances she refers to. And not just gender signals but all the choreographic signals--Grigorovich's choice of steps, rhythms, mass groupings, and so on--to pinpoint which of these elements were actually challenging the conventions of the drambalety.
Yet Ezrahi has fulfilled a tall order with this book. She has not only unknotted a knotty subject; she has identified important archival source materials, such as the detailed discussions of the Kirov and Bolshoi Theater Arts Councils, which are rarely employed in ballet history, yet without which any analysis of the art is incomplete. In the more than two decades since the demise of the USSR, neither Russian- nor English-language dance historians have done much revisionist reading of the art. True, senior Moscow dance historian Elizabeth Souritz took a fresh look at the Diaghilev-era Russian soloist Mikhail Mordkin; the invigorating American ballet writer Tim Scholl wrote two breakthrough books on Russian ballet from Petipa to Balanchine; and his colleague, the Diaghilev expert Lynn Garafola, has addressed many facets of Russian and Soviet ballet history in substantial articles. (10) But one would expect more work in the field, given the importance of ballet for Russian culture. Similar to the long-standing myth of Russian readers gravitating to great books, ballet is still believed by both foreigners and Russians to contain a particular essence of the Russian soul. If Naroditskaya can merrily cite a whole band of like-minded (though not always feminist) opera revisionist colleagues such as Boris Gasparov, Simon Morrison, Marina Frolova-Walker, Marina Ritzarev, Liudmila Starikova, Natalia Ogarkova, Catherine Schuler, and Lurana O'Malley, Ezrahi points for inspiration to only two Soviet historians, Stephen Kotkin and Sheila Fitzpatrick, neither one a ballet expert.
Yet even if Ezrahi's self-invented methodology is sometimes missing a performance analysis dimension, she has still done dance history a tremendous service. She has staked a claim on virgin research territory and offered a tentative conclusion about her findings. Without a conclusion to work toward, no historian could give her rendition of events any narrative shape. In both Naroditskaya's and Ezrahi's books, the grand climactic thesis seems to this reviewer the least substantial part of the enterprise--and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Naroditskaya contends that those four powerful and inventive female monarchs would not consent to be forgotten, so they came back to haunt the Russian opera stage. Ezrahi argues that Iakobson and Grigorovich, choreographers of the 1960s, recovered some agency for their art form, even as they lent their inventiveness to the state's ideological project. Both these conclusions--even bolstered by deep, thorough, and imaginative research--are in some sense fanciful: each emanates, at least partly, from the passionate aesthetic biases of the author that presumably compelled her to write her book in the first place. To this reviewer, the final virtue of a work of history, especially a history of something so evanescent as a performing art, lies not in its conclusions but in its informed evoking of past experience that has been lost or distorted. Here, both Naroditskaya and Ezrahi succeed admirably. Both have dug up so much, and woven their findings into such compelling narratives, that their work throws light on worlds beyond their chosen art, illuminating the bigger question of culture's place in the once-mighty, and still mightily volatile, Russian-Soviet-Russian empire.
Eugene Lang College
New School for Liberal Arts
400 W. 43rd St.
New York, NY 10036 USA
(1) See Marina Ritzarev, Eighteenth-Century Russian Music (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006).
(2) For theories about the reasons for their separation, see Mary Ann Smart, Monomania: Music and Gesture in Nineteenth-Century Opera (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004). See also the forthcoming publication in The Opera Quarterly of the proceedings of a May 2013 conference at Princeton University, "The Agon of Opera and Dance.
(3) For more information on operas postrevolutionary struggle, see Elizabeth Kendall, Balanchine and the Lost Muse: Revolution and the Making of a Choreographer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), especially chap. 10.
(4) That would mean that The Sleeping Beautys conceit of a castles population falling asleep for a century might have been inspired not only by the Perrault fairytale but also by the librettist's own father, a courtier in the Catherinesque mode, forced to "fall asleep" after the death of his patroness and "wake up" in a very different time.
(5) Jennifer Homans's otherwise ambitious Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet (New York: Random House, 2010) contains this bias. See esp. chap. 9, "Left Behind? Communist Bal et from Stalin to Brezhnev."
(6) Further proof of the complexity of mid-century Soviet ballet comes from a smart and lively new memoir from ex-Kirov dancer turned Western coach Elena Tchernichova: Dancing on Water: A Life in Ballet, from the Kirov to the ABT (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2013).
(7) This is my opinion, after many encounters with Iakobson ballets long and short over the years. See also Galina Nikolaevna Dobrovol'skaia, Baletmeister Leonid Iakobson (Leningrad: Iskusstvo, 1968).
(8) See the Labanotation website for procedures and prices involved in learning to read it (www.dancenotation.org/lnbasics/frame0.html, accessed 10 March 2014).
(9) My sketchy summary is based on memories of past performance and recent YouTube viewing.
(10) See Elizaveta Ia. Surits, Artist baleta Mikhail Mikhailovich Mordkin (Moscow: URSS, 2003); Tim Scholl, Sleeping Beauty: A Legend in Progress (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004); Scholl, From Petipa to Balanchine: Classical Revival and the Modernisation of Ballet (London: Routledge, 1993); and Lynn Garafola, Legacies of Twentieth-Century Dance (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005).
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|Title Annotation:||Swans of the Kremlin: Ballet and Power in Soviet Russia; Bewitching Russian Opera: The Tsarina from State to Stage|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2014|
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