Over the Stream

I had originally meant this little snippet from the Bolshoi Ballet’s 2004 restoration of The Bright Stream as a Lunedi Lunacy but began reading about the genesis of the original production and found that behind the inspired lunacy of this pas de deux lay a disturbing and tragic history.

The Bolshoi Ballet poster for the 2003 revival of The Bright Stream used a photo from 1936 of Asaf and Sulamith Messerer in the original Bolshoi production. The brother and sister were members of a dynastic dance family that included the great Maya Plisetskaya.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s ballet The Bright Stream (Светлый ручей – also translated as The Limpid Stream) premiered in Leningrad in 1935.  He had previously composed two full-length ballets, The Golden Age (1930) and The Bolt (1931),  and both had met with hostile reactions from audiences and the authorities.   Unlike the previous two this new work became a popular favourite and played to full houses both in Leningrad and when it was transferred to Moscow early in February 1936.

The witty libretto by playwright/theatre director Adrian Piotrovsky and choreographer Fedor Lopukhov involved a ballet troupe sent to a collective farm and a cheating husband in need of a lesson.  The plot featured romantic flirtations and theatrical situations that allowed Lopukhov, then director of the Kirov Ballet, to choreograph classical variations, vaudeville dances, a virtuoso comic pas de deux with a male dancer dressed as a sylph and perhaps the first example of a dog riding a bicycle in Russian ballet.  And it ended with the simple but committed workers of the collective farm showing the dancers from the city the virtues of collectivism.  What more could Stalin and his coterie wish for in a proper Soviet ballet?

Here is that gloriously funny and virtuosic pas de deux newly choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky for the Bolshoi Ballet in 2003 to Shostakovitch’s incredible score.  It features Ruslan Skvortsov as the Classical Dancer and Alexey Loparevich as the old dacha owner.

When the work transferred to Moscow Lopukhov realized that the authorities would not find the cross-dressing funny and the scene was deleted.  However that became the least of the three creators’ problems.  Shostakovitch had already come under fire for his Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District earlier that year in a scathing attack in Pravda said to have been written by Stalin himself.  Within days of its Moscow premiere this new piece was roundly denounced in Pravada as music that “jangles and expresses nothing”.  Piotrovsky and Lopukhov’s libretto was attacked as an insult to Soviet farm workers and the choreographer was accused of turning honest Soviet farmers into  “sugary paysans from off a pre-revolutionary chocolate box”.

The three men had committed the ultimate sin of creating something that was considered “coarse naturalism and aesthetic formalism”.  The ballet was immediately withdrawn and did not appear again for more than half a century. Shostakovitch’s commissions disappeared and his 4th Symphony denied its intended premiere that December.  He was never to composed another ballet.  Lopukov was stripped of his position as director of the Kirov and only saved from the gulags or execution by the fact that his ballerina sister Lydia was married to the much admired British economist John Maynard Keynes. For the rest of his professional life he was relegated to minor positions in the Soviet dance scene – seen now as a major loss to the dance world.  Piotrovsky was not so fortunate.  He had previously been accused of “formalism” in his position as a theatre manager and artistic director of a film studio and here was one more charge against him of “un-Soviet” thinking.  Within a year  he disappeared into the Gulags, a victim of the Great Purge, and it is assumed he was executed there.

A work meant to be light, entertaining, and uplifting had proved the downfall of its creators.

On this day in 1384: Jadwiga is crowned King of Poland, although she is a woman.


Author: Willym

A senior with the heart of a young'un

3 thoughts on “Over the Stream”

  1. It didn’t matter what the merits of the ballet were or weren’t. Once you were on Stalin’s bad side, for whatever capricious reason Stalin got into his mind, you and your careers were goners, either figuratively or literally. That’s the problem when an all-powerful bully heads up a state without checks or balances. Hmmm.

  2. An incredible, tragic, and absurd history. And it seems it could still happen now.

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