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Sleeping Beauty, a Legend in Progress$

Tim Scholl

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780300099560

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: October 2013

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300099560.001.0001

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Achieving Symphonism (The Soviet Ballet in Theory)

Achieving Symphonism (The Soviet Ballet in Theory)

(p.64) Chapter 3 Achieving Symphonism (The Soviet Ballet in Theory)
Sleeping Beauty, a Legend in Progress

Tim Scholl

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores how Sleeping Beauty marked the creative apogee of nineteenth-century Russian ballet, particularly how it started the movement toward more progressive forms of ballet. Dance-goers began to refer to the Petipa ballet as the “old” ballet just as newer forms began to take shape. A few notable productions includecd the Duncan-influenced works of Michel Fokine and the Stanislavsky-influenced works of Alexander Gorsky. The Vsevolozhsky and Petipa eras had retired and died out by 1909 and 1910, respectively, and questions of what would succeed the future of Russian ballet began to circulate. Thus, this chapter analyzes and studies the history through which Russian ballet evolved with the arrival of Sleeping Beauty, and what factors would turn it into the Soviet Ballet.

Keywords:   Sleeping Beauty, nineteenth-century Russian ballet, Petipa ballet, Michel Fokine, Alexander Gorsky, Vsevolozhsky, Soviet Ballet

There must be sufficient attention to action in the new ballet. And that action must be a captivating, realistic plot, and not a silly fairy tale you can't read without being bored.

—Anatoly Lunacharsky, 12 May 1930

What is to be Done (with the Ballet)?

If the 1890 Sleeping Beauty marked the creative apogee of nineteenth-century Russian ballet, the system that brought that ballet to the stage was fast approaching obsolescence by the turn of the century. Even before two revolutions questioned the validity of “Imperial” Theaters, progressive dance-makers, dance writers, and dance-goers had begun to refer to the Petipa ballet as the “old” ballet. For a time, the “new” ballet was little more than a set of aspirations for the art form, but a recognizably different body of new works soon took shape; notably, the Duncan-influenced works of Michel Fokine and the Stanislavsky-influenced works of Alexander Gorsky. In truth, Russian ballet was undergoing a sea change in the first decade of the twentieth century as (p.65) vestiges of the Petipa era began to disappear: Vsevolozhsky left the Imperial Theaters in 1899, Petipa was unceremoniously retired in 1903; Vsevolozhsky died in 1909, Petipa in 1910.

Ironically, as those who led the Russian ballet to new creative heights in the 1890s were dying, the Russian ballet was enjoying its first brush with international fame. The Diaghilev ballet's Paris seasons would, for a time, transform the Maryinsky Theater from the Russian ballet's Mecca to a kind of offsite facility, a factory producing dancers for careers in Europe and the Americas. With St. Petersburg serving mostly as a staging area for more exciting developments happening elsewhere, the old ballet sauntered on much as it had before.

Questions of succession and the future of the Russian ballet loomed large in the Imperial Ballet at the turn of the century, and the 1917 Revolution made the old uncertainties more urgent and complex.1 Neither “old” nor “new,” the next phase in the history of Russian ballet would be Soviet. And Sovietization brought three distinct new pressures to bear on the art form. First, state ideology would play an increasingly prominent role in the creation of new works and the construction of the repertory, until the ballet, like other arts, found itself a ward of the Stalinist state in the 1930s. State control did protect the ballet from a second new threat: pressure from the extreme left, whose suspicion of the ballet's class origins might have led to the art's demise. The gradual closing of borders and increasing isolation represented a third new problem for the young Soviet ballet, particularly as large numbers of those associated with the Russian ballet's most illustrious era were now working abroad and the vast majority would not return. By 1917, this diaspora helped established ballet as a viable art form beyond Russian borders. The émigré ballet metamorphosed rapidly; although its nucleus remained mostly Russian for a time, its outlook was international from the start. Whatever the larger problems faced by the new Soviet ballet, the most immediate tangible results of the Sovietization of Russian ballet were the same as for the general population: poverty and isolation. Confusion over the ballet's proper role in the new Soviet state only added to the general disorder in the former Maryinsky.

Even in the turbulence of the postrevolutionary years, Sleeping Beauty remained at the heart of the Russian ballet repertory. More to the point, it became Exhibit A in the case to save the ballet when the art form's very existence was questioned. Yet as the state and the ballet joined in a long-term, commensurate partnership, influence flowed in both directions. Sleeping Beauty played a central role in the transition from Imperial to Soviet ballet. Yet the competing interests of the state, the public, and the intellectuals (particularly far-left ideologues) (p.66) would, in turn, shape the ballet as it continued to be performed and produced in the Soviet Union. The first phase of the process, in the 1920s and 1930s, was the most dynamic. The less volatile period that followed allowed for the development of a more fluid and more resilient ideology to defend the nineteenth-century repertory, with Sleeping Beauty as its showpiece.

External Pressures: The Ballet and the State

From the start, Sleeping Beauty occupied a unique place in the history of Russian ballet, summing up the achievements of its century as it hinted at the innovations of the next. A performance of the work on 15 March 1917, the night of Tsar Nikolai II's abdication, epitomized the ballets liminal state. The hall was overflowing, the audience demanded the “Marseillaise”: “One of the artists appeared on the stage to greet members of the Provisional Government, the Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies present in the theater. Someone answered, there was more applause, hurrahs, and the orchestra played the ‘Marseillaise’ again” (Bezpalov 41). The author, a singer and volunteer commandant of the rechristened “State” Theaters, noted that in the spring season of 1917, “rare was the performance not interwoven with political greetings and rallies” (ibid.).

If republican anthems preceded the performance, the ballet closed, as always, with Tchaikovsky's quotation of “Vive Henri Quatre”—an odd finale for an evening that began full of revolutionary promise. Yet the light-hearted barbs the ballet had once borne at the pens of nineteenth-century “civic” poets became serious questions in the years following the 1917 Revolution. Suddenly, the future of the ballet became more than an idle question; now it was one to be weighed and decided by the workers and peasants who briefly occupied the stalls.2

Petrograd arts organizations (including the theaters) had declared their autonomy from state control even before the October Revolution, forming an art workers' union to democratize participation in theater affairs in May 1917 (Swift 29–30). Days after their decisive October Revolution, the Bolsheviks moved quickly to take control of the theaters. The early appropriation of the State Theaters signaled business as usual, with the goal of uninterrupted performances during the transition; nonetheless, the abrupt changes in Russian society in the postrevolutionary years suggests a situation in which everything (p.67) was, quite literally, up for grabs. By November, responsibility for the theaters was delegated to Anatoly Lunacharsky's State Commissariat for Enlightenment. In 1919, the Maryinsky was among the theaters granted the honorific title “academic.” The ambiguous title would prove key to the theater's survival; it also marked a first step along a long path to ideological conformity.

Like many other Russian cultural institutions, the theater benefited from the relatively conservative cultural policies of the Soviet state's two most influential arts ideologues: Anatoly Lunacharsky and Lenin. The latter had expressed the need to assimilate capitalist culture long before the revolution actually occurred (see Frame 154–57). Statements concerning the necessity of building socialist culture from the remnants of capitalist culture became a frequent theme in Lenin's speeches in 1919 and 1920, for example:

It is impossible to build socialism without using the residue of capitalism. It is necessary to use all of the cultural assets that capitalism created to use against us. This is the difficulty of socialism, that it must build with materials created by other people. (17 January 1919, in Lenin 1980, 149)

Without the legacy of capitalist culture we cannot build socialism. We have nothing with which to build communism, except what capitalism left us. (18 March 1919, in Lenin 1980, 149)

Socialism would be impossible if it had not learned to use the technical know-how, the culture, and the apparatus that bourgeois culture, the culture of capitalism, had created. (2 February 1920, in Lenin 1980, 150)

A determination to retain bourgeois culture would not guarantee the preservation of the theaters or other high culture institutions, however. Lunacharsky recalled Lenin's ambivalence concerning such a citadel of rentier culture as Moscow's opera house: “Vladimir Ilyich's attitude towards the Bolshoi Theater was rather nervous…. He insisted that its budget be cut and said, ‘It is awkward to spend big money on such a luxurious theater … when we lack simple schools in the villages’” (quoted in Schwarz 12). If Lenin believed in some generalized need to “save” culture, it was Anatoly Lunacharsky, commissar of enlightenment and inveterate theatergoer, who came to the defense of the theater in general and the ballet specifically.3 Lunacharsky's statements stress the ballet's potential as a revolutionary art form; like other left intellectuals, he saw little to laud in the ballet of his time. In 1919 Lunacharsky wrote: “Ballet, as a spectacle for the people, possesses colossal strength, but for now that strength is poured into silly melodramas and monotonous pretty pas. The ballet doesn't (p.68) knows its own strength, and doesn't wish to know it. It still trails the chains of recent slavery to a lascivious, perverted public” (1924, 83).

Drama and opera, with classics penned by acknowledged masters of literature and musical composition, needed no justification, though Russia's logocentric intelligentsia viewed the ballet's wordlessness with suspicion. To puritanical Bolsheviks, the ballet's display of physical beauty seemed positively lewd. Lunacharsky addressed these issues repeatedly (and consistently) over the years, as in his 1925 essay that asked “Why Should We Save the Bolshoi Theater?”: “The union of dance, beauty, and meaning (which no one opposes) to a plot too conventionally developed by means of mime and stylized choreographic elements, has seemed and seems to many unacceptable. Communist comrades have often expressed the opinion that Russian ballet is a specific creation of the landowning regime, a caprice of the court, and that, as such, bears traits antipathetic to democracy and the proletariat” (1964, 244). Lunacharsky was well aware of the ballet's potential; he wrote reviews of the Diaghilev ballet's European triumphs,4 yet his remarks acknowledge the myriad difficulties of defending the ballet in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. His essay ultimately justifies saving the Bolshoi Theater for the creation of mass spectacles on appropriate (revolutionary) themes. “The harmony and precision of ballet movements, the complete mastery over one's body, the complete mastery over the moving mass—there is the promise of the enormous role the ballet could play in the organization of such spectacles” (ibid. 251).5

Whatever the official pronouncements on the appropriateness of the ballet or the need to maintain it, the liberated masses had their own ideas concerning the suitability of bourgeois art forms. Bogdanov-Berezovsky recalled that “immediately after the Great October Socialist Revolution, the Soviet theater came up against a remarkable fact: the enormous draw of ballet performances among the broadest possible masses, who, aesthetically, were completely unprepared for the reception of ballet” (3). The author quotes Lunacharsky s defense of the workers' “unceasing demand for opera and ballet” (ibid.) in the same period.

Evgeny Dobrenko has written that the state vastly underestimated the complexity of “mass” taste, as well as its dynamism (800)—which could only add to the difficulties faced by those charged with running the former Imperial Theaters. If the masses demonstrated an unexpected (and perhaps unhealthy) interest in the ballet, the new state's cultural workers admitted their bewilderment before the tasks Lenin and Lunacharsky set out for them: utilizing the bourgeois inheritance of the past to create new, appropriately Soviet ballets. In (p.69) a recollection of the period that smacks of self-criticism, Fyodr Lopukhov recalls the uncertainty and puzzlement felt in the ballet theater regarding these official pronouncements:

If we hadn't been so backward and unaccustomed to reading theoretical and aesthetic literature, we might have more readily understood what was going on in art, and emerge from the confusion in which we then found ourselves. It would have been enough to study thoroughly the words of V. I. Lenin on prerevolutionary culture and socialist culture. He spoke very clearly on the necessity of cultivating socialist culture, guided by the greatest achievements of all ages and peoples. But we didn't read Lenin then, and having heard about his pronouncements, couldn't always understand how to apply them to the ballet.

We adopted a bit more of what A. V. Lunacharsky said, but we hadn't yet matured to an understanding of the breadth of his ideas either. (Lopukhov 1966, 220)

The Left and the Cultural Revolution

The greatest danger to the survival of the postrevolutionary Russian ballet was posed not by the Soviet government, whose artistic vision would prove surprisingly conservative, but by the radical advocates of a new proletarian culture, an organization known as Proletkult (a contraction of “proletarian culture”), and other left organizations. Proletkult s goal of creating art for the masses included the expropriation of the State Theaters and the replacement of their repertories with “proletarian” works. The state's decision to place Proletkult under the jurisdiction of Lunacharsky's commissariat in 1920 proved a vital step in sidestepping the threat, though it did not daunt the left organizations, who shared neither Lenin's belief in the necessity of saving bourgeois culture nor Lunacharsky's optimism for its revolutionary transformation.

Even under his control, Proletkult continued to bedevil Lunacharsky. A newspaper essay from 1922 hints at the commissar's frustration with the radical left and its demands: “In the preservation … of questionable valuables, the risk is not great. In the destruction … of even extremely questionable valuables, the risk is extraordinarily greater…. Only naive people could now seriously say that our large opera theaters should change their repertories…. To stage new productions is simply beyond us” (Izvestiya, 19 February). Naive or not, Proletkult persisted. In a 1923 article, for example, the organization declared the ballet “a thoroughly bourgeois art form, in which only love, or some other simple feeling is expressed through a special language of the legs, which specialize (p.70) in erotic movements, and where the head and separate parts of the magnificent human body are sacrificed to the dance of the feet” (quoted in Shumilova 51).6

In Moscow in 1923, the head of the musical theater section of Glavrepertkom (a section of Lunacharsky's commissariat concerned with repertory questions), reported on the Moscow academic theaters' offerings:

The ballet repertory imbues the Bolshoi Theater with all the traits of a court theater in tsarist times. There are paysans instead of peasants, chocolate-box “heroes,” the intolerable fakery of ballet “folklore,” the petty-bourgeois sentimentality of sugary romantic intrigues, and the extremely foolish, completely absurd realizations of the librettos. Princes, princesses, kings, and all sorts of devilry. Here is the tradition the academic Bolshoi Theater stubbornly maintains in the seventh year of the proletarian revolution….

In 1919–20 attempts (not lacking in interest) were undertaken to transform this bourgeois ballet into a sort of magnificent mass pantomime spectacle on more or less serious (often revolutionary) themes. But the Bolshoi Theater sidestepped this clearly considered proposal with Olympian indifference—and not one of such librettos found their paths to the stage of the Bolshoi Theater. (in Trabsky 1975, 70)

However shrill or naive, the left raised legitimate concerns. Sheila Fitzpatrick describes the root cause of their frustration with the theater bureaucracy: “The theatrical situation to which the left objected was that the established pre-revolutionary theatres received government subsidies and were free of local taxes, while continuing to perform the same repertoire with the same artists and directors to the same bourgeois public as before 1917” (1971, 239).

The years of Cultural Revolution (1928–31) during the first five-year plan (1928–32) breathed new life into the left's struggle for supremacy in the arts. The Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM), for example, gained power in 1928 and immediately set out to “repress and censor musical trends it deemed bourgeois” (Fitzpatrick 1992, 192): “One of its first goals was control of the opera repertoire, especially the operas presented by the major houses of Moscow and Leningrad. RAPM was eager to remove ideologically unsuitable works (such as Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and Queen of Spades and Wagner's Parsifal) from the classical repertoire and prevent productions of new works by contemporary European composers that ‘directly or indirectly reflect the degenerate tendency of contemporary bourgeois culture’” (ibid.). Fortunately, Eugene Onegin, Queen of Spades, and Sleeping Beauty outlasted the threat from the left, though Glaviskusstvo's repertory index of 1929 must be seen as an official answer to RAPM's desire for a purge.7 The index ranked works on a scale from “A” (ideologically recommended) to “E” (forbidden). (p.71) Sleeping Beauty received a “B,” for “ideologically acceptable and permitted without hindrance” (Swift 80, 303).

That same year, the journal The Life of Art announced a libretto competition intended to spark the composition of new, Soviet ballets. As Swift points out, the announcement is significant “because it concisely formulated many of the features the government and Party considered desirable in the new Soviet ballet at the time” (85). The announcement reiterated familiar failings: the old ballets' irrelevance, the need for new ballets drawn from contemporary life, and the emphasis on drama rather than divertissement. Tellingly, the contest's authors recommended the very themes that soon proliferated in Soviet literature: civil war and (re)construction, ethnography, urbanism, and industrial themes, as well as “healthy” science fiction (in the style of Jules Verne). Mysticism and abstraction were categorically rejected; mass scenes encouraged, as was use of new movement idioms (acrobatics, gymnastics) and new media (radio, cinema). The announcement also stipulated that the libretto must be planned as a fullevening work—another revealing harbinger of the monumental art to come (86–87). The winning entry premiered in Leningrad in 1930 as Golden Age, to Shostakovich's music and choreography by committee. Ironically, the RAPM organ deemed the work “a coarse alloy of nauseating fox-trots and other decadent dances” and noted the ballet's obvious “ideological harm” (Swift 88).

The radical left's attacks on a work designed to meet the very criteria it had devised suggest the disarray in these organizations and their inability to influence events to their satisfaction. Yet the ballet libretto contest effectively predicted the major tendencies of Soviet art (including ballet) for the next decade: themes of war and production, industrialization and urbanization, and that favorite passion of Soviet ballet, orientalism dressed up as ethnography. Rest assured, temporary enthusiasm for new movement styles and new media would soon be condemned to the dustbin of 1920s experimentation.

Diaghilev and the West

In addition to new pressures (from the state and from the left) on the young Soviet ballet, there were also—and for the first time—external pressures. Those responsible for the arts policies in the young Soviet state were well aware of the renown Diaghilev's Ballets Russes enjoyed in the West (including the flashy production of Sleeping Beauty Diaghilev mounted in London in 1921). Lunacharsky began reviewing the Diaghilev seasons in Paris while in exile from the Russian empire and published his last account of Diaghilev's work in 1927. (p.72) Early Soviet histories continued to herald the triumphs of émigré stars abroad. As late as 1933, the dance researcher and critic Ivan Sollertinsky (1902–44) could characterize the recent history of Russian ballet as split along two lines: the Petipa and the Fokine schools (343–44).8

Lunacharsky's final report on the Diaghilev enterprise includes fragments of an interview with Diaghilev (published in Vechernyaya moskva, 28 June 1927) that offers a rare snapshot of two Russian ballet traditions drifting steadily away from one another. Lunacharsky boasts of the Soviet ballet's popularity, its schools, and its new stars. Diaghilev, who had long mined the Maryinsky and the St. Petersburg school for talent, turns the conversation to questions of repertory and innovation. Lunacharsky notes the whiff of revolutionary spirit in new productions of Esmeralda and Red Poppy; Diaghilev wonders if such an approach were not simply tasteless. Diaghilev regarded the lack of composers a serious problem for the Soviet ballet; Lunacharsky asked about Le Pas d'Acier by Prokofiev (still in the West), with its “slight reflections of our Revolution” (1958, 343–55). The conversation reveals an unfortunately neat bifurcation of Russian ballet in the 1920s. Petrograd maintained the school, theater, and traditional repertory; Diaghilev could boast the leading dancers, choreographers, and collaborators (visual artists and composers). In short, Diaghilev managed to take everything that was not tied down, and though his strategy revealed long-term weaknesses, innovation remained on his side even as the Soviets actively strove for modernity and relevance.

Anxiety vis-à-vis the West was not limited to the ballet. The earliest documents pertaining to the Soviet theaters reveal considerable concern in the opera as well. In a 1922 letter addressed to the Review of Theater and Sport, the head of the Petrograd Academic Theaters (the aptly named I. V. Ekskuzovich) began with a diatribe on the difficulties of keeping Russian singers in Russia: “It's not just us. The Americans have robbed all of Europe, buying up talent for divertissements in which singers alternate with acrobats and trained elephants. In the Grand Opéra, they stage incidental guest performances. In Milan the opera is dying, and in London's Covent Garden the cinematograph is established. The dollar—that is our enemy” (in Trabsky 1975, 287).9 Scattered amidst complaints of the large quantities of cash the capitalist West was prepared to throw at Russian artists, a second motif emerges in these accounts: “our ballet troupe is the most progressive” (288). A Review of Theater and Sport report on an open meeting on the work of the former Maryinsky's ballet troupe denounces the theaters of Paris, London, and America (“where there is no theater at all”). Lunacharsky (p.73) took the high road in 1925: “In countries outside Russia, ballet doesn't even exist as an independent genre. Only in Russia has the ballet been maintained as a complete full-evening performance” (1925, quoted in 1964, 244).

Diaghilev, poverty, and isolation notwithstanding, Russian theater workers prided themselves on the maintenance of full-length ballets, and this questionable distinction was one they were anxious to maintain. In the same Glavrepertkom report on the repertories of the Moscow theaters (in which the ballet is attacked as a court theater), V. I. Blyum derides the tendency to stage “ballet miniatures”: If followed systematically, the same repertory plan that promised a production of Rimsky-Korsakov's Schéhérazade (a Diaghilev hit) “would turn the ballet theater into a divertissement theater” (quoted in Trabsky 1975, 70). Instead, the ballet administration, headed by Leonid Leontiev, set for itself the task of “raising the ballet to its appropriate stature in the reinstatement of discipline and the artistic level of the era of balletmaster Petipa” (in Trabsky 1975, 289). The ballet administration felt it had passed its first test, weeks earlier, with the first performance of Sleeping Beauty. The performance of a fulllength work from the Petipa era perhaps justified the administration's boast that “in our day, only Russia has a real theater, and that wholly thanks to the colossal effort of our self-sacrificing artists, who have fulfilled their obligations despite everything, and including, at times, the most difficult working conditions. For example, a temperature of 2 degrees on the stage” (quoted in Trabsky 1975, 289).

The Maryinsky's response to Diaghilev may be characterized as a series of conservative retreats. The model the Diaghilev ballet proposed—shorter ballets to concert music—was rejected by the ballet bureaucrats of the 1920s, despite the fact that no viable multiact work had been created since Petipa's time. For Soviet ideologues, the length of a ballet still varied directly with its seriousness of purpose. The 1929 libretto competition, for example, marked the preference for full-evening work over “miniatures,” much as criticism of Western performance venues (musical halls featuring variety acts and movies) signaled the superiority of the Soviet academic theaters. Confidence in the superiority of the Soviet ballet reverberates in the writings of Lunacharsky and others throughout the 1920s and accompanies self-definitions of Soviet dance that mostly react to Diaghilev's innovations. Lunacharsky s conversation with Diaghilev notwithstanding, the Soviet ballet's dialogue with the Russian dance diaspora soon devolved into a hectoring monologue unheard outside Leningrad or Moscow.

(p.74) The Ballet Debates

The Leningrad ballet, short on resources, personnel, and leadership, responded passively, if at all, to the new demands of the state, the harangues of the left, and the innovations of Diaghilev. Nonetheless, a lively debate on the future of ballet took shape on the pages of Soviet periodicals. Articles interrogating the future of Soviet ballet dotted journals such as Rabochij i teatr (The Worker and the Theater), and Zhizn' iskusstva (The Life of Art). The latter journal opened its pages to the discussion in 1928, when Sollertinsky posed the following questions:

  • What themes could be used in contemporary ballets?
  • Can a contemporary choreographic spectacle be built on the basis of classic dance?
  • Can acrobats be used?
  • How can ballet pantomime be renewed?
  • Would an experimental studio help solve the current problem? (quoted in Swift 81)

Yuri Slonimsky summarizes the main positions in these debates: the radical left was far from unified, its factions finding inspiration for a new ballet as far afield as acrobatics, physical culture demonstrations, machines and work, allegorical revolutionary spectacles, folk dance, and games; the conservatives wished to preserve the ballets as they were; and a center gradually emerged that sought compromise between the two extremes (1966, 15–16).10 Ironically, those contributing to the conversation largely avoided the practical questions Sollertinsky raised. Nor did the ideas discussed influence the repertory in any perceptible way. Nonetheless, the discussion accurately forecast the main theoretical and ideological concerns of the Soviet ballet for decades to come.

One of the more provocative essays on the dance to emerge in this period was written by Moscow ballet critic Alexander Cherepnin (1876–1927), who contributed “The Dialectic of Ballet” to The Life of Art in 1927. Cherepnin viewed the radical left's desire to overthrow the ballet and replace it with newer forms as “vulgar sociology,” noting that the alternative movement idioms were just as foreign: that Duncanism, acrobatics, and “plastic-eccentric” movement were as alien to Russian society as the dances of European courts. For Cherepnin, the formation of a new ballet would depend on a new understanding of the art form and a new attitude to it, rather than a shift in its form or thematics. Pantomime, for example, had once been theater for the masses, but it had since become a theatrical idiom for “refined” spectators (I, 6–7). In other words, pantomime was a constant presence even though attitudes toward it had changed.

Neither the old nor the new ballet satisfied Cherepnin entirely: “The old ballet (p.75) is dying because it is illogical. Its antithesis (pantomime justified by dances), if it is alive at all, will die of its logic.” In another aphorism, Cherepnin distinguishes between the academy of classical dance, which he values, and a performance tradition he laments: “Classical dance hasn't aged, it is only old-fashioned. The classical ballet isn't old-fashioned, but it has aged” (I, 7).

In the second installment of his article, Cherepnin identifies two types of classical dance: the figurative and the expressive. Expressive dance conveys an emotional state, whereas representation and virtuosity provide the content of figurative dance. (Though figurative dance does not represent art to Cherepnin, only a kind of artistic production.) Figurative dance is thus “pure” dance, though Cherepnin deems expressive dance more organic. Cherepnin then steps into the quintessential dilemma of Soviet arts criticism in the 1920s: the form-content debate. If classical dance (as the thesis of the author's dialectic) represents form with content, and its antithesis (expressive dancing) content with form, Cherepnin sees their synthesis as “form-content,” either as symphonic dance or danced drama (II, 4–5). Although couched in too-neat dichotomies, Cherepnin's essay foregrounds the most important debate of the decades to follow the cultural revolution: the place of abstraction in Soviet dance.

If Cherepnin's dialectical approach showed no marked preference for either symphonic (“pure”) dance or danced narrative, theater researcher and critic Alexei Gvozdev (1887–1939), who took up the debate the following year, advocated danced dramas in his “On the Reform of Ballet.”11 Gvozdev believed that only large theatrical forms could attract sufficient viewers (he cites the cinema as evidence of the melodrama's power to attract audiences). The new ballet required new, contemporary plots and must be “a theater, not a blank slate for musicians to perform symphonies or for dancers to demonstrate their virtuosity” (II, 5–6).

The symphony moved to the center of the debate in The Life of Art when N. Malkov (writing under the pseudonym “Islamei”) engaged a Sollertinsky essay that argued that dance had lost its immediacy of expression. Malkov turned Sollertinsky's argument on its head, replacing dance with music, to stress the relation between the two art forms, and using Sollertinsky's own, mostly unanswerable questions to interrogate the vitality of music: “Why should every art form unfailingly forfeit its own language, even though it once spoke a language that we all wish to contemplate and hear from artists of various art forms?” (Malkov 1928, 4). In a comment that reveals the author's view of the hierarchy of genres, Sollertinsky could only respond that the dance remained immeasurably poorer than music (1928, 5).

(p.76) Sollertinsky returned to these questions in 1929 in “What Kind of Ballet Do We Really Need?”: “Is there a necessity for an art that cannot link a pirouette with ‘content,’ say, from Komsomol or factory life, or an entrechat with the reconstruction of heavy industry?” (1929, 5). Sollertinsky decides that no ballet is needed: “We need … a new kind of synthesized performance, which unites in itself the word, singing, music, gesture, and dance” (5). In his call for an essentially Wagnerian synthesis of the arts, Sollertinsky admitted that ballet was a dead genre and says so repeatedly. By 1930, Sollertinsky could trumpet the ballet's demise: “Classical dance has been irrevocably dethroned. Nowadays, who but a few old provincial balletomanes, sighing over imperishable beauty, or two or three boys of the species ‘Soviet aesthete’ in the archives—who else would take upon himself the backbreaking work of defending the validity of the classics? It's a museum inventory” (1930, 8).

Summing Up

It was Sollertinsky, the old ballets most ardent and prolific detractor, who wrote the first official account of the ballet's Soviet-era transformation in the 1933 History of Soviet Theater. As always, when attempting to unravel the meanings encoded in Soviet histories, it helps to know that Sollertinsky's work appeared in 1933 at the beginning of the second five-year plan, one year after the 1932 reform of literature and arts organizations.12 The Seventeenth Party Congress, famous for its imposition of socialist realism as the new official arts doctrine, would follow in 1934. Sollertinsky's “Russian Musical Theater on the Eve of October and the Opera and Ballet Legacies in the Period of War Communism” appeared in the first volume of a relatively premature history of Soviet theater (it had existed for only sixteen years). Not surprisingly, Sollertinsky has mostly unkind things to say about the old ballet and its legacy. Given the predominance of spectacle (and the absence of ideology or even ideas), Sollertinsky asserts that the ballet merely fulfilled its class function in demonstrating the splendor and magnificence of the regime (as it had since the sixteenth century in Europe) (323–24). Petipa brought new brilliance to the “ornamental-abstract creation[s] of a dying feudalism” (323), according to Sollertinsky. Nonetheless, the choreographer's ballets remain little more than “festive, multiact choreographic divertissements that demonstrate the virtuosity of the dancers and the corps de ballet masses in the surroundings of sumptuous, though often crude and tasteless decors” (324). “Somehow or other,” Sollertinsky intones, “Petipa (p.77) lay his powerful and heavy hand on the whole of the choreographic repertory” (325).

Sollertinsky goes on to indict the ballet for all its usual prerevolutionary sins: the ballet's elite audience cared little for the performances and regarded the theater as a backdrop for gossip and business transactions; the ballet's plots were naive and conveyed in the “hieroglyphics” of pantomime; the choreography bore clear traces of its origins in feudal courts; the ballet school wore the reputation of a grand ducal harem. A product of European courts fetishized in Russia by the last Romanovs, the ballet's dancing masses told lurid tales of class-inappropriate love in revealing costumes. In short, ballet was a frivolous entertainment for the rich (294, 324). Soviet prudery aside, Sollertinsky's most serious indictment of the ballet concerns its lack of gravitas: “At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, opera and ballet were, to a significant degree, ‘canned’ genres, of little ideological value, that lived mostly off the repertory of the nineteenth century. Elements of the feudal-court style appear in them sufficiently clearly: to a lesser degree in the opera, and to an incomparably greater degree in the ballet. The visual display of the ‘grand spectacle’ predominated: the lavish, pageant entertainments in the spirit of Meyerbeer's operas or the massive ballets of Petipa's late period. Neither opera nor ballet bore much ideological or semantic weight: ‘problematics’ were left to other authorities: the dramatic theater, literature, etc.” (294). Sollertinsky reserves special disapproval for Petipa's late works, and Sleeping Beauty could easily serve as the exemplar of the author's main criticisms of the pre-Soviet ballet: the thin plot lines and the tendency toward divertissement, the degeneration of male dance, and the ballet's ill-founded relation to its musical accompaniment.

For all the predictability of Sollertinsky's criticisms of the prerevolutionary ballet, his article—both temporally and philosophically—dangles uneasily between the radicalism of the late 1920s left organizations and the cultural orthodoxy of high Stalinism as it reflects the uncertainty and flux of cultural policy of the period.13 Sollertinsky praises the Diaghilev experiment, for example, asserting that the “bourgeois reconstruction” of the ballet could be carried out more easily in Paris, the capital of the “world rentier bourgeoisie” than in the tradition-bound corridors of the Maryinsky (341), and credits Diaghilev for elevating Russian ballet to the vertiginous heights of Russian literature in the world's cultural marketplaces.14 In capturing the attentions of the Western bourgeois intelligentsia, Sollertinsky notes that the former aristocratic amusement had become an object of national pride (341–42). All the same, the author (p.78) consigns the experiment to history: “The Russian ballet abroad gradually lost its former glory and now finds itself in a condition of creative decay. Even such a relatively longstanding and durable organization as the troupe of the late Diaghilev didn't escape this crisis and impasse. It seems that the page of choreography titled ‘The Russian Ballet Abroad,’ may now be considered written” (344–45).

Sollertinsky's repudiation of Diaghilev's progeny recalls the smug certainty of Russian balletomanes in the 1880s, though his desire to both acknowledge and bring closure to the Diaghilev venture typifies the insularity and chauvinism that gripped the Soviet Union in the 1930s. He assures his reader that a “wide, unblazed trail” was then opening before Soviet choreography—without speculating where that trail might lead (345). In fact, the trail was a meandering path, accommodating the varied and changing needs of the state as it led to an imagined bright future. The “Ukrainian Week” held in Moscow in 1936 provides a particularly pithy example. When state prizes were awarded to Ukranian performances, “The whole Leningrad artistic community … was saying that the Ukrainian Theater of Opera and Ballet had got awards not for merit but for political reasons, as part of a campaign to exalt non-Russian artists at the Russians' expense. ‘The Ukrainians presented folk songs and dances and they had no high, serious, art,’ the respected conductor Samuil Samosud was quoted as saying. ‘Now in general they are praising and rewarding ethnics,’ said Distinguished Artist Rostovtsev less diplomatically. ‘They give medals to Armenians, Georgians, Ukrainians—everyone except Russians’” (Fitzpatrick 1999, 168). Moscow (the state) was the new adjudicator in a contest pitting “high” art, Leningrad tradition against newly fashionable “ethnic” forms. The event illustrates the extent to which art criticism had become an affair of state.15

A more troubling note for the fortunes of Soviet ballet sounded at the end of the second five-year plan, in 1937. The first issue of the journal Teatr opened with a lengthy editorial statement titled “A Momentous Five Years” (3–8). In the course of defending the liquidation of independent arts groups, defaming Trotsky, quoting Stalin liberally, and asserting repeatedly that the center of world culture has moved to Moscow for good, the article cites successful artistic creations of the Soviet era. The list reads like a greatest hits of socialist realism (certainly, the author's intent) and covers virtually every Soviet artistic endeavor: literature, the theater, cinema, opera, and symphonic and popular music. Art and architecture are chastised, though accomplishments in folklore are lovingly recited: folk music, folk dance, woodcarving, ceramics, Palekh boxes, and more (4–5).

(p.79) In this exhaustive pantheon of Soviet art, the ballet rates no mention, even though Rostislav Zakharov's much-praised Fountain of Bakchisarai had premiered only three years before and was restaged in Moscow in 1936. The omission is ever more surprising given the Teatr article's veneration of Pushkin, the stimulus for Zakharov's ballet. Nonetheless, in these years before the ballet became an export item, or a viewing of Swan Lake de rigueur for visiting world leaders, the ballet remained something of an embarrassment, an unmentionable on the laundry list of ideologically correct artistic achievements.

Rehabilitating the Ballet: Imperial to Academic (and Back Again)

If the vision of the tsar's entourage watching Sleeping Beauty from their boxes in the Maryinsky encapsulates the pomp and coziness of life in the Russian empire, the analogous Soviet-era scene shifts to Moscow's Bolshoi Theater, where, from Stalin's time, innumerable Swan Lakes were served up to Soviet leaders and their state guests. The distinctly second place that Sleeping Beauty, the Maryinsky Theater, and St. Petersburg played in the years of Soviet rule speak to the suspect past of each. Nonetheless, Sleeping Beauty played a key role in the reshaping of ballet in the Soviet Union (both ideologically and in a more literal sense). By 1963, Vera Krasovskaya could speak of Sleeping Beauty as the archetype of nineteenth-century choreography (310).

One key to the ballet's survival in the turbulent world of postrevolutionary theater was the title given the Maryinsky in December 1919: the theater became known as an “academic” theater. The designation conferred officially the qualities that Lunacharsky valued in the former Imperial Theaters and their repertories: the theaters were tools of learning and enlightenment, possessing valuable repertories. Thus, as before, they bore the imprimatur of officialdom. In a decidedly antiacademic era of European cultural history (in Russia, the sentiment dates most clearly to 1862, when the group of painters known as the Wanderers broke from the art academy), the young Soviet state cast its cultural lot with the cultural establishment of the ancien régime.

Russian writers still use the term “academic” (akademichesky) to describe Sleeping Beauty (the correspondingly imprecise English-language term would be “classical”). The early Soviet obsession with enlightenment would pave the way for Sleeping Beauty's canonization during the Soviet period. More to the point, the arts bureaucracy's reliance on an academic justification for the State Theaters would focus specifically on Sleeping Beauty. The status the ballet (p.80) quickly gained in the 1920s reveals much about the allure of the Petipa-Tchaikovsky work in the early years of the Soviet Union, a time when the ballet's glorification of cheerful autocracy should have been anathema.

Of all the ballets in the repertory, the State Theaters' 1924 repertory committee singled out Sleeping Beauty as the single work that showed promise: “The proletarian masses imperiously demand depictions of heroic endurance and action on the stage of the State Opera Theaters of the Soviet Republic…. The ballet is so saturated with rentier-aristocratic culture, that one cannot find even a grain of even the most superficial revolutionary character…. The ballet Sleeping Beauty attracted the attention of the directorate as one of a very few ballets, written by a good master-composer, among the hundreds of others that are musically inadmissible in an academic theater” (quoted in Trabsky 1975, 293–95). In order to rescue and defend the ballet, its adherents would necessarily turn to its strengths. If the plot and atmosphere of Sleeping Beauty made it one of the least appropriate ballets for the new Soviet viewer, one element of the ballet proved irrefutable: its music. Tchaikovsky was then on a trajectory that would lead to his ascension to the status of national treasure in the Stalin era. The ballet's fortunes (both of Sleeping Beauty and the ballet in general) would rise with him.

The academic recognition accorded the former Imperial Theaters in 1919 served as a critical first step in the process of saving the ballet, defending it against the extreme left. Throughout the 1920s, the ballet had mostly floundered, uncertain of its ideological role—and ill equipped in any event to indulge the whims of the state or the left. The Zeitgeist of the Stalinist 1930s—the darkest years in Soviet history—proved vastly more hospitable to the ballet. There is no exact English equivalent for the term kul'turnost',16 used to characterize a semiofficial campaign launched in the 1930s, though it implies being “cultured” or “civilized” in the broadest sense. This new definition of civilized behavior included such everyday practices as the use of (clean) underwear, bed linen, tablecloths, and curtains as well as attending the theater or reading Stendahl (Kelly and Volkov, 296–98). The inherent contradictions of this retreat to petty bourgeois practices in the worker-peasant state were justified by means of a clever manipulation: “One of the great advantages of the concept of kul'turnost' in a postrevolutionary society burdened by hangovers of revolutionary puritanism was that it offered a way of legitimizing what had once been thought of as ‘bourgeois’ concerns about possessions and status: one treated them as an aspect of kul'tura. Becoming cultured had always been a proper and necessary individual goal in Bolshevik terms. In the 1930s the concept was simply (p.81) expanded to include acquisition of the means and manners of a lifestyle appropriate to the news masters of the Soviet state” (Fitzpatrick 1992, 218). To put it another way, “the brilliance of the kul'turnost' ideology lay partly in the fact that it was a fusion of two value systems previously thought incompatible, those of the bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia” (Kelly and Volkov 304). Thus, the doors to the State Theaters could now welcome politically mature, upwardly mobile new Bolsheviks to the same lewd spectacles and class-inappropriate love stories that the bourgeoisie had long enjoyed.

Sheila Fitzpatrick uses Bourdieu's term “misrecognition” to describe this paradigm shift in the perception of Soviet elite categories: “Stalin made his contribution to misrecognition by appropriating the term ‘intelligentsia’ to describe Soviet elites as a whole, thus implicitly conferring on Communist officials the cultural superiority of academicians and writers. This conflation of the elites of power and culture was not mere sleight of hand, but conveyed something important about the Soviet mindset of the 1930s. It means that the social hierarchy was conceptualized in cultural terms” (1999, 105).17

In The Sociology of Taste, Jukka Gronow describes the “luxury” goods and services that became part of everyday life of the privileged in the Soviet Union during this period. Obviously, Soviet luxury goods comprise a rather artificial category, if not an outright contradiction in terms. The products constructed as luxury goods in the Soviet Union in the 1930s were mostly archaisms even then: “They represented a way of life that was lived by rich people sometime in the middle of the nineteenth-century Europe—or rather a life which the Bolsheviks thought the rich had lived: champagne, caviar, chocolate, cognac, perfume: only lackeys, horse carriages, courtesans and roulette are missing from the catalogue” (52). When Gronow points out that Soviet luxury “was basically home-made and not imported” (52), we see how neatly the ballet fit into the new categories of desired products, or that the shift to the aesthetic of socialist realism in the early 1930s recanonized the established genres of the previous century: “classical music, ballet, and architecture, realistic theater, and didactic painting” (Stites 1992, 65). The ballet's new prominence in the Stalin era substantiated Sollertinsky's 1933 assertion that the ballet had fulfilled a consistent class function (demonstrating the splendor and magnificence of the regime) since the sixteenth century (323–24).

By 1935, when Stalin declared that life had become better, happier, and by 1936, when French fashion magazines appeared on the Soviet market (and the USSR boasted of surpassing France in the production of perfume) (Kelly and Volkov 296), the ballet's aristocratic (French) roots could scarcely have presented (p.82) serious ideological difficulties to a regime that allowed, if not actually promoted, consumerism and the luxuries of the class it had once ridiculed. The campaign for kul'turnost' was relatively short-lived (the war soon focused other priorities), yet it provided the ballet enough breathing space to construct an ideology of its own—preferably, one sufficiently pliant and durable to weather the ideological storms of the future.

Symphonism and its Implications

At the time of Russian ballet historian Vera Krasovskaya's death in 1999, the New York Times called her “the dean of Russian ballet historians and a ballet writer who was highly respected in the West” (Dunning 1999). Later in the obituary, the writer allows that only one of Krasovskaya's books had been published in English, and that it received mixed reviews. Krasovskaya's histories of Russian and Western European dance were never translated. On what, then, was the considerable authority Western dance writers accorded Krasovskaya based?

Apart from Nijinsky (1979), there is very little: the catalog of the New York Public Library's Dance Collection lists a long essay on Shakespeare adaptations for dance (1991) and essays on Soviet ballet (1966) and on Balanchine's Apollo (1968). “Marius Petipa and The Sleeping Beauty,” the only substantive article from that list to be published in English, appeared in Dance Perspectives in 1972 in a translation by Cynthia Read. The article, which dance scholars continue to reference, was one of the first English-language articles by a Russian scholar to convey reliable information on the composition of the Petipa ballet.18 Moreover, the article lent a kind of scholarly confirmation to something the English-speaking dance world well knew: as Krasovskaya put it, “The Sleeping Beauty became the acme of nineteenth-century symphonic ballet” (1972, 20).

More important than the place Sleeping Beauty might hold in some imagined pantheon of ballets, Krasovskaya's article opened an English-language window into a set of operations that canonized Beauty in Russia and selected the ballet, in beauty contest fashion, to represent Russian nineteenth-century ballet and embody its virtues (or at least, the edifice of values then being constructed for it). The translation of Krasovskaya's article acquainted readers with a new designation for those ballets: they were “symphonic.” And whatever symphonic might mean when applied to dance, Sleeping Beauty was to function as this scheme's exemplar. The article thus represents a kind of English-language introduction to Soviet constructed knowledge of Sleeping Beauty in particular (p.83) and the nineteenth-century ballet in general.19 What exactly is “symphonic ballet”? Krasovskaya doesn't say, as though the term needed neither introduction nor explanation, though the weight Krasovskaya places on symphonism suggests that the concept is central to the understanding of the history of dance: “The symphonic ballet of the twentieth century is like a tree with a sturdy trunk and many branches. Its roots stretch into the nineteenth century, to the ballet theatre of Russia and the work of Marius Petipa” (1972, 6).20

Composer and musicologist Boris Asafiev's 1922 essay on Sleeping Beauty marks the debut of the term “symphonism” in the reams of Soviet-era prose devoted to the work.21 His essay follows a convoluted appreciation of symphonism in Tchaikovsky's Instrumental Works, also from 1922. Yet even before Asafiev deploys the term “symphonism” in the Sleeping Beauty essay, the author leaves an important clue to the term's actual meaning in Soviet dance writing: “a great composer at the height of his career, could not have written simple ballet music” (1954, 175).

Ivan Sollertinsky's 1933 history of prerevolutionary Russian ballet provides further clues to the uses of the term in the interwar period. For Sollertinsky, the scene of the Shades in Bayadère and the dances of the swans in Swan Lake “moved beyond purely decorative [dance] composition into the realm of something approaching dance symphonism” (326, 328), though Sollertinsky maintains that “the symphonic development of the internal musical action, the orchestration, etc.,—didn't interest Petipa” (328). Already the salient features of the doctrine of symphonism are in place. First, symphonism is not “simple,” and it may be distinguished from the dance music of an earlier era. Second, dance symphonism bears some relation to the structures of the “symphonic” works it accompanies.

In Music and Musical Life in Soviet Russia, Boris Schwarz describes the unprecedented yet undeniable allure of symphonic music for Soviet composers (where nineteenth-century Russian composers displayed a marked preference for program music). By the 1930s, symphonism—or, more precisely, Soviet Symphonism—“acquired a slogan-like significance,” according to Schwarz (158–59). Bogdanov-Berezovsky offered a highly revealing interpretation of the term as understood in 1937: “Symphony as a genre is nothing but a sonata for orchestra…. Symphonism, on the other hand, is the definition of a creative method, a definite procedure for the development of musical material…. Symphonism as a principle, as a means of musical representation and of concrete reality in the highest philosophical categories, is becoming the leading and dominant method of the Soviet composer, independent of the genres and (p.84) forms he uses” (quoted in Schwarz 159).22 Now regarded as a method, a procedure, a principle, and a means, it is scarcely surprising that symphonism no longer possessed any strictly musical meaning. Nor should it surprise us that this musical term, slipped from its semantic moorings, would soon function as a floating signifier for the dance. Like a deflating balloon, the more ideological weight was applied to the concept of symphonism, the more formless and malleable the term become.

By 1944, Asafiev could write: “Soviet symphonism is our pride, for only in our great land did symphonic music not lose itself … did not squander itself … in eccentric experiments…. The West lives only in the memory of great symphonists and performs the past monuments of glorious symphonies” (quoted in Schwarz 76). The Soviet preference for large-scale “absolute” musical works thus parallels pride in maintaining the full-length narrative ballet (at a time when large-scale musical and dance forms were mostly jettisoned in the West). “Side by side with the ‘absolute’ concept of the symphony, Soviet composers were using the large-scale form for ideological or topical purposes,” Schwarz writes (ibid.). The practice of adding text to a musical composition became so widespread that Shostakovich grumbled, “add a verse—that's ‘content’; no verse, that's ‘formalism’” (ibid.).

These articles from the 1920s and 1930s set the tone for most subsequent Soviet scholarship of Tchaikovsky and Petipa, including Krasovskaya's. But by the time of Tchaikovsky's ascension to the semiofficial position of Soviet composer laureate in the World War II years, an additional tenet defined the doctrine of symphonism: Tchaikovsky's inability to compose anything but masterpieces. As Sollertinsky's remarks might suggest, Petipa did not fare as well as his nativeborn collaborator. Although the choreographer occasionally approached the holy grail of symphonism in his dances, he did so unwittingly, to the minds of Soviet critics, and could not be said to participate in the creation of “symphonic” dances until his fateful artistic meeting with Tchaikovsky.

Soviet Parlance

The obvious conservatism of the balletomane critics reviewing Sleeping Beauty in 1890 made it easy for Soviet commentators to turn their predecessors' antisymphonic argument on its head—to transform the pejorative “symphonicism” into the positive “symphonism” and lambaste reactionaries in the process. When Soviet writers used the term “symphonism” to describe the Russian ballet's late nineteenth-century acquaintance with “symphonic” music, (p.85) they used the writings of the Peterburgskaya gazeta columnist (who admitted his preference for “transparent, light, and gracious” ballet music) and his colleagues to demonstrate the philistinism of the old balletomanes. Yet in accomplishing this lexical handstand, Soviet dance writing soon leached the term of any meaning.

Like the former Imperial Theaters, the (perceived) symphonism of Tchaikovsky's ballet acquired academic status in the 1920s. The musicologist, composer, and music critic Boris Asafiev advanced this view in his appreciations of Tchaikovsky's music. The terms “symphonic” and “symphonism” dot Asafiev's article on Sleeping Beauty, which attempts to “come to know the work from a comprehensive point of view, its importance, value, brilliance, significance, and vitality” (1954, 175): “The art of Russian ballet, under the leadership of the genius Petipa at the time of Sleeping Beauty's creation, already demanded symphonic music to express choreographic concepts, not just to accompany dances and action with rude rhythmic melodies or, rather, dance formulas with wretched melodic, harmonic, and instrumental dress” (175–76).

Asafiev initiated another trend in his writings on Sleeping Beauty: rather than define symphonism, he only condescends to outline its antonyms. Decades later, Yulia Rozanova's On Symphonism in Tchaikovsky's Ballet Sleeping Beauty (1965) opens with a similar précis of what symphonism is not: “In Russian ballet before Tchaikovsky, music traditionally played a supportive, purely functional role. Most often, music supplied a specific rhythmic scheme, accompanying and organizing the dance. In it, one found the measure, tempo, and accents corresponding to the rhythm of the dance movements” (3). Denunciations of Tchaikovsky's predecessors follow. The music of Cesare Pugni possesses “low artistic worth” according to Rozanova, who reminds her reader that Musorgsky termed Pugni a “musical Scythian” (3–4).23

Asafiev's remarks set the stage for wordy appreciations of Tchaikovsky's considerable achievements in the ballet theater, and “symphonism” becomes Soviet shorthand for them. In the Asafiev quote above, and in scores of other Soviet writings on Sleeping Beauty and ballet in general, the term “symphonism” carries no literal or denotative meaning. Instead, it serves as a floating signifier to indicate nothing more than the presence of an absence: the lack of “bad” ballet music. Boris Schwarz reports a similar absurdity in discussions of Soviet music in the 1930s: “the term Soviet Symphonism acquired a sloganlike significance, it became a rallying point and revealed the crisis condition of the Soviet symphony” (159). Six decades after Asafiev, Viktor Vanslov in his definition of symphonic dance in the 1981 Soviet Ballet Encyclopedia goes further than any other (p.86) writer in elucidating the term's actual usage or meaning, though he offers no examples of the vague phenomenon: “Symphonic dance is a term that refers to dance that is similar to symphonic music. Their similarity is expressed in the poetic abstraction of the lyrical-dramatic content, the polyphonic structure, the thematic treatment, and the dynamic composition of the forms” (“Symphonic dance”).24 Much as any precise definition of dance symphonism seemed less important than what the term did not imply, the denigration of Tchaikovsky's predecessors points to a more important concern of Soviet dance writers: anxiety over the ballet's lowly position in the aesthetic hierarchy.

Elevating Taste

The Soviet obsession with the “symphonization” of dance speaks volumes about the ballet's perceived status on the eve of the revolution. It likewise reveals the degree of anxiety concerning the inferiority of its music. Still, Tchaikovsky's involvement with the ballet, and with Sleeping Beauty in particular, provided the means to elevate the lower genre—once certain interpretive operations were put into place. To Rozanova's mind, the potential for the symphonization of dance lay nascent in the pas d'action, the danced “action scenes” that forward the plot of a narrative ballet. As if reading the composer's mind, Rozanova writes: “Tchaikovsky saw his main goal not in the composition of separate numbers, but in the creation of music against which the deep, full content of the ballet spectacle could unfold, in the enrichment of music to the achievements of operatic and symphonic dramaturgy” (21). As a result, “classical dance stopped being a series of beautiful poses and movements designed to show off the virtuosity of its exponents” (ibid.). To extrapolate, the ballet's appeal would extend beyond the old “diamond row” to the more democratic public of the gallery. Rozanova continues: “in this sense, one could speak of the classical dance of Sleeping Beauty as pas d'action” (ibid.).25 Perhaps Rozanova wishes to endow the ballet's set pieces with the “poetic abstraction of the lyrical-dramatic content” Vanslov hints at. Unfortunately, the exact meanings of both authors are left for us to decide.

Soviet writers on dance were understandably eager to seize upon Tchaikovsky's edifying role in the “elevation” of a problematic genre, though the success of their endeavor is hardly decisive. Unlike others who write of symphonism in Tchaikovsky's ballets, Rozanova gives concrete examples, comparing musical examples from the ballet to snippets of the composer's symphonies. Yet in doing so, she exposes the fundamental weakness of her thesis: the juxtaposition (p.87) merely reifies the implicit hierarchy of genres, since the strength of the ballet music can only be judged with reference to “real” symphonic music. According to this model, dance would be measured by—as well as against—its music. This quandary was hardly unique to Soviet studies of ballet music. Carolyn Abbate sees a similar problem in the discussion of what she terms a “Wagnerian myth,” the opera as symphony: “Perhaps most troubling are the aspersions that use of the phrase symphonic opera casts upon opera itself. The phrase passes judgment on the relationship of music to the poem and the drama with which the music must coexist, belittling both the poetic and the dramatic component” (1989, 95).

The argument for the ballet's symphonization possesses striking vitality nonetheless. As recently as 2000, the introduction to a volume devoted to choreographer Alexander Gorsky deftly sketched the main points of the symphonism argument:

The basic accomplishment in the evolution of Russian ballet in the second half of the nineteenth century lay in the fact that it elevated itself to the level of figurative thought in the forms of abstract dance. From the 1860s to the 1880s, still incapable of following literature and visual art—in taking up the path to critical realism to express the contemporary in forms of life itself, and to give it social meaning—ballet stood apart from the problems of the time. But by the 1890s, in alliance with symphonic music, ballet found new means to express the manifestations of spiritual life common to all mankind. And in doing so, proved as capable of grappling with the same problems as other art forms….

It was in St. Petersburg, in the 1890s in ballets to music of P. I. Tchaikovsky with choreography of Petipa that expressive dance found support in symphonic music. (Surits 2000, 9–10)

In the same way that nineteenth-century “civic” criticism entreated literature to address some moral, philosophical, or social problem, this view of ballet history assigns the ballet (retroactively) a task: to elevate itself.

The Problematic Symphonist

As Surits' quote demonstrates, Tchaikovsky and his compositions served as linchpins of the symphonism argument. Yet Tchaikovsky, the sentimental homosexual, would seem an unlikely choice for symphonist laureate of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in heroic times. Even so, a semiofficial status was conferred on the composer by 1941. In Stalin's report of 6 November (to mark the twenty-fourth anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution), (p.88) Glinka and Tchaikovsky were included among the names of distinguished figures of the Russian nation. According to the editor of Asafiev's collected works, the designation “inspired Asafiev to undertake new research on the work of these great Russian composers” (Protopopov 12).26 Asafiev's 1943 article “The Great Russian Composer” begins:

The fifty years that have passed since the death of Tchaikovsky have not diminished the viability of his music. The music, as always, stirs and inspires its performers and audiences. Now, in the years of the majestic feats of the mighty Red Army, fighting under the wise leadership of the leader of nations Stalin, the music of Tchaikovsky is understood by all in the nation as native, precious property, for in it is the spring of heartfelt warmth and the deepest sympathy for people. It therefore sounds just as welcome and is heard with an open heart by everyone, because the talented place that the music of Tchaikovsky still holds in the entire world belongs to him naturally. Tchaikovsky long ago became a composer for all nations. (1954, 17)

Tchaikovsky's music was the centerpiece of Asafiev's prodigious scholarly output, and Asafiev's main work on Sleeping Beauty (“Sleeping Beauty,” from the series “Letters on Russian Opera and Ballet,” published in the Weekly of the Petrograd State Theaters in 1922) focused almost exclusively on the symphonism of Sleeping Beauty and the composer's role in elevating the genre. As described by the editor of Asafiev's collected works, “B. V. Asafiev discusses Sleeping Beauty as a symphonically developed musical work that elevates classical ballet to an exceptional artistic height. At the basis of the analysis of Tchaikovsky's brilliant ballet, Asafiev creates his theory of the musical form of the ballet, synthesizing the most important principles of symphonism in the ballet” (Asafiev 1954, 363).

A volume published in 1941, P. I. Tchaikovsky on the Stage of the Theater of Opera and Ballet Named in Honor of S. M. Kirov (the Former Maryinsky) commemorates Tchaikovsky's ascension to the pantheon of Soviet art: “Tchaikovsky was the founder and forefather of the musically dramatized and symphonized ballet. After him, the ballet music that was fertilized by his creativity received an intense and rich development. An entire line of important composers turned to the ballet, as to a new and noble arena, perhaps closer even to pure symphonism than the opera, connected to words and songs that lead away from scenic-instrumental construction…. The very principle of the symphonization of ballet, led first and creatively justified by Tchaikovsky, strengthened the quality of the main guiding principle of ballet music creation” (Bogdanov-Berezovsky 258–59).

Neither Soviet enthusiasm for elevating the ballet as a genre or exploiting (p.89) Tchaikovsky's alleged symphonism would seem peculiar were it not for the fact that Tchaikovsky's reputation as a symphonist outside Russia neatly opposes the Soviet view. Western musicologists have long used the composer's symphonies to argue against his genius. Richard Taruskin has painstakingly documented the degree to which Tchaikovsky's oeuvre has been exoticized almost out of the Western canon. Addressing the monumental study of the composer by David Brown, Taruskin writes: “The composer's environment, taste and education notwithstanding, Brown works hard to deduce the essentials of Tchaikovsky's musical style from ‘pure folksong,’ the unmediated musical mirror of ‘the Russian mind.’ Tchaikovsky, it is categorically asserted, was ‘endowed with a mind of this nature.’ His musical style was innate, biologically determined, and there was nothing the poor man could do about it. Brown dramatically posits the existence of an unbridgeable gap between ‘Russian instinct’ and ‘Western method,’ the latter as categorically and reductively conceived as the former” (1995b). As Taruskin demonstrates, Western musicology did not welcome Tchaikovsky to its club of proper symphonists:

Citing Tchaikovsky's often agonized self-criticism—something the composer had in common with most master craftsmen, after all, and particularly with the hyper canonical Brahms—Brown sympathetically observes that “as a symphonist he did himself less than justice, for a composer who could show so much resourcefulness in modifying sonata structure so as to make it more compatible with the type of music nature had decreed he should write was no helpless bungler.” And yet: “What we experience in the finest classical expositions is not just a modulation but a process of controlled tonal dynamism. Such a command of tonal growth was utterly beyond Tchaikovsky, and this alone would have denied him the symphonic mastery of a Beethoven.”

You won't find “controlled tonal dynamism” or “tonal growth” in any musical dictionary, nor are they defined by Brown. They are ad hoc terms of exclusion. (ibid.)

Brown's pronouncements are gratifying in their predictability: even Beethoven, the touchstone of canonical symphonism is invoked. Yet Brown's view of the composer could not contradict the Soviet one more sharply. It seems appropriate, then, that both Russia and the West rely on “ad hoc terms of exclusion” to attack and defend Tchaikovsky. Russian critics cite Tchaikovsky's symphonism to denigrate his predecessors and elevate the ballet by association. Conversely, Western musicologists have painted with a slighter broader palette to differentiate Tchaikovsky from canonical symphonists and lump him with ballet composers.

(p.90) Canonizing Beautya

The 1920s: Asafiev and Lopukhov

Boris Asafiev (who wrote often under the pseudonym Igor Glebov) leans heavily on the concept of symphonism in his discussion of Tchaikovsky's music for Sleeping Beauty. For Asafiev, the genius of the ballet lay in the “strata of sounds” that “create a unity of impressions” (1954, 176). In another of Asafiev's works from 1922, the writer elaborated on his understanding of symphonism: “Although this stream of sound is perceived in a row of changing sound alliances in time, it is conceived as a stopping point in the condition of sound, or, to force the point, a passage through a sphere of sound, out of place and time” (1922, 7). The passage demonstrates the similarity of Asafiev's argument to those describing Wagner's symphonism: “For Wagner, the symphonic was a continuous spinning-out of never-ceasing thematic webs. For us, the term “symphonic” might also mean periodic phrases, tonal coherence, rhythmic urgency. But for us ‘symphonic’ has a metaphorical meaning as well: a symphonic work is one that is densely interconnected, that evolves organically to its final moments, that is comprehensible as pure music” (Abbate 1989, 115). Asafiev's notion of symphonism thus resembles a familiar argument from his time: a continuous musical development in a work without set pieces, a quasi-Wagnerian notion of continual action without the stops and starts: “In sum: in defining the given music as symphonic, or more accurately, as being satiated with symphonism, we comprehend it in its entirety, unbroken in the given sphere of sound. In other words, in the composition, the stream of sound that moves in the row of changing (but nonetheless linked) musical conceptions, attract us ceaselessly from center to center, from achievement to achievement—to the limits of completeness. In this way, symphonism suggests itself to us as an unbroken musical … understanding, when no single element is perceived or understood by us to be independent among many others” (1922, 7).

Returning to Beauty, Asafiev maintains that the ballet's dance formulas are “complicated and deepened” by their transformation in this symphonic development (1954, 177). The meter of the dance formula is subordinated, the dance formula (the suite) is suppressed “in the interests of a higher rhythmic and intonational whole” (ibid.): “A waltz formula, taken as such (as a dance) gives one impression. But if the same formula lies at the heart of the rhythm of the whole work … it has quite another effect” (178). To illustrate the point, Asafiev contrasts Aurora's first-act variation, in waltz time, to the more conventional (and recognizable) waltz of the first act (the Garland Dance). In the first example, (p.91) the variation is “based on music that depends on the waltz formula but doesn't appear as a waltz” (ibid.). The second waltz is “just” a waltz.

Lopukhov's discussion of dance symphonism appeared three years later in a collection of essays titled Paths of a Balletmaster (1925), which is divided into three parts. The first, “The Evolution of Choreography,” leads to chapters on the dance-symphony and dance symphonism. The second section explores the relation of dance to music, while the third explores character dancing. In his chapter on dance symphonism, Lopukhov begins by noting: “Very often, especially recently, voices are raised that it is necessary to symphonize dance, that this is the natural path to its further development” (54). Lopukhov expresses dismay that none of those who advocate for the symphonization of dance ever bother to explain it (did he have Asafiev in mind?),27 then praises recent attempts to symphonize dance, “for purely symphonic music is the highest form of musical art, to which dance art has not yet ascended” (ibid.).

Lopukhov's arguments are familiar ones, and not only for the usual admission of inferiority vis-à-vis music. Alongside the usual rebukes of “assorted” dance movements, Lopukhov locates the key to the symphonization of dance in the elaboration of choreographic themes, much as a symphony develops musical themes:

How can symphonism be expressed in dance, either in a variation, a whole act, a ballet, or a dance-symphony? It can only happen when the choreography of all the dances, whether small variations or an entire ballet—not to mention a dance-symphony—are based on the principles of choreographic-thematic elaboration and not on a chance assortment of dance movements, even if they are performed in rhythm with the music. If the staging of a little variation or a large ballet is derived from the principles of choreographic thematic development, then it will contain the essence of danced symphonism (54–55)….

Thus, the staging of dances might be unsymphonic despite the fact that it is performed to symphonic music if it is built on a chaotic distribution of dance movements…. The ideal of choreographic creation is the close contact between musical and dance symphonism. (57)

However much Tchaikovsky's music (and Sleeping Beauty in particular) confounded ballet fans in the 1890s, Lopukhov's writing demonstrates to what extent the composer's “symphonicist” ballet signaled a paradigm shift in the appreciation and use of music for dance for decades to come. (Certainly the influence of the Diaghilev ballet was felt as well, given the quantity of “concert” music borrowed or commissioned for his company's ballets.) Lopukhov's enthusiasm for symphonizing dance led him to formulas that today seem dogmatic (p.92) and even primitive (turned-out movement to match major keys; turned-in movement for minor keys, as an example). Nonetheless, Lopukhov well understood the basic differences between nineteenth-century choreography (which treated primarily the melody and rhythmic structures of a score) and a more sophisticated approach to more complex music (responding to less obvious musical structures). As dance-makers in Russia began to look beyond the ballet to rejuvenate the art form, Lopukhov's approach not only presaged a general direction of ballet choreography in the twentieth century, it suggested the possibility of reform from within by looking fixedly at the relation of movement and music.

The Problem with Petipa

Three decades after the first publication of Asafiev's article, Vera Krasovskaya published her influential Russian Ballet Theater in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century (1963). Her writing on Sleeping Beauty demonstrates that the discussion of the ballet's alleged symphonism had taken on a life of its own by that time and ventured far from Asafiev's analytic approach. (The appearance of Yulia Rozanova's On Symphonism in Tchaikovsky's Ballet Sleeping Beauty two years later made this clear.)28 By the 1960s, symphonism proved a surprisingly content-free designation, though one that served Krasovskaya's purposes well. In her discussion of Sleeping Beauty, she cites parallels between the ballet and the structure of a symphony: four acts, like symphonic movements, that could exist independently but whose value can be fully realized only in terms of its relation to the whole (1963, 298): “Aurora's and Désiré's apotheosis of love was also the apotheosis achieved by Tchaikovsky and Petipa in the symphonic formulation of dance” (1963, 310).

To judge from Sollertinsky's and Lopukhov's appraisals of Petipa's musicality, Petipa scarcely kept up with the composer in the ecstatic pas de deux Krasovskaya describes. Authors writing in the 1920s and 1930s find faults in Petipa's choreography to Tchaikovsky's music. Sollertinsky assured his readers that Petipa responded to Tchaikovsky and Glazunov just as he had to the ballet composers of an earlier time: “In the exquisite score of Sleeping Beauty, he took only those things that attracted him from before in Minkus and Pugni: the same metrical-rhythmic canvas…. The culmination points and the grandiose expansion in the orchestra, for example, are frequently not accented choreo-graphically in any way, and vice versa” (328). Although always averring his faithfulness to the master choreographer, Lopukhov disparages Petipa's composition on similar grounds.

(p.93) At various points in her writing, Krasovskaya suggests, as Asafiev had before her, that Petipa aspired to better things choreographically (1954, 175–76); Sollertinsky was never so optimistic. Krasovskaya's 1972 article ends with lavish praise for Beauty, suggesting the ballet as a reward for the choreographer's diligence and hard work: “Sleeping Beauty, the strongest and most perfect of Petipa's works, sums up the choreographer's long, difficult, persistent search for ballet symphonism” (1972, 50). Yet in the beginning of the same article, she portrays him as a docile servant taking orders: “A practicing musician and a good judge of music, Petipa had studied at the Brussels Conservatory along with the famous violinist Henri Vieuxtemps. Faithful to the traditions of the past, however, he recognized music as playing only a subsidiary role in a balletic spectacle; that is, until orders from his superiors led him to collaborate with great composers” (1972, 6). Already, the picture of Petipa is clouded. Although he was a musician and “good judge” of music, Krasovskaya suggests that Petipa remained reactionary in his use of music—at least until “ordered” to collaborate with “great” (read “symphonic”) composers. Like other Soviet writers, Krasovskaya sketches conflicting images of Petipa: part court lackey, part genius choreographer.29

Petipa finds himself in double jeopardy in Krasovskaya's account. His “faithfulness to the past” paints him a reactionary; and while it is true that Petipa used “nonsymphonic” music to accompany his dances, so did other choreographers of his day—and later. Yet when Petipa joins forces with Tchaikovsky, and later with Glazunov, he gets no credit either. He merely follows orders, according to Krasovskaya, and the laurels for the invention of dance symphonism are passed to a native son: “[Sleeping Beauty] may also be seen to sum up the whole path of the choreographic art in the nineteenth century—as the discoveries made by Lev Ivanov in Swan Lake appear as the great ‘breakthrough’ into the twentieth century” (1972, 50).

Petipa's crime was his nationality. If the ideology of Krasovskaya's writing can be filtered out, the chauvinism that was part of the official Soviet myth proves more difficult to screen.30 The foreword to Russian Ballet Theater of the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century begins: “This book is dedicated to Russian ballet theater of the second half of the nineteenth century—an independent and conclusive stage in the history of national choreography” (3). Although Russian ballet in the nineteenth century was a crossroads of French, Italian, Danish, and Russian traditions and influences, Krasovskaya depicts the century as a long drive to finally seize “Russian” ballet for the Russians. The export of the Diaghilev company to Europe at the end of this historical process (when the superiority (p.94) of Russian ballet was finally “proved”) serves as a justification for such a decidedly nationalist point of view.

The chauvinism of Krasovskaya and other Soviet writers remains in the background for discussions of Petipa, whose accomplishments, nitpicking aside, are mostly appreciated. When the subject is Lev Ivanov, however, a strident Russian nationalism comes to the fore. Krasovskaya views the cosmopolitanism of the Russian ballet in the late nineteenth century chiefly as a hindrance for the locals: “In the hospitable family of the Petersburg ballet, where Frenchmen and Italians, Germans and Swedes, Poles and Hungarians all acclimated themselves, the Russian dancer had the most difficult time of all advancing” (1963, 338). Krasovskaya provides no evidence for her allegations but remains consistent in assigning credit for the discovery of Ivanov's latent genius to his homegrown collaborator: “The lyrical gift of Ivanov was discovered unexpectedly: and only thanks to the music of Tchaikovsky” (ibid.).

Petipa's Quest for Symphonism

Like a mythical hero on a quest for symphonism (if indeed he was questing and not passively taking orders), Petipa first had to come into contact with the “music of high quality” (1972, 16) according to Krasovskaya's account. He used music from Delibes' La Source in his 1868 version of Le Corsaire and Mendelssohn's incidental music for his 1876 staging of Midsummer Night's Dream (where he interpolated music of Minkus amongst the Mendelssohn). “It was as if the choreographer were preparing himself for the meeting with Tchaikovsky and Glazunov,” writes Krasovskaya, “when the dance and the music had to fuse into a single body of poetic images” (1972, 14).

Even so, Petipa's path did not lead directly to Sleeping Beauty or Raymonda. “Six months after A Midsummer Night's Dream, Petipa produced La Bayadère, a ballet to music of Minkus [!] that nonetheless ‘reached the heights of dance symphonism,’” according to Krasovskaya 1972, 18). “Even before in his experience of the symphonization of ballet, Petipa gradually approached the formulation of the task that Tchaikovsky now set out clearly. Combining large dance layers, blending characteristic themes in interaction and struggle, he in many ways intuitively sensed one of the most important artistic problems of the nineteenth-century ballet spectacle. The most convincing of these attempts of this type was the Shades scene of La Bayadère” (1963, 297).

Krasovskaya's reliance on the Shades scene in an argument for symphonism reveals the degree to which use of the term had devolved in the Soviet era. The scene amply demonstrates Petipa's genius and mastery of the art form, but the (p.95) key to the success of the scene lies in simplicity, not in sophistication. Where Asafiev had used the term to describe the subordination and transformation of dance structures into a more unified whole, and Lopukhov aspired to choreographic polyphony, Krasovskaya assigns the term to one of the nineteenth-century ballet's most famously monophonic dance and music sequences.

Minkus develops the Shades theme only slightly, and Petipa responds to Minkus' minimalism with a single movement motif. The first dancer appears in arabesque, then leans back, takes three steps forward, and on the repetition of the movement, another dancer appears to perform the same movement phrase. The phrase repeats thirty-two times, until the entire corps de ballets has entered, one by one.31 The deserved fascination with this stunningly simple formal structure rests in the limpid beauty of both the musical and dance phrases and in the correspondence between the musical and choreographic phrases. As the corps de ballet enters the stage, one by one, performing identical choreography the dance and the music lend the desired sense of timeless and infinity to the scene.

The music and choreography of the Shades scene create their effect by accumulation and mass, rather than through the complex layering of dance motifs that Petipa exploited successfully in other ensembles (notably the “Jardin animeé” in Le Corsaire). The substance of the music and choreography could be conveyed by one dancer and a pan flute. Nonetheless, Krasovskaya names Bayadère, “a ballet that reached the heights of dance symphonism” (1972, 18). If this scene, and other pre-Tchaikovsky stagings anticipate the “symphonic development of a mass choreographic image” (1972, 14), these set pieces scarcely suggest either a subordination of themselves into a greater whole (Asafiev's argument) or the choreographic polyphony Lopukhov sees in the coda of the vision scene in Sleeping Beauty or the coda of the Shades scene in Bayadère.

Moreover, Krasovskaya remains troubled by the same mismatches of plot to music that bothered Sollertinsky: “Despite the external splendors of the productions of Sleeping Beauty and Raymonda, both contain innumerable ‘blunders’ relating to the action of the music. For example, culmination points and grand crescendos in the orchestra are often not accented at all choreographically, and vice versa” (328). Krasovskaya elaborates: “Of course, the dramatic structure of this symphonic ballet is by no means identical with the structure of the symphony. It has its own internal rules, its own principles of development: their selection and realization were an important part of Petipa's experimentation, and Tchaikovsky was aware of this. Nevertheless, the form of The Sleeping Beauty is closer to that of a symphony than a drama. While completely subordinated (p.96) to the development of the plot, the ballet's dramatic structure occasionally displaces the climaxes of the plot, finding its own logical and emotional high points” (1972, 24).

As an example, the “culmination of the plot” in the first act of Sleeping Beauty is when Aurora pricks her finger, while the choreographic high point is the Rose Adagio (1972, 24). The culmination of the second act comes when Désiré kisses and wakes Aurora, “however, in the music and the choreography these episodes do not appear central” (1972, 24).

In Sleeping Beauty and other works, Petipa typically avoids these obvious correspondences, choosing to adorn grand musical climaxes with the simplest movements, or pantomime. The narrative structure of Sleeping Beauty necessitates the approach: the most dramatic moments in the ballet (Aurora's death and awakening, for example) do not lend themselves to choreographic fantasy or grand ballabiles, and the latter (the peasant waltz, for example) are usually accompanied by the least symphonic music in the score (by Asafiev's own definition). On the subject of the nineteenth-century ballet composer's awareness of the special relationship of music to dance, Roland John Wiley wrote:

Complementing the specialist's sensitivity to the visual was [Tchaikovsky's] awareness that the aural attractions of concert music could be defects in ballet. He attempted to adjust the level of inherent musical interest at any given moment to enhance the choreography, and realized that any competition of eye and ear for the audience's attention risked the weakening or loss of a desired effect. This procedure tends to produce in a ballet an inverse relationship between interest in music and interest in dance, whereby music makes its strongest impact when solo dance is the least commanding, and vice versa. The climatic moments of pure music and pure dance almost never coincide, a fact which should give pause to the analyst who seeks to judge ballet music only for its sounds. (1985, 6)

In their search for formulas, graphable climaxes, and symphonism, both Krasovskaya and Sollertinsky disregard Petipa's skill as a theatrical director, his unerring instinct for stepping back to let his composer have his moment (much as Tchaikovsky deliberately recedes, in Wiley's view). Had Petipa resolved to coincide his climactic moments with those of the plot (the spindle prick, the kiss) a strange ballet would have resulted. The small-scale human gestures on which a dramatic plot must inevitably turn would scarcely support the set pieces that function as Petipa's choreographic climaxes: the fairies' pas de six, the peasants' waltz, Aurora's meeting with her suitors, Désiré's encounter with the vision of Aurora, or their adagio in the final act. Though no Soviet critic (p.97) would say so, the choreographic culminations of Petipa's ballet, listed above, essentially function as abstract dances within the ballet. If abstraction was a taboo concept in Soviet theater, the argument for symphonism took the ballet on a lower road leading to a similar destination.32

Krasovskaya's text ends with a favorite provocation: “[Sleeping Beauty] may also be seen to sum up the whole path of the choreographic art in the nineteenth century—as the discoveries made by Lev Ivanov in Swan Lake appear as the great ‘breakthrough’ into the twentieth century” (1972, 50). Thus, despite the relentless claims she has already made for La Bayadère (“a ballet that reached the heights of dance symphonism” [18]) and Sleeping Beauty (“the acme of nineteenth-century symphonic ballet” [20]), Krasovskaya implies that the branch of nineteenth-century symphonic ballet that will stretch into the twentieth century extends not from Marius Petipa, but from Lev Ivanov.

In Russian Ballet Theater of the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century, Krasovskaya's thoughts on Beauty are further developed, and Petipa is granted a kind of honorary Russian citizenship for his role in the choreography of Sleeping Beauty. Tchaikovsky's national, symphonic music saved Russian ballet from the fate of its Western counterpart (the French féerie). Twisting Laroche's famous observation (“the local color is French, but the style is Russian” [310]) beyond recognition or plausibility, Krasovskaya continues: “the composer created stage music that is unarguably Russian, deeply national in its style. And that is no surprise: the entire creative path of Tchaikovsky increasingly defined him as a Russian national artist” (311). Apparently, this nascent nationalism motivated even Petipa, according to Krasovskaya: “the entire musical/choreographic structure of Sleeping Beauty was deeply Russian” (ibid.).

A feature film released shortly after Krasovskaya's history appeared illustrates the acceptance of this view well beyond a small coterie of dance writers. A French-Russian coproduction, Third Youth: Marius Petipa in Petersburg was released by Lenfilm in 1965 (and by Lenfilm Video in 2000). The film opens with a shot of the Maryinsky Theater circa 1965. The camera pans to a kiosk advertising the evening's performance of Sleeping Beauty. The voice-over promises to take us to the evening's performance, then the camera cuts to the company dancing a portion of the ballet's finale. The voice-over continues: “and every time the wonderful music composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is heard, and when the overflowing hall is enraptured by the beauty of the dances, staged by the Frenchman Marius Petipa, who became a great Russian balletmaster, I cannot help but think of one meeting, cannot help but think of the collaboration of two great artists of Russia and France.”

(p.98) In the film, Petipa's first meeting is not with Tchaikovsky but with a character named Minkh. An untalented drunk, who tortures the sensitive Petipa with his beer-garden tunes, Minkh is obviously meant as a composite of Ludwig Minkus and Cesare Pugni (whose music Minkh plays). After marrying a Russian wife, Petipa suddenly wishes to find new artistic devices, to reach new creative solutions; and not only as a dancer, now also as a choreographer. At the moment that Petipa decides he has become too much like Minkh (a hack) and should resign, he meets Tchaikovsky in Vsevolozhsky's office.

The film's Vsevolozhsky character suggests that the two men work together, but both fear a flop: Petipa feels he has reached the end of his creative rope; Tchaikovsky still smarts from the failure of Swan Lake. When they promenade together in the snowy Summer Garden, however, magical things began to happen. The movements of the soldiers, children, and young women remind Petipa of choreography. Tchaikovsky urges Petipa to think of all that he sees around him as his choreography to the composer's music. The Waltz of the Snowflakes from Nutcracker suddenly materializes in one corner of the park. Then the scene shifts to a more authentically Russian setting, with birch trees, troikas, and folk dancing. All of this (naturally) inspires Petipa. As the composer and choreographer part, Petipa confides that he has prepared himself to stage Tchaikovsky's music all his life.

The meeting the film portrays is historical fiction, though the authors of the film's scenario add another level of fantasy: a series of fades suggest that the meeting stretches on endlessly, in obvious imitation of the marathon, seminal meeting of Konstantin Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko, when the two spent seventeen hours in a Moscow restaurant in 1897 discussing the formation of what would become the Moscow Art Theater (Stanislavsky 299). Here again, the attempt is made to elevate the ballet to the higher status of a recognized Russian cultural institution by embroidering its history. Petipa not only becomes a “great Russian choreographer” in the film when he arrives at the conscious decision to make better art; the viewer sees him drawing inspiration directly from ordinary Russian soldiers, children, peasants, coachmen, and birches.

By the 1970s, the Soviet stance on symphonism, Tchaikovsky, and Petipa had altered slightly. In a 1976 volume called The Truth of Ballet, a tract promoting “realism” in ballet (essentially a valentine to Yuri Grigorovich's Spartacus), Emiliya Shumilova revises the history of ballet symphonism slightly and discovers a new source for its inspiration: “The symphonic reworking of dance forms in the operas of Glinka unquestionably predetermined the appearance of (p.99) the ballets of P. I. Tchaikovsky, which marked the revolutionary leap in the development of the ballet theater” (41). Soviet writers also began revising earlier criticisms of Petipa and views of his contribution to the history of Russian ballet. Galina Dobrovolskaya wrote: “Asafiev, as most of his contemporaries, regarded Petipa as one who managed to express himself within the confines of the court ballet, as a phenomenon of the past. Today we regard Asafiev's appraisal of Petipa's legacy as a mistake” (1977, 237).

Vanslov would go farther, “correcting” the literal, simplistic readings of the correspondence between music and dance begun by Sollertinsky and Lopukhov and parroted by Krasovskaya. Reading the choreography and score of the vision scene pas de deux, Vanslov writes: “Here the dance in no way serves as the rhythmic double of the melody…. The melody and the dance flow freely, coinciding only in supporting metrical points. They unite with the commonality of atmosphere, tempo, meter, the common drifting image, but rhythmically relatively independently, combining according to the principles of counterpoint” (1977, 23). Vanslov concludes: “Choreography and music are related internally…. But choreography should not become the slave of music, turning itself into a structural-rhythmic copy of music” (24). In part, this shift reflects the rising fortunes of Soviet ballet. By the 1970s, the ballet had become one of the Soviet Union's most recognizable export items, a light industry in no way inferior to Soviet music, visual arts, or theater. Anxiety over the ballet's place in the hierarchy of Soviet arts was no longer an issue.

Writing in 1933, Sollertinsky accused the prerevolutionary ballet of failing to carry its ideological weight, of not making sense. Over the next decades, the ballet would be harnessed to do just that, and no ballet from the past would prove so vital to the framing of the self-definition of Soviet ballet as Sleeping Beauty. The key to the rehabilitation of the ballet lay in the symphonic scores that accompanied individual works, by Tchaikovsky and Glazunov first, then by Prokofiev and other Soviet composers (including Asafiev himself). Despite its feudal court atmosphere and obvious roots in monarchical pageantry, Sleeping Beauty possessed the greatest of these scores. (Ironically, it was that ballet's ancien régime atmosphere that attracted the composer to the ballet.) As Tchaikovsky became the Soviet Union's favorite composing son, the ballet could be pulled along on his coattails to enjoy a new prestige as a “serious” art form, like the opera or the symphony. Nearly all the Soviet writing on Sleeping Beauty (and nineteenth-century ballet in general) bears out this view. To bestow highest praise on dances was to call them “symphonic”—even though the term was used essentially as a cipher.

(p.100) Soviet dance writers' obsession with symphonism reveals the extent of the ballet's inferiority complex vis-à-vis other art forms. Whereas prerevolutionary writers questioned the symphonization of the ballet (though most eventually endorsed the trend), Soviet writers accepted the term unquestionably and constructed an enormous creaky monument from it. Symphonism quickly became shorthand for a process by which Tchaikovsky's reputation would be used to elevate the genre from an entertainment genre to a finer art: if the score of Beauty could be classed among the greatest works of the nation's most revered composer, then the art form should surely deserve the attentions of the serious Soviet and international public. Yet as Rozanova's analysis of the symphonism of Sleeping Beauty demonstrates, the reliance on one art form to justify another proved a dangerous game, particularly as modernism's early titillation with intermingled senses (the synaesthesia of the Diaghilev ballet, for example) gave way to the high modernist quest for purity.


(1) . The notation of the ballet repertory in the early 1900s represented one conservative response to Petipa's imminent retirement, for example.

(2) . Mary Grace Swift provides a fine account of the transition from Imperial to State Theaters in the years following the 1917 Revolution in The Art of Dance in the USSR, especially as these changes affected the ballet.

(3) . Lenin generally affirmed the necessity of preserving the cultural legacy of the past, though the theaters were never at the top of his list. According to Fitzpatrick, “In 1919, the short-lived revolutionary government of the Hungarian Soviet Republic nationalized the theatres the day after taking power. Lenin thought this odd, and asked a Hungarian Comintern delegate whether they had no more important business to attend to” (1970, 141).

(4) . The last of these appeared in 1927.

(5) . A somewhat different justification takes shape in Lunacharsky's speeches and writings on this issue later. A 1930 speech repeats a familiar refrain from Lunacharsky's later statements on bourgeois culture: “In the course of my work as the director of the theaters and artistic education I always feared destroying this traditional line [here, the art of classical dance], since, having lost it, we might never capture it again” (1958, 415).

(6) . The theater wing of Proletkult was concerned with the repertories of the state theaters as well as other cultural manifestations they regarded as dangerous: “boulevard” literature, the “yellow” press, and the café chantant (Clark 118). In St. Petersburg: Crucible of Cultural Revolution, Katerina Clark writes: “It was as if the highbrow intellectuals wanted to eradicate a more successful rival for public attention” (ibid.). Clark traces the perceived threat of the café chantant well into the New Economic Policy (NEP) years of the young Soviet republic. In 1922 The Life of Art (a publication of NARKOMPROS, Lunacharsky's Commissarriat of Enlightenment) announced that NEP art had produced nothing of value (in Schwarz 43).

(7) . Glaviskussto combined the old functions of Glavpolitprosvet (for political enlightenment) and Glavrepertkom (the repertory committee). The bureau's appearance in 1928 coincided with the start of what Sheila Fitzpatrick and others have termed Russia's Cultural Revolution (1928–31).

(8) . Sollertinsky discussed the choreography of Michel Fokine and Isadora Duncan in a favorable light in his chapter “Impressionism in Choreography” (1933, 330–45).

(9) . The critic Akim Volynsky speaks to the problem of emigration in his 26 September 1922 essay in Zhizn' iskusstva, “Call an Ambulance!” (see appendix).

(10) . In his introduction to Lopukhov's first volume of memoirs, written between 1961 and 1963.

(11) . Yuri Slonimsky and Ivan Sollertinsky were pupils of Gvozdev.

(12) . The Union of Soviet Writers replaced all independent literary organizations, for example, and the organizational structures of other arts organizations followed suit.

(13) . Sollertinsky was attacked in the antiformalism debates in 1936 (in the furor over Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) as the “bard” of formalism (Schwarz 127).

(14) . Here, “bourgeois” carries a favorable connotation, as it refers to an enlightened, progressive bourgeoisie of the prerevolutionary period.

(15) . The “Ukranian Week” was the first of a series of dekadas, ten-day festivals of arts of the Soviet republics that were shown in Moscow from 1936 to 1941 (Schwarz 132).

(16) . Derived from kul'tura—culture.

(17) . “The dramatic reversal of the mid 1930s has been attributed to a general process of ‘embourgeoisement’ of the Stalinist regime and repudiation of revolutionary values. This is probably true, but we should remember that contemporaries often saw it differently. Communists who had moved up from the lower classes were particularly inclined to see their assumption of distinctions modeled on those of the old regime as simply a proof that the Revolution had finally triumphed: they now had what the old bosses used to have” (Fitzpatrick 1999, 107).

(18) . The article is adapted from the Petipa chapters of Krasovskaya's 1963 volume Russian Ballet Theater in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century (211–336). I will cite the more accessible English-language version of the article in most cases, though I occasionally refer to the lengthier 1963 version.

(19) . Marina Konstantinova's book Sleeping Beauty (1990), in the “Masterworks of the Ballet” series, is altogether more thoughtful than much of the Soviet scholarship and criticism that preceded it. She incorporates the writings of Vadim Gaevsky, for example, at a time when Gaevsky was only emerging from his persona non grata status following the publication of his book Divertissement eight years earlier.

(20) . Even though Krasovskaya later identifies Sleeping Beauty as the “acme of the nineteenthcentury symphonic ballet” (1972, 20), the ballets of Petipa are only seeds of the “sturdy tree” that matured later (conveniently, in Krasovskaya's lifetime).

(21) . The 1922 article, Asafiev's most extensive writing on Sleeping Beauty, was originally published in the Ezhenedel'nik petrogradskikh gosudarstvesnnikh teatrov [Weekly of the Petrograd State Theaters] (vol. 5, pp. 28–36) and coincided with Lopukhov's 1922 restaging of Beauty. The article was republished in 1954 in the second volume of Asafiev's Selected Works. Asafiev also wrote under the pen name Igor Glebov.

(22) . Bogdanov-Berezovsky's quote appeared in G. Orlov's Russkii Sovetskii Symfonizm [Russian-Soviet Symphonism], 1966, p. 80.

(23) . Opinions of the music of Petipa's frequent collaborators, Ludwig Minkus, Cesare Pugni, and Ricardo Drigo, have changed little since Musorgsky's time. In a delicate summary of the situation in Tchaikovsky's Ballets, Roland John Wiley echoes the appraisal of Rozanova and others: “Petipa's composers were prolific, often facile, yet provided the choreographer a tuneful, rhythmic ‘floor’ on which to base dances”(1–10). Gennady Rozhdestvensky marked the assumption of his very brief artistic directorship of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in August 2000 with an anti-Pugni campaign. As evidence for the dire artistic state of the Bolshoi Theater, he cited the seven scheduled performances of Pierre Lacotte's version of Pugni's Daughter of the Pharaoh when only two performances of Musorgsky's Boris Godunov were listed on the season roster. Rozhdestvensky then opened the Bolshoi season with a performance of Boris (rather than the traditional opener, Glinka's Life for the Tsar) and reduced scheduled performances of (p.225) Daughter of the Pharaoh to the two performances the theater was obliged to give by contract (Andronov, Kuznetsova).

(24) . Vanslov's entry was reprinted in the 1997 Russian Ballet Encyclopedia (Moscow) with only minor changes.

(25) . It is difficult to understand how one could speak of the dance in Beauty as pas d'action from Rozanova's description. Like most of the Soviet writers of her generation, Rozanova exaggerates the role of narrative—at the expense of the pantomime. Like Krasovskaya, she treats Beauty as an evolving entity rather than a series of different productions.

(26) . The Great Patriotic War of the Soviet people against fascism (World War II) not only failed to interrupt the scientific research work of Asafiev, it stimulated it. According to Protopopov, Asafiev considered untiring work for the cause of Soviet musical culture his patriotic duty (12).

(27) . “But how to symphonize dance? No one, and especially those who insist on it, ever says” (54).

(28) . Rozanova published a second book on Tchaikovsky's symphonism in 1976: Simfonicheskie printsipy baletov Chaikovskogo [Symphonic principles in Tchaikovsky's ballets] (Moscow).

(29) . Petipa is thus “perfected,” as his ballets were in the Soviet period.

(30) . Krasovskaya's writing reflects the often extreme anti-Western bias of the zhdanovshchina of the postwar Stalin era.

(31) . In his original production for St. Petersburg's Bolshoi Theater, Petipa used sixty-four dancers; that number was halved when the ballet moved to the Maryinsky Theater with its shallower stage (Gaevsky 1981, 70).

(32) . The remainder of Krasovskaya's discussion of the actual ballet recounts its action in poetic, general terms with no indication of the production to which Krasovskaya refers: 1952, 1922, 1914, or 1890: “After this came the majestic, luminous peace of the waltz of the Lilac Fairy. A fragrant bush flowered in its flowing tempos as the dancer's arms swung open. Covering the stage with a clear, calm pattern of movements, the Lilac Fairy crowned with her dance the abundant gifts of her friends” (1972, 27). Krasovskaya writes of the Lilac Fairy's variation in the ballet's Prologue but describes the variation choreographed by Fyodr Lopukhov and included in Konstantin Sergeyev's 1952 version for the Kirov Ballet. In other words, she describes the choreography of Lopukhov in her discussion of Petipa's choreography. The difficulty of describing dances that exist in variant productions or have been lost vexes every dance historian, but the conflation of the work of various choreographers in an article that seeks to evaluate the choreography of a particular choreographer is troubling indeed.