Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Friday, June 26, 2009

Guest Blogger - L.E. Butler, The Powder Keg: The Ballets Russes in America

Today on History Undressed, we are welcoming L.E. Butler who is here to dazzle us on the American Ballet.

The 1898 short movie How the Ballet-Girl was Smuggled into Camp opens with two US soldiers rolling a great barrel marked sugar into a crowd of puzzled comrades. The barrel opens to reveal the eponymous ballet-girl—chipmunk-cheeked, pompadoured--who begins dancing and mugging.

An American stereo-viewer slide from 1900 shows a similar dancer; the accompanying text describes a callow youth who ditches his fiancée for this ballet-girl. When the ex-fiancée accompanies this youth to the music-hall to get a look at her rival, the ballet-girl responds with shock at the sight of them together.

“What,” said the infatuated young man to his ex- fiancée, “do you know my beauteous charmer?”
“Sure,” said his ex-fiancée, “she used to do our washing.”

The punchline depends on our snobbery, and gives us an insight into the general perception of a ballet-girl or “toe-dancer” in that era. Hardly considered a fine art, ballet was popular entertainment in its lowest form. The young women struggling with the demands of training, rehearsing, touring—not to mention complex relationships with patrons—were seen as pretentious, grasping courtesans with day jobs.

To be fair, ballet performances in early 20th-century America didn’t inspire awe. Ballet schools were non-existent. Technique was passed down from the occasional visiting European ballerina such as the Milan-trained Giuseppina Morlacchi, who recruited and trained local girls in New York and Boston to serve as copryphées for her American tours in the late 1860s. Chorus girls in the Western states imported soft Crait pointe shoes and improvised, with mixed results. Edison’s Black Maria films of ballet dancers show us how charm and enthusiasm sometimes made up for deficiencies in technique.

Half a world away, in St. Petersburg, ballet was serious business. Throughout the 19th century, the Imperial family had imported some of the strongest dancers of La Scala—most notably Pierina Legnani of the 32 fouetté turns and Enrico Cecchetti, who showed audiences that male dancers could be virtuosos as well. The Imperial Ballet School was supported generously by the Tsar, and the children chosen for training entered into an ascetic, regimented life. Boys and girls were segregated, and under the tireless gaze of governesses the pupils were marched from lessons to meals to prayers to bed. Ballerina Tamara Karsavina described how the windows were frosted—according to school legend, this happened after a young girl exchanged glances with a soldier, fell in love, and ran away.

It wasn’t simply a love of dance that motivated Russian pupils—and their parents. Becoming a dancer in the Imperial Ballet meant that you had a place in society; you were entering the lowest level of the Tsar’s civil service. Pupils performed privately for the Tsar—sometimes in Catherine the Great’s private Chinese Theater or the Winter Palace—after which they were served almond milk and chocolates by the Tsar’s own servants. Dancers received decent pay and a guaranteed pension.

While these dancers were safe from the poverty and degradation that dogged Western ballet-girls, we can see the dark side of this patronage in the frank pimping of newly graduated ballet dancers among the Russian aristocracy. Between 1900-1905, the Grand Duke Vladimir and his companions were allowed special access to rehearsals to meet the new talent. As an adolescent, the prodigy Vaslav Nijinsky was kept by several older male lovers—on their patronage his entire family, including a brother in an asylum, survived.

The Russian producer and impresario Sergei Diaghilev served as a catalyst who would change the relationship between dancers and their audiences for good. An aristocratic dilettante with phenomenal charisma and even better connections, Diaghilev assembled an exhibition of Russian art in St. Petersburg in 1905. In 1907 and 1908 he produced concerts of Russian music in Paris.

Charged by his success, and by a new infatuation with Nijinsky, he mounted the now legendary concert of the Ballets Russes in Paris in May 1909. The audience, primed the previous seasons by the lush sounds of Rimsky-Korsakov and Chaliapin, were astounded by these fresh ballets. The program consisted of traditional favorites from the Imperial stage: Prince Igor, Armida’s Pavillion, and a suite of dances called Festin.

“The very air around the Russian season is intoxicated,” was how Diaghilev characterized their coup. In the first performance, the orchestra had to be stopped after each solo while the audience exhausted itself with applause. The usually laconic Figaro rhapsodized; Marcel Prévost pointed out how the Russian artists shamed the “decadent” performers of France. Karsavina, one of the prima ballerinas, wrote that “Paris was captivated by the barbaric splendour of frenzied movements…the naïve spontaneity of Russia, the studied ornateness of the East.”

Returning to St. Petersburg triumphant, Diaghilev might have decided to rest on his laurels—stick with the same program, hire the same artists. He had no shortage of patrons, and the Imperial Ballet allowed him to borrow as many performers as he liked during their off season. Already another Paris season was planned, and other cities in Europe and America clamored for bookings as well.

But this was not an age for moderation and good judgment. In preparation for the next tours, the young and irrepressibly idiosyncratic composer Igor Stravinsky was commissioned to write a new score for the choreographer Fokine—which was to become the Firebird. An erotic ballet-drama was set to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Subsequent seasons brought increasing “succès de scandale,” including Nijinsky’s first attempt at choreography in Afternoon of a Faun, in which he shocked audiences as the unsettlingly animalistic faun who masturbates with a nymph’s abandoned scarf, baring his teeth with his orgasm.

The most famous of these scandals was the debut performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris on 29 May 1913. Nijinsky was choreographer. Once the curtain opened, revealing a dancer in peasant costume standing knock-kneed with her palsied fists under her chin, a wiseass in the audience yelled: “Call a doctor!” Someone retorted, “A dentist!” Outraged balletomanes demanded silence—which only enflamed the peanut gallery. But peevish sarcasm gave way to pure chaos once Stravinsky’s frenetic music cast its spell. People cheered wildly, or hissed, or simply beat their palms on the railings in time with the music. Fist-fights broke out in the aisles between the fans and detractors. Poor mad Nijinsky’s stomping, circling choreography was roundly mocked. (We can guess at how little the ballet was enjoyed by his fellow dancers—all of whom promptly “forgot” the choreography and didn’t pass it on to eager dance historians.) Stravinsky reportedly fled the theater in tears. Diaghilev rushed backstage to turn the house lights on and off—a futile effort to calm the audience--while Nijinsky stood on a chair in the wings, calling out the counts to his dancers. Afterwards, Diaghilev glided through the crowded theater lobby proclaiming, “It is exactly what I wanted to happen.”

Concurrently, American audiences were getting their first tastes of genuine ballet. Danish virtuoso Adeline Genee performed in Broadway musicals, and some of the Russian Imperial dancers had come on their own for brief engagements—including Anna Pavlova, Mikhail Mordkin, and Lydia Lopokova (or John Maynard Keynes’ wife, as she’s known here in England). Although these performances were largely ignored by serious art critics (indeed the only contemporary news stories of them appear to be gossip and “life-story” pieces), the performers were adored by the public for their technical mastery and for their fresh, unaffected presence on stage.

By the time the Ballets Russes arrived in 1916, America was gripped by what one New York paper called “Terpsichorean mania.” Indigenous phenomena such as Isadora Duncan and the recitalist Maud Allan (in her role of Salome) were mounting extravagant, thrilling productions. Loie Fuller, a pioneer of both dance and electric stage lighting, used radium and phosphorescent salts to create voluminous, light-emitting costumes for her performances. Broadway shows were becoming ever more elaborate, and in dance halls young partiers were obsessed with new dance crazes like the Turkey Trot and The Bear.

It was in this atmosphere of ambition and innovation that the Ballets Russes made their American debut. Diaghilev was determined that his ballets not be dismissed as “light entertainment,” and in addition to the provocative works already in the repertory, he commissioned a Futurist ballet from Leonid Massine, entitled The Sun of the Night.

Judith Mackrell describes the “wave of hysterical prurience” that greeted the first performances in New York. The Catholic Theater Movement helpfully created a buzz by demanding that the ballet Scheherazade be banned—beyond the sexual content itself, audiences were shocked that Adolph Bolm’s character was an African man wooing and embracing a Caucasian woman. The critic Grenville Vernon guessed that such a performance would be impossible in Southern states. Nijinsky’s Faun, the papers suggested, might want to reconsider the explicit pantomime.

Diaghilev could not have asked for better publicity.

Despite the clamor and outright hostility that greeted their tour across the states—Captain Ennis of the Kansas City Police told “Mr. Dogleaf” that he’d call down the curtain if need be—they continued throughout the US, to Latin America and South America, finally leaving again for Russia in 1917. Many of the artists chose to stay in the US, and more Russian ballet talent came West after the Revolution and Civil War, alone or with later incarnations of the Ballets Russes.

Had it not been for this mass influx of Russian artists, American dance might have gone in an altogether different direction. Ambitious, innovative spectacles characterized US dance at the turn of the 20th century, but the new standards of technique brought by the Russians—and Diaghilev’s insistence on collaboration with the highest caliber of designers and composers—opened entire new dimensions for expression.

The seams of today’s most exciting dance can be traced to this moment of collision. George Balanchine, one of the many émigrés who followed in the Ballets Russes’ wake, established a short-lived company called Les Ballets in 1933, and inspired the arts patron Lincoln Kirstein to fund America’s first proper ballet school—the School of American Ballet—in 1934. The San Francisco Ballet, Dance Theater of Harlem, American Ballet Theater, and others followed, creating a distinctly American style of ballet—witty, muscular, quick, and not averse to showmanship.

The soldiers who, in 1898, rolled the barrel marked sugar into their camp, might have imagined they had the next best thing to a stripper in a cake. They could not have suspected that it was in fact a powder keg.

L.E. Butler is a writer and translator living in Yorkshire. For more information on Butler or to read excellent reviews of her novel, Relief, visit:


lauren said...

Thanks Eliza, for the chance to be a guest blogger!

If readers are interested in learning more about today's ballet scene, one excellent blog is: http://oberon481.typepad.com/

Victoria Janssen said...

This is really interesting, thank you!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

One of the dancers from the Imperial Ballet, Mathilde Kchessinka was Nicolas II's mistress before he married Alexandra. I remember reading her autobiography in high school when I was studying ballet.

lauren said...

Elizabeth, I keep meaning to visit the mansion that the prince bought for Kshesinskaya in the center of St. Petersburg. It became Lenin's headquarters in 1917 and today it's a museum about those early days of the new regime.

Eliza Knight said...

Thank you so much for visiting with us Lauren and for sharing your wealth of information!

Anonymous said...

That really helped me for an assignment, thank you