Le Jardin Animé, The Great History of Russian Ballet
Art,  English

The Birth of the Russian Ballet – From its beginnings to the early nineteenth century

Introduction video credit: Ballerina Performing a Choreography video of Mart Production and A Ballerina dancing in an old house video of Antoni Shkraba from Pexels

The text below is the excerpt of the book The Great History of Russian Ballet (ISBN: 9781646993925), written by Evdokia Belova and E. Bocharnikova , published by Parkstone International.

Dancing has been popular in Russia from time immemorial. The Slavs had many rituals and entertainment dances, dating back as far as the pre-Christian period. Most of these dances were accompanied by songs, and this link with singing imbued Russian dance with its richness of meaning and emotion; its soft, singing “plastique”; and the smoothness and continuity of motion that later made the Russian school of ballet unique. Russian professional ballet originated in the second half of the eighteenth century, brought to Russia by dance masters from Italy, Austria, and France. Russia, with its own rich folk dancing traditions, proved to be fertile soil for the development of ballet. In addition to learning the techniques taught by foreigners, Russians introduced their own intonations to foreign dances.

An American Ballet or the Vanquished Cannibals (1798, Kuskovo), The Great History of Russian Ballet
This watercolor by Friedrich Hilferding, the set designer at Count Sheremetev’s peasant theater at Kuskovo, depicts a scene from Giuseppe Solomoni’s staging of An American Ballet or the Vanquished Cannibals (1798, Kuskovo). The scene is typical of eighteenth-century ballet: against a backdrop depicting a park, the female dancers (in heavy, long crinolines that did not allow graceful or free movements) pair off with the male dancers (wearing brocaded cuirasses, short tonnelets, and helmets that are luxuriantly decorated with feathers). Both male and female dancers wore highheeled shoes.

On February 13, 1675 (according to most sources) the first Russian dance performance, The Ballet of Orpheus, was staged near Moscow in the village of Preobrazhenskoe, which belonged to Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. It is believed that the music for this ballet was written by the German composer Heinrich Schuetz, while the ballet was staged by Nicholas Lim, a Swedish engineer who also trained the performers. Lim danced the role of Orpheus and, among other things, he performed “the dance with two moving pyramids”. A strict ceremonial order was observed in the theatre of that period: the Tsar sat on an armchair placed upon a piece of red cloth in the centre of the hall; the most distinguished boyars sat on benches along the wall behind the Tsar’s seat, and the rest of the spectators sat along the sides of the hall and, sometimes, even on the stage itself. The Tsar’s wife and daughters watched the performance through a grate from a special room in the back of the hall. Subsequently, other ballets were staged, but their titles are unknown today.

Fokine's Shéhérazade, The Great History of Russian Ballet
This sketch by L. Lelong brings to life the rare exotic flavor of Fokine’s Shéhérazade.

After Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich died, there were no ballet performances in Russia for many years. However, the reign of Peter the Great brought new fashions in clothing and social behaviour, as well as in methods of education and upbringing. An interest in forms of entertainment that were popular in Europe, such as balls and the ballet, also developed under Peter. The Tsar himself was fond of dancing, and he set the tone by dancing in public with his wife Catherine. These balls, at which dances previously unknown in Russia (such as the minuet, the polonaise, and the anglaise) were performed, paved the way for the development of stage dance and court ballet. Specialists were needed to teach these new dances. In 1734, the French dance master Jean-Baptiste Landé was invited to teach at the Russian court. Having danced to acclaim on the stages of Paris and Dresden and having choreographed ballets in Stockholm, Landé taught the Russian nobility to dance and staged ballets at the imperial court.

He highly esteemed the inherent ability of Russians to dance, and, on his initiative, professional ballet training in Russia was begun. The first dance school in Russia opened in St. Petersburg on May 4, 1738: this school later became famous as the Leningrad Ballet School and is now the Vaganova St. Petersburg Academy of the Russian Ballet. Originally, the school was housed in two rooms of the old Winter Palace. The first enrolment comprised six girls and six boys from the families of court employees. Two different European schools formed the sources of ballet education in Russia.

Russian Ballerina Maria Alexandrova and Vladislav Lantratov in the Firebird pas de duex, The Great History of Russian Ballet
Russian Ballerina Maria Alexandrova and Vladislav Lantratov in the Firebird pas de duex.

“Serious” dance (based on the minuet) was taught by Landé and, later, by his students; comic dance was taught by Antonio Rinaldi (known as Fossano) and his wife, Giulia Rinaldi. The rigid canons of the French school and the grotesque virtuosity of the Italian merged organically in Russian performance practice. Landé’s students were so successful that, in 1742, his first graduates were invited to perform at court celebrations of the coronation of Empress Elizabeth, a daughter of Peter the Great. The most outstanding of Landé’s students were Andrei Nesterov, who became the first Russian ballet teacher, and Aksinia Sergeyeva. A dance class was formed in Moscow in 1773 at the Moscow Orphanage, where young orphans were kept at state expense. Their first teachers were the Italian dancers Filippo Beccari and his wife, and they were later taught by the Austrian teacher and ballet master Leopold Paradisi. Graduates from his classes included a number of excellent dancers, such as Arina Sobakina, Gavrila Raikov, Vasily Balashov, and Ivan Yeropkin. This is the beginning of the Moscow Ballet School. In both the Moscow and the St. Petersburg schools, all students were obliged to study music, singing, dancing, painting, and drama. Only during the course of these studies did school authorities assign students to particular specialities according to their professional promise. Nineteenthcentury Russian dance incorporated the best stage traditions and teaching techniques of Western European ballet, having received them first hand.

Anna Karenina, The Great History of Russian Ballet
Maya Plisetskaya’s first attempt at choreography was Anna Karenina, based on the novel by Lev Tolstoy.

The best ballet masters of the time, including Franz Hilferding, Gasparo Angiolini, Charles Le Picq, and Giuseppe Canziani, came from Europe to work in St. Petersburg. Their conceptual and creative approach was similar to that of Jean-Georges Noverre, the greatest reformer of the ballet theatre. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Russian ballet passed through the same stages of development as European ballet. In the eighteenth century, ballet was considered a part of opera. Sometimes it was used as an inserted divertissement (a set of related dances) or as an interlude (a scene between acts with its own scenario). Sometimes ballet came at the end of a performance and repeated the plot of the opera. It was only in the 1760s that ballet became an independent genre with multiact performances. From that time, on a par with the other arts, ballet developed along the general lines of the Theatre of Classicism….

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