Ballet's Magic Kingdom: Selected Writings on Dance in Russia, 1911-1925by Akim Volynsky, Stanley J. Rabinowitz (Editor)
Akim Volynsky was a Russian literary critic, journalist, and art historian who became Saint Petersburg’s liveliest and most prolific ballet critic in the early part of the twentieth century. This book, the first English edition of his provocative and influential writings, provides a striking look at life inside the world of Russian ballet at a crucial era in
Akim Volynsky was a Russian literary critic, journalist, and art historian who became Saint Petersburg’s liveliest and most prolific ballet critic in the early part of the twentieth century. This book, the first English edition of his provocative and influential writings, provides a striking look at life inside the world of Russian ballet at a crucial era in its history.
Stanley J. Rabinowitz selects and translates forty of Volynsky’s articles—vivid, eyewitness accounts that sparkle with details about the careers and personalities of such dance luminaries as Anna Pavlova, Mikhail Fokine, Tamara Karsavina, and George Balanchine, at that time a young dancer in the Maryinsky company whose keen musical sense and creative interpretive power Volynsky was one of the first to recognize. Rabinowitz also translates Volynsky’s magnum opus, The Book of Exaltations, an elaborate meditation on classical dance technique that is at once a primer and an ideological treatise. Throughout his writings, Rabinowitz argues in his critical introduction, which sets Volynsky’s life and work against the backdrop of the principal intellectual currents of his time, Volynsky emphasizes the spiritual and ethereal qualities of ballet.
The New York Times
“Volynsky's detailed and perceptive reviews of dancers and dancing at the Maryinsky Theater—until now unavailable in English—are fascinating and illuminating; his legendary Book of Exaltations turns out to be both as tendentious and as brilliant as its reputation suggested it was. In tackling and bringing to fruition this important project, Stanley Rabinowitz has performed an immense service to the dance literature."—Robert Gottlieb, author of George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker
“Only a scholar of Stanley Rabinowitz's erudition and experience could navigate the treacherous waters of Russian cultural politics in the early twentieth century, the tempestuous world of Russian and Soviet dance, and the thorny contradictions of Volynsky's thought and syntax to bring these invaluable documents into English. Dance is in his debt.”—Tim Scholl, author of Sleeping Beauty, a Legend in Progress
"Rabinowitz’s near-miraculous translations of this eccentric Russian critic/philosopher’s sequential reviews put the reader in the theater, and bring back to life perhaps the most important years in the history of ballet—those leading up to and beyond the great cataclysm of the Russian revolution. As Akim Volynsky wrestles with the meaning of an art, the art itself spills out into his pages. This is the best kind of history: written in the passion of a long-ago moment, interpreted for the present by a master scholar."—Elizabeth Kendall, author of Autobiography of a Wardrobe
"The first English-language edition of some of the world's finest writings on ballet."—New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice)
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Ballet's Magic KingdomSelected Writings on Dance in Russia, 1911-1925
By Akim Volynsky
Yale University PressCopyright © 2008 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDance as a Solemn Ritual
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The ballet season has begun with Swan Lake, in which the young ballerina Tamara Karsavina performed twice. The public is clearly interested in ballet, and among various segments of the Petersburg population word is spreading about the talented artists who are appearing on the ballet stage. For anyone following the fate of the European theater, this phenomenon is cause for enormous joy. It shows that a society exhausted by the prosaics of ordinary words and gestures has instinctively begun to search for an answer to several new conceptual interests in the design of balletic dance. So-called classical dancing, with its special forms, from the alpha of ballet, pointe, to the head-spinningly complex and elementally captivating fouetté constitutes the focal point of the enormous wealth of plastic ideas whose true substance remains unexamined and unsolved. In ballet literature from Jean-Georges Noverre to Carlo Blasis to the present day, there has not been one attempt at making sense of this vast mosaic of forms or at parsing them and explaining in a comprehensive, sustained, and logical way theirconceptual thematics and the full variety of their intellectual and emotional features. And yet there is not a pas without a thought behind it-or, to put it more accurately, every pas in ballet, because of its combination of lines and movements, carries with it a specific idea from the world of the soul and the imagination, which at times ascends infinitely over its trivial content, as this content is set forth in the libretto. There is a component of feelings and moods here that cannot be translated in any other way than in dance: on pointe or demi-pointe, in gently languid arabesques, in the finest fabric of chimerical adagios. When the idea of ballet is expressed in simple language, the current attraction to it will become clear. This attraction relates not to ballet's plot, which in most cases is mediocre; not to its music, which is almost always irritating by virtue of its simplicity; not to the vulgar apparatus of its stage sets and costumes but rather exclusively to the dancing itself and to the marvels of its plastique-its harmonious movement-and the brilliant illusion of its forms. We don't always acknowledge this with complete comprehensibility, but it is so. Dance is beautiful in and of itself, but when such powerful talents as Anna Pavlova and Mathilda Kshesinskaya [Mathilde Kshessinska] or such perfect classical ballerinas as Vera Trefilova swirl onstage, or when Olga Preobrazhenskaya [Preobrajenska], with her enormous sense of rhythm, gives herself over to the silent music of movement, the phenomenon of dance arises before us in all its genuine magnificence. Passions without any clamor are heard through the mechanics of forms, which magically replace one another onstage. The quivering of flight, the whirlwinds of double and triple tours, the boundless enthusiasm of the technically almost unfathomable fouetté-a whole new world unfolds before our eyes grandly, delicately, and in the glow of a kind of higher mathematics of correctness and charm.
And the dancing of the corps de ballet, the one and only Russian corps de ballet! A certain uncomplicated dance figure, repeated dozens of times and reproducing the general scheme, acts on one's delicate nerves with the richness of individual nuances that are peculiar to the corps de ballet's male and female dancers. And it is impossible to tear oneself away from this beautiful spectacle, musical in concept and harmoniously symmetrical in its construction. Of course, solo dances and the dances of the corps de ballet are rarely connected to one another by a unity of mood and idea, but I am now speaking of the corps de ballet as a set scenic force, which future reforms will have to raise up considerably. Here is where the movements of the dancers, all the while preserving the discipline of classical technique as they weave and unweave, strike us with their self-control and absence of any hurriedness or tension; there is not the slightest constraint among the contiguous or juxtaposed pairs who are dancing together or opposite one another. Everything is strictly in place, measured, firm, and in harmonic accord with the rhythm and tempo of the music that flows from the orchestra. If the ballet finds the moral substance that naturally belongs to it, if all that is unnecessary and arbitrary is discarded from it-all that divertimento rubbish which turns the serious art of dancing into cheap entertainment for an unexacting public-if, finally, the sickeningly baroque quality of the theater in general undergoes a restructuring, then a new place will be given to the corps de ballet, perhaps a new orchestra, and its dancing will immediately gain in its significance and its unique importance.
From the corps de ballet emerged the soloist and, with him, the entire ballet, as previously the actor was born from the Greek chorus; and from the lyric and rapturous dithyramb in honor of Dionysus arose-as indicated by Proclus-the dramatic dialogue and the dramatic scene. And for all the imperfections of contemporary ballet stagings, it is impossible not to feel as one sits in the theater that when the corps de ballet is dancing (a corps de ballet, by the way, that in Petersburg possesses enormous strength) a theatrical phenomenon of the highest order and significance is unfolding before us. In a reformed ballet Pavlova will dance against the background of a single large collective idea of this art, like a harmoniously developing, melodious, and gripping emotion, and Karsavina-the essence of the purest femininity-will rise for one poetic second like a gentle puff of smoke from the corps de ballet masses and will immediately hide and melt into its stormy waves. One must remember that the form of dancing and its idea constitute one inseparable whole, that ballet's substance is determined by its classical design, that the regeneration of ballet on this basis is possible only under one condition: there must exist a normal and judicious atmosphere in which the entire canon, the whole gamut of movements peculiar to the human body can be displayed. From the form of balletic dancing, which, fortunately, has not yet been routed by the barbarity of ignoramuses of the old or the new aesthetics, one must proceed to its possible themes. Otherwise stated, the choreographer's work requires a poetic sensitivity not only to the design of dance but also to those conceptions which might enrich and inflate it. The entire flesh and blood, the very essence of future dance, revolves around this.
If the form of ballet is ideal, then it follows that its theme must have a similarly ideal character. It is impossible to transmit anything ordinary, or any kind of prosaic combinations in this form, because the essence of ballet-dancing on pointe with feet turned out, this entire gleaming fantasy of poses and movements-is totally unnecessary here. Prosaic needs do not require any artificial movements for their expression. For the resolution of simple and real problems on the level of movement, the ordinary use of our extremities is sufficient without any pretension to refined stylization, with the blunt walking on the heels-toes forward-in the Hottentot style. Here ballet develops along the same line as verbal speech and musical conceptions. If transmitting ordinary things in poetic form seems comical to us, if we cannot help but laugh with Tolstoy at the pompous rhetoric of the old opera with its gushing fountains of endless melodies, then it is also impossible not to see as foolish the inappropriate application of the precious jewel of choreographic poetry to themes that deal with our everyday troubles and cares. This is why the so-called dramatization of ballet, in the contemporary sense of this word-so elementary and trivial-must in the most disastrous way be reflected on that which is the most vivid and brilliantly eternal in it: the fantasy of its forms. This dramatization needs to reduce the fantasy to a minimum, to distort its Olympian features and curtail the marvelous fullness of its self-contained mathematicalness.
Such dramatic ballets as, for example, Eunice and Egyptian Nights, by the young but already coarsely inflated and unenlightened ballet master Mikhail Fokine, show how instead of pure elements of dance we have things that are supremely mediocre and untalented precisely because they lack what is most important and necessary-the constantly vacillating play and magical beauty of balletic form. We don't see the fantasy of an exceptional creator of the stage, in the exact sense of this word; instead we see a person who has combined dramatic pantomime with the ideal goals of balletic art. These are variations of dances on themes taken from the everyday routine of life, and thus in their essence these character and genre dances, though they occasionally show passion and personality, undoubtedly lack the mysterious sparkle of great, otherworldly thought. There is no delirium of exalted ideas that modern-day Greeks, looking back at the sublime art of their ancient tragedians, call Apollonian obsession, Apollonian enthusiasm. Fokine should present his pantomimes or such conceptually faultless and bold pieces as the Polovtsian Dances from Alexander Borodin's Prince Igor outside of ballet. But for balletic creation in its new lines and directions, he lacks a lively, poetic imagination. Here we need the outstanding talent of a modern ballet master who has accumulated various bookish and journalistic words; we need a new Noverre, a Noverre of a new intellectual epoch, of bold and inspired strivings in the kingdom of dreams and in the unbounded spheres of contemporary mythology, who divines the variegated crystals of holy liquids and utopias.
Balletic dance is necessary for life's myth, as Aeschylus and Sophocles understood this word. That which lies within man, beyond the deceptive cover of his three-dimensional aspirations and ideas, that which his heart deeply feels and which is approximately transmitted in the comprehension of his abstract thought is what we need to call his mythological essence. This essence is perceived more widely and more subtly in the world of ever newer ideas that are being introduced by the organic and historical development of individual people and the popular masses. But it is not only perceived and unraveled in its ideal content through our brain; it itself passes into life, constantly bursting into it with streams of radiant revelations that create what we usually call art. Art is based on myth. It springs out of it as from its eternally spiritual kernel, becoming more complicated and enriched by the hues of everyday life and by the accessories of historical reality. Refracted in the diversity of life's phenomena, art exudes the majestic tendencies of its living soul and inner truth, which is at the same time the truth of man's religio-philosophical, social, and plastic consciousness in the given stages of its moral and intellectual growth. Art and myth are always inseparable.
The diverse forms of balletic dance are the living language of our ideal and mythological essence. Broken into parts and sparkling in each detail of the complex kaleidoscope of our life, this ideal essence of man demands for its expression nothing supernatural and exclusive. In every feeling a mythological moment is present that is transmitted by the harmonious movement of ballet. The Olympic gods are only the outer reach of the ideal likenesses of the ancient world, and the dancing of ancient Greece-in Dionysus's orchestra or on the sacred road from Athens to Demeter's temple in Eleusis-was nothing other than the graphic and passionate representation in plastic forms and signs of that which burned within. The religious pulse of the entire nation was communicated by the sacred rite of dance. It was filled with euphony and rhythm in the tragedies of Aeschylus; it boiled and foamed with the naturalistic technique in the dramas of the satyrs, which, alas, have not entirely come down to us; it splashed with the spurts of mirth and laughter in the comedies of Aristophanes. Clement of Alexandria speaks of this religious rite of dance. It is even heard in the philological structure of Greek speech, in which there passes the strictest boundary between words that express our ordinary everyday movements without any distinct rhythm and tempo and words that are intended to reflect the poetry and plastic form of the myth of the human soul and of history, divested of its random external coating. This is the way it used to be and always will be. The mythology of contemporary humanity must also be presented by the solemn ritual of modern dance: in the movements, both monumental and tender, that are concealed in the body and soul of every living individual who has not permanently distorted and perverted his or her ideal image. These new forms of modern dance are already taking shape and swarming before our eyes because, more and more clearly through the fog of mistakes, weakness, and delusions, the great myth of the contemporary historical moment is emerging. It is enough that a small stone be thrown into this element of ideas and light for these vital and marvelous forms of the new movement to crystallize definitively and permanently so that the new solemn ritual of dancing may begin.
And so, for the rebirth of modern ballet that has come to us from Italy and France, what is necessary is not the dramatization but, I would say, the mythologization of dance, in the deepest meaning of this word. Dance itself, with its complex figures and designs, should neither flounder nor fail in its poetic stylishness and ideality but on the contrary reveal itself even more unrestrictedly than before, more freely, richly, and variegatedly, to confront new intellectual and spiritual phenomena. In the sphere of movement, the individual beauty of balletic dance, which inexhaustibly develops from within its own self according to the intended law of ideal technique and the infinitely diverse impulses and tasks of musical rhythm, befits irrational myth. To dramatize ballet would be to reduce it to pantomime.
When one speaks of ballet today, one has in mind Russian ballet, with which the entire world is occupied. The Italian press recently noted with great sympathy the budding talent of Karsavina and Pavlova, who in a short time have acquired a wide-ranging popularity. But one cannot say that the interest elicited by Sergei Diaghilev's entrepreneurial activity has had a particularly beneficial influence on ballet's development or on the growth of its artistic forms and talents. It is impossible to observe any new and serious trends in Russian ballet, and everything that has been done in this field over the past years not only is far from perfect, it at times produces the impression of cheap gymnastic exercises in the style of Isadora Duncan, which do not deserve serious critical attention. What is worth keeping an eye on in the Petersburg theater, ignoring the sentimental vulgarity of the old subjects, is the dancing of the ballerinas, the soloists, and the corps de ballet. We brush aside the unbearable cacophony and the vulgar motifs of the orchestra but follow with delight the dancing cascade of forms in which there is a unique beauty that is not connected to either the text of the ballet's libretto or the cheap music of the old composers. How sad that such an exceptional talent as Trefilova has left the stage. Her dancing was the genuine embodiment of the brilliant fantasy of the old ballet in faultlessly pure form and sober clarity reminiscent of Pushkin's verse. Just now, when for the future growth of ballet's poetry one needs to engage in the study and critique of her form and her inspired, palpitating sculpture, it is especially appropriate to lament the disappearance of this first-class ballerina from the contemporary stage. She has taken with her the secret of perfect dancing, which operates through means that are unique only to it. With the delicacy of her execution, which produces a magical impression, we have a coherent discourse of movement that is elegant, harmonious, and sinewed. The alternation of forms that arise one after another is as quick as lightning. And there is nothing superfluous from other areas of art and from realms that, though not belonging to ballet, are still somehow connected to it, such as expressive drama. That's the nature of her dancing. To transfer this magic of plastic images into the language of the intellect, we have an eloquent marvel in the area of speculative aesthetics, an exposed riddle of mute but lissome beauty-a marvel of the highest culture and the loftiest and most indispensable intelligence. And it becomes immensely sad when one thinks that not only Trefilova but Pavlova as well has abandoned serious balletic work. I fear that in her wanderings on European and American stages, her enormous talent, if it is not totally vulgarized, will lose something of the spontaneous energy and passion that made her so wonderful only a few years ago.
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Meet the Author
Stanley J. Rabinowitz is Henry Steele Commager Professor and professor of Russian, Amherst College, and director of the Amherst Center for Russian Culture. He lives in Amherst, MA.
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