Russian ballet, both at home and in exile, has been an entertainment, an art, as well as what anthropologists might call a subculture. Though always financially dependent on society at large, it yet evolved a distinct way of life whether czars, commissars or capitalists provided the funding. Changes of style in the arts had more impact on it than wars, revolutions or economic upheavals.
"100 Years of Russian Ballet -- 1830 to 1930," the exhibit that opened here this week at the new Universal Ballet Academy, documents this dramatically. Some items on display, such as Alfred Eberling's 1906 post-impressionist oil of Anna Pavlova as Giselle, are works of art. Others, such as a collection of diverse slippers constructed to give a little or lots of support to the ballerina's balance on pointe, are examples of evolving craftsmanship. In this show, though, their function isn't to be admired in its own right but -- together with objects best described as mementos, relics and curios -- to document the Russian ballet.
The collection should be viewed at least twice. First, for the great amount of detail it offers on famous or forgotten artists and works. Second, for the overview it gives of the transformations of Russian ballet.
The original jacket for the Prince in "The Sleeping Beauty" couldn't have been a fresher green around the shoulders when Pavel Gerdt wore it at the ballet's premiere a century ago. In the title role of this touchstone piece of classical Russian dance was Carlotta Brianza, not a Russian native but -- as was usual for prima ballerinas in the late 19th century -- Italian by birth and in training. She's shown in a photo with Gerdt, looking young enough to have been his daughter. The first Russian to attain the title of prima and eventually assoluta, the proud Mathilde Kschessinska was photographed in poses from her starring roles as well as in her home, which was palatial -- probably because her special admirer was the future ruler of all Russia, Nikolai II.
The panoramic shots of ballets on the stage give an idea of the grand scale of Russian productions in the last decades of the past century. In more intimate photographs of individuals and small groups, certain faces draw one's attention; often they are those of stars-to-be. In one picture Kschessinska's junior colleague, Tamara Karsavina, is seated with a few other girls of her graduating class of 1902 but, wrapped in thought, she seems worlds apart. And, surely the alert young woman half reclining on the floor in a group of unidentified people "backstage" in the 1920s must be Alexandra Danilova (last year's Kennedy Center dance honoree). She was one of the dancers Fedor Lopukhov cast in "The Magnificence of the Universe," which may well have been the first symphonic ballet. Lopukhov's portrait, painted by Vladimir Pleshakov in 1931, intimates more than any photograph a likeness with his younger colleague, Georgy Balanchivadze -- who was as George Balanchine to develop his own ideas of musical choreography after he left Soviet Russia for the West. There is a haunting pencil, pastel and red chalk portrait of Lydia Ivanova, a young ballerina who was to have accompanied Balanchine, Danilova, Tamara Geva and the others in their defection from the Soviet state. Ivanova, however, drowned in 1924 just before departure; political murder was suspected, Geva tells in her autobiography, "Split Seconds."
Walking through the exhibit again, one is struck by sweeping changes in the Russian ballet. In the early years, after the Romantic ballerinas of Paris and Vienna, Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler, visited Russia before the middle of the century and became models for the emerging Russian dancers, everything -- the dancers, the decor and the very way they were depicted -- seemed light and delicate. Later in the century, when Marius Petipa was Russia's principal choreographer, grandeur was in fashion and designers like Andrei Roller and Konstantin Ivanov made sets that looked more enduring than the real world. Modernism emphasized abstract values of design over fairy-tale scenes or realistic representation; beginning before World War I when Diaghilev transformed Russian ballet into the Ballets Russes for export to the West, one sees bold patterns or color-as-form in the set and costume sketches or actual costumes of Alexandre Benois, Leon Bakst, Nicholas Roerich, Boris Anisfeld, Alexander Golovin and other painters. After the war and the revolution, modernism also blossomed inside Russia as exemplified by Tatiana Bruni's ballet costumes and Leonid Chupiatov's scenic designs. That it withered there abruptly was due to the taste of the commissars. Outside, principally in Europe and America, Ballet Russe modernism became a victim of its own success, being absorbed into the mainstream of the arts. But that is a story that continued past 1930.
Does such an exhibit, with its inevitable emphasis on static artifacts, lose touch with the essence of dance, which is movement? While none of the many photos is an action shot (and these were possible in the 1920s), a sense of how these now-quiet dancers may have moved can be created by letting one's eyes linger over the panoramas and quickly scanning the individual poses. The catalogue (which costs $25) isn't much help in this respect. If imagining the dancing doesn't suffice, walk out of the exhibit's main room, turn left and look for a window into a dance studio. Lucky visitors this past week could see 11 dancers from Leningrad's Kirov Ballet plus their Bolshoi guest, Andris Liepa, taking class and rehearsing.
This collection, which will be on view at the Universal Ballet Academy through Oct. 2, represents a small part of the holdings of the Leningrad State Museum of Theater and Music. It began as the hobby of Geva's father, and at the opening ceremony she reminisced about seeing the pictures in her family's home when she was a girl, and how she especially loved Bakst's designs, never suspecting she'd be a dancer one day and actually wear them.