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What’s in a name? The R(t) word

Earlier this week I received a notice from a colleague about the name change of a ballet organization; it will no longer be called the Society of Russian Ballet, “in light of current events deeply affecting the world.” Going forward, “in order to join the ranks of those in the cultural front protesting the conflict in Ukraine,” the Society will be rebranded as the Society of Classical Ballet (Vaganova Method).

Agrippina Vaganova was the classical ballerina behind the Vaganova method, including her Fundamentals of the Classical Dance (1934), still considered a standard text for teaching ballet technique. A student at the Imperial Ballet School in Saint Petersburg, she began her artistic life as an usher at the Marinsky Theatre, the same theatre where she would later dance to great acclaim. The Society will put their focus on her legacy instead of focussing on her country of birth.

Yet, the words “ballet” and “Russia” are forever linked (65,000,000 Google results); in names like Baryshnikov, Nijinsky, Nureyev, Makarova, Plisetskaya and Pavlova, or the ballet music of Tchaikovsky. France and Italy had ballet earlier, but once Peter the Great opened up to the West and erected St. Petersburg, ballet never looked back. Russia’s state-supported theatres had directors personally appointed by the tsar, making their dancers Imperial employees (that is until the Revolution).

But now Russia, because of Putin (the source of “arguably the most disgraceful war,” according to Denis Kozlov, associate professor in Dalhousie University’s Department of History), is not being celebrated so much for its glorious achievements. Sporting events are cancelled, athletes banned from international competition. Artists are being asked to choose sides and speak up about the conflict.

I’ve been thinking about the “R” word while turning the pages of a recent online auction purchase.

It had been described as an “Art Nouveau album, with over 100 historic photos.” The rectangular grey cover had my favourite flower on it, an iris. There were a couple of black and white photos of women on my screen, who looked to be wearing ballet pointe shoes. The album intrigued me. The dancers looked me in the eye, en pointe in extravagant tutus, or sitting demurely in studio shots in elegant Edwardian costumes and huge feathered hats. I asked the auctioneer if the photos were real or just repros. He sent me a few more, confirming they looked authentically old.

I Googled vintage ballet photos, and the face of Olga Preobrajenska posing on one pointed toe smiled back. A name I’d never heard, but I recognized her face. The postcard photograph was selling for $200 (US) on eBay. This album was interesting!

Olga Preobrajenska (author’s collection)

After a bit of a nail biter, I was the successful bidder.  The album arrived, packed securely in a brown box. I carefully lifted it out, wondering what I’d spent my money on.  Maybe it was just someone’s old family memories with collected photocards?  On the inside front cover was a small sticker with an official looking logo (an eagle?) and the date 1871; the same logo as on the spine of the album.

Each page contained five photocards on hard board, neatly arranged in holders on flowery paper and stamped with the photographer’s Cyrillic imprint. One tall graceful mauve iris held centre stage on the cover, two smaller yellow irises bowed on either side. There were 40 pages, all dancers.  I recognized two or three pages of the same dancer in various costumes. Only three photos were of men, one possibly Vaslav Nijinsky, who name I remembered from high school music class, listening to The Rite of Spring.  But who were the rest? Who had so neatly arranged them in this beautiful collection?

Fortunately, my husband speaks and reads Russian. The imprint belonged to K.A. Fischer, a German Jew who’d made his career in Moscow, also working in St. Petersburg as official photographer for the Imperial (or Marinsky) Theatre for two decades. He had his own studio, and also set up shop in the basement of the Marinsky so the dancers didn’t have to move costumes out of the theatre. He took portraits of Tolstoy, Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and many others. His atelier closed in 1915; one website notes “The fate of K.A. Fisher is unknown,” implying he had to flee Russia because he was German born during the war.

Unidentified Russian ballerina from Imperial Theatre (author’s collection)

This snapshot in time of the Russian ballet from about 1898 to 1910 was possibly a souvenir album; Fisher printed “postcards with portraits of the artists of the Imperial Theatre, and scenes from plays…for theatergoers.”

I shared a few pictures on my Facebook page. Dancer friends immediately recognized some faces.  Intrigued to learn more, I showed my former boss, Bengt Jörgen, who identified Pavlova and Nijinsky.  But he didn’t know who the others were. “For sure these are the important dancers of that time. There must be people out there who know.  Try posting some on our Facebook page,” he suggested.

Memories of the six years I worked for Ballet Jörgen’s wonderful touring company came flooding back: taking dancers on PR visits to media (a prince in costume literally showing up at a newspaper looking for Cinderella); fun times, hard work.  Being backstage, marvelling at cases of costumes, wigs, props, boxes of pointe shoes. School matinées of giggling pre-teens who rolled their eyes and slapped their knees as the lights dimmed and the first male dancers (in tights) appeared onstage. The boys couldn’t stop howling until one of the company leaped high into the air, sailing to a perfect landing inches from the edge of the stage. The hall went quiet; you could almost write the speech bubbles: “How the heck did he do that?!”

I loved watching the dancers taking class together, seasoned veterans and young ballerinas, bending gracefully at their portable barres. Such poise, beauty and oh yes, the pain the audience never sees. Probably the same in 1890s St. Petersburg. Sprains, bleeding toes, it doesn’t matter, the show has to go on. A lifetime of dedication to the artform.

I matched a few more names to faces in the album, casually speaking about “Mathilde,” and “Olga,” to my husband over breakfast. But the others?

Just when I thought I’d hit a wall, I found a Facebook group dedicated to the “R” word: Russian Ballet. I posted a few pics and the comments (in English and in Russian) tumbled forth, allégro.

My album not only had photos of Preobrajenska, Kschessinskaya, and Nijinsky, but also these unfamiliar names (to me): Sedova, Smirnova, Stukolkin, Trefilova, Fedorova, Gorshkova, Poliakova, Vasilieva, Eduardova, Legat, Shollar, Barash, Pugni, Domershchikova, Kyaksht and the wonderful Tamara Karsavina. A member had published a beautiful book about her, and recognized a photo taken in 1908 when she was 23, cast as Medora in Le Corsaire.

They knew the costumes and the dancers, gushing over the album: “Olga Fedorova in La Bayadere – dance of the slaves in Act 2.”  “Trefilova’s hair is loose; Barasha’s is upswept.”  “Can anyone explain the winged headdresses?”  “1906 revival of The Bacchanale.” “Elana Poliakova as either Zulme or Moyna in Giselle Act 2.”  “A cover with irises, that’s a fairy tale!”

The ballerinas are costumed for ballets with whimsical titles like The Little Humpbacked Horse, or The Tsar Maiden; The Whims of the Butterfly; The Fairy Doll; The Pharoah’s Daughter. Many were choreographed by the great Marius Petipa. Some have all but disappeared from the repertoire, known today only by such serious balletomanes.

With their close ties to the Tsar, – Kschessinskaya was his lover – what happened to these famous ballerinas, living in the capital of the Russian Empire during the Revolution?

Many had to flee St. Petersburg (renamed Petrograd in 1914 after the outbreak of World War 1) with huge personal and professional losses.  Some took their artistry to England, the United States, Argentina and other countries, where they formed important schools.  Karsavina became the founder of modern British ballet, assisting in founding The Royal Ballet and teaching Margot Fonteyn (who went on to dance with Nureyev in the 1960s).

Others “Russian” ballerinas (although at least one was actually born in Poland) didn’t leave. Elsa Will, (or Elza Vill) born into a German family in Russia, studied at the dance academy in Saint Petersburg, and was active in the Marinsky Theatre from 1900 to 1928. She was recognized for her talent and given the title Emeritus Artist in 1924. The album has several photos of young Elsa; the group identified her in one as “The Baby” (or “Bebe”), costumed for The Fairy Doll. In another, she relaxes with crossed ankles in a pretty fringed tutu and elaborate updo, costumed for Paquita.

Elsa Will as The Baby Doll (author’s collection)

In the winter of 1941/42, as houses and churches burned, Elsa Will died of cold or famine in the siege of Leningrad, Hitler’s long genocide of starvation of the city’s residents as part of Operation Barbarossa.  Her grave location is unknown. Aside from these online ballet enthusiasts, who remembers beautiful Elsa Will today, a “Russian” ballerina?

Another dancer, Nina Anisimova, at just age seventeen was wrongly imprisoned in 1938 as a German spy and sent from Leningrad to a Gulag camp in Kazakhstan during the Great Purge that killed between 600,000 to 1.2 million Russians. She survived the freezing winters thanks to extra food and clothing sent by her family, and by dancing for camp administrators.

Even Maya Plisetskaya, one of the greatest of the greats from the Bolshoi, had problems, since she was born into a prominent theatrical family who happened to be Jewish.  Her father was executed by Stalin, and her silent film actress mother, Rachel Messerer, was sent to a labour camp in the gulag, like my husband’s mother and grandparents. She couldn’t tour in the West until 1959 because of her Jewish background (and fears that she might defect). When she died unexpectedly of a heart attack in Munich in 2015, Vladimir Putin expressed “deep, sincere condolences.”

This week Russian prima ballerina Olga Smirnova quit the Bolshoi because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and was welcomed to the Dutch National Ballet. A young Brazilian dancer, Victor Caixeta, who had spent five years at the Marinsky, is also joining the Dutch company.

Artists devote their lives to bringing the world beauty, but they die like the rest of us. Tragically, this month in Kyiv, the burial of Ukrainian ballet dancer Artyom Datsishin, age 43, took place. Sources reported that he had been fired on by Russian military on February 26, dying three weeks later from his injuries. Datsishin, a principal dancer with the National Opera House of Ukraine, had performed main roles in Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty, and toured in the US and Europe. His colleague, Tatiana Borovik, posted on Facebook: “Farewell my dear man!! I can’t express my heartache that is overwhelming me! May your memory be bright.” Which names get remembered? Hitler, Stalin, Putin, or the noble artist, Artyom Datsishin?

Online image of Artyom Datsishin
Online images of Artyom Datsishin

The former Society of Russian Ballet is concentrating on honouring Vaganova, who said: “Look at life all around; everything is growing, everything is moving forward. Therefore, I recommend keeping in touch with life and with art.”

As we pray we’re not headed for a third world war, may we not forget the names of these great ballet stars, and continue to honour their artistry. May the memories of all the dancers burn bright, Russians and Ukrainians, and all.

Anna Domershchikova in the Bacchanale from The Seasons, 1906 revival (author’s collection)
About the Author
Peggy Walt has worked for 40 years in the arts and culture sector in Nova Scotia, Canada. She's writing a book on the search for what happened to her husband's family during the Holocaust and her conversion to Judaism in the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Nonfiction at King's University in Halifax.
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