Dazzling "Bright Stream"
Fedor Lopukhov (1886-1973) is known to balletgoers in the West primarily through his variation for the Lilac Fairy in the Kirov’s production of “The Sleeping Beauty” and a majestic essay on “Beauty” (published in English by Arlene Croce in Ballet Review) in which Lopukhov and Boris Asafiev analyzed the Petipa choreography and the Tchaikovsky score with breathtaking authority and detail. A recent collection of Lopukhov’s writings, edited by Lynn Garafola, includes a withering assessment of ballet critics, too. Lopukhov certainly suffered from critics in his time, both in newspapers and in the theater. Most of his choreography seems to have been lost, and during the 1920’s and ‘30’s, he was a prolific dancemaker. His sensibility, we’re told by Soviet ballet historian Vera Krasovskaya, was satirical, scientific, visionary, and, by the lights of such arbiters of ballet as the formidable Agrippina Vaganova, “confused.” His efforts to expand the classical vocabulary—which he understood with such a provocative mixture of formal mastery and dreamlike play—included the introduction of acrobatic maneuvers from cabaret and popular theater, such as cartwheels and variations on the split. In his imaginative world, almost everything was up for reinvention: Tchaikovsky, Stalin’s Five-Year Plan, narrative logic, and, perhaps most especially, earnestness of tone. In an era when Hollywood was turning out screwball comedies, he would have fit right in, had he not been isolated in a tragic society. He loved young people, casting them in principal roles in the standard repertory and making ballets intended to appeal to their iconoclasm. Lopukhov took impish risks, some of which did not, to put it mildly, succeed: among his theatrical inspirations, for example, was the inclusion of a live cow in his 1927 ballet, “The Ice Maiden.” And yet, how different is that from George Balanchine’s inclusion of a live donkey in “Union Jack”? It’s no surprise to learn that Balanchine—about whom many of the same things could be said—performed in Lopukhov’s work prior to leaving the U.S.S.R. and may well have been influenced by some of Lopukhov’s obsessions glancingly throughout his career. (One thinks not only of the acrobatic passages in the 1929 “Prodigal Son” but also of the cartwheel in the 1982 Stravinsky “Variations,” the last ballet that Balanchine ever made.)
Lopukhov’s most spectacular critical failures during the 1930’s included his comic ballet, “The Bright Stream,” to a commissioned score by Dmitri Shostakovich, the third of three ballet scores that Shostakovich wrote. (Those for “The Golden Age” and “The Bolt” were the others.) The work was made in 1935 for the Maly Opera Theater in St. Petersburg, where, two years before, Lopukhov had become artistic director. Six months after its première, it was transferred to the Bolshoi, where it hardly lasted long enough to be reviewed. An attack in “Pravda,” which has been linked by historians with Stalin’s attack on Shostakovich’s opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” accused “The Bright Stream” of, as Krasovskaya puts it, “conveying real Soviet people as ballet ‘dolls’”—in other words, of polluting its narrative concerning a community of collectivized farmers with classical dancing and—since “The Bright Stream” (the title is the name of the collective farm in which the action is located) was a farce—probably worse, with anti-heroic ironic detachment, which would have run counter to homogenizing attempts of propaganda. From another quarter, i.e. the disapproving eye of Vaganova (who was then directing the Kirov Theater), “The Bright Stream” took it in the neck for not showing how classical dance was organically expressive of emotion. Yet, in her recently translated Vaganova biography, Krasovskaya sternly argues that Lopukhov was not a political victim in the extinction of his ballet. “Lopukhov was responsible for the failure of ‘The Bright Stream,’” she writes. “Dreamer and troublemaker that he was, he occasionally became interested in contemporary themes, whereas many other theater figures, wiser than he, realized it was safer to avoid them.” In other words, Lopukhov stuck to his principles, regardless of whether he could tell a hawk from a handsaw, and, like many artists in the West, too, suffered mightily for his integrity.
Well, in the 21st century, Fedor Lopukhov has gotten the last laugh. The Bolshoi’s 2003 disinterment of as much as could be rediscovered of “The Bright Stream”—its libretto by Lopukhov and Adrian Piotrovsky and its magnetically danceable Shostakovich score, filled with deliciously varied percussion—have been attached to dazzling new choreography by the Bolshoi’s 37-year-old artistic director, Alexei Ratmansky, and installed in a painted set (by Boris Messerer, who also designed the period costumes) of formalist wheat fields with trompe l’oeil Corinthian columns of harvest grains and fruits fit for a czar. From time to time, adorable puppetlike versions of a train and an airplane pass by; in the night scene of the second act, the (uncredited) lighting turns the fields into a glimmering lake and the columns into hyperbolically romantic poplars. Within this winking temple to an agrarian ideal, Lopukhov’s Ballerina (Maria Alexandrova) and Ballerina’s Partner (Yan Godovsky) visit to entertain the collective in celebration of its harvest, meet up with the Ballerina’s old chum from ballet school, Zina, “the Bright Stream Collective’s Morale Officer” (Svetlana Lunkina), and her husband, Pyotr, “An Agricultural Student” (Vladimir Neporozhny), flirtatiously exchange partners, then, in response to crushes from other members of the collective, mischievously exchange genders. Ratmansky runs with this plot point, giving the Ballerina’s Partner the chance to vamp it up as a Trocadero sylphide (on pointe) with An Old Dacha Dweller (Alexey Loparevich) and the Ballerina, in Molly Picon travesty as the Partner, to tease the Old Dacha Dweller’s Anxious-To-Appear-Younger-Than-She-Is Wife (Irina Zibrova) by performing the Partner’s solo exactly, with all of its male jumping steps intact.
These self-contained vaudeville dances in danse d’école clothing are only a small part of the fabulously varied dance texture of Ratmansky’s choreography, though. There are an astonishing synchronized double solo for the Ballerina and Zina; several ballabiles for the full collective that are built on ravishing geometric patterns; a tango for The Accordian Player (Gennady Yanin) and Galya, A Schoolgirl (Ksenia Pchelkina), whose sophistication reminds one that Russia was enamoured with the tango going back to the turn of the 20th century; a dance interlude for a dancer in a dog suit (unidentified as such in the program); an uncanny turn for one of the farmers dressed in a black cloak as Death, complete with scythe; and, perhaps most astonishing in any ballet c. 2005, dances for small groups, who are spun out, Petipa fashion (or perhaps Bournonville fashion) from the larger ensemble. When was the last time you saw a NEW big story ballet with a pas de sept constructed of petit allegro steps? I could hardly believe I was seeing it: it was more unexpected, even, than the moment when the dog dancer’s dog head fell off, and he had to carry it, like a jack o’lantern, under his arm. These various elements are saved—barely—from seeming like a revue by self-mocking pastiche interludes of pantomime. However, as, I suspect, in Lupokhov’s original, the story functions as a clothesline on which the elements are pinned. Here is where Balanchine pulls away to win handily. The seamless interweaving of dance and story in the first acts of his “Midsummer” and “Nutcracker” and in his “La Sonnambula,” and the tidal undercurrent of a story in his “storyless” ballets, such as “Serenade” or “Liebeslieder Walzer,” come from a more rarefied realm of ballet construction. Frederick Ashton, too—whose soloist with a bicycle in his “Enigma Variations” makes a kind of guest appearance in Ratmansky’s “Bright Stream”—was capable of marrying dance and story with a supreme delicacy and haunting effect that have no parallel here. Ratmansky’s marvels notwithstanding, he still has some room for growth as a choreographer.
As many observers have noted, the Bolshoi as a dance enterprise has undergone a radical transformation from the company that used to visit the U.S. in its Cold War days. The level of virtuosity required even of the corps de ballet is much more intense, and the solos for the Ballerina in travesty and the Partner on point suggest that the training is now much less gender-specific—that the definition of virtuosity includes the goal that everyone do everything. On the other hand, under such conditions (and they are the conditions of many theatrical dance traditions at this point) it’s more difficult for individuals to make warm, distinctly individual impressions as performers. That synchronized double solo for Maria Alexandrova, an extroverted fireball of stepmaking, and Svetlana Lunkina, a lyrical, interior kind of ballerina, ingeniously turns the problem into a temporary achievement, with especial benefit to Lunkina by showing that she can match the physical strength of a dancer on the order of Alexandrova. (In fact, during the bows, Ratmansky announced from the stage that Lunkina had “been a soloist for a long time,” or something to that effect, and was being appointed that night a principal dancer.) Essentially, that double solo’s a specialty act, a kind of mirror dance without the mirror. Still, one of the most fascinating things about Ratmansky’s “Bright Stream” is that he takes such care to showcase the women in the cast through specialty numbers. There’s an overall tone of respect in his work—a tone that seems to be Ratmansky’s own, rather than a translation of anything in the Lupokhov original—that makes one grateful to be in its presence, regardless of reservations about pacing or other technical issues. One finds the same tone in the program note: “Ratmansky’s production of ‘The Bright Stream’ had its première on April 18, 2003, and is not overtly political: It is a comic ballet that is also an homage to the people and artists who lived and worked under Stalin.” One reviewer has characterized “Bright Stream” as “fluff.” If that’s what it is, it’s fluff from Aurora’s pillow.
Given the fact that Shostakovich’s score—played by an unspecified orchestra with ten Russian orchestral soloists named, under the baton of Pavel Sorokin—is gaining a local première here, I tried to find a copy of the music in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Alas, no luck. Shostakovich calls on songs and tunes from popular culture in it; however, there were moments when I thought I heard the voice of Glazunov as well. (As it happened, that composer, so closely associated with the pre-Revolutionary Imperial Theater, died in 1936, shortly after “The Bright Stream”’s première.) Someday, perhaps, a musicologist will go through and identify the various references. It’s a wonderful ballet score, devised from thunder, hammertaps, charm, and brazen humor, all netted together by an invigorating pulse. How Shostakovich produced it so close to his “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” is one of those mysteries of artistic creation that makes for the enduring interest of art.
Photo: Maria Alexandrova and Sergei Filin in "The Bright Stream." Photo by Damir Yusupov