Vaclav Reisinger


     Vaclav (Wentsel), or Julius Reisinger (1828-1892) is paradoxical figure in the history of ballet. This prolific choreographer, author of more than twenty works on various European stages, directed the Moscow company of the Bolshoi Theatre. He is linked with two memorable events: the first stage production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and the production of the first ballet performance for the opening of the Prague National Theatre in 1884.
     Vaclav Reisinger is considered the father of Czech professional ballet. Criticisms regarding his choreography such as «mediocre», «ordinary» and «untalented» hounded him, not only during his life - but also after death. His critics did not endow him with the usual praise in his own country, or in Russia. However, these did not prevent Reisinger from succeeding thanks to his fastidious service throughout his long ballet career. An involuntary question arises: was this choreographer truly untalented? Is it possible that in Prague, Moscow, Leipzig and Berlin his ascent to the top was merely the result of a long-patient public and theatre administration?
     Due to unprocessed historical material, all press references of the period remain inaccessible. However, it is possible to suppose that Reisinger's productions irritated some of the all-powerful balletomanes who were mouthpieces of the community in the sphere of nineteenth century ballet, but appealed to the taste of others who were entrusted with ballet affairs. Otherwise, how is it possible to explain at least his Moscow period of activity?
     After Carlo Blasis' departure from Moscow, the Bolshoi Theatre remained without a permanent choreographer. Reisinger was invited to the post, while still working in Leipzig. It is possible, as the critic Vera Krasovskaya asserts, that this was done at the suggestion of Carl Walts, even if it is doubtful that the opinion of a twenty-six-year-old stage machinist sufficiently influenced the Directorate of the Imperial Theatres regarding the appointment of a new choreographer for the company. Apparently, Reisinger's choreographic works possessed something which attracted his contemporaries. This «something» was probably in the new, fashionable genre of ballet faerie. Analyzing the few known facts on the choreography of Reisinger's productions, one arrives at the conclusion that he felt and interpreted the bidermeier style, then favoured by the bourgeoisie world of central Europe, in art and as a way of life.
     Vaclav (Vatslav) Reisinger was born in February 1828 in Prague of a native Czech family. He began his professional life as an artist of the corps de ballet, rising to the position of leading soloist. In 1850, he was the Czech partner of the famous dancer Lucille Grahn in «Esmeralda» (Phoebus) and «Giselle» (Hillarion). He had success in the part of Diavolino in Jules Perrot's ballet «Catarina, ou La Fille du Bandit». In short, the young dancer mastered the romantic repertoire and was familiar with the new ballet productions, one more fact in favour of Reisinger's erudition.
     In 1852, he succeeded in securing an eight-year engagement on the German and Austrian stages. In 1860 he returned to his native Prague to the Nove Mesto Theatre, already in the position of choreographer. This was the first time a Czech theatre was headed by Czech choreographer.
     As marked by Czech theater historian Dr. Bozhena Brodska, not one of Reisinger's ballets was successful. But facts contradict this. Why was then a «provincial» Prague choreographer invited to brilliant Leipzig where he directed the ballet company from 1864 to 1872 ? Large-scale works here were: «Saltarello» and «Interrupted Solitude» to the music of Leipzig capel-meister, Muhldorfer. From Leipzig lay Reisinger's path to Russia. Landmarks of his Moscow activity are found in the reflections of Russian historians.
     On his first visit to Moscow, Reisinger staged a five-act ballet «Cinderella or the Crystal Slipper» (1871) to Muhldorfer's music, which Yuri Bakhrushin referring to original sources, notes as «successful». In 1873, finding himself in the post of director of Moscow Ballet, he created successive multiple-act productions such as «Kastchei»,where as confirmed again by Yuri Bakhrushin, the choreographer successfully developed the Russian theme. He also produced «Stella» and «Ariadne» (together with Petipa). All ballets (except «Kastchei», which he staged with the two composers Muhldorfer and Gerber) used the music of Gerber. At the same time, in the last two (Stella and Ariadne), Reisinger reworked elements of ancient art according to the dictates of bidermeier. Added to that, in the production of «Ariadne», the Theatre Directorate allotted what was for that time, the fabulous sum of 40,000 roubles. This not only testified to the hope they had invested in Reisinger, but also confirmed that in two years he had won the authority of the Imperial Theatre Directorate.
     With this artistic background the choreographer approached the first production of Swan Lake composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1877). Reisinger's work on this ballet was considered unsuccessful. However, we can not omit this fact: Swan Lake was kept on the stage for seven years and was performed over thirty times during a period when other ballets could not sustain twenty performances.
     Bakhrushin writes this, quoting a review from the premiere: «If one judges by the number of curtain calls, with which the public received the composer, then perhaps it is possible to say that his ballet was successful». Apparently, things were not so simple with the so-called failure of the first production of Swan Lake. The production was twice revived in (European choreographer of the Moscow Theatre) Joseph Hansen's version in 1880 and 1882. It was removed, as wrote 19th century musicologist Nikolai Kashkin, because of «worn-out decorations».
One cannot dismiss the criticism addressed to the conductor, Sergei Ryabov, and to the performance of the lead ballerina Polina Karpakova, whose dancing was considered «heavy» and not reflecting the spirit of the music. Obviously, it is not only Reisinger who bears responsibility for the failure of the first staging of the composer's masterpiece. The heights of the philosophic and poetic spirit of Tchaikovsky's works, the essence of his historic reforms, had yet to be achieved by representatives of late 19th century ballet. Reisinger approached the author's score from the routine position of the canons of his time. Remember that in the same year, Petipa staged his «La Bayadere» in St. Petersburg. In the scene of the Kingdom of the Shades, Petipa created a new ballet style with those dancing formations which almost twenty years later found a brilliant refraction in the «swan» scenes of Lev Ivanov.
     Reisinger's last production in Moscow was a three-act ballet «The Grandmother's Wedding» to the music of Gerber (1878), which had no success. After this, Moscow bid its guest farewell.
     However, Reisinger's career was not only finished; on the contrary, it neared its culmination. On September 18, 1883 the inauguration of the Prague National Theatre was celebrated. Once again, the head of the ballet company was Vaclav Reisinger.
     He did not create, he worked. But perhaps without the attempts of such workers, geniuses would not occur!
by Galina Chelombitko, Ph.D.
This article was published in Sovietsky Ballet, issue No. 1, 1988

home | balet magazin | top |