My Recollections


(Excerpts from Lev Ivanov's memoirs, housed at St. Petersburg's Theatre Museum)
     I was born in 1834. My earliest recollection of myself is at six or seven years of age. My father was a rather severe and serious person. My mother was extraordinary kind and very quiet. My parents had had other children, but I don't remember them, because they died in infancy. My father , a merchant of the first «guild», was a contractor. He built houses, roads, highways and so forth. He was not uneducated, simple man, as are the majority of constructors. He was educated, intelligent and cultivated. As I remember, we lived in a rather modest apartment at first. Later, with improving circumstances, we moved to a large, elegant apartment. Finally, my father acquired his own stone house and horses. At the age of eight I was sent to boarding school. After two or three years there, I joined the Theatrical Academy.
     This is how it came pass: Father loved theatre, particularly the Alexandrinsky Theatre, where he once took all of us. The performance consisted of several one-act plays, and of a small ballet, «Don Juan». This ballet, along with the play «The school Teacher», made a great impression on me. The students of the Theatrical Academy were among the performers. When we returned home, Father asked me what I had enjoyed most. I enthusiastically began to praise the presentations, and declared that I wanted to be a young actor like the ones that appeared in the play. My family laughed, and my mother added that being an artist was very difficult work and required much study. My father reacted differently, saying, «Why not send him to the Theatrical Academy? Perhaps this is his destiny and his career». Thus, I came to the Theatrical Academy, and my father's words were justified, since I became not an entirely bad artist.
     Upon entering the Academy, I was immediately placed in the dancing class of Pimenov, assistant to instructor Frederic. Academy rules required that new students began by learning to dance, and then later, depending upon their talents, remained in dance or changed to drama or music or stage designing. Metamorphoses happened, as with the case of the well-known and brilliant Martynov, who set out to be a set designer but became a memorable actor. Another example is Sosnitsky who was studying ballet, but turned out to be a fine dramatic actor.
     I began to show a great gift for ballet and therefore was taken as an official student within a year. My teachers at school included Pimenov, Frederic, Gredelue and finally Petipa, the father of the present choreographer.
     The drama pupils performed predominantly classical plays, but sometimes also comedies and vaudeville. The ballet pupils performed small dancers and divertissements. The music pupils played concerts on different instruments during intermissions. There was even a student orchestra conducting by old man Mauer, the well-known director of all theatrical orchestras. Famous artists taught the drama classes: Sosnitsky, P.A. Karatygin, P.I. Grigoriev and V.V. Samoylov. Later, this class was taken by the man-of-letters Vasilko-Petrov. Even later it was taught by elocution teacher N.I. Svedontsov. He taught me to have a good appearance and an aptitude for reading most dramatic works effectively. At that time, all pupils had to study drama and elocution. However, I refused, since I truly loved ballet.
     Everything was simple then. For instance, if we wanted to hold a ballet rehearsal in the evening after the ballet classes, we just informed the supervisor on duty about our plans. Then she would send us the female students, sometimes going herself to bring those who were needed. We would begin the rehearsal, and everything would proceed as it should. Of course, it is obvious that there were flirtatious encounters among the boys and the girls. However, the supervisor would return to her room after seeing us seriously engaged in our rehearsal. Everything was completely proper. At worst, some boy would kiss a girl's hand. When we were young, we used to court in a chivalrous fashion. Respecting the lady of our hearts, we did not allow ourselves any liberties with her.
     Finally, my work at the theatre began. I was given my freedom. How wonderful, that word «freedom» is to one who had spent eight years in an enclosed institution. Incidentally, my work began even before graduation. At the age of sixteen, still a student, I danced in the ballets: Catarina, La Esmeralda, La Filleule des Fees (staged by the choreographer Perrot) with the famous star Fanny Elssler.
     My participation in these ballets was, of course, as a member of the corps de ballet. This continued for years after my graduation from the Academy. This is explainable by the fact that Perrot did not like Russian artists for any of the roles; he also preferred foreigners for the solo parts. I forget my way by my own efforts, and partly by chance.
     Tatyana Petrovna Smirnova, our leading ballerina and a Russian, used to take daily exercise with us in Petipa's father's class. She saw me in class, always dancing well. Once she asked me why I never danced solo parts on stage and was kept in corps de ballet. I could only answer that it was because I was not given solo parts. Then she suggested that I dance a full pas de deux with her in her forthcoming benefit performance of «La Fille Mal Gardee».
     Since I was a timed and shy young man, I initially refused. However, she talked into it and I accepted. Soon afterwards we began to rehearse and prepare the piece under supervision of the elder Petipa. Having learned the pas de deux completely within three months, I made my debut as first dancer at her benefit, bold and sure of myself. The public greeted me warmly and my debut was successful. From that point on, Perrot began to give me small and various solos.
     I became first mime and attained the position of premiere danceur and substitute for Marius Petipa (the present choreographer) also by chance. I was always present at rehearsals and performances, even at those in which I did not dance. By watching, I learned the pantomime scenes and different dances in all of the ballets. I had an excellent memory. The acting and mime of Goltz and Perrot greatly influenced me. Their talents were enormous, and one could learn much from them.
     Suddenly, I began to dance several roles. In «Esmeralda» I danced Kshessinsky's part, the role of Claude Frollo. In «Faust» I took over Johansson's role as Valentin. In «Coppelia» I took over Stukolkin's role as Doctor Coppelius, and many other small parts which I now do not even remember. From then on, I acquired a reputation as a young premier danseur. When M. Petipa was appointed as choreographer, I fully replaced him in his roles as first mime dancer and as first dancer.
     In 1858 I was designated to teach two of the younger classes - half of them females - substituting for former teachers, the coryphee Gorinovsky and the dancer Volkova. I unified both classes into one.
     Like a good soldier, I passed through all of the ranks during my service. Beginning as a private, I climbed to the post of General. I began as a corps de ballet dancer. I was a coryphee, a first dancer and a young premier danseur. I played character roles. I danced both character and classical parts. I was appointed dance instructor, regisseur and finally ballet master and choreographer. I danced with almost all of the foreign and Russian dancers, except with Fanny Elssler - due to the fact that I was then still too young. I danced in many ballets, and now I myself set ballets. Even though I do not have Petipa's talent, I choreograph no worse than many others. However, kind friends, do not take what I have said as boasting. I only wanted to show you that with patience, diligence and tenacity and with great love towards one's art, it is possible to achieve everything. I am particularly speaking to you, young colleagues, whose careers in front of you. Love your art as much as I have loved it, and everything will be wonderful.
     I will allow myself to provide one more bit advice: Do not be overly vain. Do not consider yourselves better than others. Be modest, since through great vanity and egoism you can lose it all. This is the same as the physical worker who undermines his strength by carrying excess weight. Excess vanity can equally destroy your talent. I beg of you, kind friends. Do not ignore my less-then-literary tale. I do not pretend that this is a great literary work. These are only my notes, and memoirs, which I wanted to share with you. I also wanted to point my young colleagues on correct life path. Therefore, I hope that you will be well-disposed towards me.
     Having concluded my memoirs, I would like to ask you to accept kindly my suggestion about how to relate to your work and to your art. I am always surprised at your careless and cold approach to it. Let us, for instance, take the matter of our rehearsals. You are always appearing later than expected, and with the preconceived idea of finishing and leaving right away. You never think about the fact that you make the choreographer and the director wait for half-an- hour or more. You are not interested in your profession. During rehearsals you do as you please. You gossip, you walk, you fool around, you joke. You do everything except what you are there to do. Why is this? Because you are not artist but marionettes, who can't move, no matter how hard one pulls on the string. You rehears unwillingly and lazily. As a result, you remain equally wooden during performance. Because of this, our art suffers.
     Of course, there are some among you who do not act this way. However, these are very few. If all of you, to the last line of the corps the ballet, performed as you should-that is, as the choreographer taught you, then you could consider yourselves to be artists. All of this stems from your vanity. Each of you considers yourself to be more talented that you are in reality. Whoever among you ends up in the last line of the corps, immediately thinks that he or she can slack off and perform any which way. Whoever acts like this sins against his or her work, against his or her art and even against her vanity and self-respect. Because the public sees all this and laughs at you. Not in vain does the public call you «the dancers by the water». This is a slap to your self-respect. Sometimes, you, the corps, perform some passage beautifully, as if a gleam of light had fallen on you. However, it is as if a meteorite had flashed by and then disappeared. You tell me that part was well-staged. You are wrong. There are no bad parts. Everything depends on dancers. If you perform artistically, then good dancing and dancers appear on the stage.
     Excuse me, good co-workes, if I speak these truths sharply. Do not get angry at an old man for this. I would like for you not to be like statues. would like to see some life and energy within you. I would like for you to stop looking at art as simply an occupation that provides you with a salary and feeds you. I would like for you to love ballet and to hold its standards high.
Second dancers are particularly guilty of this superficial vanity. Sometimes, one of them needs to replace a first rank (lead) dancer. Then she immediately begins to think of herself as truly a first rate dancer already. Then, the next time, when she retakes her second-rank lace, she dances her part unwillingly and without care. This is very unjustified and illogical if a dancer truly loves her art.
Furthermore, the choreographer, observing all this, becomes unwilling to allow this dancer to substitute for a lead dancer. Better she stay in her own place and continue to perform with out capriciousness. Believe me, with patience and effort, it is possible later to rise to the rank of first dancer.
     How wonderful it would be if you, my kind co-workers, were to listen to my advice and adopt it as rule. Then our work would become better. Now our ballet company stands high, but it would then stand even higher when compared to foreign companies. Please forgive me once again that I have said to you, and that so often I get angry with you during rehearsals. However, all this comes because I so love my work and my art. I wish for it to continue flourishing, and wish you much success and all the best in ballet.
by Lev Ivanov
This article first appeared in Sovietsky Ballet, Issue No. 1, 1987

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