From the Biography
of the First Russian Ballet Company

 

     In 1738, the first Dancing School was established in Russia. From it, the first Russia Ballet Company emerged, educating the first native theatrical performers. However, until very recently, the exact date of its appearance and full company list was ignored.
     Theatre historians specializing in the Russian Theatre of the 18th century know that in September 1738 the dance master of St. Petersburg Cadet Corps, Jean Baptiste Lande, presented to Empress Anna a humble request which included the project for «Her Imperial Majesty's Dancing School». On May 15, 1738 Lande, under service to the court as balletmaster, received payment by court decree for his instruction in different types of theatrical dancing. Vsevolod Vsevolodsky- Herngross found documentation about this fact at the beginning of 20th century, publishing it in his major work, History of Theatre Education in Russia. However, he could not establish the exact date of the school's founding or the first roster of this first ballet company : «The information about the first years of existence of the school is very scarce. The founding was not marked by any decree, and it evidently took place gradually». Therefore, Vsevolodsky-Herngross (and after him all other historians) considered May 15, 1738 - the date of royal decree issuing Lande his salary - as the date of the founding of the Dancing School. This constituted the beginning of the St. Petersburg Theatre Academy and consequently, the Vaganova Ballet Academy.
     The author of this article was able to find documents unknown until now in various archives. These pertain to the first ballet company and to the Dancing School and clarify the date of its founding. Several decrees were found at the Central State Archives in the section on Historical Acts, and at the Bakhrushin State Theatre Museum. As published by Vsevolodsky-Herngross, these had been signed on May 15, 1738, but included an important supplement:
     «In the name of Her Imperial Majesty and signed by the hand of Her Imperial Majesty herself, to Jean Baptiste Lande, under service to Her Imperial Majesty's court as Balletmaster, is to be paid out from the Royal Salt Tax Office and the Salt-Tax Revenues his specified salary for the instruction of theatrical dancing of different types, from January the first through June the first, 1738, that is, for half a year....(dated May 15, 1738)».
     It can be deduced from this text that Lande was taken into service beginning January I, 1738. Thus, one can consider this date to mark the founding of the Dancing School.
     Most historians writing about the earliest period in Russia's first ballet company tried to determine its composition. In his 1770 article «Nachrichten von der Tanzkunst und Ballet in Russland» («Music and Ballet in Russia») Jacob van Stahlin was the first to give calendar dates about the beginning of the St. Petersburg Dancing School. He writes, «Obliged to produce an accomplished ballet company from among young Russians, he (Lande) chose the greater number of these, above all from among the children of the court servant: twelve slim girls in their teen, and the same number of youths. Their care was taken up by the court.» Von Stahlin writes further the names of the best Lande's pupils: «From the girls - Yelizaveta, Avdotia and Axiniya achieved success. From among the boys - Andrei, Andryushka and Afanasy reached dancing virtuosity». Vsevolodsky-Herngross based his work on von Stahlin's account.
     Mikhail Borisoglebsky, author of a two volume work dedicated to the history of Russian ballet and the first Ballet School, tried to add to our knowledge about the first Russian dancers chosen by Lande: «Timofei Bublikov, Nikolai Choglokov, Afanasy Toporkov, Ivan Shatilov, Nikolai Tolubeyev, Sergei Chalyshkin and Andrei Samarin were particularly wonderful pupils. Aside from these, Lande was especially close to Andrei Nesterov and Thoma Le Brun, who ( as Lande said) «had enormous god-given talents». One immediately notices that this list includes both the names of cadets (those taking dance from Lande at the Corps and who participated in court opera and ballet performances), and those of pupils who later became professional Russian dancers. Furthermore, we find the names of those who graduated from the School in the first years of existence, and the names of those who came much later, after Lande's death. Borisoglebsky writes, «Unfortunately, the whole first period of the origins of Russian ballet appears as the dimmest one in the history of the Russian Theatre. One needs many years of research in different archives in order to give a clear, irreproachable picture of the theatre of the 1730's and 1740's, and not succumb to fiction».
     For the 250th Anniversary of the founding of the St. Petersburg Ballet School, its archives were opened to reveal some of their secrets. It was finally possible to establish the exact roster of the first Russian dance company, and to follow the changes that took place in it during the first twenty years of its existence (until 1758). Since, in his previously mentioned work, Jacob von Stahlin gave the full list of the ballet dancers in the St. Petersburg company until 1768, then we have an account of the strength of the company during its first thirty years of activity.
     In Lande's humble request presented to Empress Anna Ioanovna in September 1737, which included the project for the Dancing School, he asked, «that You order that twelve Russian youngsters be assigned to me to educate: six girls, to be employed in the creation of ballets needing twelve characters». Later Lande proposed that «students with one year of instruction should begin to dance in the theatre, along with mentioned cadets, and that after two years they should be able to dance any sort of dances. During the third year they will be instructed to attain perfection...» Thus it follows that, after one year, Lande's pupils had become an active members of ballet company, and after three years they were fully trained.
     Many historians of Russian ballet thought that Lande's pupils were chosen from among the serfs. Apparently this was confirmed by von Stahlin, who noted that they had been chosen from among the palace's servants. However, as its shown by many documents of the time, the palace staff (even its lowest members) consisted of free persons. Furthermore, many staff members belonged to the noble classes, including these employed in the capacity of footmen. Persons with the same surnames as those of Lande's pupils are often found among the court servants of that time.
     It seems that the word devki, as the female dancers were called, caused a confusion in the minds of theatre historians in regards to the origins of the pupils. Historians understood the word to mean someone who is a possession, as was a serf. However, at the beginning and in the middle of the 18th century, the word devka was employed not in reference to a particular social class, but to suggest an unmarried family status. It was a word used in peasant and bourgeois spheres, and even to reference to noble girls. Only in the second half of the 18th century was it replaced by the word devitsa. The word devka remained in use in reference to the lowest classes.
     In 1748 several male and female dancers retired. Vsevolodski-Herngross referred briefly to this in his major work. In fact, he was perplexed by it: «... something is very puzzling. Why were they retired so soon?» A simple explanation for this was found in the Directorate of the Imperial Theatre Archives. At that time, the length of service for all artists, including dancers, was established as ten years counted from the moment they entered the Theatre School. At the conclusion of service, it was possible to retire with a pension. In this case, service was counted from January 1, 1738. At the beginning of 1748, a decree appeared «awarding salaries to the dancers retiring from Her Imperial Majesty's Court».
     The system of instruction prevalent at the Dancing School during its first ten years was one of narrow specialization. General subjects were almost absent. We can deduce this from the fact that all dancers from the first 1738 group and from the second 1748 group were illiterate. Sometime else had to sign for them when they received their salaries. However, until November 1744, the French teacher Mallier worked with the dance company. He taught them French, most probably so that the dancing pupils could better understand Lande.
     The first Russian ballet company formed part of the so-called Italian Company. (It did, however, include all court artists of varying nationalities in addition to Italians, with the exception of the actors from the French Comedy, who had come to Russia in 1742). Despite the fact that ballet artists were divided into «Russians» and «Foreigners», this separation was a formality and existed only on Court administration documents. Once on stage, they all participated in the same productions. Socializing was carried on in everyday life. As a result, many intermarriages occurred among Russian and foreign artists. Axiniya Sergeyeva became the wife of Thoma Le Brun, Avdotya Timofeyeva married Taulato, and Francisca Iberchere married Maxim Berezovsky. These facts help us imagine both the personal life and artistic atmosphere of the Russian ballet theatre in its earliest period.

By Ludmila Starikova, Ph.D.
This article first appeared in «Sovietsky Balet», issue No.5, 1988

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