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