The Great Russian Playwright Sumarokov
and his Ballets


     Alexander Petrovich Sumarokov (1717 - 1777), the greatest Russian playwright of epoch of classicism, was a passionate warrior in the development of Russian national culture. In 1759, for the first time in history, he presented a «ballet of Russian men and women» and thus established the dancing of the Russian people as part of theatrical performances.
     In the 18th century there were many reasons for the consolidation of Russia's political prestige in Europe: the development of its economy, the growth of national ethos, and the advancement of the most important Russian figures in the many fields of art and science who were the first graduates of the newly established educational institutions. The vigor of Russian culture became a confirmation of the country's power, its youthful greatness, and of faith in its strength , its energy and its historical calling. The new generation appearing on the arena of artistic creativity began to forge an independent path in all fields, expressing a progressive ideology along with the new aesthetic of the Russian artistic school. Among the representatives of this generation, Sumarokov occupies a special place in history.
     Sumarokov's work was particularly passionate and active. Poet, theoretician critic, historian, publisher, playwright, director, producer and teacher at the first public Russian theatre, Sumarokov was also the first editor and publisher of a private Russian magazine. He believed in the all-powerful word, addressing to reason. After Mikhail Lomonosov, the 18th century scholar and writer, Sumarokov consolidated the progressive ideas of Russian classicism and defended its national content. Sumarokov linked the majority of his tragic plays to events in Russian history. His sharp pamphlets and comedies castigated the vices of Russian society. He was a creator of the first Russian political tragedy, the first Russian comedy, and the first opera in Russian language, presented by the first Russian performers. He also wrote the libretto for the first Russian ballet.
     The first opera based on a Russian scenario, with text by Sumarokov and music by court composer Francesco Araya, was Tsefal and Prokris, presented in St. Petersburg on February 3, 1755. This date marks the birth of Russian Opera, and thus Sumarokov occupies an honored role in the development of Russian musical culture. Tsefal and Prokris was met with resounding success. The originality of this first opera libretto was found in the fact that Sumarokov did not include a ballet in it. ( Ballets, of course, were included in French operas and those in Italy of the opera seria type). Though Sumarokov's work can be loosely linked to the art of dance, he considered ballet to be a justly independent, serious and even heroic art. He did not accept grotesque dancing in burlesques and intermezzi.
     As adroit and agile as Mercury, Sumarokov had the reputation of being an excellent performer of court dancers, especially the then - current minuet. He was a graduate of the School for the Nobility (Sukhoputny Shlyakhetny Corps) where, during entire course of study, dance was a required subject. The importance and growth of dancing in the life of this school left an indelible mark on its pupils, including those who, like Sumarokov devoted their free time to literature and philology. In 1759 Sumarokov wrote an opening play entitled Noviye Lavry (New Laurels) in honor of a victory - the taking of Frankfurt by the Russian Army. For the first time in the history of the European theatre, Russian common men and women participated in the action, on a par with Olympian Gods and the allegorical figure of Victory. The Austrian choreographer Franz Hilverding (1710 - 1768) worked as Sumarokov's colleague and associate. In his choreographic work, Hilverding revealed ballet as an intellectually important and profoundly psychological art. Like Sumarokov, Hilverding thought that the most refined spiritual qualities are hidden under the flesh. Hilverding demanded emotional and expressive dancing from his performers. The dancers gained importance in these productions, where as earlier the dramatic actors were considered most significant.
     The artistic collaboration between poet, dancers and choreographer continued with work on the first Russian ballet, written by Sumarokov and entitled Pribezhishche Dobrodeteli (The Refuge of Virtue). Once again, this ballet reflected the highly intellectual direction taken by Russian dance. In the program, Hilverding appears as co-author of this work with Sumarokov: «Monsieur Sumarokov as being in charge of the poetic stanzas, and of the arrangement of the drama; Monsieur Hilverding as the one in charge of the dancers; and Startsov as composer of the music». Pribezhishche Dobrodeteli premiered on September 5, 1759. This date can be considered, with full justification, the birth date of Russian Ballet. The contents of the ballet were deeply patriotic, and all of the performers were Russian. (It is interesting to note that the performers of leading roles - Feodor Volkov, Ivan Dmitrievsky, Grigory Volkov and Alexei Popov - had all graduated from a full dance course at the School for the Nobility (Sukhoputny Shlyakhetny Corps), which at the time, was known to give instructions of high quality. They had studied with Andrei Nesterov and Mikhail Litrov, pupils and helpers of Jean Baptiste Lande. Moreover, the action of this work told in dramatic dance and pantomime that stressed the patriotic theme, was concluded with a «ballet danced by Russian men and women».
     Sumarokov was the first national writer whose works were used by Russian ballet, anticipating later attempts to use Russian classical literature as the basis for the creation of ballet librettos. (This practice had positive results during the Soviet era). Sumarokov's play inspired the work of Gasparo Angiolini, who wrote the music and libretto and also choreographed the ballet Semira. In this ballet, the path outlined by Sumarokov for the development of a national ballet was brilliantly followed.
     Thus, thanks to the work of Sumarokov in connection with Russia's national ballet theatre, an understanding began to appear about Russian dance as a means of effectively embodying flexible harmoniousness , profound meaning, and poetic expressiveness on stage. The notion of conveying patriotic feeling through dance, understood well by Sumarokov, was rightly developed during the Napoleonic War of 1812. It was then, that the ballets created on the basis of Russian folklore turned into true manifestation of patriotism.
by Olga Vsevolodskaya - Golushkevich
This article first appeared in «Sovietsky Balet», issue No.4, 1986

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