| home | balet
magazin | top |
- Didelot's work in Russia
Didelot lived in Russia for almost thirty years, considering
it his second homeland. His long, brilliant and simultaneously
tragic life began in Stockholm in 1767, when he was born to the
family of a French dancer working then at Stockholm's Royal Opera
As was customary, he embraced his
father's profession. One particular event gave him his start.
The brother of the Swedish King planned to attend one of the
court masquerade balls in the costume of a Savoyard with a marmot.
He asked the senior Didelot to find him a boy suitable for the
role of this little animal. The elder Didelot chose the smallest
in size and most agile of his own sons. The success of six year
old Charles in this role decided his fate. Charles began to study
with Frossart, and soon afterwards appeared for the first time
on stage in the role of Cupid. King Gustav III, noticing the
uncommonly gifted youth, sent the child to France to continue
In France, the young dancer witnessed
Jean-Georges Noverre's struggle to create a ballet theatre which
would probe and reflect life through the presentation of novel
performances. The dance revolution brought about by Noverre excited
Didelot. It considerably shaped his intellectual and artistic
position, and was reflected in all of his later work. He dubbed
Noverre «the Corneille of his time», and Noverre's
associate Jean Dauberval as his greatest teachers. During two
stays in Paris (his «university», as he called it),
Didelot mastered the secrets of dance. He studied with Dauberval
first, and then with Gaetano Vestris. Auguste Vestris, the famous
«god of dance» and son of Gaetano, apparently paid
attention to young and diligent Didelot. Didelot was asked to
accompany Auguste on a tour to London as his substitute. While
in London, Didelot received an invitation from the Director of
the Imperial Theatres, Alexander Naryshkn, to work in Russia.
With his wife Rose (a talented ballerina) and their small son
Carl, Didelot came to St. Petersburg in 1801. He was then 34
years old. In the middle of the 18th century, the Russian ballet
theatre already existed apart from the other arts. This separation
occurred much earlier than in France, due to the work of important
dance figures in Russia like Franz Hilverding, Gaspare Angiolini,
and Noverre's pupil Le Pique, along with contributions by the
first Russian choreographer Ivan Valberkh. Their close associations
with certain progressive Russian literary figures helped to shape
an original repertoire and interesting and professional performers.
In St. Petersburg Charles Didelot
occupied the post of «first dancer» in classical
and demi-character genres. He appeared in the ballets Apollo
and Daphne, Zephire et Flore, Roland and Morgana, and Medee et
Jason. Adam Glushkovsky, one of Didelot's favorite pupils and
a true friend, later wrote this about Didelot ( as translated
by Mary Grace Swift in her book about Didelot, A Loftier Flight):
«He was a graceful dancer;
he produced each step with great purity. He did many entrechats
and pirouettes, but not have great elevation in entrechats and
leaps. He created for himself a special form of dance with graceful
poses, smoothness, purity and speed in gliding steps (pas a terre),
pleasing positions of the arms and lively pirouettes».
However, Didelot's performing career
in Russia lasted only a short time. He stopped dancing around
1806. (The reasons: a serious injury to one of his legs, and
the death of his wife and irreplaceable partner Rose). He then
devoted himself exclusively to teaching. After a few years at
the school, he had prepared a coterie of excellent dancers. Among
these were Maria Danilova, Avdotia Istomina and Anastasia Novitskaya.
In 1809 the roster of the troupe reached 56 people, including
school graduates. In addition, groups of soloists and coryphees
appeared. Only Russian ballerinas occupied the positions of first
soloists. Adam Golushkovsky made his stage debut around this
The new role of the ballet school
was being solidified. Its aim was to produce enough graduates
capable of taking the place of foreign soloists. The method of
preparing future artists also changed. Before, the pupils were
taught all of the arts: singing, dancing, violin playing. Only
later, at the theatre, did they specialized in a particular field.
The children learned only the basics of these different forms
of art until they reached the age of 13, at which point their
specialized studies began. The number of students rose to 120,
up from 60 in 1805.
1810 Didelot declared, «I have created a whole school and
even first soloists in six years. This is a result of my hard
work». Simultaneously, he was creating ballets at the theatre!
He presented the first of these, Apollo and Daphne, at the Hermitage
Theatre in 1802. Glushkovsky pointed out that this ballet amazed
the public with its enchanting dances and picturesque groupings.
In 1803 Didelot produced Roland and Morgana, in 1804 Zephire
et Flore, in 1809 Psyche et L'Amour met with great success and
provided a glimpse of his future, full-length works. At the same
time, Didelot constantly searched for contacts with the most
progressive figures of Russian culture. He also became familiar
with Russia's national folklore and dance.
But in 1810 Didelot suffered another
blow. Energetically trying to implement his plan, he angered
the St. Petersburg Theatre Directorate. Using this as pretext,
the Directorate released Didelot from all of his duties and reported
that he was ill. So ended Didelot's first ten years of work in
Since the road to Paris was closed
to him, the 44-year-old Didelot set off for England. While there,
however, he realized that he wanted to return to St. Petersburg
and devoted the rest of his life to Russian ballet.
In 1816 Didelot came back to Russia,
where much had changed in six years. Victory in Napoleonic War
of 1812 altered the consciousness of the Russian people, revealing
a rich moral fibre. It also inspired a love of liberty and gave
impulse to anti-serfdom sentiment.
Didelot reacted sympathetically
in his work to these changes in the Russian mentality. To commemorate
the defeat of Napoleon, he was given a royal command to compose
a dance in style of the old-fashioned court ballets. However,
trying to do justice to the common people as the heroes of the
war, Didelot proposed to present a Russian village scene «in
a pastorale in the national vein». Thus began his distancing
from aristocratic circles. This also marked his rapprochement
with the progressive Russian intellectual groups; above all,
to the members of The Green Lamp, a leterary-political club that
included future Decembrists and even Alexander Pushkin, Anton
Delvig and Nikolai Gnedich. In addition to discussing political
issues, this group engaged in critical evaluations of the ballet
theatre's current repertoire. Pushkin later wrote that Didelot's
ballets were performed with vivid inspiration and uncommon charm.
During his second stay in Russia,
Didelot reinforced his image as the reformer of Russian ballet.
Decades of accumulated ideas, impressions and subject matter
were synthesized into his reforms. The presentation of high moral
ideas, the reflection of real life on stage, the understanding
of the spiritual life of the people, and the collaboration with
progressive Russian literary figures were all emphasized. Golushkovsky
noted, «He is the best role model for the young artists,
as a man who devotes his entire life to his art, and who sets
an example of a high moral tone».
Didelot's daily routine went like
this: he awoke early and read historical books from which he
could extract subject matter for his ballets. Good at sketching,
he made drawings of group dancers. Later in the day, he went
to the ballet school where he taught classes. From there he went
to the theatre, where he would hold rehearsals or choreograph.
After dinner he would return to school, or to the theatre at
night, when his ballets were being performed.
During his first year back in St.
Petersburg, Didelot set Acis et Galathee. In 1817, he created
seven different ballets and divertissements, not counting the
choreography he created for opera. He also choreographed a tragic-comic
ballet in four acts entitled The Hungarian Hut or the Famous
In 1818, Bolshoi Kamenny Teatr
(The Great Stone Theatre) opened. Among the works presented in
it were Zephire et Flore; The Young Island Girl, or Leon and
Tamaida; Divertissement; The Caliph of Baghdad or the Adventures
of Young Harum al Rashid and A Hunting Adventure.
Didelot's creations in 1819 included
the five-act ballet Raoul de Crequis or Return from the Crusades,
Ken-si and Tao or Beauty and the Beast ( a full-length Chinese
ballet in four acts), and Laura and Henry or The Troubadour.
The next year, Didelot choreographed four ballets, including
two five-act works called Karl and Lisbeth and Cora and Alonso
or the Virgin of the Sun. In 1821, another four ballets were
Didelot was a master of diverse
theatre genres. He created tragedies, comedies, commedia buffa,
anacreontic ballets, pastorales, pantomimes, and allegories.
He used ancient and current subjects, myths from antiquity, fables
from the Middle Ages, chivalric romances, and contemporary artistic
themes derived from Russia, France, England, Spain, China and
Peru. Despite the myriad of subjects, spectators were able to
discern those based in reality. The public understood that ballet
was being used to penetrate and reflect real life. To Didelot's
credit, he fostered this understanding with highly artistic means,
never sinking into the commonplace. The characters in his ballets
are portraits of real people despite all allegorical references.
In his best ballets, Didelot embodied
anti-tyrannical and anti-repressive forces. This is evidenced
in ballets like Raoul de Crequis, Ken-si and Tao and The Prisoner
of the Caucasus as well as The Hungarian Hut.
The Prisoner of the Caucasus, which
premiered shortly before the Decembrist's uprising against Nikolai
I (January 1825) represents the peak of Didelot's creativity.
His career declined following this production, primarily due
to a reactionary response to the debacle of the Decembrist's
revolt. The court aristocracy was upset by Didelot's independent
and revolutionary temper. In 1824 he was forbidden to produce
Shakespeare's Mac'Beth; the theme of regicide was considered
seditious during the reign of Alexander I (the older brother
of Nikolai I), who had ascended the throne after the murder of
his father, Pavel I (in 1801). In 1828 Didelot began work on
the ballet Sumbeka or the Subjugation of the Kazan Kingdom, which
dealt with the conquest of Kazan by Ivan the Terrible in 1552.
However, he was unable to complete this work. Because of a conflict
which arose with Prince Sergei Gagarin, the Director of the Imperial
Theatres, in 1830 Didelot was asked to resign.
Charles Didelot died in 1837. Abram
Gozenpud, the famous researcher, writes in his book The Russian
Opera Theatre (1969-1873) that Didelot's works were among the
highest achievements of the Russian Musical Stage during the
beginning of the 19th century. His creations surpassed contemporary
opera, because of their unity of action. His accomplishments,
a gift to Russia, are not forgotten.
By Galina Tikhmeneva
- This article first appeared in «Sovietsky
Balet», issue No.4, 1987