Didelot's work in Russia

 

     Charles 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 House.
     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 his studies.
     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 time.
     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.
     In 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 Russia.
     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 Exiles.
     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 created.
     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

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